For two months, John Chidley-Hill came home after his evening shift, turned off the lights, lay in bed and stared at his phone.
The 36-year-old sports writer rejoined Hinge in September after a long period away from dating apps, but soon found the nightly ritual – in a word – “depressing.”
“I was like, this isn’t working. It’s making me anxious,” he says. “I didn’t need a reminder of a) the fact that I’m single, and b) I hadn’t connected with anyone that day. It’s not a great way to end a day.”
Similar stories have played out in countless bedrooms over the past decade. And yet, online dating, with all its pitfalls, has become our generation’s default way of searching for new romantic and sexual partners.
For the first time since the dating-app boom hit in the mid-2010s, though, it appears the sector’s rapid growth is finally beginning to bottom out.
Last year, analytics firm eMarketer projected the user growth of dating apps would soon slow from an estimated 6.5 per cent to 5.3 per cent, dropping even further to 2.3 per cent by 2022.
While that still translates to thousands of people joining every year, eMarketer said, trends also point increasingly to users – presumably, fed up at a lack of results with their current platforms – switching from one service to another.
When it comes to how many people are actually quitting dating apps, hard numbers are scant. But if you’ve lived in Toronto and have had at least one single friend, odds are good you’ve heard the phrase “ugh, I need to quit Tinder” (complete with obligatory eye roll) at least a half-dozen times.
“It’s exhausting. I have to take breaks,” says Lana, a 34-year-old art director (not her real name) who started online dating again last spring after a breakup.
“You go through phases where you’re inspired, open to possibilities – and then after two weeks of people sending you inappropriate messages or reading all your signals wrong, you get tired.”
She recently tried to ditch the apps, signing up for rock-climbing instead (since, she reasoned, so many of the single dudes on Tinder seemed to list it as a favourite hobby). The first time she hit the ropes at her local gym, she promptly fell and badly tore her ACL.
“I tried to get off of online dating,” she deadpans, “and I ended up on my ass.”
Too many fish
It’s not that online daters hunting for partners are starved for places to look – in fact, it’s precisely the opposite.
There’s Tinder, easily the most omnipresent dating/hookup app Bumble, where only women can message first Hinge, which only shows you friends of people you have social connections with plus a glut of other semi-popular options, like Happn and Coffee Meets Bagel.
On top of that, there are older, desktop-focused services like Match, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish, plus apps aimed at a LGBTQ audience, like Grindr, Scruff and Her. And new services are constantly hitting the market, hoping to present an alternative to the problems plaguing the more well-established players (see sidebar).
The glut of options can make even narrowing down which platform to use a struggle. But the frustrations only build once you get online – especially if you’re a guy seeking a girl, or vice-versa.
In a 2016 study, researchers in Ottawa, Rome and London set up fake Tinder profiles and monitored responses. They found men tend to swipe right indiscriminately in order to amass as many matches as possible – but are three times less likely than women to actually initiate a conversation.
This discrepancy, they say, creates a “feedback loop.” “Men see that they are matching with few people, and therefore become even less discerning women, on the other hand, find that they match with most men, and become even more discerning.”
The messaging stage is an even bigger minefield – one divided broadly along traditional gender lines.
“In a lot of hetero experiences, women see a lot of low-level attention,” says matchmaker Claire AH of Friend of a Friend (friendofafriendmatchmaking.com).
The above study found that the median message length sent by men is only 12 characters (yes, twelve), compared to 122 characters from women. And 25 per cent of messages written by men are shorter than six characters – “presumably ‘hello’ or ‘hi,’” the authors write.
One of AH’s pet peeves is a tendency among guys to only look at someone’s profile once they get a message – then unmatch after they finally have a look and decide they’re not interested. “It’s a real confidence-killer,” she says.
Lana finds guys tend to steamroll attempts at boundary-setting. “They all want to meet right away. I got a message that was like, ‘Let’s get together and argue about pizza toppings and get to baby-making.’ But the women I know want to get to know somebody first in the chat, because it’s a safety issue.”
Even if the banter is going well, with contact limited to two dimensions and that crucial IRL spark still out of reach, people tend to ghost or let conversations fizzle out.
“People fall prey to grass-is-greener thinking,” Chidley-Hill laments.
“It’s hard for them to focus on one person when you have an app in your phone constantly sending you updates.”
These behaviours, AH says, ultimately boil down to a refusal to be vulnerable or give up control, instead taking the easy outs afforded by technology.
“We don’t really treat each other like humans,” she says. “I feel like it’d be harder to do these things to a person you met at a party or through a friend – cancelling last minute, or never progressing to the point of meeting up.”
But like any habit, dating apps are tough to quit. Part of that has to do with good old-fashioned behavioural psychology. Much has been made of the gamification of online dating: Tinder’s interface was designed partially around a classic 1948 experiment that found pigeons given an intermittent, random reward would keep performing the same behaviour over again.
“There’s part of our brain that doesn’t fully understand that this is a social interaction, because we’re interacting with an interface designed to feel fun, designed to feel like a game,” AH says.
“If you get a match, you score a point. And then when they message you, you’re confronted with, ‘Oh, that’s actually a human – I have to do stuff now.’”
That feeling of “scoring” is itself one of the main draws of Tinder’s popularity – regardless of whether a swipe results in a date.
In 2017, LendEDU asked 9,700 college students what their main reason was for using Tinder. The biggest answer, at a whopping 44 per cent: “Confidence-boosting procrastination” – nearly twice the amount of people looking for relationships and hookups combined.
Online dating frustration is by no means limited to Toronto, but the city’s dating scene gets little love from local singles.
Nadia (not her real name), a 31-year-old tech lawyer, has had plenty of success Tindering for guys throughout her time in Europe – but at home, she comes up short.
“In Toronto I find dating really exhausting,” she says. “There are all these single men who feel that they don’t have to put in any kind of effort. The men I’ve dated from Germany or Spain have been so much more open and forward when it comes to starting a conversation. There’s this weird barrier here where it’s hard to get to know people.”
Ashley Magalas, of speed dating company and matchmaking company Single and Eligible (singleandeligible.com), has organized events in Vancouver and Ottawa but finds this city a particularly difficult nut to crack: “Toronto has always been a tough city for dating,” she says.
Why are We The North so frigid? There are a few theories.
First of all, there’s the invisible wall big city-dwellers learn to build around themselves in order to tune out the crowds, noise and chaos around them.
“People aren’t as open to talking to strangers – they tend to keep to themselves,” says Laura Bilotta, a dating expert who runs matchmaking firm Single in the City (singleinthecity.ca).
“Men [in Toronto] seem to think women are standoffish and hard to approach. When men do work up the courage to speak to a woman, a lot of the time the women aren’t open to getting to know someone who has approached them out of nowhere.”
Secondly, there’s a work-oriented culture exacerbated by the high cost of living and workforce precarity.
“People come here for work and their dream careers and put dating on hold,” Magalas says.
Even if you’re not chasing the C-suite, many find it draining just staying afloat in Toronto. Instead of devoting our scarce time, energy and cash to heading out to the bar, or marshalling a group of friends (and their cute, single buds) for an outing, we outsource meeting people to apps – then we’re too busy and exhausted to actually get to the meet-up stage.
AH feels Toronto’s perma-hustling culture makes the work of online dating – the admin, the messages, the scheduling – feel like an even bigger drag. “I know love isn’t necessarily love at first sight, with the stars aligning and sparks shooting out of your eyeballs – but does it need to feel like this much work?” she asks. “Does it need to feel like I leave my job, come home, and do my other job?”
Finally, with a big city’s population fuelling an already endless-seeming supply of swipe-able singles, it makes it that much harder to actually give the matches you have the time of day. After all, why would you spend all that time trying to find mutually available times for a date in each other’s crammed schedules when there are always more points to be racked up back on the home screen?
Get off the internet
Though it might seem a touch quaint in the Tinder age, matchmaking and speed dating are both thriving cottage industries in Toronto – and proprietors of both types of businesses say online dating burnout is driving clients into their arms.
Matchmaking clients tend to end up on AH’s doorstep for two main reasons: They’ve never dated online before, and don’t want to start or they’re app veterans whose thousands of swipes have gotten them nowhere.
For a one-year flat rate, the company will set you up with up to five people, with roughly two dates being the average. (Full disclosure: Friend of a Friend’s team has successfully set up several people I know.)
Magalas says online dating burnout is one of the biggest reasons people attend her company’s speed dating events – and every year, she sees more and more people shaking off the stigma of speed dating, with previous clients increasingly referring their friends.
“When the concept first came out, people looked at it as something that only “undateable” people would attend,” she says. “Movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin depicted speed dating as something unstable or emotionally broken people do, when in fact it’s the opposite.”
With many daters finding that crucial IRL connection elusive, speed dating – in which you have brief, timed conversations with other singles – presents a speedier way to get to the good stuff.
“There is a big group of people that prefer to meet face to face – people that are looking for instant gratification and a physical connection,” says Bilotta, who runs speed dating events under the Single in the City banner.
As people get increasingly fed up with the futility of online dating, Magalas predicts the tide will turn away from the apps and back toward IRL dating. “There’s going to be a reverse effect,” she says.
A necessary evil?
As aggravating as dating apps can be, you can’t deny that the numbers are in their corner – estimates from market data firm Statista suggest 2.4 million Canadians will use dating apps in 2020.
With that in mind, matchmakers have started working online dating coaching into their business models, helping clients leverage that database of singles to their advantage.
At Friend of a Friend, AH estimates, a third of her new clients come through the door having unequivocally sworn off online dating for good – but one of the first things she does is try to (gently) coax them into giving it another chance.
AH sees online dating working in tandem with matchmaking. That’s partially because it keeps clients from putting all their romantic eggs in one basket due to the gradual, careful nature of matchmaking, it’s “a lot of pressure” when clients rely solely on her for dates.
But it’s also because dating, whether online or IRL, takes practice.
“It all dovetails into each other, because if someone feels better about online dating – whether that’s getting to the meet-up, or getting better about expressing who they are – there are universal skills that will come from coaching,” she explains.
“It ends up working out for matchmaking as well, because they have a better sense of who they are and what they want.”
She coaches clients on how to write a profile and respond to messages in a more approachable way that lets their personality shine through. She also teaches them to narrow down messages and matches, zeroing in on people who are more in line with what they’re looking for.
Single in the City offers similar coaching services. But they’ll also go a step further and actually take over managing a client’s online dating profile – from profile-writing to correspondence and setting up dates.
“We assist in finding suitable candidates online without all the annoyance and wasted hours most people have to deal with,” Bilotta explains.
“It’s good for people who are really busy and just don’t have the patience to find dates online for themselves.”
Meet cutes only
Christine, a 29-year-old marketing exec, found she didn’t like who she was on dating apps.
“I don’t know how to present myself online, so I know I’m not being perceived the way I am in real life,” she says.
She also found it difficult to meet women over men: “I feel like it’s because I present as very straight, and people might think I’m ‘curious.’”
A year and a half ago, Christine deleted Raya and Tinder, adopting what she dubs a “strict IRL meet cutes” policy. “When I’m out pursuing my own interests, I’m naturally meeting people who are likely to have more in common with me,” she says.
She once went out with someone she met sitting next to her at a movie another time, she was asked out three different times at a concert she forced herself to attend solo.
Christine admits not everyone finds it easy to meet people IRL in Toronto. (She describes herself as having “Big Approachable Energy.”)
But that shouldn’t necessarily make it impossible, she says: “Friends ask me where I’m meeting people, and I’m like, ‘What do you mean? There’s people everywhere!’”
Meeting people in person, she adds, lets her enjoy the “organic long game” of dating. “We get to know each other outside of a curated presentation,” she says.
“It doesn’t allow them this preconceived notion that they can check off boxes before even I make the decision to talk to them, or give them access to me by swiping right.”
And now that he’s back off Hinge, Chidley-Hill says he’s been setting up dates with people he already knows and likes in real life.
Mostly, however, he’s taking things as they come.
“It’s okay to be single and it’s okay to sit with the feelings of being single. In a lot of ways, that’s healthy,” he says.
“There’s that blind, knee-jerk reaction of, ‘I’m single, don’t wanna be, gotta get out there and fix it.’ I think it’s more valuable to sit with that, examine your past behaviour, act with greater intention, and develop relationships in real life.”
Next wave of dating apps
In case the other 900 options on the market aren’t working out for you.
When you match with someone on S’More, your photos are blurred the more you talk, the clearer the photos get. The free app, which is “designed to transition millennials from casual dating apps into relationships,” is currently live in major U.S. cities. smoredate.com
This app features a manual review and approval process (meant to narrow down members to people who are serious about dating), and offers you matches based on an in-depth questionnaire that covers your career goals, hobbies and favourite local hangouts. theinnercircle.co
Created with the help of a Toronto-based psychologist, this “relationship discovery app” uses a continuous learning algorithm (partially based on cognitive behavioural therapy) and face mapping (!) to learn more about the user. The result is an app dedicated to “clueing in on what each and every user likes and dislikes, maybe even before they do!” justsayallo.com
Recently launched in a number of countries (including Canada), Butterfly is designed with trans folks in mind. The app puts emphasis on data privacy, offers a plethora of gender and sexuality ID options, and auto-blocks transphobic language, among other features. butterfly.dating
This Ottawa-based platform will plan a date for you and your match, based on mutual interests, schedule availability and budget – but you don’t find out the location of the date, or get to chat with your match until 24 hours before. (In-app selfies and full names are mandatory to help ensure safety.) wandure.com
Correction: An incorrect URL for Single In The City’s website ran in print the correct link is singleinthecity.ca.