Matching in Milwaukee
Three locals turn to dating apps with very different intentions
On a recent Thursday night, I walked into a trendy East Side bar, ordered an IPA and proceeded to have a conversation with a complete stranger for about two hours. We engaged in the type of first date fodder we’ve all grown accustomed to—where we grew up, tastes in music and other generalities. After a couple of beers and some not-so-stimulating conversation, we left the bar and made plans to see each other the following week. We never followed up on those plans.
Like 22% of people in my age group (25-34) I use mobile apps to swipe my way to true love one match at a time.
Since match.com launched in 1995, people have been taking advantage of the World Wide Web to find love. When smartphones greatly democratized internet access, the launch of dating apps took the trend mainstream.
“People are busy,” says Julie Amann, membership director and matchmaker at It’s Just Lunch Milwaukee, a high-end matchmaking service that does not use any sort of online profiles. “The bottom line is if you want to be in a relationship you have to date. Dating apps give people a way to work dating into their lives, and it removes traditional barriers of how to meet people.”
Each app has a slightly different purpose, with some leaning towards casual interactions and others generally being used to find more serious relationships. The most popular dating app in the United States, Tinder, has more than 50 million monthly users worldwide, with a median age of 26. Other popular apps include Bumble, which makes the woman send the first message in heterosexual matches; Coffee Meets Bagel, which actively distances itself from the hookup culture commonly associated with dating apps; OkCupid; and the original dating site’s mobile app, Match.
“While generalizable arguments can be made about mobile applications, no mobile application offers the exact same possibilities and implications for communication or dating,” Dr. Lindsey Harness, assistant professor in communication and technology at Alverno College, writes to me in an email. “Each dating app contains its own symbolic meaning and how we perform within that application shapes how it influences our lives.”
We granted anonymity (all names have been changed) to a number of young Milwaukeeans, all who currently use or have used dating apps in the past, in exchange for a candid look into their experiences. Each provided a different perspective on this popular, but still somewhat stigmatized form of dating.
New in Town
Chelsea moved to Milwaukee from Michigan over the summer to take a job at the corporate headquarters of a large manufacturing company. She currently uses Bumble, Tinder and, after a bit of coaxing from her friends, she recently created an account on Coffee Meets Bagel. Her favorite app to use is Tinder. Coffee Meets Bagel is her least favorite. “I usually let it give me my five matches for the day and then say no to all of them,” she says with a laugh.
She likes using Tinder because, unlike Bumble, traditional gender norms usually become par for the course and the onus is on the man to initiate conversation.
While Chelsea goes on around three dates per month with men she meets on dating apps, I was surprised to hear that of all of these, she cannot recall having been on a single second date since moving to Milwaukee. She also says she hasn’t gone out with anyone she has met outside of dating apps.
“Sometimes it’s me not being interested,” she says. “But sometimes I feel like guys are only interested in hooking up, and I don’t do that on the first date, so they just decide to keep swiping and find someone who will.”
The rise of “hook-up culture” is one of the most prevalent arguments used by dating app detractors. “The claim is that dating applications can encourage people to engage in sexual exploration without having to invest in ‘authentic’ relationship-building,” writes Dr. Harness. “Dating applications might be disappointing for people who hope to develop meaningful and lasting relationships if they start interacting with someone online whose purpose for engaging in the online mobile application scene is to engage in only a one-time or limited sexual relationship.”
Chelsea’s lack of success leads her to question why she continues using dating apps. She considers herself outgoing, but finds that there are limits to how far that can take you, and she isn’t alone in her frustration. “We’ve seen a big pendulum swing back from dating sites,” says Amann. “People call us and are tired of the serial dating. While it’s great to have these new channels, people are starting to realize that it’s much harder to find a long-term relationship in the swipe left, swipe right world.”
While this is true, most of Chelsea’s friends are already in committed relationships, and have friends who are also taken. This makes it hard to meet people outside of dating apps, and this difficulty keeps her coming back.
“If I go on a date and it’s particularly horrible I’ll stop using it for a while,” she says. “Then I try again a few weeks later and it’s just a bad cycle.”
Many people would say that there is no rush to find someone—that your 20s are a time to experiment and find yourself, but young people overwhelmingly aren’t taking this advice. Millennials are 177% more likely than other generations to feel an overwhelming pressure to get married, and 22% more likely to feel that technology has made finding love more difficult according to a recent survey by Match.
“At the end of the day, sure I want someone to have a relationship with,” Chelsea says. “Am I going to do it through Tinder or Bumble? It’s highly unlikely, but I’m still doing it.”
John, a 25 year old who works for an asphalt sealing manufacturing company, travels all over the country for work about six months out of the year. These trips usually last about a week at a time, once a month. While travelling, he uses both Tinder and Bumble.
“When you’re out in a different city, you’re just sitting in your hotel room,” he says. “You get bored, but you can just download an app and then see what happens.”
John uses a premium feature on the Tinder app that lets users swipe through possible matches in cities they aren’t currently in. “I can start swiping in a location two weeks before I get there,” he tells me. During our phone conversation, he tells me he had just gotten to Nashville the night before, and already had a date set up by the time he landed.
The Nashville date is not the exception, but more of the rule for John. He estimates that he has used dating apps in more than 20 places, including almost every major city in the U.S., and that most of his dates and sexual experiences now come from dating apps. He enjoys the streamlined process and certainty it provides him.
“In my experience, a nice thing about the apps is that all of the judgment is done,” He says. “You know the person is interested, and it puts things in your favor. It’s not like when you walk up to a girl in a bar and have to assess what’s going on. You already know going into the date that they like you. All you have to do is not be an asshole.”
Dr. Harness echoes this point writing, “Dating apps give people time to vet who they might want to meet in person. As technology continues to be embedded into our daily communication practices, it can seem emotionally and psychologically safer to communicate with seeming strangers electronically than face to face.”
While John says that he can see the negative effects some may have from using dating apps, for his specific situation it helps him have more, and more meaningful, connections with people. He likes being able to stay in contact with someone, as opposed to a drunken hookup with someone he meets at a bar that may leave, never to be heard from again the next morning. He usually sees his matches multiple times throughout the week he’s in town. “It’s nice to know a local,” he says. “And I’ve met some pretty awesome people through the apps.”
While he isn’t looking for anything particularly serious, he does say that he’s open to it. He has a friend who lives in Milwaukee that is currently in a serious relationship with a woman he met on Bumble while in Florida. They fly out to see each other often, and John could see himself doing the same for the right person.
John’s advice for anyone starting out on dating apps is simple. “Send the message,” he says. “If you’re on the fence about it, just send it. You might have an awesome conversation. You might meet them in real life. Who knows what can happen? They might be you lifelong partner.”
Love at First…Swipe?
While Jessica is a Milwaukee native, her story begins in Madison, where she attended law school. Shortly after ending a six-month relationship that closely followed a four-year relationship, she decided to download Tinder. Her goal was to go on as many first dates as possible in an effort to find out what she really wanted in a partner. “I had been in a relationship for a very long time and hadn’t really done a lot of dating, and I thought Tinder was perfect for that,” she says.
One night, immediately after a dinner date with someone she met on Tinder, she met Paul, a graduate student she matched with, out for a drink (she wasn’t kidding about wanting to go on as many first dates as possible).
They immediately hit it off, sharing a similar sense of humor and love for the outdoors. These common interests, along with a busy law school schedule, are another big reason Jessica decided to try dating apps.
“I like to hike and be outdoors, but that isn’t really a great environment to meet other people,” she says. “I’m a super early riser. I like to wake up at 6 a.m. and go for runs. If I want to meet someone who also likes doing that, bars aren’t really the place to meet that person.”
The ability to find someone with your same hyper-specific interests is one of the largest draws to dating apps for many people. In recent years, a number of apps targeted to niche groups have emerged. Sweatt, which launched in 2016, targets the fitness community, and FarmersOnly, which launched in 2005, says everything you need to know in the name. Beyond just specific interests, dating apps also serve as an effective form of connection for people who may belong to marginalized groups. “[Dating] applications allow disenfranchised populations to identify and interact with like-minded others in ways that have not necessarily been available to them in the past,” writes Dr. Harness.
After Jessica and Paul’s first date, things took off rapidly. Their conversations “just flowed” as Jessica tells it, and within a week both of them had deleted their Tinder accounts. Three months later they booked a trip to visit Paul’s sister in Paris. After dating for only six months they moved in together. They have now been dating for over a year and live together with their dog. They tell me that each of their long-term relationships prior to meeting each other taught them a lot and put them in a position to move so quickly. “When you have a good thing, you just know it,” Jessica says.
The couple sees the stigma that is still somewhat associated with dating apps as generational. Though none of their friends thought anything of it, Jessica’s mother couldn’t believe she was going on dates with people she had never met before. Paul also recalls having negative attitudes toward the technology, but quickly warmed up to the idea.
“There was a time when I would scoff at people who used dating apps,” he says. “I sort of thought of it as a sign of their social skills, seeing them as people who couldn’t meet other people in real life. But beneath that thin veneer of pretentiousness was an extreme desire to try it. When I finally got out of the relationship I was in, I immediately got on Tinder. I thought of it as a way to broaden my horizons and learn more about myself through other people. Then I loved it because it helped me do exactly that. I gained experiences that I know for a fact I would never have had without Tinder.”
He then said something that I would have never expected to hear while interviewing two people I had never met. “Jessica, will you marry me?”