Bad Date

My first night in Silicon Valley, I unwittingly revealed something shocking at a party: I was not on Tinder. The ripples of disbelief ran around the circle of people I was talking to. How could I be a tech reporter not on Tinder?

Simple: I had never heard of it. I was new to covering tech, had just moved back to the Bay from another state, and Tinder was not in my lexicon. Now, four months later, that is far from the case. Since living here I hear about Tinder — and Twine and Carrot and all the other copycats — on what seems like a daily basis. Hell, even my uncle in his sixties told me he’s on Tinder.

Such apps are online dating 2.0. Instead of simply taking browser sites — like OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, or eHarmony — and grafting them onto mobile, entrepreneurs are building dating tools that are mobile first. They’re using the inherent phone properties, such as GPS, speed, and tactility, to shift the nature of stranger romance.

It’s no longer about reading long profiles and finding the perfect fit, it’s now about flirting on the go. Tinder and co are changing web dating the way Hotel Tonight is changing room reservations.

But just like I’m not sure there’s room in the world for more than one Hotel Tonight, I’m not totally sure the market’s got room for all these dating apps. Tinder has certainly staked its claim, and Twine is fighting to own the leftovers with its picture-less interest-based matchmaking. But the rest of them, from Blendr to Hinge to Lovoo to How About We, are scrabbling over the remaining smidgens.

We’re approaching dating app burnout. How many apps can one person possibly use for flirting before they’re fatigued? Studies have shown that when overwhelmed with choices, particularly in dating, people tend to get paralyzed and don’t make a decision. For example, in a study on speed dating people who met 24 individuals were much less likely to find a match than those who met only eight.

As my colleague Nathaniel Mott has argued, app overabundance does not necessarily equal app fatigue. You can have a lot of similar apps that have cornered segments of the same market with different features. For example, some people use the Sunrise calendar app because they find it’s more relaxing, while others use the Tempo app because it’s better for work. It’s not a zero sum game, and there’s room for more than one calendar app in the world.

I’m not convinced that’s the case with dating apps. In dating, it is a bit of a zero sum game, if only because every app that’s going to be successful needs to onboard a ton of people to the platform. They’re inherently social products, so the less users one app has the less benefit it gives its customers.

With dating apps, there are three categories. The Hinges and Downs of the world, which use your social network profiles to set you up with friends of friends. The Tinder, Twines, and Charms, which match you with people in your general area. There’s Lovoo and as of yesterday, Catalyst, which match you with people at the place you’re at. There’s the OkCupids and Plenty of Fishes, old school online dating sites grafted onto mobile apps. And of course, the Grindrs, Pures, and Blendrs — the sex apps for hooking up which we’ve written about before.

Phew. My brain hurts. Does anyone else’s?

As an unashamed romcom fan and avid watcher of The Mindy Project, if someone like me is tired of dating apps, I suspect the world’s approaching its fatigue point too.

There are so many out there that I had to scrape up the last dregs of dating app interest I had to write about newcomer Catalyst, a location-based dating app. Brainchild of University of North Carolina law student Peter Simmons, Catalyst is like foursquare meets Tinder. You check into the bar, cafe, bookshop, or restaurant you’re in, and you’ll be able to see any other Catalyst users who have also checked in. If you favorite them as a match and they’ve favorited you, then you’ll both get a notification.

The idea is that the digital assurance of mutual attraction will make people more likely to approach each other. Instead of worrying about whether you’d get shot down hitting on a stranger in a bar, you’ll know in advance if they’re interested.

“It harnesses the ability of you being online in the hopes that you’ll be able to make a connection offline,” Simmons says.

Catalyst might be addressing that problem, but the barriers to the app’s success are huge. Since it’s a social application, it’s not useful if no one else is on it. But unlike Tinder or Twine, Catalyst is not useful even if people five miles away are on it. The only way it’s useful is if people twenty feet away — in the same shop, bar, or club — are also on it.

So the app is different enough from Tinder to potentially be attractive to online daters, but its success requires mass adoption. And mass adoption is really really hard. There’s no one on Catalyst in San Francisco right now, at least none near me.

And even if it does spread that doesn’t ensure it’ll retain its user base. I downloaded Twine for the purpose of writing this story, and I’m already sick of seeing its little notifications pop up. I’ve gotten seven in the last hour. Half of the guys messaging me live in San Jose or Santa Clara — a hefty hour or two away. This app’s going in the trash bin as soon as I hit publish on the story.

I’m all for online dating facilitating real world connections, but I think what we’ve got here is a bubble that’s ready to burst. Or a heart that’s ready for a heart attack.

[Image via Thinkstock]