Scott Spencer is 38 years old and says he’s dating more people than ever before, thanks to his divorce; to postpandemic jubilation; to Tinder, Hinge and Bumble; and to his increased self-confidence as a result of meeting interested women. The way he goes about meeting them has been improved by technology, as his phone has become a lively 24-hour single’s bar.
He admits he uses more than one dating app at a time, but Bumble, where women initiate the conversations and thus seem more intent on seeing the relationship move offline, is his preferred option. Whatever the app, he’s learned postpandemic dating requires a healthy appetite for embracing the unknown.
“Love still exists in this country,” Spencer says. “It’s the means of discovering it that’s changed.”
Enter the proliferation of dating apps that have made being single in Canada a confusing yet exhilarating time. It’s a big business with subtle differences between apps that attract different users, and it’s a fragile microcosm, where vulnerability meets intention, and of course, uncertainty.
Tinder tends to be male-dominated and can’t escape its reputation as a network for hookups and one-night-stands. Hinge, on the other hand, is purported to be for singles looking for commitment, while Bumble – started by a female ex-Tinder executive who wanted to build a feminist dating app – allows women to initiate the first connection with their match.
Today, when 42 per cent of divorces occur in marriages that have lasted between 10 and 24 years, the average age of singles is getting older, while the number of dating apps – including Grindr, Christian Singles and Feeld, which bills itself as a place of exploration and pleasure – keeps expanding.
According to Sheldon Bachon, brand manager at Tinder, the most popular dating app in the world with 75 million monthly active users, the company made nearly US$1.7-billion in revenue last year – a 22-per-cent increase over the year prior. Though it reportedly skews male (75 per cent, though the company wouldn’t confirm that number) and young (50 per cent of users are younger than 35 – this they would confirm), its mechanism for swiping left to decline a match or swiping right to pursue has become part of the culture.
On March 29, 2020, just weeks into the pandemic, Tinder experienced its first day of more than three-billion swipes. Since then, the app has surpassed that daily figure more than 130 times. And it’s not just Tinder setting records. At Hinge, there was a 65-per-cent increase in Canadian matches in January, 2022 compared to January, 2020. Grindr, with 10.8 million monthly gay users, is about to go public and their new chief financial officer comes from Disney. The company has been valued at US$2.1-billion.
At this time of year, the number of people dating on apps will spike because it’s “cuffing season” – short for handcuffs – which refers to the onset of winter and the aftermath of the holidays when (some) singles yearn to find matches.
“It’s the same phenomenon as during COVID – around the holidays, people are terrified of being alone,” says Lianne Tregobov, president of the 29-year-old matchmaking company Camelot Introductions. “It’s harder to avoid feelings of loneliness in January when you had longed to be standing under the mistletoe.”
Anthony Rose, a restaurateur with bistros across Toronto’s Dupont Avenue, admits he did find himself longing for a kiss beside his menorah.
“I want that intense, beautiful connection and I want that forever,” says Rose, who like Spencer, discovered that dating apps have changed the dance between men and women since his marriage ended. The volume and frequency of matches online force you to reach a crossroads quickly. Rose doesn’t want any more children and says that digital dating culture allows that truth to come to light early in the conversations.
“You don’t want to waste anyone’s time. And presenting false pretenses is the worst.”
A recent recipient of a Bib Gourmand award from the Michelin Guide, he uses Hinge and Raya – a dating app for members only, including the rich and famous, such as Demi Lovato and Ben Affleck.
“In terms of shallow eye candy, Raya is probably the most interesting app, but there’s not a lot of attention in people 40-plus.”
Rose, who is 49-years-old, and puts his desired age range in a partner between 32 and 65, says that compared to Raya, “I get a lot more people liking me on Hinge. Hinge has many more available people in my area while Raya has all sorts of beautiful people, but if they’re on the other end of the world, it’s just a waste of time.”
Stacey Munro, a television news producer in Toronto who had a divorce in 2016 and is still (sort of) looking for love, also talks about time when considering the dating apps. She says they have sped-up timelines for starting, and ending, relationships.
“I’ve connected with people through an app and because of how we connected it set the tone for that journey – that we are going to be disposable,” Munro says. “The apps suffer from supply chain issues and poor quality.”
Expecting the worst, or at least the mediocre, Munro felt like the guys on Tinder were only after one thing, but that the other apps weren’t very different.
“My impression was that Tinder was strictly for hooking up – people were pretty bold about their intentions.”
She described how Bumble is “supposed to be ‘Tinder for people with feelings’” but found that it has similar users to Tinder, even as “they didn’t want to make it appear that way.” A self-professed realist, she’s not pining to meet the one. She uses Bumble, sometimes, begrudgingly and tempers expectations.
“The outcome is not going to be love, but just a casual relationship with a finite amount of time.”
In Ottawa, Alice Fradette Roy’s outcome was love, but it was hard-earned and found after repeated trial and error. A trans woman, she went on Tinder and faced trolling, defamation and abuse. While the company reports that its LGBTQ members are its fastest growing segment, doubling its Gen Z numbers over the past two years, Fradette Roy is still not impressed.
“I’ve had people portray themselves to me on Tinder as queer-friendly, but they’re specifically cisgender men going for trans women because it’s a fetish to them,” the 24-year-old says, adding that “chasers” or people who would never be so bold to approach trans women in a gay bar, are a problem. “They don’t see trans people as real people, but as a sexual fantasy and they’ll treat trans people as an object. I have a lot of trans friends who’ve gone through the same thing.”
Most of the billion-dollar companies behind the dating apps have only made concessions towards inclusion and safety instead of tangible change. Hinge added “Not-so-Frequently-Asked Questions” to its app this past summer to help the LGBTQ community, and Tinder has been working with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation since 2019.
Further, users on Tinder can now describe their sexual orientation as asexual, demisexual and questioning on the app’s orientation menu. On Bumble, matches between two non-binary people can be initiated by either party, and Grindr cautions its users from connecting their profile to their public social-media accounts, thus limiting real-world exposure from people whose intentions they haven’t yet screened.
Still, after trying every app but mostly using Tinder, Fradette Roy says she’s swiping left on matchmaking technology.
“The experiences of trans people on dating apps is pretty universally terrible. The digital world can be a nasty place and you’re opening yourself up to tremendous risk.”
Sometimes, however, with risk comes reward, and Fradette Roy’s story has an ending that could be out of the film, Love Actually. During the pandemic, she increased her time online and became active on Twitter. It was in a tweeting group of trans people where she began a friendship that developed into a relationship, culminating with her new partner moving from British Columbia to Ottawa, where they live together. They have been dating for a year-and-a-half now, and Fradette Roy has become a cautious believer in the internet’s power of love.
“There are a lot of success stories with dating apps, of course, but there are just as many – if not more – horror stories. Still, I think there’s always a chance to find the right match, it just takes time and patience and trial and error – in real life, just the same as online.”
On the other hand, Leslie Kennedy, who separated from her husband at the outset of the pandemic, says she did not enjoy the trial and error of online dating.
“Divorcing during COVID was a trauma, very, very lonely and the apps were an outlet,” the 45-year-old says. She was with her ex-husband for 16 years before their breakup and found herself ill-equipped for navigating the digital world.
Kennedy turned to the apps almost as if praying for change: “Some nights I got super sad and lonely and thought maybe I’d talk to a guy, and the best way to do that was an app.” She tried Bumble and Match, but stayed away from Tinder, because it’s the app that she knew her ex-husband would use.
“The idea of seeing how he sells himself as a man to date is more than I could handle,” she says, adding that on one dating app, she saw the profile of her neighbour’s best friend – who’s married. “People don’t realize, but the apps aren’t that anonymous.”
Eventually, she posted her profile on Stir, a dating site owned by Match and launched this past March for single parents.
“The more distance I have from my marriage, the more I feel like I know myself and what I want,” she says, adding that she feels no desire to open joint chequing accounts or find a partner to introduce to her kids. What she likes about Stir is that it gives her a community of divorced people that she doesn’t have in her circle of friends.
“There’s joy to be found as a divorced person dating other divorced people whose divorces are far more messy than my own.”
And just shy of two years ago, Kennedy found her current match. Within two weeks, they both took themselves off the app.
“I don’t really credit my relationship to the app as much as I credit it to the timing – unless you’re happy and confident with who you are, you’ll attract people likely to be horrible humans.
“I don’t have the internet to be thankful for. I think you have to love yourself first and decide that you’re done being treated like trash.”
Finding love beyond Tinder
Tinder isn’t the only game in town. However, like Tinder, each of these apps offers an upgrade to their monthly membership that increases your odds of finding a match.
Bumble, free, or $16.99/month for the Bumble Boost
With women sparking the initial contact, the relationship paradigm is turned upside down in a way many singles find refreshing. There were 45 million active users in 2021, according to the Business of Apps, and a general population of more than 100 million.
Hinge, free, or $19.99/month for a Preferred Membership
The stated objective on the app is for users who want to get off it – long-term relationships here are the goal. According to the Business of Apps, Hinge has 20 million users and 15-per-cent market share in the American dating app market (there are also Canadian users, just not data around their market share in this country).
Raya, $24.99/month, or $62.99/month for Raya Plus
Secretive and selective, Raya is the only app that turns singles down. Information is hard to come by but, according to a 2018 piece in the New York Times, there may be 10,000 users, with a wait list of 100,000.
Stir, $39.99/month, or $89.99 for a three month premium subscription
A dating app for single parents, owned by Match Group, which also owns Hinge and Tinder. It was launched in March and features “Stir Time,” which helps parents without spouses negotiate difficult schedules for a much-needed app date night.
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