Modern romance: Pleasures and perils of dating apps

Saturday night. 9.40pm. Vanita - single, attractive, extroverted - should be out on a date. Instead, she's spent the past hour at home swiping right and left on dating app Tinder. She's just made three new male friends and has eight message threads going with other potentials. So many men. So little time, you think. Yet Vanita has never been more dissatisfied with her dating life as she is now.

At 35, she's old enough to know what dating was like pre-Facebook and the likes of Tinder and OkCupid.

"Before the Internet and mobile phones, men took time to get to know me," says the art gallerist. "We would go on at least three or four dates before either one of us decides it won't work out. But these days, that period has shrunk. Again and again, I find myself going on one-off dates where the men quickly decide within the hour - maybe even 30 minutes - that we shouldn't see each other again.

"My other friends are experiencing it too - a shortened dating cycle. I don't know if it's because people are so hooked on their apps and the infinite choice they have that they feel they don't have to settle for anything less than perfect."

By any account, Tinder has been a game-changer for single people everywhere. Since it was launched in 2012 in the US, its popularity has spread to all corners of the world - even in repressive regimes where singles once found it impossible to socialise romantically. Tinder, OkCupid and made-in-Singapore apps like LunchClick and Paktor help singles seek potential partners near the location they happen to be in. These apps owe a debt to Grindr, an older mobile phone app for gay men to find romantic matches in their neighbourhoods.


Vanita says she doesn't have unreasonable expectations. She typically agrees to dates with men in their mid-30s or 40s, thinking that the relationship has the best chance of blossoming with men closer to her age range or older. But most of her experiences boil down to this: "They're impatient… they just want get it on or get away."

Meanwhile, the men's side of things hasn't been entirely positive either. BK, 37, a divorcee looking for love, says: "There was a time before mobile phones when dates meant trying to get to know each other. But dating these days is filled with awkward pauses when she has to take pictures of the food to put it up on her Facebook, or text her friends to update them on the progress of the date. The women I date are mostly between 28 and 34. You'd think they'd know better."

It gets worse. The technical officer of a start-up adds: "Three years ago, I became very involved with a 26-year-old woman. We had gone out six or seven times, and I was really serious about being with her for the long term. Then she texted me to say it was over. And she blocked my calls. That's when I realised I really, really don't understand the rules of dating today."

He adds, "One friend told me that she had dinner with a Tinder date, and when she went to the loo and came back, she saw him swiping right and left on his app. She was so annoyed she picked up her stuff and left."


TW, a male undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, calls Tinder the "best thing ever". He says he's met about 20 women in the past six months through Tinder. Many of these dates got physical to some degree, and some were one-night stands. None of them developed into a serious relationship - but that's not something that concerns TW: "I'm still young. I'm not looking to settle down until I have a stable career. My plan is to make half a million before I'm 30 - and then I'll think about marriage." Meanwhile, Tinder gives him "all the romance I need".

The converse is true for young women. NUS female undergraduates, LT and SJ say they and their friends are wary of "over-using" Tinder.

"Firstly," says LT, "boys can be so rude when they're trying to chat you up on Tinder. If you say 'I don't sleep with guys on the first date' or 'I'm looking for a real relationship', you sometimes get radio silence right after. They don't actually want anything else but sex."

SJ adds that that when they try to hint that they're not really interested, the rejected suitors tend to unleash a flurry of expletives. Or worse. "They send really disgusting pictures of well… just imagine," says LT.

Does that mean they plan to delete their Tinder accounts? "No!" says SJ. "Tinder is a great way to meet guys. I'm just not on it all the time. But it's really nice when some cute guy swipes right on your profile and chats with you nicely. Who doesn't want that?"

For 38-year-old engineer Selwyn, technology and dating make strange bedfellows.

"Technology changes people's behaviour," he says. "People are more impatient these days, especially the younger ones. The "digital natives" are worse. They're used to clicking and getting results. They don't understand that getting to know someone is a slow process. Falling in love, getting married - it's a slow process. I was dating this woman in her late 20s and she wanted to confirm marriage after six dates. I had a couple more experiences like that. Everything must go fast. If it's not fast, it's not working for them. And they want to break up.

"And there's so much drama because of Whatsapp. 'How come you were online but didn't reply my message? I know you read it because there are two blue ticks beside it. So don't pretend you didn't see it.' There's also Facebook drama - 'I saw you 'Like' someone's picture on Facebook but you didn't reply my message'. And there's so much politics over who you can befriend on Facebook or Instagram once you have a girlfriend. She looks at your list of friends or followers, and approves or disapproves. There's so much drama with new technology.

"I used to know how to talk to women on the phone. But nobody talks on the phone anymore. We make dates through texting. It's less personal. It's not good."


Dating app Paktor - which means dating in Hokkien and Cantonese - was launched here in 2013. It expanded regionally and has about 12 million users in Southeast Asia, with an average of 20 million matches per month.

CEO and co-founder Joseph Phua says: "From a statistical standpoint, we know that having an infinite number of options results in greater chances of getting matched. Our data shows that the number of matches increase exponentially with increased number of swipes performed by users." In other words, the more active you are swiping right and left, the higher the chance of finding Ms or Mr Right.

"There's always a downside to any technology, be it the Internet (online scams), cars (accidents) or toasters (burnt fingers). But by and large, dating apps have dramatically increased people's chances of "identifying a prospective dating partner quickly and conveniently, creating instant matches via location accessibility and common interests - instead of going through the stress of approaching strangers at the club", says Mr Phua.

"We regularly get e-mail and messages from users who thank us for helping them find their partners. We receive wedding invitations, too."

On the flip side, however, top regional dating company Lunch Actually and its online app LunchClick found in a survey of over 700 people that 85 per cent of Singapore singles find dating more challenging compared to a decade ago.

Violet Lim, CEO of dating app LunchClick and Co-Founder of Lunch Actually, says: "In the past, in order for people to meet 5 to 10 romantic interests of the opposite sex, it would at least take a few weeks to a month. Hence, men would put a lot of effort into arranging the date and ensuring everything goes well. Ladies would also dress up and prepare for the date way in advance. Nowadays, singles can e-meet or swipe tens, if not hundreds of profiles, a night. Hence singles might not put in as much effort into each date as compared to the past."

Another survey the company conducted of 2,000 singles in South-east Asia found that 84 per cent of women felt that chemistry when chatting with a match online could not translate into the same chemistry when eventually meeting up offline. Also, 37 per cent of women felt that their online matches misrepresent themselves "all the time" or "most of the time".

Thus, while its app LunchClick has users in the high six figures, its offline dating company Lunch Actually still sees brisk business setting up blind dates for mutually compatible singles. Its dating consultants meticulously look for suitable matches that have a high chance of relationship success - something that most app algorithms still can't replicate.

In fact, even though technology now allows singles to connect with singles faster and more conveniently than ever before, the proportion of Singapore singles has generally risen across age groups between 2005 and 2015, with the largest increases observed for the younger set. In 2005, 70.6 per cent and 46.3 per cent of men and women aged 25 to 29 years respectively were single. In 2015, the proportion rose to 80.2 per cent and 63 per cent respectively.

As Ms Lim puts it: "Having 'too many options' may not be a very good thing. You may get the quantity, but not the quality. That's why our focus is to push singles to get offline and meet each other as soon as possible."

Social connections may be multiplying through technology but these relationships are extremely superficial. There is still no substitute for face-to-face interactions and good old-fashioned bonding.


Meanwhile, what are Vanita or BK supposed to do on a Saturday night? Presumably, dating past the golden age of your 20s or if you're divorced or widowed is not going to be easy for anyone. And the fact that technology gives everyone greater access to a lot more romantic possibilities does seem to impact how picky people have become.

Still, putting yourself out there via an online profile is still more efficient and productive than staying in your shell. And judging from both anecdotal evidence and the claims of dating app companies, millions of people have found genuine relationships online - even if they had to go through some very bad dates before getting to a good one.

BK says: "Sometimes I get so frustrated, I go for a few days without checking Tinder. But then a week later, I check it again to see if there are any new matches." When it comes to love, hope springs eternal.

*Names of dating app users have been changed or abbreviated.

This article was first published on Nov 5, 2016.
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