"There is a general digital fear," says Glenn Platt, professor of interactive media studies at Miami University. "People are happy to giggle and watch Barney in 'How I Met Your Mother" hook up with people based on looks. But somehow taking that same behavior and placing it in a digital context has a stigma attached to it. Even though in that context you are more likely to get a better match, more information, a person's real name."
Even Facebook is getting in on the action, from a more platonic angle. Last month, the world's biggest online social network launched a feature called "nearby friends," which lets users see which of their Facebook friends are near them at any given moment.
Despite the growing acceptance, the online and app-based dating market is small. Research firm IBIS World estimates that the dating services industry will hit $2.2 billion in revenue this year. Internet conglomerate IAC/InteractiveCorp has the biggest chunk of the market with a 27 percent share. The New York company owns traditional dating sites such as OKCupid, Match.com and Chemistry.com, as well as Tinder. IAC has a market value of just $5.2 billion, less than a third of Twitter's.
Jared Fliesler, general partner at the venture capital fund Matrix Partners, believes companies have only just begun to tap into people's willingness to "pay" to find love, a phenomenon that extends well beyond dating apps. After all, he points out, singles already spend lots of money on texts, calls, drinks, food, gifts and everything else associated with the dating game.
"Despite it being a slightly difficult category in which to raise venture funding, consumers spend more time, money, and mental energy on trying to find love than pretty much anything in life, and the desire to be loved is universal," says Fliesler. "So there will always be demand."
Creators of some of the more ambitious apps say they have their sights set beyond romantic matchmaking to what they call "social discovery," helping people meet business connections, new friends while traveling or moving to a new city. Tinder's co-founder, Justin Mateen, insists that his creation is not a hookup app and wasn't created to facilitate one-night stands.
Just don't tell that to Tinder users.
"I used Tinder before I found out about Hinge and it was creep central, it was just weird," says Ellard, who lives outside Boston, runs a startup, works in jewelry sales and has a fashion radio segment. "I used it for a few months but instead of looking for someone it was more like a funny joke," she says.
For some, though, Tinder can be liberating. Platt says the app "equalizes gender power," and notes that he hears as many of his female students talk about it as male ones.
"Everyone has the same finger and ability to click," he says. "It's not like the guy buys the drink."
Jenny Lewin, 21, a student of Platt's who's an intern at San Francisco-based Coffee Meets Bagel, thinks it's inevitable that as dating apps enter the mainstream, they will become more accepted and people will be more open about using them.
"I think a lot of people say that our generation doesn't know how to talk to people face to face, that we don't know how to communicate, which I totally disagree with," says Lewin. "I would be much more likely to click a 'heart' on Tinder or a 'like' on Coffee Meets Bagel to say I am interested in a guy than to walk up to him and say I am interested."
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