Online dating has long escaped its stigma as a last resort for geeks lacking social skills—thanks in no small part to the popular appeal of such sites as Match.com and OKCupid. But just as Internet dating is hitting its stride, the world of cyber relationships is expanding to a new frontier: your smartphone and wherever it goes with you.
Most of the major players in the online dating game have a mobile app that offers the same features of their website, with the added twist of finding users who are near your current location. Provided you have a GPS-enabled smartphone, a date could literally be right around the corner.
Apps from AreYouInterested, Grindr, OKCupid, and more claim millions of users, but how many potential matches are in your area? And, selection aside, are mobile dating apps safe?
Download a dating app, and it won’t take long to realize that the genders aren’t represented equally; men greatly outnumber women on desktop dating sites and mobile apps alike.
Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in consumer behavior, says this gender inequality is a major obstacle for mobile dating and online dating in general. “Men will sign up for any service in the world that might allow them to meet women—anything at all. But women are much more selective in which sites they will use, and for very good reason they’re much more suspicious and concerned about safety and reputation,” he said.
This might explain why one of the most successful dating apps thus far has been Grindr, which caters to men exclusively. Grindr’s creators subsequently released Blendr, an app for heterosexual males, females, and others looking for friends, but so far it has been met with decidedly less success.
Still, it’s not like mobile dating apps are floundering; according to a report by app analytics company Flurry, online daters actually spend marginally more time using mobile dating apps than desktop websites. And while the gender imbalance and relative newness of these apps may turn some users off, the location-based component offers the ability to meet potential dates in real time—and that’s a major draw for mobile users who already check in to social networks via their handsets.
The Privacy Issue
While many mobile dating apps let users sync their profiles with their Facebook account, not all mobile daters want the world to know they’re looking for love online. Privacy filters let you specify how much of your information is visible to other users, but there’s still the profile photo.
“It is possible to sign up under a pseudonym and use the classic ‘headless torso’ profile photo, but those measures are not fool-proof,” said Frederick Lane, privacy expert and author of Cybertraps for the Young. And even if you are able to hide your identity, there’s the question of whether your anonymized profile will attract the sort of matches you’re looking to meet.
Part of the equation is clearly choosing the dating app that’s right for you—popular websites such as OKCupid attract more users looking for longer-term relationships than apps such as Grindr, for instance—but users must also balance their dating hopes with how much personal data they’re willing to share.
According to Lane, other, more malicious privacy threats come from the location-based nature of mobile dating apps. “While these programs offer the potential for random hookups wherever users happen to be, the reality is that most of us spend a significant portion of our days in a given area or along a specific route, and it would not take much effort to use these programs to augment a campaign of harassment or a prelude to assault.”
Given that sharing your location is essential for finding dates with these apps, how do you protect your identity while maximizing your chances of meeting someone special?
Responsible Mobile Dating
To use mobile dating apps responsibly, Lane recommends concealing as much of your personal information as possible. Most apps let you restrict your profile to just show your name, gender, age, and location. If you do start talking with a fellow app user, it’s also smart to let someone know where you are and when you’ll be back. Lane also emphasizes that you should go with your gut: “If you feel uncomfortable or nervous, stop broadcasting your location.”
Those are some solid guidelines for navigating the current mobile dating minefield, but both Lane and Norton agree that the field has plenty of room for improvement. Norton envisions more females signing up if apps gave them the opportunity to screen male users before sharing their location with them. Integrating dating profiles with social networks such as
Facebook could also give users the ability to filter out sketchy suitors—though you’ll expose more personal info.
As more startups enter the online dating market and the social-networking generation comes of age, the number of mobile daters will mushroom. With bigger popularity will hopefully come greater privacy controls—though in the meantime, there are plenty of ways to use these services safely.