January 10, 2024
In 2021, Jocelyn was ready to get back on dating apps. Fresh out of a long-term relationship, she figured that the apps would be relatively the same as when she first used them in college five years earlier. Even if they didn’t lead to lasting love, she’d have fun exploring her options.
“I wasn’t experiencing any of that,” says Jocelyn, now 28. “After these dates I was actually like, I could have stayed home and done nothing.”
According to a report by Bustle, you can talk to your friends, scroll social media, or just sit in a bar and listen, and you’ll encounter a similar sentiment: Millennials are tired of dating apps, and Gen Z singles might not bother with them. A 2023 survey of college and graduate students found that 79% don’t use dating apps even once a month.
Once a staple of the 20-something experience, these apps are now playing catch-up by rolling out new features and aiming to reshape their reputations—at least, they’re trying to.
The golden age is over
Since their inception, dating apps have been a largely Millennial endeavor. What started with Grindr in 2009 went mainstream with Tinder in 2012. Their initial conceits were simple: find nearby singles on your phone. With access to a seemingly never-ending well of users, the only barrier to landing a date was mutual interest.
Over the next decade, new apps emerged in hopes of getting their own piece of the pie: On Bumble, women message first; Hinge is geared toward finding love; Raya is exclusive and private; and The League is for ambitious professionals. Apps like Lex, Her, Scruff, and Feeld cater to LGBTQIA+ and nonmonogamous daters.
Now, however, the novelty has worn off. Millennials still toiling away on the apps are getting fatigued. There’s a feeling among current singles that the golden era has passed.
As a recent TikTok by Keara Sullivan put it, “If you met your partner on a dating app two years ago, you caught the last chopper out of ‘Nam.”
“I’d rather be single forever”
Have the apps innovated too close to the sun? On top of the basic swiping system, newer features—theoretically intended to increase connections—have left many users disheartened. Sarah, 29, met her last boyfriend on Hinge in 2018; when she returned to the app three and a half years later following their breakup, things were not the same.
“Most Compatible has become the feature on Hinge I fear the most, because it often makes me question if I am indeed destined to end up with a man whose profile exclusively includes photos of himself in front of sports cars, along with selfies of his ‘best Blue Steel’ facial expression that looks like he just ate a sour gummy bear,” she says. “If this is who the Hinge gods have decided I’m best suited with, I’d rather be single forever.”
While the most popular dating apps remain free to download, almost all encourage users to pay a monthly subscription in exchange for perks such as unlimited likes and tools to boost how often you appear in other users’ feeds. However, swipers appear reluctant to fork up.
Match Group saw its paying users decline for the fourth straight quarter, and a 2023 Pew Research study found that while 41% of online dating users age 30 or older have paid for the apps, just 22% of users under 30—the demographic they’re looking to court—have done the same.
“Rose jail gatekeeps the hot people”
Hinge’s rose feature, in particular, has frustrated users. The only way to interact with Standouts (profiles receiving a lot of attention that the app thinks you’ll like) is to send them a rose. Users get one free rose to send per week, regardless of whether they pay a subscription. In order to regularly engage with Standouts, you’d need to purchase more roses starting at $3.99 each — or limit your options to Hinge’s general algorithm, which some find increasingly disappointing.
“It feels like they’re hiding all of the good guys who are actually looking for relationships behind a paywall,” says Deja, 25, referencing something Hinge users have come to call “rose jail.”
“Rose jail gatekeeps the hot people on Hinge,” Hannah, 26, says. “Looking at the Standouts section, the men all have jobs, families, and great teeth. The same can’t be said for my regular feed. Obviously, it’s because they want to make money, which is fine, but then it’s time to change up the slogan. Hinge isn’t ‘designed to be deleted.’ It’s designed to make their users spend more and more money in the vain hope of finding a real connection.”
A Hinge spokesperson disputes this. “Hinge is designed with only one goal for our community—to help them get off the app and out on great dates,” a rep tells Bustle. “Our algorithm specifically introduces you to potential dates who meet your preferences (like distance, family plans, and more) and whose preferences you meet.”
Apps are trying to pivot
But frustration runs deeper than just an unwillingness to pay. Dating apps may be facing the consequences of a culture they helped create. They know their reputation is dragging, and in response to this disillusionment, they’ve had to get strategic about their place in the larger world of dating.
For example, Tinder—initially known as the casual sex app—is now reinventing itself for hookup-adverse Gen Z by pivoting to a focus on love. Per Melissa Hobley, chief marketing officer at Tinder, 40% of users want to find long-term relationships; the app lets users highlight what kind of connections they’re looking for.
Appealing to Gen Z also means embracing the causes they care about, Hobley says. The LGBTQIA+ community is the fastest-growing demo on the app, and during Pride Month, Tinder helped connect eligible users with information about a study that hopes to combat the FDA’s blood ban against gay donors. It also launched an Election Center that enables app users to access voter registration tools and locate their polling stations, and allows users to include a “pro-choice” interest on their profiles.
Dating apps to Gen Z might be like Facebook to Millennials—they’re on them because everyone else is, but it’s not like they’re having fun.
Remember real life?
Perhaps in reaction to the COVID isolation of the past few years, some users want apps to help them meet people IRL. In 2023, Tinder created the Single Summer Series—hosting dating events across the country to take the pressure off one-on-one dates. Bumble similarly hosts Bumble IRL, and Hinge recently announced a $1 million fund to help Gen Z connect in person.
Singles like Jocelyn hope these events will allow for more organic connections, and reduce the exhausting trial and error of continually “meeting some random person off the Internet.”
Without a dramatic cultural shift, dating apps remain the most obvious option for someone in pursuit of romantic connection—even if the pursuit is futile.
Research contact: @bustle