RFC: Let’s Disrupt Dating Apps

Request for Co-founder

This is a new series I’m going to start doing, much in the same spirit as YC’s Request for Startups. RFC doesn’t mean “Request for Comments” — although comments are of course welcome — but rather “Request for Co-founder.” RFC posts will be deep-dives on products and problems I find interesting or that I’m particularly passionate about. Today, we’ll talk about dating apps. This post was spurred by a discussion I had on HN.

As a caveat, keep in mind that I’m a 33-year-old single straight guy in Los Angeles, so the discussion here will be from this perspective. As such, I won’t get into LGBTQ+ dating apps, dating apps for couples, affair apps, and so on.

Landscape

Most dating apps these days are abysmal and the space is ripe for disruption. Basically, we have three tiers of dating apps: decent, bad, and garbage. Decent dating apps are the best of the bunch (which, as we’ll see, isn’t saying much): Hinge, Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel, and eHarmony are the contenders. In the next category, we have: Tinder, OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, and a few others. And finally, we have apps that are complete garbage (usually made in Russia or China): Zoosk, Badoo, Happn, and many others. Unfortunately, even when looking at the best of the bunch, getting a date off these apps is like pulling teeth.

As a side note, I’ve reverted to meeting and approaching women I’m interested in in person at coffee shops, social gatherings, events, etc. Even if you get rejected, it at least makes for a good story. But in any case, let’s begin by looking at the problems that plague the current generation of dating apps.

Market Asymmetry

According to the U.S. Department of Education, women comprise more than 55% of college students, making them a majority. The distribution of Instagram users also slightly skews female; the same goes for Facebook. And yet, on Tinder men outnumber women by 9 to 1. On Bumble, the “female-friendly” alternative, men still outnumber women by more than 80%.

Keeping this in mind, what ends up happening is that the dating landscape for men ends up being very different than the one for women. The analogy isn’t perfect, but suppose that users are “selling” themselves and “buying” a significant other (of the opposite sex). As such, dating apps for men are a buyers’ market — for women, dating apps are a sellers’ market. So women see a marketplace where there’s a surplus of men. And on the other hand, men see a marketplace where there’s a shortage of women.

What women see. What men see.

This dating app marketplace does not line up with the reality of dating. In fact, as you might imagine, singles (particularly when looking at younger age groups) are going to be roughly an even split between males and females. The data is plentiful and applies both to the United States when looking at marriage statistics:

Or elsewhere (e.g. England and Wales):

You might be thinking “big whoop, online dating marketplaces are slightly skewed, not a huge deal” — after all, a slight skewing is expected. People that have phones, use apps, have time to online date, etc. will most certainly fit certain socioeconomic characteristics. However, the skewing would not lend itself to the fat-tailed distribution observed. Further, this brings me to my next point: online dating marketplaces are being kept artificially asymmetric. For example, Tinder does this in a number of ways:

  • Limits how much you can swipe per day (100 on the free tier). Given that men outnumber women 10:1, women should have 10x the “swiping power” (for now, let’s ignore the impracticality of actually swiping on 1,000 guys a day).
  • Does not remove inactive accounts from being swiped on. E.g.: men are often swiping on women that don’t even use Tinder anymore.
  • Does not limit sign-ups to keep a balanced M:F ratio. You see this in Vegas all the time: to make sure the ratio isn’t skewed too far female or (more likely) too far male, the hottest club in town is going to have a line.

Bumble is also notorious for not removing inactive accounts, and Match.com has been sued by the FTC for using fake accounts to swindle users. If you’re wondering why the markets are being kept purposefully asymmetrical, it’s because having an edge in asymmetric markets is significantly more valuable than in symmetric markets (the edge itself has diminishing returns).

What’s the edge? The Tinder Super Boost, paying for Tinder Gold, the Bumble Spotlight feature. The feature of seeing who likes you (giving you some information about the other side) before you swipe on them is essentially lifted out of an economics textbook. Of course Tinder/Bumble/etc. don’t have an incentive to keep the markets symmetric, they’re making money off the asymmetry!

The silver lining here is that consumers are catching on. However, as the popularity of these predatory dating apps continues to wane, I expect to see more and more anti-competitive practices.

Outcome Alignment

Even ignoring the “natural” outcome misalignment that might happen when dating: some people are looking for marriage and kids, others for casual dating, others for a quick hook-up — misalignment on dating apps tends to be a lot more egregious. Seeing as these apps are a sellers’ market for women, anything can go: farming Instagram followers, having Venmo information in the profile, or getting men to pay for “premium” Snapchat content (yes, this is what you think it is). Unfortunately, lucrative scam-artists are taking this a step further: a significant number of “women” on Tinder are bots built to advertise XXX sites or similar services. This is hardly an isolated problem. It’s hard to tell if reliably banning bots is tractable, but dating apps are doing very little to curb this kind of anti-consumer nonsense.

We can’t fault them completely, however: after all, they painted themselves in a corner. By having an asymmetrical market they took advantage of, reducing the already-tiny fraction of women users on these platforms would be product suicide.

Counter-arguments

There are arguments that claim that online dating apps have made the dating markets “hyper-efficient” — these kinds of proponents like to cite this paper along with other typical talking points of evolutionary psychologists: the Pareto principle being a crowd favorite, where the probability density is:

$$
P(x)=\frac{\alpha b^\alpha}{x^{\alpha+1}}
$$

And we can set \(\alpha = \log_4 5 \approx 1.16\) to give us the oft-cited “Matthew” or 80/20 distribution:

The idea behind these arguments is that you shouldn’t mind not matching with women on dating apps, after all “80% of women go for the top 20% of men” (per the Pareto principle) and “women have had twice the reproductive success of men” (per Tierney’s research). Dubious research and misapplication of statistics aside, the numbers just don’t make sense. The force of my argument is that the markets themselves are skewed, not the preference of men or women. Women just aren’t using these apps. While it’s probably true that women are more selective than men, dating apps have created an environment where women are hyper-selective and where men are hyper-indiscriminate.

You might think that these apps are at least doing a decent job of matching people with significant others. But to make matters worse, Millennials are feeling more lonely, isolated, and socially-deprived than their parents and grandparents — despite living in an ultra-connected world. Neil Howe, of Forbes, writes:

The Economist/KFF findings add to a wave of recent research showing high levels of loneliness. A recent Cigna survey revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Fully 54% said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Loneliness isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. In a nationwide survey released in October from the BBC, a third of Britons said that they often or very often feel lonely. Nearly half of Britons over 65 consider the television or a pet their main source of company. In Japan, there are more than half a million people under 40 who haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months. In Canada, the share of solo households is now 28%. Across the European Union, it’s 34%.

Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist, writing for Psychology Today says:

The YouGov report found that 30 percent of Millennials (ages 23-38) always or often feel lonely. About one in five people in this age range say they have no friends, while 27 percent say they have no close friends, and 30 percent say they have no “best friend.” These numbers are considerably higher than the other generations surveyed.

This is not an efficient market; it’s a broken one.

Redefining Conversions

What is a “conversion” when using a dating app? On Tinder, for example, a conversion is a match (both users swiped right) — same with Bumble, OKCupid, Hinge, etc. But this is a terrible metric. Intuitively, a dating app should be conducive to fun dates — matches ought to be irrelevant. We can even forget potential romantic outcomes: these apps should maximize for people hanging out and having fun — and not for matches.

Which brings me to my next point: the incentive should always be meeting in real life. Matching, exchanging numbers, texting is great, but the end goal of the app should push the meet. It’s strange that apps haven’t done this. At the coffee shop I frequent, it’s very common to overhear first dates. Striking a deal with local businesses (coffee shops, casual eateries, bars) where they get an influx of constant first-dates seems like a fairly low-hanging fruit.

Society & Psychology

Finally, dating is extremely culturally-sensitive. Women don’t want to be explicitly messaged by creepy men and they don’t want to meet you at night in a dark alley. Men try to balance the fine line between confident and pushy. In fact, just merely the word — dating — has a lot of baggage associated with it. It’s like a job interview where everything is taken personally. And even though not nearly as bad as a decade ago, there’s also still a bit of a social stigma associated with “meeting online.”

Fixing the Dating App

So now that we know some problems, caveats, and shortcomings of dating apps, what’s the fix? Here’s an off-the-cuff grab bag of ideas:

  1. Don’t call it a “dating” app. The app should be labeled as a “singles” app.
  2. Focus on having a good time. The “conversion” shouldn’t be a match, it should be having a fun night out.
  3. Enforce a 50:50 ratio. This might bring DAUs down, but without enforcing a M:F ratio, you end up with asymmetric markets.
  4. Organize occasional group events. Without becoming a meetup app, the app should push events — concerts, hikes, movie nights — with groups of 6-10 people.
  5. Avoid ELOs and other ranking algorithms.
  6. Have a vetting process with a zero-tolerance policy for bad apples (harassers, catfishes, etc.).

Thoughts? Opinions? What would you do to fix the dating app? If you’re in LA and want to discuss it over ☕ or 🍺, feel free to drop me a line!