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The Awkward Truth About Dating Apps

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The new ‘sex satnav’ dating apps are taking over. But how much use are they to men looking for love? Tom Bailey tries them out

A lemon yellow Ford Capri, a splash of Hai Karate and a few smoke rings – dating must have been a breeze back in the Seventies. There were no subscription fees, either. And nobody agonised over what to say in their online profile – if you saw Miss Pepsi Cola 1978 in the local disco, you had one shot at making an impression. There was no, “Oh, I’ll Facebook her later. Maybe. If I have the guts.”

If anything, the awkward, protracted, emoticon-fuelled back-and-forth of online dating has only complicated matters for the modern single man. “The end of civilisation,” raged an acquaintance recently, having joined – and left – match.com within a 48-hour period. He’d exchanged 41 “pointless” messages and come to the considered conclusion that it was “a load of sh*te that doesn’t do what it says on the tin”. He’s calmed down now, and is back on a heavy diet of online chess and M&S Gastropub meals.

To be fair, that steak lasagne is pretty good, and maybe online dating simply wasn’t for him. But he’s got a point. Why do we spend weeks exchanging messages, tip-toeing around an uncomfortable sub-text (“Are you a weirdo?”… “No, but are you a weirdo?”)? Why not just skip to the real-time hook-up?

CHOOSIER CHAT-UPS

Well, that’s where Tinder, as you’ll have probably heard, comes in. The fastest growing dating download currently available in the App Store, it’s one of a new breed of location-based innovations for smartphones dubbed “sex satnavs”. Or, more accurately, the long-promised straight version of GPS-enabled gay dating app Grindr. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people are downloading Tinder a day, while its British user base is mushrooming by around 25 per cent a week. You may have seen it brandished on an iPhone in the pub (usually couched in terms like, “Yeah, I just got it for a laugh”).

Here’s how it works: you sign up using your Facebook account. The app sucks in the basics of your profile – picture, interests, etc – and asks how far you’re willing to travel. Could be the next county, could be the end of the street – could even just be the end of the bar. Then you scroll through the selfies of other users nearby, swiping left to discard and right to ‘like’. Brutal. But here’s the clever bit – you only end up chatting to someone once you’re both matched up (ie, you’ve ‘liked’ each other).

In short, every ‘match’ is a massive dopamine-fuelled high, because you already know that you like each other – and that a casual liaison is almost certainly on the cards. Why else would you be using sex radar?

BRING VIRTUAL FLOWERS

As Tinder’s co-founder, 27-year-old Sean Rad, explained: “Tinder works because it’s the way people tell us they see the world. They walk around, they see girls or guys and they say in their heads, ‘Yes, no, yes, no.’” I can’t deny that ‘Tinderland’ is fun – each match is a heart-thumping ego boost. But it doesn’t take long to work out that a match based on a (probably misleading) profile picture isn’t a great basis for a conversation:

Her: “Hi.”

Me: “Hi.”

Her: “Do you live alone?”

Me: “Yes. Do you?”

Her: “Yes.”

[Silence]

Perhaps I’d just been matched to a canny burglar. Rad, a college dropout (of course), admits that while Tinder can be a tool for casual sex, frequented by the likes of the Winklevoss twins and some of the Made In Chelsea cast, it’s also generated more than 100 marriage proposals, leading to a raft of digitally assisted wedding days which he “mostly gets invited to”.

Impressive, but Tinder is far from being your only sex satnav option. Pretenders to its throne include Bang With Friends – recently rebranded Down – and Twine, billed as “The first gender-balanced flirting app”. The latter stays spam-free by ensuring an even ratio of guys to girls. Which is brilliant – if you’re a girl. “There are 83 guys in line from your local area,” it tells me. “To maintain the gender balance in your local area you need to wait until more girls join.” Sounds reasonable, but word of mouth takes a while to filter through. I could try a leafleting campaign to get the word out, but that’s a bit creepy.

Then there’s the aggressive and terrifyingly-named InstaDo: Friend Zone Is Over, the digital equivalent of dragging a girl back to your cave by her hair. Like Tinder, it rifles through your Facebook profile and finds matches. You then choose four icons: Coffee, Dinner, Movie or Do It.

It’s not exactly Pride And Prejudice. A match pings in from InstaDo. It thinks I’d like ‘Laura’. And I do. Nothing wrong with Laura. Laura’s great. She’s also in Delaware. Insert sad emoticon here.

EXPENSIVE CLIP ART

If InstaDo is plain cynical, Skout is – to its credit – fun. If you think it would be fun to crouch inside a Vegas slot machine. A matrix of selfies – people in your home town – are lit with green ‘online’ lights. To earn the privilege of chatting to the most popular girls, you’ll need to woo them with virtual flowers/pearls/trinkets (a pearl costs 300 credits – £1.80 on your iTunes bill). You can also go for the Wink Bomb (‘wink’ at 1,000 girls with one, shuddering, tap). ‘Anthea’ tells me she’s had three “lovely meals and dates” from Skout and is a big fan; ‘Mamutaz’ says the men are “mostly liars”. Either way, I’ve just spent £7.99 on some clip art.

While it’s perhaps unfair to say that men are “mostly liars”, it’s true that there is the us in real-life and the us we present on the internet. And they’re never the same thing. Which is ultimately why radar dating is barely more discerning than a 21st-century party line, or those 0891-50 50 50 chat boxes advertised in garish Nineties TV ads. It simply proves that just because two people say they like Breaking Bad on Facebook, it doesn’t mean they really have anything in common.

Having spent the past 30 years making the enlightened case for what’s ‘on the inside’, dating has been gamefied into a digital wolf whistle predicated on shallow, ruthless, snap judgements. We might, secretly, all enjoy a freakshow. But do you actually want to take part in one?

(Image: Corbis)

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