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by Zoe Strimpel
Monday, 28
August 2023
Off grid
16:00

Is the hookup era coming to an end?

The rising cost of dating apps threatens to drive away users
by Zoe Strimpel
A Tinder date gone well. Credit: Getty

It’s been more than a century since the lonely-hearted gained the option to pay to have their profiles — or adverts — seen by others. Periodicals and correspondence clubs made a lively business of just this in the Edwardian period. Since those heady days, matchmakers have tried to innovate — by charging less, but usually by charging more, promising a “premium” experience, allegedly narrowing down the chaff and serving up more wheat. After all, the wheat is more likely to pay up.

This philosophy underpinned matchmaking businesses right through the online dating age. Guardian Soulmates, Match and eHarmony were all considered a cut above for their steep monthly charges. Plenty of Fish and OkCupid, both free sites, were considered more wild, dirty, and unpredictable. 

Then came the rise of mobile dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble. These apps turned the old “you get what you pay for” model on its head and became popular overnight. Suddenly there was a gleefully freewheeling landscape in which not having to pay meant that everyone signed on. And once everyone signed on, many of those who were formerly the paying kind felt they had no choice but to switch over to where all the action was. 

But now, the 2010s heyday of the hookup app — defined by being free — may be ebbing away. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that dating apps are increasingly charging more and more for what used to be free. Tiers, plans, subscriptions, and special services are the direction of travel, with dating app CEOs keen to copy the business model of other insta-services like food delivery and streaming services. Match, the old-school dating site and owner of a number of apps, recently hiked up its top-rate Hinge plan with a monthly fee of $50, up from $35. It is also considering a $500 a month plan for Tinder, even though it’s hard to imagine what value that could possibly bring, since the pool of people willing to pay that amount will likely be desperate or arrogant or both. Meanwhile, Bumble may add a tier that exceeds its existing $60 fee. 

This won’t work. Those free dating apps were the most effective intimacy mediator ever known because, as my own research into the history of mediated matchmaking has shown, the gains are to be had not in winnowing down a clientele to a “premium” and “serious” one, but in widening it out as much as humanly possible, encouraging users to throw mud at the wall and see what sticks. Very often in a premium service, there isn’t enough to go around, and nothing sticks. On Tinder, a lot stuck.

It’s sad, really. Knowing what the app experience is like, most people won’t pay for it — or if they do, disillusionment will set in, as love fails to materialise and their pockets empty.

But this shift may be marking a broader turn in society, as apps — like the smartphone world in general — begins to get an analogue itch. Charging for dating is old-school. And apps like Thursday are now turning back the clock by offering in-person socials and speed dating. The blended approach can be fun, but it’s easier to pay for an in-the-flesh drinks party than for the alienating, often despairing process of swiping. 

Some evidence suggests young people will pay for neither, and are turning away from in-person intimacy and, in many cases, sex altogether. But there are also quite a few young people who still want to have sex, to experience romance in some form and pursue relationships. And as younger generations become fatigued by the relentless nature of online dating, going offline to meet a date may just be the antidote.

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Daniel P
Daniel P
3 months ago

Dunno, but it seems to me that I am seeing a lot of hints at something swinging back to an earlier time.

You got women online bemoaning having to work and wondering where the man is that will pay for them to stay home is.

You got a lot of nostalgia among GenZ for the early, unplugged life of GenX, the 70’s and early 80s.

None of this stuff has made people happier, it has in fact made them less happy. So perhaps they are prepared to strip a lot of it away and look to something less digital and a little more traditional.

Will this look like the 1950’s? No. Probably not even close, but I do think there is a movement toward adopting more of that lifestyle.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
3 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

Good luck with that, old timer!

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 months ago

What are your hook-up tips, CS?

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I am channeling CS “You applied your lipstick incorrectly in your profile pic – and you have sad taste in clothes. You and and everyone on this site (but me) are so stupid it just makes me want to laugh – except you wouldn’t get the joke. Would you like to meet up for a coffee?”

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
3 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

There are attempts to recover the past, but the ones I’ve seen are comedic, because the people trying to do it, never lived in that past, can’t remotely conceptualise the standpoint of the people they emulate, and so they come across merely as hysterical cancellors and recyclers of inane one-liners.
‘Female Dating Strategy’ is one such. They remind me of the Anabaptists of John of Leyden or some other lunatic death cult.

Last edited 3 months ago by Dumetrius
Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
2 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

There are whole Tik Tok groups of current teenagers trying to be 80’s teenagers. It is pretty amusing. Even then we knew our fashion choices were disastrous.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
2 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

I am Gen X and also I yearn for the unplugged life of the 70’s and 80’s.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
3 months ago

The author finally hits the nail on the head in this last paragraph. Young people are turning away from in-person intimacy because for many it fails a basic cost-benefit analysis given modern conditions. The problem is that the costs of relationships have gone up, at least in the minds of people, while the benefits have gone down. Traditional relationships and traditional marriage always relied on the fact that women needed men to be a breadwinner and take care of existing and future children and men needed a wife to rear the children and clean the house while he busted his ass to pay for it all and never married men over a certain age ran the risk of being labelled a deviant of some sort. That dynamic is gone and unlikely to return, so we’re left with nebulous intangible benefits, hopes and dreams for an ideal partner. Modern folk have higher standards because we don’t ‘need’ a relationship the way our grandparents did. We don’t have to compromise because there’s very little stigma attached to being single anymore. That means a lot more dates are unsuitable for one reason or another, raising the cost in our equation. We have to spend more time, effort, and frustration into finding a suitable partner. Further, we’ve all read and heard horror stories about vengeful exes, abusive relationships, and dysfunctional relationship dynamics. Women fear sexual predators, and men fear being labelled as such for being too forward. It’s made people cautious about entering relationships, and doing something cautiously is just one step removed from avoiding it entirely. There’s nothing nefarious going on here. When the incentives change on average, behavior also tends to change on average to reflect the changed incentives. I think it’s likely the decline in relationships, marriage, and even sexual activity will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. There’s probably a point where it will bottom out but I don’t think we’re nearly there yet. I don’t know whether its a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing, but I’m pretty sure nobody can do anything about it individually or collectively.

Last edited 3 months ago by Steve Jolly
David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Don’t disagree, but you fail to mention sex as part of the marriage equation. Obviously access to regular sex played a key role for many men.

Also young people seem to be having less sex, not just less relationships. That’s odd in itself, and also makes you wonder how even the pattern is. Are some having lots, while others (eg “incels”) almost none.

Also, who is walking away from relationships, men, women or both? We know it is women who initiate divorce more.

It seems likely that for some women marriage, followed by divorce, might still be a pretty good option, leaving the woman better off than she would otherwise have been. In the best case, she has had the children, and the lifestyle she wanted, walked off with a large share of the resources, and may then find another man to provide for her on top of what she’s already got.

A man is more likely to find his resources depleted, his attractiveness in the relationship market thus reduced, and is unlikely to find a woman willing to provide for him and make up what he has lost.

Is that driving men to avoid marriage as many claim, and see relationships as time limited.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

You should Google Japan’s ‘herbivore men’. In Japan, these trends are actually a decade old and have been studied quite a bit. It’s primarily a male driven phenomenon, with low achieving men unable to find partners because women do not ‘date down’ in Japanese culture. That’s not exclusive to Japanese culture, of course, but Japan’s highly insular, low immigration policies make internal social trends the primary driver of demographics. America and the west have the same demographic problems, but immigration has thoroughly muddied the waters (and introduced other problems, especially in Europe). Men are able to survive on a low income, low achievement lifestyle, but not to support families, and women’s unwillingness to be a primary breadwinner and accept a low achievement man as the basis for a family is driving down birthrates. This jives with the notion that most women initiate divorces, because it is women who are dissatisfied with relationships and with relationship prospects in general. Biologically speaking, there are good reasons for women to be more selective in terms of mates. This is considered the most significant driver of the problem in Japan. All that, however, doesn’t explain the decline in sex outside relationships. That’s more complicated and not as well studied. I think part of it is that sex and relationships are adjacent activities and a decline in one will usually correlate with a decline in the other regardless of cause. There’s also the reality that alternatives exist that did not used to. There are now alternatives in the form of more sophisticated porn that didn’t used to exist. Men are more visual than women and so this sophisticated visual medium was bound to reduce the need for actual sexual encounters on average. Whether that’s good or bad for society is debatable, as since we’ve already established that relationships are declining, it’s an open question whether increased sex outside relationships is a social good. I think there’s also the fact that on average more and more of our interactions are in the virtual realm of computers, smart phones, online video games, etc. Real dating and real sex are face to face activities, and as we increasingly move all social activity into the virtual realm, there’s bound to be considerable crossover. It’s not just sex and dating are declining, it’s that face-to-face interaction is declining across the board. There are also more exotic theories, such as bio-accumulated pollutants, drug ingredients, food additives, or whatever else causing a global decline in testosterone and/or sperm counts, side-effects of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other common modern maladies, fringe gaia-theory based logic suggesting that the earth is self correcting the population of humans through mechanisms we don’t yet understand. My personal favorite fringe theory and the one i find most compelling is that the problems are related to perceived and actual population density distorting social behavior. For this, read about John Calhoun’s mouse utopia experiments.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-mouse-utopias-1960s-led-grim-predictions-humans-180954423/
The parallels between some of what we observe in major cities to these mouse dystopias are downright eerie.

Last edited 2 months ago by Steve Jolly
Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
2 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I think one of they key things is that women still expect men to do the approaching. I have teenaged kids and what I am hearing is that boys simply aren’t asking girls out very often anymore. Every man knows that approaching women romantically is really hard (I literally blush with shame remembering my awkward attempts). Now in addition to the risk of being literally laughed at (which actually happened to me) – the young lady may text all her friends about your awkward approach – so everyone can enjoy your failure. Remember that young women have been taught in school to believe men are basically evil oppressors – no one is telling them or expecting them to be kind or polite in these types of interactions anymore. It can get worse – the young women may also decide to label the man as a perv or stalker or creep. Remember that women must be believed so no one will defend you – and social media is forever – so this will folllow you around. If you are at a university she can report you to the administration – and even if it is a transparently baseless complaint they will pretend it isn’t because they are very afraid of angry women on social media. At the very least you will spend several months in a process trying to make the case that you did not commit ‘sexual assault’ (a term that covers a broad array of sins). Not much fun. If you get railroaded by the university (and that is not uncommon) you are now formally labeled as a sex offender and you will be punished. It literally goes on your record and may end up on your permanent public transcript.

So given all these new risks – when you hear that a significant number of young men decide to take a pass on all of this and decide to watch porn instead – is it really all that surprising?

David Morley
David Morley
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

When the incentives change on average, behavior also tends to change on average to reflect the changed incentives.

I think habit and tradition put a brake on this for a while, but eventually I think you are right.

For some time it has been astonishing to watch well off men, sometimes with kids already, keep repeating the cycle of marriage, divorce, huge financial loss. Why? And why should younger men repeat the same cycle?

The danger of course is that what is good for society collectively ceases to line up with the incentives for individuals – the results of which will be destructive.

Ben Shipley
Ben Shipley
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Any chance you’re overthinking things?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 months ago

It’s hard to see the App approach declining, as it appears to be one of the few ways a person can approach another without being accused of a “heinous sex crime”.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
3 months ago

Apps like Grindr now charge to even look at any profile that viewed you. The result ought to be people flocking to gay bars, but it hasn’t happened because the bars are now social venues, and not cruisy.

Attempts to use them to find sex do occur, but are often either comical or disastrous.

People no longer know how to make small talk. (Your ADHD diagnosis is not small talk.)

Last edited 3 months ago by Dumetrius
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
3 months ago

A lot sticks on Grindr too, but luckily bio detergent can usually get it off.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Crisco on the phone screen.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
3 months ago

Now my comment about censoring has been censored.

Nick Dougan
Nick Dougan
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I can read it Mike.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
3 months ago

Relationships are now a luxury choice for the young. The winning move seems to be top stay single, be mobile, and don’t get locked down into marriage/children/divorce. It is also probably the easiest time in history to be single.

William Shaw
William Shaw
3 months ago

Given that 80% of men are rejected 98% of the time these apps are going help women find that top 20% of men that they all want with a lot less swiping because the majority of average men will find the increased cost a waste of money with no prospect of a return.
The drawback for women is that very few of that top 20% of men are interested in anything more than hooking up for a night or two.

Last edited 3 months ago by William Shaw
Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
3 months ago

Since when do you need an app to hook up?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
3 months ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

“But there are also quite a few young people who still want to have sex…”
Since when is this newsworthy?

William Shaw
William Shaw
3 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

It would be more accurate to say that a large proportion of young people have either given up trying to have sex, or that they want sex but their experience with dating apps has convinced them that it’s a lost cause.

Last edited 3 months ago by William Shaw
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
3 months ago

Why do my comnents keep on getting censored ? This is worse than YouTube.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

It is seemingly random. It is usually my most benign comments that get spiked.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
3 months ago

As AI disrupts dating (if not replace it as people have intimate relationships with bots/robots), expect more in-person engagement. The business model will require it.