Dating: Love the One You're Near

A new wave of GPS-enabled mobile apps is changing the way we flirt and date. But what do they mean for intimacy?

By Jennifer Bleyer, published July 1, 2014 - last reviewed on July 25, 2018

In the beginning there was online dating, with carefully curated profiles detailing everything from education level to favorite movies and providing earnest answers to questions like "What's the first thing people notice about you?"

Then came the smartphone and, with it, mobile dating apps that can make online dating seem downright quaint. Forget personality; proximity and pouty lips are the new landmarks in the quest for love. Consider the popular "geosocial" app Tinder: You're shown a succession of user photographs, along with people's first name, age, and distance from you at the moment. There may be, at most, a line or two of personal description ("Always down to binge on Netflix," "I say YES to life!"). You swipe left to reject and move on to the next photo, or swipe right to express a liking, at which point you message the other or "keep playing," in the app's gamelike jargon. And thanks to the GPS connection, you know instantly if that guy with the come-hither eyes or the girl with the plunging neckline is just a block away.

Proximity is a helpful parameter for those interested mainly in casual sex, the original purpose of mobile dating. It all began with Grindr, a geosocial app for gay men. Launched in 2007 and still largely used for hookups (or as some winkingly call them, "short-short-short-term relationships"), Grindr claims six million gay users worldwide and has become so entrenched in the cultural firmament that it's been namechecked on Saturday Night Live and Glee.

Location-based liaisons have surged well beyond their hookup origins, however. A 2011 report by Flurry, a mobile app analytics firm, found that the number of dating app users grew 150 percent between 2010 and 2011—including mobile add-ons to established online dating sites such as Match.com and OKCupid. In fact, 2011 was the first year that people spent more time on dating apps than on dating websites. The ascendance of mobile dating is expected to continue as host devices flourish: The Pew Research Internet Project reports that 58 percent of Americans now own smartphones, up from only 11 percent in 2008; the number is projected to hit 80 percent by 2018.

As the landscape of love-seeking shifts, many experts question whether long-term partners can be found by flicking through a river of pictures on a smartphone. With little to go on except appearance and location, mobile dating may be changing what people are looking for—a perfect 10 and nothing less—as well as what they're missing.

"You get into this mode of screening that sculpts a kind of superficiality and coldness," says Ken Page, a New York-based therapist and author of the forthcoming Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Games of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy. "It's the opposite of giving somebody a chance. When you swipe really quickly—no, no, no—you're going to screen out most of the people in the midlevel of your attraction spectrum, which is a very fruitful place to look."

Even when people do agree to link up in person, the casual medium of the mobile app often becomes the message. Meeting through a vast and dehumanizing virtual marketplace, Page says, encourages people to see each other more as products and less as people, and to not afford each other common courtesy, let alone the focused attention it takes to forge a real, intimate connection.

"There's a culture of unkindness because meeting has become so easy and cheap," Page observes. Clients tell him that some people keep their geosocial apps open and pinging on their smartphones while on dates, peering at their screens to see who else might be interested and available. "Having only a picture and a few words to go on leads people to be cool and casual, not warm. It's created a lot more micro-jerkiness in early-stage dating than there has ever been before."

Many mobile dating apps build in text messaging, a feature that can set up unrealistic expectations about communication IRL (in real life, that is). Jesse Fox, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University who studies the role of social media in romantic relationships, notes that people are often let down when they meet, because the wit and personality projected through texting isn't mirrored in person.

"It's easy to sound as if you're awesome through text messages," she says. Texting allows just enough time for crafting the perfect witty retort or quickly Googling something about a band you've never heard of just to appear in the know. "Because we're so used to cultivating such false images of ourselves through texting, meeting is awkward. It's not perfect, it's not flawless, it's not like a rom-com. There are going to be uncomfortable silences. That's the nature of human communication."

Which isn't to say that mobile dating apps are useless. They can infuse the spontaneity of real-world dating into online dating. Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University who studies online dating and romantic relationships, contends that prolonged periods of computer-mediated conversation can actually be a detriment to new relationships since there's always such a wide gulf between how we present ourselves online and who we are in person. Geosocial apps, Finkel says, tend to minimize online banter and lead quickly to an offline meeting, which is the only way to see if there's real promise.

"Rather than slowly crafting a series of email exchanges over the course of days or weeks, you can get a cup of coffee or a beer with the person in 10 minutes," he says. "In many cases, that's way better."

Even Ken Page welcomes geosocial apps as a kind of virtual "wink across the room," the first step to seeing if there's a spark. Instead of discouraging singles from using mobile dating apps because they spur depersonalization, he encourages people to use the programs in kinder, wiser ways. Turning on a geosocial app at a music festival or a professional conference, for instance, as opposed to on a street corner, adds a layer of filtering beyond the blunt factor of geographical proximity, indicating a common interest and an actual basis to meet.

"There's no reason not to have a sense of fun with this stuff," Page says. "But the huge, huge thing is to come out as quickly as you can from the screen of anonymity and meet the person. That's really everything."

Locating Lovers

Here's a rundown of some of the most popular smartphone dating apps that aim to help users locate mates for life...or just for a night.

Tinder

A popular app that makes appraising people seem like a game, Tinder presents a succession of potential dates based on gender and age preferences as well as GPS coordinates. Industry analysts estimated it to have 4.2 million active daily users in April, although the verdict is still out on whether it's for serious dating or just entertainment.

Grindr

The original blockbuster hookup app, Grindr uses GPS to help men liaison with other men whose proximity is bluntly expressed in feet (a beefcake named Tom, for instance, might be identified as 32 years old and 25 feet away). It's also used as digital gaydar for gay and bisexual men, an asset for those in more remote areas.

Blender

An app introduced by the creators of Grindr to let women in on the game, Blender operates in much the same way as its progenitor but prompts a critical question: How likely are women to be looking for casual, immediate sex nearby? The answer seems to be: not very.

OkCupid

Locals The online dating favorite jumped on the geosocial bandwagon by adding GPS capability to its existing smartphone app. Some users seem to like it, but many see it as negating the point of OKCupid, which is to have matches suggested based on deep personal questions, not location.

Hinge

Unlike other apps, Hinge doesn't use GPS at all. Instead, it pulls from users' Facebook profiles to connect them to single friends of their own friends, considering points of common interest and revealing their social connections. It's like being set up on an old-fashioned blind date, but with an algorithm as matchmaker.