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Singles today have no shortage of options when it comes to ways to find a date. Swipe on Tinder or make the first move on Bumble. Set up a video call on Hinge or explore different relationship styles on Feeld and Open. Yet all this choice doesn’t seem to be resulting in more matches, even while time spent pursuing them rises: a 2018 survey showed some Americans spending the equivalent of 10 days per year on dating apps. 

“All algorithm-driven dating services rely on the premise that with good enough data, they can match anyone to his or her soul-mate,” Moira Weigel, assistant professor of communications studies writes in “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.” In collecting a history of dating, the 2016 book tracks how we’ve been relying on a similar idea — using a computer to help us find partners — since the 1970s.  

Comparing modern dating to the ritual courtship demonstrated by authors like Jane Austen, Weigel notes that while the shirking of strict traditions allows for more freedom, it also causes more ambiguity. That’s where specific niches come in — whether explicitly marketed by the apps or implicitly understood by their users. Tinder: hookups. Scruff: geo-located hookups. Hinge: relationships. Feeld: threesomes. And so on.

And yet, Weigel says, her research shows that most people are on most of the apps. “Many, many times, it was the same empirical people on all these different apps, but pursuing different versions of desire or enacting different social versions of themselves,” she says. “Increasingly flexible or fluid notions of gender or sexual identity might be met by this landscape of very different apps… [The] same people [are] exploring different parts of themselves.”  

Weigel remains skeptical, though, that virtual dating could ever fully supplant dating in person, noting that it’s difficult to pick up on intangible signals if you’re not in someone’s physical presence. For example: “A lot of how we learn about our attraction to people does seem to come from smells, in a way that still seems hard to produce in a virtual space,” she says.  

But she also insists she’s not a technological determinist, and she doesn’t know what the future holds for dating tech — especially now that immersive media is on the rise. You can play a video game or watch stories unfold in 360 degrees while moving through virtual space through AR and VR, who’s to say your next drinks date won’t be in the metaverse. If that’s not appealing, no problem. As Weigel writes in “Labor of Love,”: “To be adult today is to become responsible for determining the rules under which you will date.”