August 28, 2023 - 4:00pm

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.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)