The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tinder has more matchmaking power than your BFF. But dating apps aren’t necessarily your friends.

More Americans are waiting to get married and that timeline is good business for the online dating industry

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post; Prop styling by Clare Ramirez/The Washington Post)

Kristen Welch didn’t think Tinder was for queer people. “I was very skeptical,” she said in a phone interview. “I felt like it would be a meat market.”

The popular dating app is known more for hookups and helping people stay single than for finding long-term relationships. But the 33-year-old was new to the Washington area and didn’t want to ask her co-workers to set her up. A friend had met her girlfriend on the popular dating app, so Welch decided to give it a try. She kept her bio simple: “Don’t message me if you don’t sleep with the fan on.”

After just a handful of dates, Welch met someone who also appreciates good air circulation (and shares her passion for travel and love of doodle pups). Six months into dating, she and her girlfriend, Katelyn, moved in together in Silver Spring. Though Welch was surprised to meet such a good match on Tinder — it’s the first relationship she’s found online — her luck reflects a larger shift in how people meet and pair up. Dating apps and sites are the most common ways in which singles meet their partners.

This may sound obvious, but it’s actually a recent movement. As recently as 2009, researchers showed that most matches occurred through friends, family or happy accident. But by 2017, a new update to widely cited surveys from Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Stanford University, found that online meeting was nearing the 50 percent mark.

Before the recent rise in online dating, the most common way to meet someone was through friends, family and colleagues, Rosenfeld’s work shows. The latest survey, of 3,510 people in 2017, was conducted and analyzed in collaboration with Stanford PhD candidate Sonia Hausen and University of New Mexico sociologist Reuben Thomas.

In addition to questions about demographics and sexual orientation, the sociologists asked people to describe how they met their partner. Later, they sorted stories into such categories as “business trip” or “internet games.” If a story touched on multiple categories, the person was counted once for each category. Even though it’s becoming more common to meet someone in a bar or restaurant, the survey found, that increase includes people who arranged to meet in those places after first connecting on an app or website.

Now that singles are relying on the Internet to find dates, their friends are less likely to meddle in their love lives — even when prodded. Two months ago, Erin Williams, a 32-year-old Washingtonian, was fed up with dating apps and emailed nearly 30 of her friends, asking if anyone knew a single man she might like. “No one wrote back with an actual setup,” Williams said.

Apps have obvious advantages over your friends and relatives, Rosenfeld and his colleagues write. They hold millions of potential matches and they won’t judge when you reveal your dating preferences. They also tend to come with a huge disadvantage: “Whereas family and friends are the most trusted social relations, Internet dating and hookup apps such as Tinder, and eHarmony are owned by faceless corporations,” the sociologists write.

While your grandparents or colleagues are likely to have your best interests at heart, it’s in these companies’ interests to keep you swiping longer, a fact some apps even broadcast. Tinder’s latest ad campaign touts singleness, not settling down. Dating apps and sites are also beholden primarily to investors. Consider Match Group, a public company valued at around $20 billion. It owns Tinder, as well as OkCupid and Share prices have sextupled since its initial public offering in late 2015, hitting a high of $74 in May.

Match Group depends on a large and growing base of users, especially those willing to pay for premium products such as Tinder Plus and Tinder Gold. In that model, users who settle into long-term relationships would be a drag on key business metrics.

However, “there is no evidence that the phone dating apps or any other modern technology have undermined or will undermine relationship stability in the U.S.,” Rosenfeld wrote in the 2018 book “Families and Technology.”

Still, relationships have changed. Americans are meeting later, and dating longer, before marrying. From 1940 to 1979, couples tended to meet and start a relationship around age 19 and get married and move in together around age 21. Compare that to a typical couple that got married between 2010 and 2017. They would have met at 23, started a relationship at 25, moved in together at 27 and married at 29 or 30.

Those trends began long before dating moved online. Consider two key milestones: moving in together and getting married. For the post-World War II generation, these were hardly separate events. It was unusual for a couple to live together before making an official, legal commitment. But in the 1980s, a half-year gap opened between cohabitation and marriage. For couples married since 2010, the gap was 2½ years.

Much of Rosenfeld’s recent work focuses on heterosexual app users. In part, that’s because the smaller lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer population makes detailed data analysis challenging. But it’s also because gay users had begun dating on apps long before their straight peers and, perhaps as an effect of their longer experience, their habits don’t seem to have changed in recent years.

Gay men are the only group whose romantic lives have been substantially transformed by the rise of apps, Rosenfeld wrote in a chapter of “Families and Technology.” Apps such as Grindr have become what he describes as “a core part of their dating and hookup scenes.”

Some of those early adopters were also quick to become disillusioned. For a 2014 study in the journal New Media & Society, academics spoke with men who had quit Grindr. In the study, a man identified as Adam argued that apps made it challenging to create fulfilling relationships because it promoted “a gay culture in which we look and always keep looking, because the next best thing is right around the corner.”

That sentiment is common among straight daters as well. Janel Forsythe, a 26-year-old in Washington, stopped using dating apps about two years ago because she found they led to a lot of first dates and not much more. “One thing I think would be great would be if they asked for values, what are the things you care about? If you really want a connection with someone, you’re going to have to go deeper,” Forsythe said.

It’s also possible to meet online without using a dating app. Liza Wilensky quit online dating . . . and then met her boyfriend of two years, Cody, through Instagram. They were both tuning in to a live-stream video of an artisan making custom leather belts for powerlifting, a hobby Wilensky and Cody share. Soon a small group of people watching these live streams started chatting through the app. When someone made a creepy comment about Wilensky, Cody jumped to her defense and the two started direct messaging. When Wilensky, who lives in Connecticut, mentioned she was heading to a lifting expo in Columbus, Ohio, she jokingly suggested to Cody, who lives in Brooklyn, that he come along. That became their first date: A 10-hour car ride to Columbus, where they spent the whole weekend together.

Inviting a stranger along for a road trip could have been intolerable. “When I first picked him up, there was that first awkward intro,” Wilensky recalls, with both of them wondering if the trek was going to be weird.

But Wilensky credits online dating with training her to meet up with someone new. “It was really comfortable right away, which was surprising to both of us,” she says.

Wilensky and Cody are still friends with a lot of the people they met through that Instagram live stream, who delight in planning the couple’s wedding even though they’re not engaged.

“They like to joke that, instead of wedding rings, we would do belts.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.