Now Playing

Sexual Lab Rats

To the creators of the newest wave of dating and hookup apps, San Francisco's singles aren't just willing customers—they're walking science experiments.

There are still some twentysomethings who harbor romantic ideals about serendipity and fate and spontaneity—qualities that you just can’t bake into an app, no matter how well it’s engineered. Edwin (not his real name), a 24-year-old who works in advertising technology, says that he eschewed online dating for years because of his old-fashioned gentility. “I didn’t want to tell that story, you know? Like someone asks, ‘How did you two meet?’ and you have to say ‘the Internet.’” He pauses a beat, as though the thought makes him dyspeptic. “It’s a cringe moment. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we met at a bus stop and we looked into each other’s eyes.’"

But while app makers can’t conjure fate or serendipity to satisfy the Edwins of the world, they continue to target the young demographic, sometimes with apps that may have nothing to do with dating. OkCupid Labs’ list of products includes several that aren’t focused on romantic relations, but are still aimed at twentysomethings with finicky tastes and transient lifestyles. An app called Crashpad assists users in finding new roommates. Another, Tallygram, helps people find new friends. Some, like Combosaurus and Opal, seem to have no clear purpose at all. Still, they all coalesce around the idea of forming fast, fleeting connections.

Stanford’s Rosenfeld believes that most of these apps will have a limited shelf life for their users because they aren’t really geared toward lasting relationships. Users are just temporarily infatuated— more so with the new technology than with its matchmaking potential. Chuck says that he’s beginning to understand that concept. He still uses Tinder but feels like it’s a waste of time. However, he has had better luck with Coffee Meets Bagel, which recently launched in app form. Only a couple of months into it, he’s gone out with 10 to 12 women and has a few more dates already lined up. “I kind of want to stay single for now so I can keep taking advantage of these technological advances,” he says. “Maybe by the time I’m 35, they’ll have an app for finding the love of your life.”

McGrath isn’t sure whether the technology is changing the psychology or vice versa. But he does know that an app won’t be successful unless it appeals to its users’ mentality. Tinder, Swoon, Blendr, and Grouper all view dating as a numbers game: They encourage users to meet more people overall and to place less value on each one individually. They’ve tapped into the hyper-accelerated, reward-oriented culture in which most twentysomethings immerse themselves, particularly in tech-savvy San Francisco. Whether or not these apps encourage healthy behavior doesn’t seem to top their makers’ list of concerns.

Helen, who has spent the last few months suffering from “dating fatigue,” insists that she’s no longer actively using dating sites to meet someone. But when a new Tinder message lights up her iPhone, she clicks a button and inspects the photo, bunching her mouth studiously. She must have “liked” the guy at some point, but now she’s realizing that he’s not her type—at 34, he’s a little too old. She lingers over his picture anyway, evidently most interested in the golden retriever sitting beside him. Then she clicks to the next user.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at 
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Rachel Swan on Twitter @rachelswan