A generation of young people has grown up accustomed to use smartphone apps for pretty much everything, including dating. But maybe it’s just as fun, awkward, nerve-wracking and occasionally wonderful as it was before? And if it doesn’t work out, the options for the next date are almost limitless.
“I’m a little nervous,” says Whitney as she battles against the icy Manhattan wind. It’s Friday night and she’s on her way to a date with a guy she’s never met before. They matched on the dating app Tinder a few days ago and, after promising witty banter, agreed to take things offline.
To be honest, I’m a bit nervous for Whitney too. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with her over the past week and found myself warming to her openness and infectious enthusiasm for life. Just for a second, I feel what I think Whitney must be feeling: that excitement of meeting someone for the first time, all jumbled up with vulnerability and the nagging worry you’ve got something stuck in your teeth. I really want it to go OK.
Also, this is her second first date of the week, and the first one didn’t go well.
For starters, the guy she was meeting deleted his profile on the OKCupid app where she’d found him. So she was worried she wouldn’t actually recognise him once she got to the bar – she’s in contact with so many men on different dating apps it’s not always easy to remember who’s who.
Luckily, he recognised her, but it was downhill from there. She found him overbearing, his insistence on touching her hands at every opportunity a bit weird.
But, in the era of the dating app, it’s not just that there are plenty more fish in the sea; now you’re armed with an industrial-sized fishing net that fits in your handbag.
Whitney’s 24 and works in marketing. She’s one of those people who uses her smartphone for everything. “We use apps for food, we use Uber to get around, we have a laundry app. It’s like, why wouldn’t we have a dating app?”
As Whitney speaks to me, she’s absent-mindedly swiping through profiles of men on Tinder.
“Swipe left if you don’t like ’em, swipe right if you do.”
I get her to stop on one – a good-looking 29-year-old whose profile pictures look suspiciously professional, if you ask me. It says he’s based in Amsterdam, but currently is two miles away from Whitney.
“Now if I know they’re not New Yorkers, I’ll swipe no,” Whitney says. “That usually just turns out to be someone looking for a quick booty call.”
A booty call or hook-up is casual sex. Some apps – Tinder in particular – have a reputation for being only about casual hook-ups. But actually it seems you find people using them for anything and everything.
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These days, Whitney says she’s looking for something a bit more steady.
After leaving her to her date, I walk a few blocks away and find a bar to have some dinner. It’s full of friends and colleagues meeting after work with the kind of waitresses who are so efficient they don’t need to bother with being friendly.
It’s not an obvious date venue and I’m taken aback when of all the bars in all of New York, Whitney and a man I assume is her date walk into mine. I make eye contact with her as they go past and I try quickly to wipe the look of recognition of my face and stare at the floor. A minute later, Whitney texts from the other side of the bar to explain: the first place they went to was too full, and by pure coincidence they ended up here.
On my way to the toilet, I have a sneaky glance at Whitney and her date – it looks like it’s going well.
Dating apps are certainly a quick and easy way to meet new people. But they have their downsides too. With so many options out there, how can you settle on just one?
“You’re racking up all these people digitally,” one of Whitney’s friends tells me, “but I don’t get to know them and they don’t get to know me. I feel like technology has really made dating very impersonal. It’s depressing.”
Another friend agrees: “If you’re doing this right before bed and first thing in the morning, you can get in a very dark place.”
People, it seems, have a love/hate relationship with dating apps. They talk about them having an addictive, game-like quality; they worry about how they’re superficial and relationships can be fickle. But they keep coming back for more.
It feels like looking for love is becoming more and more like online shopping.
As for Whitney, she’s said goodbye to the man from Tinder and slipped back into the bar to give me the verdict. Had I blown my cover when I spotted her? Thankfully, as a man having a beer on a Friday night, I’d blended in perfectly. And – even better news – the date went so well that Whitney stopped pursuing the other options she had lined up for that weekend.
There’s since been a second and a third date and Whitney’s sounding optimistic. She’s promised that if they end up getting married, I’ll be a guest of honour at the wedding.
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