As of 2016, at least 15% of adults have used dating apps and 70% of same-sex couples met their partner online in the United States, which suggests that online dating is a becoming a predominant factor in relationship culture. This is due in large part to location-based mobile dating services, more commonly known as dating and hookup apps, which serve the purpose of connecting users to potential romantic or sexual partners. These apps, which became popularized within the last ten years, vastly changed the landscape of relationships and dating in a post-modern western society by acting as a matchmaker. Over the past several years, these apps became a sort of “social intermediary” by eliminating the necessity for human matchmakers such as friends and relatives.
The increased popularity of such platforms also led to the development of “hookup culture,” which promotes commitment-free, and sometimes even anonymous, sexual activity between partners who connect through these applications. Because of the influences of dating apps, such as the loss of matchmakers and the rise of hookup culture, the way that people, especially younger individuals, develop interpersonal relationships is change. Several concepts such as ghosting and being “friends with benefits” are rising in the popularity, symbolizing an evolution in how romantic and sexual relationships operate.
Emergence of Dating and Hookup Applications
To recognize the influence of dating applications on relationships, it is critical to understand how they fundamentally operate. Some examples of the most popular applications include Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, OkCupid and HUD. Tinder, the most well-known and used dating application, made its debut in 2012. The app features both a free version as well as a paid subscription; according to a recent Bloomberg News article, as of 2018, Tinder possesses over 3.7 million paid users.
The app, which consumers typically use to find partners for both dating and hookups, popularized the “swipe culture.” The swipe feature, now popular across multiple platforms, allows users to swipe left on a person they do not have interest in, and swipe right on someone they do. Tinder, like most dating apps, allows its subscribers to include pictures of themselves as well as a short bio.
Another leading dating application, Bumble, shares the same swipe features as Tinder but places an emphasis on female users by only allowing women to initiate conversation in heterosexual matches. Bumble also markets itself as a platform for business, networking and friendships, in addition to dating.
Released in 2009, Grindr became the first hookup and dating application geared toward gay and bisexual men. Like Tinder and other apps, it also offers a paid premium subscription service for its users.
An app marketed entirely for hookups, HUD’s offers free services to all users while promising a “swipe-free, commitment-free” opportunity. HUD also describes itself as female friendly, claiming that “Online dating can be intimidating, especially for women. That’s why we have implemented a bunch of features to improve the female user experience.” Out of the five apps mentioned, HUD is the only application not considered in the studies examine due to its relatively new nature. However, further examination into HUD is necessary as it one of the very first (and most popular) applications to market itself exclusively for finding sexual partners.
Potential Reasons for Use of Dating and Hookup Applications
Some potential motivations behind the increased use of these types of applications could include the fact that they increasingly more socially acceptable, their functionality and mobility, photo-driven design, and social and romantic possibilities. Some other subjective advantages (or disadvantages) include the possibility of less emotional investment and less time commitment, as well as the perceived low risk of heartbreak. Another obvious expectation and alleged advantage of hookup is the possibility of sexual activity.
With advantages, of course, come disadvantages, some of which include less incentive to commit to a relationship, possibilities of being misled, risk of superficiality and dehumanization as well as the possibility of humans being portrayed as disposable.
Recent Research Conducted on Dating App Users
In a 2017 article titled “Liquid love? Dating apps, sex, relationships and the digital transformation of intimacy,” researchers Mitchell Hobbs, Stephen Owen, Livia Gerber in which they conducted two studies, one online and one in person, to investigate how dating and relationships may be experiencing a digital transformation. The authors of the study contemplate Zygmunt Bauman’s argument of “liquid love,” which suggests that online dating has led to the rise of individualization and social change, resulting in a transformation of romance and courtship into entertainment, where users can return to marketplace to “shop.” As Bauman put it, online dating “liquefied the solidity and security once provided by romantic partnerships and family structures.”
In their study, the primary research methods employed by Hobbs, Own and Gerber included online survey shared via twitter and Facebook featuring 365 participants and in-depth interviews conducted exclusively on only conducted on both past and present dating and hookup app users. The demographics of the online survey include: 58% women, 40% men, 73% heterosexual, 13.5% gay or lesbian, and 8% bisexual. In terms of age, the majority of those surveyed fell between 23- and 32-years-old.
The in-depth interviews, which took place in-person, only featured six participants: three women and three men, all between 24 and 34 years of age. Five out the six were heterosexual, and one participant was homosexual. According to the researchers, the combined results of both studies suggest that traditional views of dating and monogamy are still prevalent, but dating apps allow people to pursue multiple “matches” simultaneously, which offer users a sense of control. The breakdown in percentages reveals that 87% of participants believe these apps allowed more opportunities to find partners. Approximately 55% of those surveyed use online application to find dates, while 25% use them exclusively for sexual activity and 8% seek non-sexual friendship.
Overall, the study yielded mixed results but generally suggests that dating apps are not actively replacing monogamous relationships with hook-up culture; most people find that apps do not liquefy ideals of romantic love but act as a means to find partnership Furthermore, the majority of participants felt that the apps advanced their desires and abilities to make romantic connections, though the researchers believed that “some accounts of dating apps and modern romantic practices are too pessimistic, and downplay the positives of ‘networked intimacy.’” While this study does provide statistical data which somewhat suggests the development of relationships is changing due to the nature of social platforms, the researchers only collected responses from 371 people, making the study relatively limited in scope. Furthermore, this particular study is based out of Australia so may not necessarily reflect the values of other nations toward dating and hookup apps.
Another study conducted earlier this year by Leah E. LeFebvre, titled “Swiping me off my feet: Explicating relationship initiation on Tinder,” looked specifically at “how people engage in relationship initiation behaviors.” The study examined the relationship development process of Millennials, or people who currently fall within the 18 to 29-year-old age range. According to the researcher, the study surveyed this demographic as this age period is when people typically begin to look for their first long-term, serious relationship. LeFebvre conducted an online survey by gathering 395 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, “Amazon’s online crowdsourcing platform that allows workers to complete human intelligent tasks.” According to LeFebvre, the utilization of this platform allowed for a diverse group of participants in the survey so as not to skew the data. The ethnic demographics of the study include: 70.6% white, 8.9% black, 7.8% Asian, 6.8% Latinx, 5.6% multiple ethnicities, and 0.3% Native American. Other data collected and surveyed include location (urban, suburban, etc.), sexual orientation, relationship status, and education level.
The conclusions of the study determined that participants, whose Tinder usage and preferences were surveyed, believed that in terms of their potential pool of partners in Tinder, 46.6% were better, 29.1% were the same, and 24.3% were worse than potential partners in the real world. The researcher ultimately concluded that pre-interaction processes in online dating, seldom discusses by researchers, has contributed to the changing scheme of online dating. According to LeFebvre, “initiating and experimenting processes occur on Tinder once a match is established; however, the pre-interaction processes constitute strategic behaviors, such as choosing mobile dating, determining personal profile appearances, and branding an asynchronous impression, all of which have not been previously been accounted for in the relationship development model.” These pre-interaction processes directly affect the formation of interpersonal relationships in a way that cannot occur in in-person contact. Although this research survey only included two dozen more than the “Liquid Love” study, the participants included a more diverse group in terms of ethnicity and sexual orientation, perhaps providing a more inclusive and accurate representation of dating app tendencies. This survey, however, did experience some limitations by only including Tinder users.
One final academic study released in 2018, titled “Attached to dating apps: Attachment orientations and preferences for dating apps,” examined attachment and trust issues in the use of dating apps. Researchers Kristi Chin, Robin S. Edelstein and Philip A. Vernon explored how attachment orientation, a psychological theory which studies “similarities between a child’s bond with his or her caregiver and subsequent bonds with adult romantic partners,” affects interpersonal relationship development through online dating app usage. They researchers hypothesize that:
Given that anxiously attached individuals desire affiliation (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007), we expect more anxious people to use dating apps because the purpose of dating apps is to promote relationships (Couch & Liamputtong, 2008). Although these anxious individuals desire relationships, they also fear rejection (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). Dating apps avoid face-to-face rejection by allowing users to indicate interest in others online and only allow further contact if interest is mutual. Relatedly, people who are higher in rejection sensitivity (a trait that is associated with anxious attachment; Feldman & Downey, 1994) report that they use online dating sites (websites similar to dating apps) more frequently than those who are less concerned about rejection (Blackhart, Fitzpatrick, & Williamson, 2014).
This particular study differs from the previous two in that it is a psychological research study, whereas the other two examined communication issues. In this investigation, 183 participants, all of whom are currently single and from North American (United States and Canada inclusive), took an online survey regarding their dating app usage. The questionnaire results revealed that Tinder was the most frequently app used by the group, with OkCupid and trailing slightly behind. Their predicted hypotheses that a correlation exists between a person’s avoidant attachment and likeliness to use dating application proved to be true, as though with a higher avoidant attachment tended to be much less likely to download any dating apps. They also correctly predicted that those higher in anxious attachment were more likely to download dating applications than those with a higher avoidant attachment.
The conclusions the researchers drew from their results on whether a correlation between attachment orientation and usage of dating apps exists, which “may shed light on the role of relationship-relevant personality traits in modern methods of dating.” In laymen’s terms, their psychology study suggests that those with anxiety may employ dating apps as a tool when searching for a relationship due to its online natures, which eliminates the need for an intermediary in developing an interpersonal relationship. The lack of in-person connection validating a person’s motivation for joining a dating application only strengthens the idea that romance and courtship are evolving in order to adjust to the digital age.
It should be noted that the academic research studies considered present only “western” viewpoints for the sake of clarity and length. More research outside of North America and Australia should be conducted and studied in order to determine if the rise of dating apps is a global phenomenon. More research into the effects of dating apps on homosexual relationships should also be explored, as hookup culture is allegedly more common among gay men than in any other type of relationship. Though the studies examined here present an inclusive view featuring most sexual orientations, many studies surrounding dating and hookup applications conduct their research through a heteronormative lens.
The results provided by the aforementioned studies suggest that the development of geologically-based mobile applications such as Tinder and Grindr are essentially changing the landscape of dating, as well as actively contributing to the rise of “hookup culture.”