Welcome to Inefficiency Week. Over the next five days, we’re going to take a look at what we lose when we get lost in the chase for efficiency. We’ll explore the ways it’s changing the games we love to watch. We’ll remember its failures across the pop culture spectrum. And we’ll report on what it’s doing to our lives — romantic, physical, and otherwise.
It’s been 22 years since Gary Kremen, the commercial pioneer of online dating, promised, "Match.com will bring more love to the planet than anything since Jesus Christ."
The proliferation of online dating hasn’t been quite so revolutionary or dramatic. Since the turn of the century, however, millions of Americans, young and old, have indeed flocked to online dating sites. Match.com, now the biggest dating site in the world, hosts more than 2 million paid subscribers. In recent years, mobile apps such as Tinder and Bumble have simplified the art of the online dating profile, mining users’ Facebook and Instagram profiles for selfies and personal tidbits in place of the heartfelt essays more common on older dating websites such as Match. This atomization of online dating culture has quickened the pace of matchmaking without necessarily improving its effectiveness or, as Kremen promised, increasing the world’s overall capacity for love and lust.
But dating apps have gamified romance for millions of phone-obsessed, perpetual scrollers who’ve programmed themselves to swipe right and left on their fellow users’ faces with ruthless efficiency. Daigo Smith, cofounder of the dating app Loveflutter, which launched in 2014, tells me he’s developed the antidote to Tinder’s emphasis on attractiveness. Loveflutter bills itself as the wordy, meaningful alternative to Tinder’s addictive, hot-or-not, smartphone touchscreen mashing. "We're taking away that initial first judgment on looks," Smith says, "and we're bringing personality to the foreground."
Smith has come to believe that the key to a user’s personality is their tweets. On July 25, Loveflutter launched Blue, a paid subscription tier for verified Twitter users to flirt exclusively among themselves. In the launch announcement, Loveflutter bills Blue as an app that will enable users to "date celebrities discreetly." It’s important to note that less than 50 percent of Twitter’s more than 190,000 verified users are actors, athletes, musicians, and other entertainers; the rest are political entities, corporate brands, and all sorts of other, presumably less sexy accounts.
Twitter verifications ostensibly lend some measure of assurance to users of Blue, which advertises itself as "the safest dating community ever." They aren’t totally exclusive, though. As of July 2016, any Twitter user can easily request verification through the website’s help center, and so the blue badge and white checkmark that accompany verified handles are no longer the rare social currency they once were. Twitter verified a Diplo parody account, for whatever it’s worth.
The single biggest community represented among verified Twitter users isn’t celebrities, but rather journalists—who often date among themselves, but who generally responded to news of Blue with a mix of mockery and dread. Writing for the New York magazine blog Select All, the journalist Madison Malone Kircher notes: "If you’ve got a verified Twitter and are considering using this silly feature, you’re going to find your peers and co-workers and people you’ve possibly already dated." Given the app’s filter and premise, Blue’s potential subscriber base is relatively small, and it’s easy to imagine the app’s total pool of users in any given city feeling downright claustrophobic. As efficient as apps can make dating feel, a user might burn through all their most promising Blue matches in just under a month.
For now, the premium Blue extension is free for its limited membership of 1,000 trial users in New York, L.A., San Francisco, London, and Tokyo. Loveflutter will implement a monthly fee once Blue launches in full. "The paywall is a big advantage for people wanting to find love," Smith says. Blue's emphasis on exclusivity strikes common ground with other dating apps such as Raya and Tinder Select, two gated dating communities reserved for celebrities and select power users. Smith says the celebrity angle on Blue is a cheeky bit of self-scandalization on his company’s part. The real reason for his company’s turn to Twitter is two-fold: Twitter’s verification protocols function as quality control for Blue, and Loveflutter’s research partners have found that tweets reveal useful details about users’ personalities and interests. "We saw how Tinder and Bumble used Instagram," Smith says. "So then we looked at Twitter, and it was a no-brainer. Twitter is a great reflection of your personality."
For decades now, the major dating apps have offered competing theories of how to best encapsulate and present users’ personalities to one another. OkCupid uses essay prompts. Tinder uses selfies. Loveflutter uses tweets. Users take their pick. The proliferation of online matchmaking services and the subsequent normalization of online dating make it easier than ever for strangers to find one another via the internet. Whether online dating has made it that much easier for those strangers to find love, or at the very least good sex, is a separate question entirely.
Loveflutter isn’t the first dating service to emphasize personality over attractiveness. Match.com, OkCupid, and JDate all took off before Tinder and then Bumble came along into the 2010s. All three of the earlier online services invite users to write paragraphs about themselves, and then still more paragraphs back and forth with potential matches. (The digital media conglomerate IAC, based in New York, owns OkCupid, Tinder, and Match.com.) Of course, before any of these websites existed, there were newspaper personal ads: all text, no photos. We’ve come a long way.
As the dating app economy has diversified, the angst of decision-making has intensified. It's difficult enough to find the perfect match in any case, and online dating now means you have to choose the perfect app first. Dating apps offer unprecedented speed in pairing strangers together for potential dates, but they don’t promise relief from the crushing absurdities of prolonged human interaction. There’s no app for that.
Dating is such an inherently fraught and bewildering custom that any developer entering the profitable app market is taking on a thankless task. Christian Rudder, the cofounder of OkCupid, wrote a book called Dataclysm about the social eccentricities that big data reveals. Rudder used to write the once-popular OkTrends blog, where he’d analyze trends in interracial engagement and responsiveness to different styles of profile pictures to help users overcome the most mysterious frustrations of online dating. "Everybody complains about these apps to their friends. We know that. It's not a secret," Rudder says. "It’s just a fact of being single more so than it says anything about the actual utility of the apps."
Targeted services such as Blue offer a streamlined menu of potential profiles. Inevitably, that means fewer potential matches. Rudder describes this trade-off as the fundamental shortcoming of cordoning the overall dating pool into isolated niches, with a few exceptions. "In the Jewish community," Rudder says, "there's a long cultural history of people trying to date specifically in that community, and JDate is supported by that community very explicitly." The problem with targeted matchmaking services beyond JDate, Rudder says, is that it’s difficult for an online dating service to justify subscription fees and turn a profit if it’s narrowed its subscriber base to a fraction of lovers and potential soulmates. "The most important thing that Tinder or OkCupid can offer is a wide dating pool. For sure, there’s gonna be more verified Twitter users on Tinder than there will be on an app that’s limited to just verified Twitter users. Whatever small community you're trying to target, there will be more of the members of those communities on these bigger sites." Worldwide, there are more than 190,000 verified Twitter users. That’s Blue’s maximum potential subscriber base, and even that is a fraction of the current membership figures for Tinder, OkCupid, and Match.com, which all boast global active user bases with more than 30 million people. (Loveflutter declined to reveal the size of its overall user base.)
But Smith laments the dating app economy’s pursuit of the largest possible user base and the broadest possible appeal. "In terms of efficiency, we don't want you to get loads and loads of matches," Smith says. "We'd rather you collected one match and that was it." But dating has never been so efficient, with or without apps, with or without cover fees, with or without exclusive invitations. There’s no app that transcends the basic inefficiencies of good, old-fashioned chemistry. As far as premium flirtation goes, your odds are no better in the VIP than they are out on the dance floor.