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Online daters love to hate on Hinge. 10 years in, it’s more popular than ever.



Online dating has taken over our love lives: One in two Americans who’ve never been married — as well as 30 percent of all US adults — have used a matchmaking app or site. If you’re looking to date, you’re almost certainly looking on your phone, and the app Hinge is this massive industry’s darling.

Its user base and revenue are growing rapidly, making executives at its parent company, Match Group, speak of it in quarterly earnings calls as they would a favorite child (they do, after all, have many, including Tinder, OkCupid, The League, Plenty of Fish, and

Hinge is not the biggest dating app in the US; that crown still belongs to Tinder, with Bumble as the runner-up. While Hinge lacks, uh, penetration in rural areas, experts say, it is hugely popular in large cities. It has reached the top of the app download charts in several European markets, where it launched more recently. For years, those bigger apps have had users endlessly swiping, addicted to their game-like nature, whereas Hinge seems to have found a sweet spot of scale and user-focused approach. This helped it become the go-to place for those seeking relationships online — which these days means people seeking relationships, period. Hinge has been resonant, said longtime industry consultant Mark Brooks, “because they have true integrity, and because their product actually works.”

Users almost agree.

“It is the everybody app,” said Nahal, a 34-year-old executive at a software company who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, who has used the app on and off since 2020. When Bryce, a 29-year-old nonprofit director in Kansas City, started using it last summer, “It was the one that everyone was talking about.”

Being popular, though, isn’t the same as being beloved: Neither Bryce nor Nahal is particularly enthusiastic about Hinge. “You’re not going to find a gem there, but you’ll find something solid,” said Nahal. “It’s still dissatisfying,” said Bryce. “I don’t like it — but it’s interesting, it does work a little bit.” “It’s definitely the best of the worst,” said Shoshana, a 30-year-old who works at a think tank in Washington DC.

Hinge has had a long and winding road to becoming “the everybody app.” 2023 marks 10 years since it officially launched, but it only really hit its stride around 2018, then exploded after it was acquired by Match Group in 2019 and was boosted even further by a lockdown-era dating boom. In those several years, Hinge acquired a reputation for being an app that works for, in industry lingo, “high-intent” daters, or people who are dating for keeps.

So why do users feel so deeply ambivalent about it? Why are so many unhappy with their experience, even though the app is trying to give them what they want? What else could Hinge do, aside from iterating on a dating paradigm that has exhausted so many but is the dominant system of courtship in today’s world?

Hinge, a history

After some fits and starts as a dating website aimed at a younger demographic than or Jdate, Hinge, founded and led by Harvard Business School grad Justin McLeod, launched as a mobile app in 2013. It was a swipe app with a simple sign-up process, which connected users via their Facebook profiles, creating a “friends of friends” dating network. The app remained buzzy for several years — particularly among college grads in big cities — but eventually growth started slowing and McLeod was disappointed in the direction the company was heading. From the beginning, he wanted the app to be “wholesome” and relationship-focused, unlike Tinder, which it was increasingly getting conflated with. Hinge was “kind of just this copycat app that has the same interface with a small twist,” McLeod admitted to Guy Raz on the podcast How I Built This in 2021.

In a bold move, inspired by his own tumultuous story of rekindled love, he decided to take the whole thing apart and rebuild it. The app relaunched in 2016, notably redesigned. Swiping was gone, profiles were more robust. The idea was to force users to slow down and look at potential matches a bit more carefully. At the time, McLeod said all this was meant to make the experience less anonymous and more like being on a social network than a dating app.

With its redesign, Hinge was trying to address a problem that was already clear a few years into the mobile dating revolution: Many were deeply frustrated with the app.

Steve Dean, a dating coach in New York, said he used to steer clients away from Hinge but that the relaunch was “transformative.”

Instead of having to match with someone to send a message, you could now do that as you were “liking” something about them, be it an answer to a mandatory prompt — conversation starters like “my most irrational fear,” or, since these get updated with the zeitgeist, “my therapist would tell you” — or a particular photo on their profile. “It’s really the messages that matter because that’s when you prove you’re a human, prove you’re not a bot, prove your worth someone’s attention in the first place,” Dean said.

On many apps and dating sites, you can’t message someone or even know they’ve “liked” you before you’ve both expressed interest — unless you pay for the option. On Tinder, for instance, people try to game the system by buying auto-swiping bots to do the upfront work for them. All that “liking,” McLeod told Raz, “creates a lot of engagement, but … it frustrates people because a lot of those matches don’t go anywhere.”

Since people know which piece of their profile others are engaging with on the updated Hinge, they can also see what works and what doesn’t. Bryce, for instance, has experimented with which prompts he answers, turning to the Reddit Hinge forum to see what women actually want to know. When he answered the “I’m looking for” prompt, his match numbers improved.

Shifting away from using metrics such as time spent on the app, the bread and butter of the attention economy, was another key part of Hinge’s big rethink, according to the company. It introduced a “We Met” feature, a little survey that asks users whether they went out with someone and if the date was a “type of person they’d like to see again.” Hinge says it uses those answers to inform further recommendations.

“From what I understand, it is one of the first companies that has really looked into the data and reacted to it,” said Brooks, the industry consultant. “This is surprisingly rare.”

All these bets paid off. The company ended up benefiting from positioning itself as the relationship app, and, effectively, as the anti-Tinder — and attracting big investment. Seeing promise in Hinge’s popularity among “urban, educated millennial women looking for relationships,” and in a clear effort to stave off competition from the female-focused Bumble, Match Group bought a 51 percent stake in Hinge in 2018, and acquired it in its entirety a year later, giving the up-and-comer access to the enormous resources of the dating behemoth. Match, in turn, got “the missing piece in the portfolio,” according to Brooks: a dating app aimed squarely at users aged between Tinder and

The problems with online dating: 2023 edition

I both know personally and have spoken to people for this piece who have had success finding long-lasting relationships on Hinge, some of them very quickly. When Alex, a video editor from New York, downloaded the app in 2018, his first date turned into a four-year relationship. Allison, a copywriter in Kentucky, told me a similar story of meeting her boyfriend on her first online date ever, through Hinge, in 2021. Two days after we spoke, I got a follow-up saying her boyfriend had proposed.

Dean recommends the app to his clients because, he says, it does get people out on dates. “I don’t know of a better app if you want to go on a date this week with someone who generally doesn’t suck,” he said.

Alex admits that, nowadays, “all the apps kind of look the same.” Bumble and Tinder introduced their own versions of prompts. But unlike its competitors, Hinge prompts are mandatory, giving the user at least a “snapshot of somebody’s personality and energy,” Alex said. Bryce says he “cannot stand” the other apps he’d tried. He thinks they are “engineered to keep you swiping,” while Hinge “does not seem to do that as much.”

None of this is exactly high praise. A lot of people use the app only begrudgingly, and many complain about their experiences. When Hinge had a service outage in March of this year, the internet was brimming with glee. TikTok, Twitter, and Reddit are filled with users’ Hinge grievances: “Hinge is hiding sexy people,” “Hinge is hell,” “Hinge is not where u find ur soulmate”. Users are always “deleting Hinge” out of frustration, while others are trading tips on how to game the algorithm.

Some of the dissatisfaction with Hinge surely stems from its recent rise to one of the biggest players in the game and from the inherent difficulty of delivering on the “relationship app” promise. There are also a number of issues that were diagnosed years ago and haven’t significantly changed, issues that are endemic to online dating and our lives on the internet that no app or site has been able to solve.

One key problem across the apps is the slog of self-presentation, or “impression management,” said Rachel Katz, a digital media sociologist who studies online dating at the University of Salford in the UK. “An important aspect of it is knowing your audience,” Katz said. On dating apps, you don’t know who exactly you’re presenting yourself to when picking a profile picture or composing your bio. You also don’t have physical cues that can help you adjust that self-presentation. “You’re trying to come up with something that’s generally appealing to people, but it can’t be too weird. It can’t be too unique,” said Bryce. “That’s partly why it’s exhausting,” Katz explains, “because it’s this constant labor. … You’re not really sure of how to do it, you can’t just fit into a comfortable social role.”

It seems Hinge’s prompts were introduced in part to help with the labor of impression management. But Dean says they are inadequate for someone who is actually trying to find a relationship. If you add up all the words you can include in your profile, “You only really get 450 characters of meaningful text,” and “that means that users on Hinge, just like on so many other apps, end up stuck in this process of mindlessly swiping because you’re not actually finding people who resonate.”

It’s not that the app isn’t capable of surfacing people that seem appealing to each user. “They know who you’re attracted to. That’s not the hard-part problem anymore,” Dean said. The big question, especially in an app that’s supposed to be geared toward relationships, is compatibility. And that is hard to assess when there’s so little information to draw from.

“Ninety percent of the people in this town are putting on their prompts ‘Kansas City Chiefs, golden retrievers, and Taylor Swift,’” said Bryce.

Nahal says the people she matched with were “super random,” like a former football player who was five years younger than her, seemed “kind of funny” but looked “like he’d never read a book.” She said, “These are not people I wasn’t attracted to or didn’t have something to say to,” but they weren’t people she had much in common with. “That randomness was thrilling, but I don’t think that it had as much legs to it as one might hope if they were looking for something real.” (She did date football guy; it didn’t work out).

The app tries to give its users “most compatible” user suggestions, which many online complain completely miss the mark — whether because it’s “humbling,” or (allegedly) matches you with … your sibling.

This lack of relevancy makes worse another fundamental and longstanding problem of online dating, known as the “paradox of choice,” a term coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz with regard to consumer behaviors. When dating apps are not delivering on compatibility, Dean said, they are leading you to “believe that there’s a forever volume of people you can always like.”

Logan Ury, a dating coach and behavioral scientist who has been Hinge’s director of relationship science since 2020, says that, fundamentally, “matching people is really hard,” regardless of who is doing it. There’s no way to optimize for serendipity. What Hinge is trying to do is to make the experience of “looking at a two-dimensional version of someone as close to the real-life version as is possible through technology.” This is why, in the last two years, the company has rolled out profile polls, audio and video prompts, and voice notes, all in an effort to make profiles “richer” and more lifelike. (The company’s research found, for instance, that conversations with voice notes are 48 percent more likely to lead to a date.)

Ury rejects the notion that apps should be asking people for more about themselves in writing or through extensive questionnaires. Users may match up on paper but end up disappointed in real life. “I would have rather that people understand that sooner by meeting up earlier,” she said. “Use the app as a matchmaker who gives you the matches — and then, as quickly as possible, the two of you should be chatting live to see if you are a match,” she said. “We found that three days of chatting is the sweet spot for scheduling a date.”

Katz’s research shows that another big issue across dating apps is people’s conflicting goals as to why they are on there in the first place. Their interactions can be very dependent on how they are feeling in a given time or even where they are physically. “Sometimes, even though you generally want a relationship on a dating app, in that particular moment, you might be in line at Chipotle, or you might be at work, and it’s just kind of a quick thing.”

Even on Hinge, the “relationship app,” Shoshana has been asked by a couple to join them in a threesome. Men, she said, often don’t even seem to want anything in particular. “I think they just want some vague level of approval,” she said. “I’ve even had female friends say to me, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to really meet anyone. I just want guys to tell me I’m hot.’”

Hinge, for its part, is trying to address the issue, made more pressing by the fluid approach Gen Z has to defining their relationships. In 2022, it introduced two features that let users say upfront what their intentions and relationship types are — including for those who are non-monogamous.

But Shoshana doesn’t fault the app itself for the biggest problem she faces while using it. Unless you’re very lucky, she says, Hinge is “a bottomless pit of cruelness and just selfishness.” She blames the men in her city, Washington, DC. “I don’t think Hinge can do much better,” she said. Every time she’s reported someone for inappropriate behavior, Hinge has taken action.

Harassment is a massive concern across the entire online dating industry. And it’s similar to all these other issues: They may not be any individual app’s fault, but they stem from how we’ve learned to use the internet at large. Anonymity has taught people that it’s very easy to be awful online. The ease of signing up for just about anything has proven we barely have to put in any effort to find what we want. The internet’s premium on snark and pithiness makes it that much harder to earnestly fill out an extensive dating profile. You get stuck between appearing cool and being vulnerable.

It’s the same thing with paying. So many things on the internet have been free — including online dating, for years propped up by venture capital funding — that many balk when they are asked to fork out for a regular subscription.

There’s a certain stigma attached to paying, an echo of the stigma that used to surround online dating in general. But at the end of the day, the apps are a consumer product and, annoying as it may be, they are designed so that paying works. Bryce upgraded to HingeX, the company’s most premium offering, which costs a steep $50 a month. It significantly increased his match rate. Hinge explicitly says that paying for the X version boosts user profiles and their likes. It’s also what many on social media gripe about: They are turned off by Hinge asking them to pay to play.

The people I spoke to found Hinge’s “roses,” a digital gift that indicates to a match you are really interested in them, a particularly cringey paid feature. “It automatically makes me feel a little off, it feels like you’re not approaching somebody from the same level,” said Alex. “It’s so cheesy, I hate it,” said Shoshana. Similarly, Hinge’s “Standouts” section — filled with attractive people you need to send a rose in order to interact with — is a notable source of strife; users call it “rose jail.”

Could AI fix online dating hell?

Emily Stykes, a business analyst at New Street Research, doesn’t think any of the major apps, including Hinge, have solved the basic problem of relevant matches. But, she notes, they are aware of it. “They know there’s a fundamental mismatch between what people want from these apps and what’s being delivered.” At an investor conference in March, McLeod said that “the feeling like this app doesn’t really get me” is one of the biggest issues Hinge is facing.

This is where, according to Ury, AI could help. “AI could do an even better job at letting us know who you’re interested in and what your type is,” she said. The industry envisions that AI will function as a kind of coach for daters. McLeod said during the investor conference that AI could help users not only find “higher quality, fewer quantity matches,” but also help with their interactions, “even potentially going past the first date.” The aim is to have the best “personal matchmaker in the world” who knows “everyone out there.”

Brooks said that the value of a human matchmaker is “pre-date prep and post-date feedback” from both sides of the match. “That’s also when dating apps should get to know their customers, based on the feedback,” he said. “That’s what would feed a truly informed AI.”

In some ways, we’re already there. Apps are implementing AI to help users with the labor of impression management: Tinder, for instance, has been testing a feature that uses AI to identify your best photos. Bumble’s app for making friends introduced AI-generated “icebreakers,” which are questions based on the other person’s profile and can be used in the middle of the conversation. Users themselves are using AI to make the grind of messaging easier, the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

But implementing AI on a large scale to help with romance will be a tricky needle to thread, since the whole point of the endeavor is to find real, authentic connection. The users I spoke to were wary, to say the least. Hinge wouldn’t say how specifically they were planning on employing AI.

At the same time, the company seems to be aware that more tech may not solve problems — at least in part — wrought by tech. It announced in December that, to combat the generation’s loneliness epidemic, it was instituting a $1 million fund to get Gen-Zers to meet in real life.


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