From virtual reality to niche apps, what does the future of dating look like?

Written by Kat Lister

300 million people worldwide currently use dating apps, but how will the ways we find love change in coming years? Journalist Kat Lister finds out…  

When 22-year-old CJ downloaded an app nicknamed “the Tinder of the metaverse” earlier this year he wasn’t looking to date – he was looking for friends. “Honestly, it was quite unconventional,” he says on a Zoom call from his home in Utah. 

It’s a clarification I hardly need given the circumstances. Our video setting has been turned off, and in place of a real-life moving image, I’m looking at a virtual reality selfie of CJ and his boyfriend reimagined as stylised anime characters with large eyes, painted faces and spiky hair. “I’m the one holding him in the black hoodie,” he explains, as I squint closer towards my screen. CJ’s purple-hued up-do is adorned with a jewelled headband and his painted black nails are cradling his newly matched partner, whose legs are akimbo in thigh-high pink stockings, while his left eye cheekily winks at a camera that doesn’t exist. 

Welcome to an online dating world where anything goes and nothing is quite as it seems. CJ signed up to Nevermet, one of a growing number of virtual reality dating apps, three months ago when he saw it advertised on TikTok. For the uninitiated, this is how it works: a VR enthusiast will match with another on Nevermet (much like they would on any other traditional app such as Tinder, Hinge or Bumble), agree to meet somewhere in the metaverse, pop on a headset and journey far beyond the confines of their home: to a city submerged under the sea, for instance, or a Japanese shrine where cherry blossom trees gently sway in the wind. Want to do away with gravity? No problem. Harbouring a desire to fly? The sky’s the limit.  

A busy landscaper by trade and with little time to date, CJ was happy being single but was intrigued by the concept of an app that allowed him to socialise with his VR headset, a device he had previously been using for gaming in the comfort of his own home. “I’ve met some of my best friends – people I consider family – simply by swiping,” CJ tells me. He also found a romantic match. 

It’s been 10 years since Tinder radically altered the landscape of online dating with its tagline: Swipe Right® to like someone or Swipe Left™ to say “nope”. This month, as it celebrates a whopping 75 million monthly active users, it’s a tagline that is coming under increasing scrutiny as more and more of us are beginning to question the repercussions of our constant swiping – and it would appear as if daters like CJ are looking for alternatives that better match their needs and wants. 

“There are many examples of users who have gone on virtual reality dates, who have fallen in love, moved in together, and have plans to get married and have kids,” Nevermet’s CEO and co-founder, Cam Mullen, says over a Zoom call in Brooklyn. CJ isn’t the only one who has found something tangible within a hypothetical world. “We have tens of thousands of users and have created over 300,000 metaverse relationships to date,” Mullen informs me. A significant number, for sure – but is virtual reality really the future?

What is undeniable is that most of us are now seeking out new partners via digital means. According to research made available this year, over 300 million people are using dating apps worldwide, with 20 million of those paying for premium features. Yes, dating apps are “the new normal”, Mullen says. “But we’ve discovered that they’re not really working for the majority of their users.” Which is what led Mullen to launch his “personality-first dating app” this year; an app that is led by fictional avatars, not Instagram selfies, where VR enthusiasts (74% of whom are aged between 18 and 24) match and arrange a date somewhere in the metaverse. “We’re at this interesting intersection of a rising Gen Z culture that’s more tolerant to themes of fluidity – identity, gender, sexuality – and I think that our metaverse space is actually allowing people to have that fluidity safely,” he says. Although it’s worth noting that the metaverse is, at large, a relatively new and unregulated space, subject to the same levels of trolling, microaggressions and harassment as anywhere else.

VR dating is just one industry response to a growing ennui that shows no signs of dissipating. After a decade of swiping, the paralysis is real for many. In an infinite world of revolving profiles, where any conversation can be terminated at any time (and usually is without so much as a hand-waving emoji), it’s easy to feel lost in the melee. “Difficult years of the pandemic have induced mass self-reflection, and subsequently self-empowerment, in which daters are coming into their own standards and true desires in the romantic realm of their lives,” says Rachel Lee, insights and cultural analyst at The Digital Fairy, as we discuss this languor and the ways in which daters are seeking alternative routes in their love lives, turned off by inaccurate algorithms and online discrimination. 

Perhaps the biggest offshoot of our growing discontent is a desire to home in more precisely on what we want – and how we wish to seek it out. “We’ve been monitoring the dating app market closely and the biggest trend of late is centred around the niche-ness of many of the new apps,” says Emily Rhodes, creative foresight analyst at The Future Laboratory consultancy. Value humour over looks? Meme-based dating app Schmooze believes that meme-swapping is the way to cater for your needs. More concerned with whether your stars align? Self-professed “celestial matcher” Ilios claims to “use Eastern, Western and Vedic astrology combined with numerology to help you find the most compatible romantic, social or spiritual connections”.

When it comes to sexual orientation and even sexual experimentation, a new wave of alternative dating apps are providing a sex-positive space in which to engage and explore, including apps such as Feeld (“Join solo or with a partner to find lovers and friends,” it invites new recruits) and Lex (short for ‘lexicon’ – a “text-centered social app that connects queer lovers and friends”). And that’s just for starters. Scour the internet and there is any number of new and emerging apps: from Fitafy, an online community for fitness singles to POM (which stands for Power Of Music), a dating app for music lovers that matches users based on their music taste.

And yet for every new online inductee, there is another who’s looking beyond their phone for inspiration, exhausted by the endless conveyor belt monotony of automated prompts and desperate to find something that’s long-lasting IRL. Could this back-to-basics approach sit comfortably alongside a swiping trend we’ve become so dependent on?

Rhodes certainly thinks so, suggesting the future of dating will take a hybrid approach. “One of the more successful dating apps of late has been Thursday, thanks to its ability to function both on and offline, facilitating IRL dating for a younger, digitally native generation.” For those who have been completely eviscerated by the apps, a nostalgic pivot to in-person dating is promising exasperated singletons a more “authentic” experience. 

“App burnout has encouraged more brands to explore compatibility matching and event-based experiences,” says Rachael Lloyd, relationship expert at eharmony. “There is no substitute for meeting up in real life. Therefore, it’s not surprising that new players in the market are focusing on organising weekly physical events.”

For journalist Jessica-Hope Evans, dating fatigue made her feel as if she was giving away small pieces of herself every time she opened an app; an existential Groundhog Day that was no longer an enjoyable pursuit, but a depleting marathon without a finish line in sight. Determined to date differently, she took matters into her own hands earlier this year. “I wanted to create fun, no-pressure events that single people can rock up to and skip a lot of the dating app admin,” she explains. Enter Bored of Dating Apps (BODA): a series of in-person events that focus on what she calls “more mindful dating” away from the sapping merry-go-round of ‘breadcrumbing’ and ‘ghosting’ online. From dumpling-making masterclasses and pasta workshops to ‘sip and paint evenings’, hikes and yoga socials – the key to BODA’s success is in its multivarious approach.

“I’m not sure these types of events would have made as much sense five years ago, but since the pandemic, people are bolder in their dating habits. It’s not just pre-pandemic nostalgia people are wanting, but pre-apps and pre-social media. The apps will always be with us, but what we’ll see more of is a lifestyle shift in single people’s social lives,” she says. 

So, is more change afoot? Evans certainly thinks so. “One thing I know to be changing in the dating landscape is the return of the ‘meet cute’. It’s no longer going to be weird or abnormal for people to approach one another in coffee shops, strike up a conversation and essentially ask each other out.” Maybe this is the most encouraging prediction of them all.

In the online v offline debate, the jury, it would seem, is still out. As Rachel Maclynn, CEO and founder of The Maclynn Matchmaking Agency, is quick to underline: “Dating is an ever-evolving landscape, with online dating still being in its infancy really. We’re talking about an industry that has only been mass market for a decade.” Daters are undeniably tired – but are dating apps on their way to extinction as a consequence? Floundering, perhaps – and clambering for new ideas. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the options these days. It’s even harder to predict where we might be headed next. One could argue that for all our technological advances, we’ve dropped something along the way. Between talk of smart tech matching and “the dubious science of genetics-based dating”, I can’t help but question if we’ve become less open to the randomness of an unexpected connection: a pairing that can’t be calculated; a match that can’t always be rationalised.

In a world where the algorithm is increasingly filtering our most intimate interactions like a Netflix ‘recommended for you’ section, have we even forgotten how to have fun? “Online dating can be fun; it’s largely down to the individual mindset,” says Lloyd when I pose this very question. I thought of CJ and his boyfriend when I read this – a wildcard reminder that for all my talk of real-life spontaneity, it is possible to find love wearing a VR headset while sitting on your sofa at home. On the flip side, offline-focused apps and initiatives are reminding us of the unquantifiable magic that can be found in an impromptu exchange beyond our iPhone screens. Are we finally boomeranging back to the real-life meet cute? Who says we have to take sides here? The future, as they say, is unwritten.

Images: Getty

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