How Did Dating Apps Become Social Networks?

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The days of secretive and stigmatized online dating have been replaced with an entire industry that thrives in the open. We connect Instagram to every dating app. We share Tinder stories on Facebook and we talk shit about matches with our friends while lounging on our street furniture. And though people still laugh at it, there’s a “looking for new friends” option on OkCupid.

People also use Twitter and Instagram to find dates, including at least one happily married couple.

Dating apps and social networks have officially fused into a cyber lovefest of hookups and friendship, blurring the boundary between romantic or platonic love.

MySpace was certainly one of the earliest mixed breeds. The 2009 cinematic masterpiece also known as “He’s Just Not That Into You” got it right with “my trampy little sister says MySpace is the new booty call.”

Three years earlier, it was already a dating and hookup service barely disguised as a social network. Apps such as DatingAnyone, SingleStat.us, and Stalkerati (all now defunct, unsurprisingly) helped users track their MySpace friends’ relationship statuses to more efficiently stalk exes and crushes and pounce the second they became single.

The concept did not die there. Twitter and Instagram direct messaging are frequently used to facilitate hookups and dates. Facebook also, but less so, given that the first two platforms are more public. People use both platforms as publicity tools so screening followers is less common and as a result people can follow those with common interests and those they find attractive.

Then there’s the matter of connecting Instagram with Tinder and OkCupid. OkCupid requires a username and it remains the norm to make a fake username and not put one’s real first name like people do on Tinder. One can assume that this is a remnant from the lost days of online dating secrecy, whether it arises from shame or a fear of online predators. But now, connecting Instagram connects your identity. It flaunts who you are and what you’re into in a very social way.

One lesser known site is FetLife, which connects people with kinks and fetishes. It doesn’t bill itself as a dating and sex site but as a social network for kinky people who have sexual interests that are counter to invasive and puritanical social morals (which is ironic, given that kinks like BDSM are incredibly common).

Some FetLifers find this aspect irritating, because what brings users together is the fact that they have these similar sexual interests that they want to explore but the site’s interface does not facilitate finding “matches” so much as groups of people with similar interests. Then again, society is harsh as hell and the level of privacy that many feel necessary to maintain regarding their “abnormal” sex life suggests that the site’s method is not backward so much as depressing.

On the other side, dating apps are becoming more and more like social networks. Tinder Social is a feature that came out over the summer and allows swipers to swarm with friends and match with fellow groups. Sounds like the makings of a great and consensual orgy but the purpose is to emulate “real world” connections made through mutual friends and social outings.

Once a user unlocks Tinder Social, they can see the Tinder profiles of all their Facebook friends. Some in the beta release reacted uneasily to this aspect of the feature, calling it an invasion of privacy to publicize their Tinder profiles in such a way. Nevertheless, it’s a logical extension of both Facebook and Tinder.

If the beta testers of Tinder Social were jarred, they certainly wouldn’t have liked Tinder’s new “recommend a friend” feature. Now, if you see someone you find repugnant but potentially appealing to a frenemy, you can “recommend” the former to the latter and your friend is sent a link to that match. This is another step in Tinder’s attempts to recreate IRL meet cutes. It’s also similarly weird because of the way it takes users beyond the boundaries of the app, or removes them all together, as Tinder Social does. Still, at a certain point people might have to get used to the fact that their dating app profiles are as private as their other online activity, which is to say not at all.

The laughable example is OkCupid’s “looking for new friends” option. People can select if they’re for short or long term dating, casual sex, or new friends. Who honestly gets on OkCupid for new friends? Sure, it’s possible and can be lovely to meet friends via dating and then decide romance is off the table. But OkCupid remains one of the more classic models for dating and sex apps, in that people make complete profiles and answer questions (there are over a thousand but users answer answer many as they like) that determine match compatibility. This is in contrast to photo-based swiping apps that have 500-character bios (a limit that is generally left underutilized).

Nobody is suggesting friends can’t be made through dating but people just don’t make the level of effort that OkCupid requires when they’re trying to make friends. Probably we all should, but for now messaging strangers on the internet and asking them for coffee “for friendship” is likely to be met with laughter or worse.

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