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Modern romance: How Tinder made 2014 the year of the dating app

This has truly been the year of the dating app. Tinder has grown astronomically over the past year, with a user base that now stands at over 50 million. Then there are all the dating website mobile apps: OkCupid, PlentyOfFish, Match.com, Zoosk, etc.

A smorgasboard for LGBT singles: Grindr, Scruff, Jack’d and Hornet, for men, Brenda, Daatch, and Scissr, for women. Poly Life, for polyamorous people, Blinq for people in the same bar as you; and Cuddlr, launched in September, for “platonic cuddling” with strangers.

One of the founders of Tinder, Whitney Wolfe, has just launched her new dating app, Bumble, specifically to improve the experience for women by putting them in charge. Type ‘dating apps’ into Google News: a new one launches every week or so.

Read more: Tinder reminds us startup origin stories are rarely what they seem

App-mania is not just affecting English-speaking countries. A dating app for gay men in China, Blued, has been making headlines recently since it passed 15 million users, even more than its US counterpart, Grindr, and it is now being used as a tool by the Chinese government to spread awareness of HIV.

It’s like Aphrodite learned how to code. And liked it.

Changing perceptions

This is a new trend. Five years ago – or even fewer – meeting a date online was seen as something only lonely, desperate people do.

It took a tipping point before the cynics changed their minds, when enough people were using these apps that they became normalised. A dating app has become a fashionable thing to have, like a designer bag, or a startup in Shoreditch. It’s cool.

And as with all cool, desirable things entrepreneurs began rushing to fill the demand for on-demand dates. The result was a wave of dating apps. How did we get from a time when the question, “so where did you two meet?” induced embarrassment in two people who met on OkCupid, to now, when it’s seen as on a legitimate alternative to meeting people in bars?

Love me Tinder

Tinder, the app in which you swipe left or right depending on your preference, played a big part in changing the zeitgeist. Launched in 2012, it took until the summer of 2013 for the app to get the attention that would turn it into definitively the most popular dating app, with over 50 million users.

To put it another way, almost 2% of the world’s online population are active users on Tinder.

The key to Tinder’s success was that it unapologetically gave people what they wanted: the ability to siphon potentially partners based on superficial details.

The app shows users a picture of the person, with the option of seeing more personal details if they choose to. If you’ve ever watched someone on Tinder, you’ll know they rarely do. More usually, it is a game of batting your fingers left and right on a rapid succession of faces.

In the past, dating websites spent years crafting algorithms, asking their users to fill in lengthy questionnaires, in order to match people up based on interests and personality types. The only matching criterion Tinder has is distance from the user, which in a city as large as London is quite a useful feature.

The most important thing Tinder could do for online dating was to be popular. Tinder’s popularity made shy consumers more confident about stepping into this Brave New World. Furthermore, while digital matching services were obviously popular and making money, the romance app market hadn’t yet shown itself to be lucrative. Tinder’s success proved that it was.

Life after Tinder

The new raft of dating apps which have appeared in 2014 rarely borrow Tinder’s user interface directly (with a few exceptions, such as OkCupid’s similar swipe function) and are instead exploiting their own niches and using innovative new interfaces to attract users.

They are also more focused. There’s an app for women who like bearded men called Bristlr, which was launched in November. Wingman, which is in beta, will allow users to hook up during those endless long-haul flights.

Cofounder of dating app Loveflutter, Daigo Smith, claims that Tinder’s days are numbered thanks to these new dating apps. “You can’t deny that they Tinder totally shook up the market. But they sold out [Tinder was bought by IAC/Interactivecorp, who also own OkCupid and Match.com], and the two founders, who probably had all the creativity, have left as well.

Read more: Download of the Week: Loveflutter

“At Loveflutter, we want to try and create more meaning for our users. Our app first shows people in blurred out portraits, with a 140 character blurb in front of it. They can hold down if they want to see it unblurred.” He jokes: “And you have to swipe up or down; not left or right.”

The changing face of romance

Do any of these apps actually work? Plenty of journalists, bloggers and pensive friends have opined at the possible effects of so many dating apps: whether they have made dates a commodity, or whether it’s a revolution for shy people (as long as they’re good looking).

Some features have also been controversial. Geolocation for example, which is used in a number of apps and notably Tinder, has attracted a lot of controversy. In February this year, it was discovered Tinder could be hacked to show precise location information about its users. Grindr, an app for gay men which also shows detailed location information, has been used by Egyptian police and Russian thugs to persecute gay men in their respective countries. That these humanitarian crimes were caused by something as innocuous as a dating app has only reinforced any existing negative perceptions.

None of this, however, will hinder the popularity of these apps. We’re past the tipping point. The majority of people are now more likely to open an app on their phone than approach someone in a bar. You can blame – or thank? – Tinder for that, which as Smith says: “Shook the market.” as a result of which, “the days of algorithms and questionnaires are over.”

We’re stepping into the era of the dating app.