Going offline: Are we seeing the death of dating apps as people crave real-life connections

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It all started off so innocently. “That’s a beautiful photo of you,” he wrote. “Thanks for the match.” To which I replied, “Thank you, that’s nice of you to say. How are you today? I’m on my afternoon walk. It’s gorgeous out.” And so it began. 

First, we talked weather. Next, we moved onto our work life (WFH still? Yay or nay?). Then we traded weekend plans. Several days passed and a date hadn’t materialised, but it didn’t bother me. I usually wait a week or so to ask someone out if they haven’t asked me first.

I live in New York City where people are up to their eyeballs in commitments, including myself. Even if he’d asked me to meet up that first week, I would have looked at the calendar and suggested the following one.

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We’re all living to find a date, not dating to find a life, right?

The schedule dance among busy single adults who are juggling jobs, life responsibilities and active social lives is a major obstacle to dating. Truthfully, it doesn’t bother me. It’s important to me that my potential future partner and I have full lives, independent of each other. I don’t expect anyone to dodge dodgeball for me. After all, we’re all living to find a date, not dating to find a life, right?

You probably know what happened. A weekend passed, the week got filled with work. Another weekend went by without meeting (he was out of town for a wedding). The messages began to dwindle. Then, one day I looked up with alarm to realise that we’d been texting for 30 days – and still didn’t have plans to meet.

It was ridiculous. It was exhausting. It was… ineffective.

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What’s the point of online dating if no one gets offline?

In a time where we seemingly have the bounty of the single population available at our fingertips, to talk with at any time of any day, in any location, in between sips of lattes, in line at the bathroom, in countries all over the world – what’s the point of online dating if no one ever actually gets offline?

In March 2020, when the world shut down, socialising and human interaction did the same. We pivoted, we got creative, we came up with alternative ways to structure our day-to-day. We had Zoom birthdays, workouts and conference meetings. We substituted happy hours with FaceTime-With-Wine, attended quizzes with artificial backgrounds and went for 4pm walks around the block just to get some fresh air.

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Statistics show that half of users’ messages go unanswered

And dating? Well, it pivoted too. Zoom speed dates had breakout rooms with people who never turned on their cameras. Hinge added a video function that worked, er, some of the time. And “getting ready” for a FaceTime date felt like a task only one of the parties understood (shout out to that guy who was in his bed the entire time. Good on you for being comfy, buddy). Suffice to say, it left us with a digital hangover.

There were countless reasons why dates remained virtual and never made it onto the playing field of real life in 2020, even in 2021. But, the pandemic aside, statistics show that as many as half of users messages go unanswered. Speaking as a user of dating apps myself – and host of the #single podcast – only one in 10 people I’m messaging will I end up meeting off the app. Since none of us are on here looking for a pen pal, what gives?

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The concept of app fatigue predates the pandemic

“I’d say 99% of my connections don’t end in a meeting,” my single friend Annie tells me.  “Guys just chat for a while, then stop. If there’s a vibe, I usually ask if they’d like to get a coffee or a glass of wine and even when they say ‘yes’, it invariably never happens. It feels like a waste of time.”

The concept of app fatigue predates the pandemic, appearing mostly in tech-oriented blogs around games and phone usage. It has started working its way into the modern dating lexicon in the last year, too. While it’s usually defined as having too many apps in your life, dating-app fatigue is used more frequently in reference to burnout. 

Describing an activity or situation which depletes the participant mentally and emotionally, resulting in stress, fatigue, and exhaustion, “dating burnout” is now a buzz term of 2022. In fact, in a US survey conducted in April, data analytics company Single Reports stated that more than 75% of singles aged 18-54 reported a degree of emotional fatigue or exhaustion while online dating.

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‘Dating burnout’ is now a buzz term of 2022

As part of my work as a podcast host, I’m invested in talking to singles about real solo life in an effort to destigmatise the state of being single. And, I can say with a degree of certainty, not only is dating-app burnout real but more and more singles are fed up with trying to meet people on apps. Instead, they are trying to have those connections “IRL” – in real life.

“The internet provides a cloak of anonymity to say and do things we would never attempt face-to-face, from lewd solicitation to jarring personal questions about child-bearing status or outright ghosting,” Elizabeth, a single 38-year-old, tells me.

When I recently polled my listeners on Instagram to find out if dating apps were working for them, 75% of responders chose the option “more useless than a traffic light on a racetrack.” So, that’s pretty friggin definitive then…

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Singles are fed up with trying to meet people on apps

Dr Karin Anderson Abrell, psychologist, author and host of podcast Love & Life, believes much of the reason singles are deleting their apps and looking for alternatives lies in the fact that the experience is unpleasant and emotionally unhealthy.

Online and app dating take an enormous amount of screen time. Research consistently shows a correlation between the amount of time we spend on screens and depression and anxiety. More screen time equals more depressed. Not to mention, statistics show us only 54% of users want to find an exclusive romantic partner, meaning singles can expect only half the people they interact with to have serious intentions.”

In their inception, dating apps were created to alleviate the difficulty of meeting people in real life. Yet, if they’re no longer actually helping us to connect, how do we return to the ‘old school’ method of dating with a fresh and healthy perspective?

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Start talking to people you don’t know

Maxine Williams, founder and CEO of We Met IRL, a NYC-based speed dating company for people of colour, believes dating is in need of a break from technology. “I think technology has done amazing things for the world but there’s a reason that dinner parties are becoming popular again and people are more interested in real-life interactions versus digital. 

“The pandemic took so much of our socialising away. We lost some of the skills we had. It’s all about getting out of the new normal that Covid created of being alone or only talking to the people you know, and start talking to people you don’t and might never see again.”

The more I talk to people about turning off the apps in favour of meeting in real life, the more I feel there is a movement happening. Right now, it seems, single people are getting creative and intentional about dating-app alternatives. 

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I feel there is a movement happening

Geraldine, a single woman who I connected with on TikTok, says “I think Meetup, as US-based connections community is where it’s at now. People are ready to meet others with the simple goal of sharing a specific thing in common – like travel, hiking or the great outdoors. I’ve dated some of the men I’ve met through it. It’s way easier than meeting in loud bars.”

So, are dating apps dead? Three hundred million worldwide users suggest we’re not there yet. However, having come through an extended virtual pandemic – rife with isolation and free of human contact – singles are approaching dating with a new found appreciation for meeting people the old-fashioned way. Is it harder? In some ways – but sometimes the hardest things are worth fighting for.

Jeanette Bonner is the host of the #single podcast. She recently travelled to Peru with Flash Pack in search of real-life connections and interviewed Flash Pack founder Lee Thompson on why he set up an adventure travel company for people in their 30s and 40s.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Jeanette Bonner & Flash Pack 

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