Why Hinge Can’t Deliver a Meaningful Dating Experience

Changing an app is one thing. Changing the audience is another.

Four months ago, I got an email that promised me something I’d been hurting for — a meaningful relationship. Of all possible suspects, it was from a CEO.

He went straight for my heart, Justin McLeod did. The soul-searching founder of Hinge told me that his dating app had been too similar to a certain Tinderelephant in the room. True love and company sustainability were at stake. That’s why an army of researchers and mobile developers was redesigning Hinge, and why they’d waged a battle against The Swipe — that “addictive game that did more to keep our members single than to help them find relationships.”

I bought it. And that’s how I connected with Bruno, who asked me what I was looking for via the app’s instant messaging service.

“Someone I can go on more than 3 dates with!” I said.

“I’m only here for the weekend,” he replied.

I was not to be discouraged. I was still riding high from Mr. McLeod’s emotional email to me earlier. “I hope you find your temporary fish in the sea!” I typed back.

“So… you’re out?” he asked.

It was the first sign that designing a new app only gets you so far, when the people using the service haven’t changed.

But it wasn’t the worst sign. People like Bruno are the lip of the bell curve. Statistically, they represent the business end of a cultural phenomenon, but you’d never judge an app on their merits unless you were a sour patch kid. I don’t go for sour. I go for averages.

In just a few weeks of using the new Hinge, I’m beginning to suspect that its average is no different than any other smartphone app’s. What I see is the same confused crowd of faces who float from app to app when the need arises. Like me, they’ve dipped a toe in Hinge’s waters by ‘liking’ a part of someone’s profile, or ‘story.’

My story is a paltry string of photos and a few responses to the app’s prompts, which cap my answers at 50 or 150 characters with spaces. This is a phrase that has 50 characters with spaces: Aren’t you just learning so much about my hobbies?

I still believe in Mr. McLeod’s cause. But he’s up against a business need to deliver a relatively constant supply of new matches, and a design paradigm that can only suggest interaction, not force it. If his app favors commitment over convenience, I suspect we will move on. This is the generation that coined the term ‘ghosting’, after all.

Two Fridays ago, my Hinge date and I had made the leap from taglines and photos to the bar stool. Our messages had been so surface that I was convinced the date wouldn’t last an hour. After one hour happily turned into four, I confessed that I’d imagined our conversations happening while he was at the gym: pumping iron in one hand, hitting up babes with the other.

Because he was a great guy, he just laughed.

“I’ve been on so many dates where I’ve run out of things to talk about,” he said. “It’s painful. So I try not to ask too many questions ahead of time, just in case.”

Back in the app, our conversation ground to a halt. But the date was such a breath of fresh air that a week later, I swallowed my pride and asked if he wanted to hang out again.

I never heard from him. That one stung. But after years of dating through my smartphone, I think I know better now: when you come from the Internet, your currency is less. You’re like the seventh-season winner of American Idol. There’s going to be another one of you next season, right? Because you came out of nowhere, you don’t seem real yet.

In the online dating world, we are all seventh-season American Idol contestants. We are collectively aware of our diminished currency, and we treat each other accordingly — with little respect.

Show me an app for the faithful, and I will pay you more than your investors could dream of charging. Until that day, I’ll be one of many who wavers in the world of freemium dating. One toe in, one toe out.