If you’ve ever used a dating app, you’ve probably been there: You’re in the zone, your swipes so fast and rhythmic as to be pure muscle memory, when the app itself challenges your swiping. On Tinder, the notification might say that you have “no new matches” or that “there’s no one around you.” Bumble is more direct and tells you “you’ve hit the end of the line — for today!” Hinge says only “no matches currently.” Whatever the case, the message is the same: Your pickiness has been your downfall, and you’re being punished by plummeting to the bottom of your dating pool.
I remember the first time this happened to me, back when I still used Tinder. The effect was like being hosed in the face with cold water. I shook myself dry and came to, blinking back into consciousness of my surroundings. How long had I been swiping? How many people had I swiped past? Was it possible to get a do-over on some of those swipes, in case one of them was cuter than I realized from their first photo? But I was Tindering from Brooklyn, a place with a base of Tinder users that must be many times the population of some small towns. To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, I needed some other perspectives.
One such perspective came from Maggie, a 25-year-old writer and medical center employee living in Jackson, Mississippi. Maggie says that before deleting her dating apps in a rage, she routinely hit “the end” on Tinder, and ended up with mostly recycled options on Hinge. “The Jackson metropolitan area is made up of approximately 597,727 people, which isn’t exactly a metropolis,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of young people here. It’s mostly families or older people. Most of the young people who do live in this area are here for law school or medical school (which I already find boring, but I’m willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt), and many are already in long-term relationships or married.”
So Maggie was plagued by two separate problems: 1) her area’s relatively small pool of people who are available at all; and 2) the even smaller pool within that pool of people who she thinks would be acceptable to date. “I’m particularly picky, and it can be difficult to find people here who don’t identify as the age-old ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative, so I vote Republican’ type,” she says. “In terms of searching for women, I’m definitely not looking hard enough for the queer community, because Mississippi does have a thriving queer community if you know where to look. But I also know a dating app probably isn’t the best place to try to do that.”
In that latter regard, Maggie has a similar problem to Justin, a 34-year-old pseudonymous dental hygienist who belongs to a native tribe in North Dakota. “There aren’t a lot of gay men, period, in this area,” he says. “I have the radius set to the maximum number of miles on every app I use because it’s the only way I find matches at all. I also prefer not to show my face on the apps. I’m not all the way out to my family or some friends. So there are guys who are interested at first and then disappear when they realize I’m not just a tan white guy. My dating pool ends up being tiny. I have about 10 swipes per day before I run out of matches, and most of those matches go nowhere.”
Ten swipes per day! I suddenly felt very churlish for all the times I swiped left on a guy just because his default photo was of him with one other guy and I couldn’t figure out right away whether he was the cute one. But Justin laughs at this: “The worst part is that I’m very picky. One time I was supposed to meet a man, and I canceled an hour beforehand. He sent me a picture of himself getting ready, and I decided he wasn’t actually that cute. I hadn’t had a date for months!”
With both Justin and Maggie, I notice some themes, even though they clearly run out of matches for different reasons. For one, they both describe themselves, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as “picky.” I did the same thing a few paragraphs ago when talking about myself. To have an app — this device designed to smooth the inconvenience out of dating, this sex catering service — tell you that you should have selected one of its perfectly good matches when you had the chance is to absorb this message. All three of us said it jokingly, but it bears some thinking about. Are we being “picky,” or are we rightly limiting romantic access to the people that we think might deserve it?
It also seems that dating apps aren’t designed to meet the needs of square pegs in round holes. If you live in Jackson, Mississippi and want to marry a law student, or if you live in North Dakota and are happily heterosexual, you’ll probably have better luck with the dating apps than Maggie and Justin. At the very least, you can probably scrounge up a date more often than once every several months like Justin does. This isn’t just a matter of small towns entailing small dating pools — it’s about the culture of the place you live in, and how well you fit into it.
And, in case your response to these stories is something in the “just move to the nearest big city!” family, note that both Justin and Maggie live in these places because they always have. It’s where their families, friends and all other connections are. In some ways, this is a blessing — when I ask Justin whether he ever plans to move away in the hopes of meeting more people, he answers no, unequivocally. “My whole life is here,” he says simply. “I have a good job in my community. I get to see my mother and brothers all the time. When my buddy’s roof blew off, I could be there in 30 minutes. A boyfriend isn’t that important to me.”
However, the smallness of a smaller dating pool can be suffocating, too. “If I don’t already know the person I’m seeing pop on my dating apps, I can probably find a connection between us if you give me a few minutes,” she says. “That’s not always ideal.”
You don’t have to tell me that twice. I’d rather die before going on a date with someone who was more likely than not to report the details to someone who would then report them to my mother. And in the case of someone like Justin, who prefers to keep the specifics of who he dates from his family, the stakes of such a situation are that much higher. In a place like North Dakota, is Tinder’s maximum distance range of 100 miles away even far enough?
Justin admits that he’s thought about that. “I get a little scared that some guy will recognize me and tattle to someone in my family,” he says. “I don’t think my family would cut me off or anything, but I still don’t feel ready to have that conversation; I want to have it on my own terms. But then I think, ‘Well, how would he explain to my mom why he was looking for gay men on a dating app?’”
It seems that hitting “the end” of an app isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even the end of dating — Maggie has deleted her dating apps entirely, and Justin says he’s about to go on his first date with someone that he first met in person in years. These apps have tricked us into thinking they’re indispensable to our romantic lives, but we thrived without them for thousands of years and will do so for thousands of years after my last jilted Tinder match is in his grave.
“I feel like if you worry about it when an app tells you you’re out of matches, you’re, like, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’” Justin says. “I don’t think about dating like that. Everyone should be a chooser.”