Despite Boomerish grumblings about how everyone’s always on their damn phone these days, dating apps aren’t going anywhere — that much is certain. Pre-pandemic, the apps allowed scores of phone-fluent young people to meet each other outside of parties and pick-up bars, my generation’s traditional mating grounds. Those young people had social anxiety before a pandemic made it potentially lethal to meet strangers, at which point it was all over.
According to a report published by Tinder, that app saw 20 percent more messages in February 2021 than in the previous February. Competitors Bumble and Hinge also experienced increased activity in the same time period. Meanwhile, the old school apps’ customer bases have aged. Sluts like me who were once their prime movers have settled down, and younger generations may be less whorishly inclined than we were.
What will be the next big innovation to keep The Kids invested in dating apps? There are now a whole slew of Gen Z dating apps that seem to think they have that figured out. So I decided to try the apps marketed to zoomers to find out for myself.
I’ve been in a relationship for two years now, and I haven’t used one of “the apps” to find dates since 2016. Still, I had a hazy sense that they’ve changed significantly since my last swipe-based fuckings. When Tinder came out, it was decried by users of more genteel services like Match and Plenty of Fish for the ruthlessness of the swipe-based model it used. It remains popular if only because of its high name recognition, but swiping has gotten old. App sex needed something new to keep younger generations invested, or so a bunch of tech bros must have decided, because the age of “video dating” — or vetting potential mates by scrolling up through TikTok-style videos rather than swiping on photos — has officially arrived.
The first app I tried was called Snack, which openly advertises itself as “TikTok meets dating.” Snack even encourages new users to connect their TikTok accounts to the app, which I did. I thought that doing so would get me out of the app’s requirement to upload at least one photo and one video before scrolling through users, which turned out not to be the case. So instead, I uploaded a photo of myself with my boyfriend and a video of my dog:
From there, the app’s interface closely resembles TikTok’s, right down to the Snack logo that appears on users’ videos. Several users’ videos included both a TikTok logo and a Snack logo. I was startled, too, to see that you can share Snack videos with people who don’t even have the Snack app — videos seem to be public by default. I mean, you could always screenshot some bozo’s Tinder profile to mock with your friends, but this seems like a violation of dating app omertà.
That said, Snack’s user base must be hip to the potential for mockery from outsiders. Every video I saw on there was totally, perfectly anodyne. Yes, there were the usual gym lunks lifting weights and flexing their back muscles for the camera — this time in vivid motion, the way Tinder’s lame stills never were. And there were pouty women squeezing their tits together and men lifting tank tops to reveal their abs. But TikTok’s arm’s-length approach to intimacy guides Snack’s approach as well. Videos were heavily filtered. A man’s face would appear for a split second before morphing terrifyingly into a horse’s head, or sprouting mouse ears and whiskers. Hashtags abounded, and after entering a lightly bowdlerized version of my own birthday (a panic instinct anytime I’m surrounded by sub-25s), I was encouraged to use the #virgo hashtag on my own videos.
Overall, astrological sign hashtags were common, as were #netflix, #workout and whatever the fuck is going on here:
I did encounter a handful of fellow millennial interlopers, and none of us got the TikTok-based lingua franca right in our videos. We didn’t know how to use the filters and we all cared way too much about our lighting and angles. One 37-year-old man was right there on TikTok-Meets-Dating where God and everyone could see him, doing the dick-in-a-box dance in full Justin Timberlake regalia.
Snack’s age range slider allows you to limit your preferences within the range of 18 to… 35 and up. I tracked the ages of the first 50 users I scrolled through, and of those 50, 10 were 19; eight were 23; and six were 22. Beyond that, it was a pretty evenly scattered bunch of users between 18 and 24, with users of 25-plus the fewest and farthest between. (All this is to say, out of 50 random Snack users in the NYC area, less than half would get the dick-in-a-box reference organically, so what the hell was that one guy doing?)
Anyway, it was time to move on from Snack, lest I felt compelled to hold a skull before my face and wonder aloud at the hideous miracle of aging, so I downloaded Feels, which was immediately annoying as fuck.
Per Feels’ website, the app is “not a dating app,” but allows its users to seek “relaxed relationships without rules or labels, without societal pressure, paternalistic injunctions or traditional norms.” Per Rax King, “What the fuck can that possibly mean in the context of a dating app?” Is that just to say that the app promotes casual encounters among its users, because that’s true of even history’s most primitive dating app — the long-gone Craigslist Casual Encounters section. (Rest well, sweet prince!)
I was annoyed by Feels not because of the woolly language on its website, which mirrors woolly ad-speak everywhere, but because the moment I opened the app, my poor phone was subject to a torrent of vibrations such as it had never experienced in its sedate life of do-not-disturb and silent mode. The app merrily demonstrated the range of memes and reaction images you can send your fellow users while inflicting vibration after vibration. By the time the app was done introducing itself to me, my battery was depleted and my mood soured.
Like Snack, Feels offers a range of gender options, each with its corresponding flag; Feels offers more options, but both far outpace what OkCupid did on the much-discussed day it began offering its users options other than just “man” or “woman.” I selected “woman,” which has no flag and instead features a woman emoji sticking her tongue out ahegao-style.
It was here that I hit a snag.
I had no idea what any of these hashtags meant. I had never considered myself old before my time, but the frightening possibility asserted itself as I stared at that #rightnow bunny. What if I was eventually hoping for routine hugs, but I wanted to start the non-routine hugs right now? What if I saw myself as a #nohookup bear, but felt frisky one night and needed to become a #rightnow bunny? The menu of options was psychologically and zoologically baffling, so I selected the bunny. Feels clarified that this entailed “an evening together tonight and tomorrow morning in our own burrows.” Cute, but please, what did that mean?
Feels didn’t let me off-the-hook with one measly little video the way Snack did. I was forced to upload six pictures or videos and answer three questions. The questions actually seemed like they could be pretty fun if you really were there for dating (or #routinehugs, or #nohookup). Because I was not, I just did what I had to do to make the prompts go away so I could get scrolling.
Once I began scrolling, Feels wasn’t all that different from Snack in terms of its content. Videos, many once again pulled from users’ TikTok accounts, ruled the day. Stickers and memes also proliferated, and the app suggested Giphy replies for just about everything. Right away, the app explained that I could let another user know I liked the cut of their jib by “finding something on their profile” and “sending them a feels” (or emoji react). I was then told to tap a little pawprint on the screen to discover their animal… for five credits.
Credits? Are you fucking kidding me? Yes, apparently premium content is the latest scourge of online dating. It definitely existed when I was still doing it — certain apps were pay-to-play, and Tinder had cautiously begun charging users to show their profiles to more people — but it wasn’t as widespread as it’s become. Feels gives “infinite credits” to its premium users, who can pay 19 good Christian dollars a month for the privilege of seeing anyone’s animal. Users can also earn more credits by spreading the gospel of the app to their friends, or by waiting for the next day to start, at which point they get five more credits. Everywhere I turned, the app held out its hand for money, leaving me with the impression that every profile’s real content, whatever that may be, was paywalled.
You’d think the pay-to-play model might age the app’s user base a bit, but no — this app skews even younger than Snack did. The very first user I saw was a 40-year-old man, but after that, it was all 18- and 19-year-old women. That, in and of itself, was interesting. When you indicate that you’re interested in “everybody,” as I always do on dating apps due to my fatal bisexuality and terminal sluttiness, most apps still recommend heterosexual matches. It makes sense — when you’re interested in both, the pool of straight men will always be larger than the pool of non-straight women. But on Feels, it took a couple dozen scroll-throughs before I ran into another man.
After only a few minutes, Feels literally stopped working for me. I encountered an error message that asked me to restart the app, and when I tried to restart it, it never reopened, forever entreating me to “stick around!,” as it was still “looking for cooool people” [sic, obviously]. The app claims to verify all the content posted on it, so maybe all my sourpussing about how I was only doing this for journalism drove them to flag my profile. Which was fair, as my profile certainly deserved a flagging.
It was definitely time to move on, though, so I tried Lolly, which describes itself as “social dating.” It was the easiest of the three to set up, asking for only a phone number and my age. I entered both and was immediately sent to the meat market to scroll. On this app as well as the other two, you reject users by scrolling up, rather than swiping left. Is that really so different as to demarcate the younger generation’s dating habits from our own? Yes, according to tech and advertising, so I scrolled away, trying to reclaim my misspent 20s.
I was once again surprised at how easy it is to share a user’s videos with people who don’t use the app — indeed, a big blue “SHARE” button that appears on every video encourages it. Beyond that, Lolly seemed more basic, and therefore, more venal than the other two apps. This must be how Boomers felt when Tinder came out. There was nothing to do but upload videos: no photos, or none of those pesky word things that usually stand in the way between you and cock. For an app that bills itself as “social dating,” it seems the least socially inclined of the three. There wasn’t even anything for me to screenshot.
Now, I don’t think that a handful of video-based dating apps can tell us much about the romantic habits of an entire generation. I do, however, think those apps can tell us what our tech overlords think of that generation, and based on what they’ve come up with, it’s safe to say they don’t think much of Gen Z. Don’t get me wrong — I adore TikTok. Every day, I open the app to gaze with delight upon its hordes of lizard chefs and leaping bushbabies. But I’m dubious of using TikTok as a model for dating, or even for fucking.
That said, it’s not my problem, and I survived my foray into what Silicon Valley thinks are Gen Z’s dating habits, and I’m no worse for wear. I learned that the people who design dating apps think the zoomers are shallow as fuck, the same way they once thought millennials were shallow as fuck. As people get used to dating this way over time, maybe they really will become more shallow, or maybe they’ll do exactly what I did: Play around on the apps when it’s appropriate, and settle down if they feel like it.