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Wall Street Journal / Tech - Game

Dating Apps Are Awful—Here’s How to Make Them Work for You

Most singles are swiping—looking at people’s profile pictures to determine, in about a nanosecond, whether they would like to message them, meet them and potentially have a family with them.


By

Katherine Bindley

It is a 21st-century moment if there ever was one: A 20-something daughter taking pictures of her 50-something mother, who is posing next to the fireplace, decked out in her pearls. Multiple poses, multiple expressions.

“She made me take like 75 shots,” says Lauryn, the daughter.

No, it wasn’t for a Christmas card: Mom wanted to nail the perfect dating profile pic. She has been on Match.com, eHarmony and the Bumble app.

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Lauryn’s mom isn’t remotely alone. Revenue from dating services was projected to hit $2.7 billion in 2017, according to market research firm IBISWorld. And going forward, the ones geared toward baby boomers are expected to see the most growth.

I met Lauryn at a bar while chatting up strangers about online dating. Collectively, they were a microcosm of the dating app scene. Christine, sitting next to Lauryn, met her boyfriend of two years on Bumble. Behind me was Dave, who uses Bumble, Hinge and Jdate. One of Dave’s friends said she didn’t know any couples who met at a bar. (If people don’t meet on apps, they meet through work.)

Screenshots of the dating app Bumble.

In other words, all the singles are swiping—looking at people’s profile pictures to determine, in about a nanosecond, whether they would like to message them, meet them and potentially have babies with them.

I’ve swiped so much using six different apps over the past three weeks, I got a callus. And though I’ve been on and off a variety of dating apps for five years, my binge helped me understand what is actually getting better, and what still needs work. At this stage, it would take an act of God for people to start meeting in person again, so here are my tips and takeaways to make the app ordeal more bearable.

Use Video Carefully

When I first heard apps were experimenting with video features, I recoiled in horror. In November, Coffee Meets Bagel started letting people film an answer to a set question, then post it for others to see. I saw lots of men post messages recorded from the comfort of their cars... or beds.

Dawoon Kang, Coffee Meets Bagel’s co-founder, says users who add video are seen by five times as many people in their area. Increased visibility sounds good, just keep it classy.

I surprised myself by liking a video feature on Hinge. Users can post video from their Instagram feed and add it to their profile. I’m proud to say at least 10 guys have found my tone-deaf karaoke-bar performance of Heart’s “Alone” endearing.

Brace for Familiar Faces

There are few safeguards against seeing Facebook friends or co-workers show up in dating apps. Even worse: When my brother and I are in the same city, he shows up on my feed of eligible men. (He reached out to Bumble support to complain.)

Sarah Jones Simmer, Bumble’s chief operating officer, says these are complex problems to solve—some people might want to see Facebook friends on dating apps. Still, the issues are on the company’s radar.

The League, a semi-exclusive service launched in late 2014, always hides your Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections. It also is testing a way to block someone by email address.

Screen Test Your Profile Pic

Tinder, part of Match Group Inc., hasn’t been my favorite for years, but I like its Smart Photo feature. It can alternate the picture of you that shows up first, and tell you which photo gets right-swiped the most.

Even if you don’t like Tinder, you can put up pictures to see which does best, then use that as your lead pic on other apps.

Coffee Meets Bagel says users who add video are viewed by five times as many people in their area.

Coffee Meets Bagel has a similar but not as good Photo Lab: You submit two photos, and other users (men and women) vote on which one they like better. The judging feels pretty forced, since the app makes you vote on other people’s pics before you can submit your own.

Investigate Your Date

Most dating profiles include first name and location. Asking for a last name too early can make you sound like a creep.

Because people will often list the school they attended—or sometimes their employer or job title—you can search LinkedIn to get a last name. With that, you can Google for red flags and check the person’s Facebook profile picture to see what they really look like.

You can also use Google’s reverse image search to see if people use their dating profile pix on other social networks. It works at least some of the time.

Bring Back the Phone Call

Texting is how people communicate, and dating apps are no exception, so this is the kind of rogue advice that could invite hate mail: Pick up the phone.

The first time a guy from an app asked if he could call me, I felt like he had asked to give me an infectious disease. But after 10 minutes, I knew I didn’t want to meet him. When another guy called, we talked for an hour. And you know what? It was nice. There, I said it.

Try the Queen Bee

Everyone loves Bumble, except me. Its distinguishing feature is that, when a man and a woman match, the woman has to message first. It supposedly is empowering, and cuts down on unwanted messages. (With same-sex matches, either can message first.)

I hate making the first move. But the majority of my single friends in their 30s, both male and female, use Bumble. Folks who are a decade younger also say it is their app of choice. At last count, the app had 25 million downloads.

While I may not like Bumble’s premise, I’ve tended to like the guys I’ve met on the app more than on others. And Ms. Jones Simmer says that women will always message first, but forthcoming features will help “remove the friction” for people like me.

Get a Second App

Experiences on apps tend to change over time, and your feed can start feeling like a graveyard of people you’ve already swiped past, so it is good to have a second app, too.

Dating app Hinge’s initial premise was matching you with people connected to your friends on Facebook.

My most-improved award goes to Hinge. Its initial premise was matching you with people connected to your Facebook friends. I rarely matched and eventually deleted it. But since Hinge’s late-2016 revamp, it has become a more social place of its own: Even before matching, users can like or comment on aspects of one another’s profiles.

Since re-downloading it, I’ve chatted with a bunch of guys and been out with two.

Save Your Soul

When my friends and I were younger, if cute guys kept streaming into a bar, we would use the phrase “head on a swivel”—too many directions to look.

With dating apps, everybody’s head seems to be on a swivel, making it hard to settle down. It is dating’s FOMO: fear of missing out on someone better, because you stopped swiping.

While these apps can be soul crushing, they are necessary evils that might help you find someone who makes you happy. Here is the key: If and when that happens, delete the apps. Don’t let the cheap thrill of the swipe spoil a potentially genuine relationship.

Write to Katherine Bindley at Katie.Bindley@wsj.com

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