Digital Dating: Finding, Keeping and Losing Love in the 21st Century

Tech Features

Has love gotten harder to find, maintain and move on from since touchscreen-enabled gadgets came into our lives? In some ways, yes. You don’t need to look far to see a pair of us struggling to balance out love for our smartphones and our love for our loved ones. There’s that one couple at the restaurant staring at their phones more than actually conversing with each other. Maybe they’re texting each other. Or maybe they’re quietly Instagramming and Facebooking their time with each other away instead of being present in the moment.

And for those without significant others, we’ve all heard these stories of online dating gone wrong—but what if technology’s bad reputation as a matchmaker is undeserved? After all, technology has helped us find each other faster and easier than ever before. We can reconnect with old flames or make new ones—all with a swipe and a tap. And now, more people are able to enter the dating game and find love of their own—especially those who are normally too shy to make the first move in the real world. But we’re not just talking about eHarmony, and PlentyofFish anymore—the possibilities and options for technology-aided romance have expanded to each stage of love: finding it, being in a relationship and even (gracefully, healthily) ending a relationship.

While technology certainly brings its own set of relationship problems such as catfishing or oversharing on social media sites, it’s also doing a wonderful job by correcting itself and providing better solutions to the problems that often keep us separated. So here it is, Paste’s guide to digital dating in the time of the smartphone.

Finding Love Part 1: Taking online dating to the next level

Finding love usually comes down to four main concerns: Availability, proximity, mutual interest and compatibility. Ultimately compatibility is up to you, but technology has greatly improved our ability to figure out the other three fairly quickly.

“If there’s not a match there’s no need to linger on, and no need to really obsess about it and it’s fairly easy to meet someone else,“ says Joel Simkhai, CEO of Grindr. “That’s a very powerful message: That there’s a lot of people out there and luck and serendipity and technology can help you find that person. And there’s really no need to settle.”

The creation of Grindr, and by extension, Blendr, came about as an answer to a question many gay men have faced: How do you find other gay men? Simkhai said in his own experiences, it was tough to find men of a similar persuasion to date. He referred to himself as a “hidden minority.” Simkhai said he’d always wanted a means to help him find other gay men, but it wasn’t until June 2008 that technology had caught up with his ideas. When Apple came out with the second generation iPhone, Simkhai knew it was time to work on what would later be internationally known as Grindr. The location-based mobile app allows users to view the profiles of available gay men in the area and chat with each other. Grindr launched in March 2009 and since then has gained over six million users in 192 countries worldwide.

Once you log into Grindr, a grid of photos appears, arranged in order of proximity. The first photo shown is the user that is closest to you. After tapping a photo, a profile of that user with pop up along with an enlarged version of the photo you just saw. From there, if you’re still interested you can begin chatting with the user.

Simkhai says that he’s been using the app daily since its launch, stating “it’s ingrained in my life, similar to other social networks.”

Another advantage to using Grindr, Simkhai notes, is how spontaneous it is. The expectations aren’t set too high with Grindr, as they are with similar apps and services.

“Sometimes when you talk to someone online for a long time and you make plans to meet up, you have the expectation and you kind of have an obligation to spend time with them. It would be rude to say ‘Oh sorry not a match’ or something, even though that’s actually the better idea, right? You don’t want to waste anyone’s time. But we just, generally speaking, don’t do that. So I think something like Grindr allows you to do that because the expectation isn’t as high.”

Simkhai experienced this very light approach to dating in one particular instance in using Grindr, where he just set up a quick in-person meetup with someone just to say hi and realized when the person showed up that he wasn’t really interested. But instead of the situation ending up messy with disappointment and hurt feelings, they just easily parted ways, because it was understood to just be a quick “hi.”

But Simkhai’s story doesn’t end up there. After receiving quite a response from straight men and women and lesbians who wanted a similar app, Simkhai and his team began work on an app for straight and lesbian people, Blendr:

“Literally they would email us and call us and tell us that they were jealous,” Simkhai says. “And we also looked at the straight dating services out there. And we found them to be boring, unexciting, tedious. Non-spontaneous. … We had the technology in place and so we made tweaks to it. We launched it a few years ago. We’re quite pleased with the growth, quite pleased with the experience and the ability for a straight person or a lesbian person to go on to Blendr…and be able to see people nearby, chat with them and meet with them.”

Both Blendr and Grindr show nearby users and allow you to chat with them, but Blendr emphasizes listing interests as well. Simkhai and his team have found that “something like interests appeal to women because they want to know a little more about who they’re chatting with.” So if you’d rather not deal with lengthy questionnaires or algorithms—and would rather meet more people that are nearby—Blendr or Grindr may be the app for you. Grindr is available on Android, iOS and Blackberry devices.

Finding Love Part 2: Beyond dinner and a movie

But sometimes sparking up romance is not as much about finding someone as it is about being creative with the dates you do end up going on. After all, you can only go on so many dinner and movie dates before things feel a bit stale. Why not meet someone new and have an adventure? Or use the opportunity to try something new and expand your horizons on a date?

An app called HowAboutWe allows you to do just that. It combines the search for a date with creative date planning. Calling itself “the offline dating site,” HowAboutWe’s website and app allows users to post date ideas, find others who are interested in the idea, and finally meet up in person. According to their site, the service is designed to help create more in-person interactions rather than just online chats. The service also sends users suggestions for dates and people they may be interested in. And if you happen to make it work with someone you meet on HowAboutWe, you can use their service for couples which offers different date experiences that couples can sign up to go on, often at discounted rates.

The singles version of the app is free to download for both Android and iOS devices. The service itself is free to sign up for as well, but users are encouraged to upgrade to the paid version to take advantage of features like unlimited messaging.

Staying in Love: Communication is key

You thought finding love was difficult? Now you’ve got to maintain it. And keeping up with your relationship takes more than “spicing it up in the bedroom” Cosmo-style once in a while. There are grocery lists to be made. Double dates with other couples to schedule. Conflicts to be resolved. Cutesy text messages to send. Go on, now. Hop to it. Get to planning. But it doesn’t have to mean leaving your smartphone behind.

“People like to share online,” says Jenna Bilotta, the co-founder of Avocado Software, Inc. “They share a lot to Facebook. They share a lot to Twitter. But there are thousands of moments that people would share if they were only sharing with their significant other.”

With a name inspired by its namesake’s tendency to grow in pairs, Avocado is an app that seeks to keep pre-existing relationships fun and happy—via clearer communication, helpful planning features (such as grocery lists and a calendar feature) and providing different ways to demonstrate affection (the Hugs and Kisses feature). The Avocado app also provides a private mode of constant communication for just two people: you and your significant other.

Bilotta and Chris Wetherell, a married couple, developed the app together, so when asked about how to make the most of an app like Avocado, Bilotta had some advice to offer:

“First make sure it’s on your homescreen, because when that little badge lights up you’re gonna want to see it,” Bilotta says. “The second one, just personally, anecdotally, taking these little mundane moments that you experience when you’re not around your significant other and find ways to make them fun. So if Chris isn’t around I’ll take a picture of the dog and I’ll draw on top of it and write ‘So hungry!’ instead of just like feeding the dog and having that moment by myself. … Have fun with mundane moments of everyday life, it really does make you feel more connected to be part of these smaller moments.”

But can a couple have too much contact with each other via apps like Avocado? Should there be a “pause” button for times when couples need time apart?

The co-founders have discussed the possibility of a “pause” button but realized that unless couples talk about it first, or just turn off Avocado, people could misinterpret the motive behind using it. Couples would just have to decide for themselves how to handle alone time, as “shutting Avocado off is not really the answer.”

Also, in case you’re wondering, if you and your significant other break up (don’t worry, we’ll get to that part later) all is literally not lost. If you de-couple on the Avocado app, you can still access everything—the photos, the stickers, the messages etc.—you just won’t be able to add to it. Your old account just turns into a little time capsule.

Tenthbit’s app, Couple, is another option for those with significant others. It too boasts the ability keep in constant contact with that one special person, helps you stay organized and also acts as a digital scrapbook about your relationship. But unlike Avocado, Couple allows couples to send each other Snapchat-like photos and something called a “thumbkiss.” Couples’ disappearing photos feature, “Secrets,” does differ from Snapchat in that it allows users to hold onto the photo until a specific time limit passes or number of views set by the user has been reached.

Meanwhile, Thumbkisses allow users to have some semblance of physical contact despite long distances. Couple shows you where your significant other has touched the phone’s screen and if you touch that same spot, it will vibrate. It’s a little gimmicky, but it’s a cute idea and could be especially meaningful for long-distance couples. Couple is free to download for Android and iOS phones.

Breaking Up: Tools for moving out and moving on

And here we are: the dreaded end of your relationship. And hey, you’re still okay. You’re hurting, but things will get better. Whether you need a break from torturing yourself with social media mementos of your failed relationship, or you need to get rid of actual mementos, or you just need remind yourself years from now of the lessons you learned from your last relationship, your smartphone (and laptop) are here for you. Your gadgets can’t hug you but they can make moving on from those who hurt you a little bit easier.

“Just because someone’s had a big impact on your life doesn’t mean that they need to be a permanent fixture,” says Clara De Soto, the co-founder of ClearHart Digital and the KillSwitch app. “In the same way that you don’t want keep your ex boyfriend’s picture on your mantle, on your nightstand, why would would keep his picture on [what’s] actually the digital equivalent: which is your own private corner of the internet, your Facebook page.”

You’ve just broken up with your significant other. Maybe you were dumped. Maybe you dumped them. Either way that whole “It’s not you, it’s me” line is still ringing in your ears. Trying to distract yourself, you log on to your Facebook account to see what everyone else is up to, only to be bombarded with smiling photos of you and your ex. Ouch. So what do you do? You need time to move on but you certainly can’t do that with your ex’s face plastered all over your wall and with sappy “I love you” wall posts scattered like emotional minefields.

Should you deactivate your account? Hell no. Why should your ex win social media? What about defriending the offending ex-lover? Well, unless that person was just soul-crushingly awful, un-friending or blocking someone is a bit petty and vindictive.

Luckily for you, you can use your smartphone to MacGyver your way out of a little pain thanks to ClearHart Digital’s KillSwitch app. This way you don’t have to deactivate or defriend. KillSwitch just simply goes through your Facebook profile and gathers all of the content from your profile in which your ex is tagged. Then all of that stuff is deleted. Or if you opt-into another feature, it’s removed from your profile but saved in a hidden album on your Facebook profile so you can access them later. Either way, you no longer have to worry about bumping into your ex on Facebook. Grocery stores, coffeehouses, parties: you’re on your own.

De Soto spoke a bit about how the idea for the app came about. It all started with a dear, unlucky-in-love friend.

“The fun story is that we have this one very dear friend who unfortunately has been quite unlucky in love, and she had been dating this guy for a while and realized that he had another girlfriend and she was devastated, she called us up and was like ‘That’s it. I want to start a website called where you can anonymously message the girlfriend of the dude you just found out has another girlfriend.’ ??“We were like, ‘I don’t think you want to put that kind of evil into the world.’ Obviously something like that could get really ugly really fast. Like Jerry Springer-like. But what we thought was interesting was that right after she broke up with this dude, she deactivated her Facebook account because she had a bunch of pictures of them on there, and so then we asked around and some of our other girlfriends noticed that it was a pretty frequent trend.”

Ultimately, De Soto and co-founder Erica Mannherz realized that though social media sites like Facebook had come a long way in “replicating human experiences,” there was still no mechanism for dealing with break-ups in place and so they decided to make one. Enter KillSwitch. The initial response to the app has generally been quite favorable, and while the app itself is big reason why, that reaction is also due in part to the app’s marketing. The co-founders took great care to ensure that the app was not seen as meant to be vindictive or mean-spirited in any way. Which is why KillSwitch was released in Google Play on Valentine’s Day and has a charitable tie-in with the American Heart Association of New York, “just so that people can feel even better about it.”

De Soto herself has not used the app on an ex-lover but has admitted to using it on a former friend as a sort of social media “housekeeping.” De Soto went on to note that that’s what is so great about it: “It’s not just for romantic relationships, but really any kind.”

And don’t worry. If you decide to use KillSwitch, you ex will not be alerted. Here’s exactly what happens when you “flip the switch” as described by De Soto:

“What it does is that it’ll crawl your profile and aggregate any content that’s tagged with your ex. If it’s content that you own then you’re deleting it. So they will no longer have that picture on their profile. But for pictures that you don’t own, you’ll no longer be tagged in them. There’s not a real share functionality on the app. There’s nothing that alerts that person. If they happen to go through their Facebook profile and see that a bunch of pictures are missing, yeah then they’ll probably notice. But other than that it’s very discreet. We don’t post anything on your wall. It’s just there one day and it’s gone the next.”

When asked how to make the most of using KillSwitch, De Soto stressed the importance of realizing that breakups are a “perfectly natural, healthy part of life” and advised prospective users to opt-in for that hidden album of ex-related photos and content that KillSwitch offers after it removes that content from your profile.

“Download them, the pictures, put them in a box and save them for later. And maybe delete the album later on Facebook, but I think that best thing to do is to try and think about every rom-com movie where women go through that box. You might actually want to look at them when you’ve moved on. The best way to use this app is by thinking more like ‘Let’s not let Facebook and social media rules dictate how I want to handle my breakup.’ The best way is to have a positive attitude with it. It’s a perfectly natural, healthy part of life. Moving on is a big part of growing up.”

You’ve managed to clear out reminders of your ex from your Facebook page, but what about the actual stuff he or she left behind at your place? Old gifts, clothes, CDs, records (from bands you can’t stand anyway). What if you almost married them? What happens to the ring or the dress?

“It’s horrible to see someone suffering in heartbreak,” says Annabel Acton, the founder of the website Never Liked It Anyway. “If you can sort of help them move on a little bit that’s kind of a win.”

Like KillSwitch, Never Liked It Anyway is a way for you get rid of reminders of failed relationships. Unlike KillSwitch…is everything else about Never Liked It Anyway. NLIA is a website through which you can sell your unwanted break-up stuff, buy other people’s break-up stuff and vent about your break-up (regardless of whether you decide to sell your stuff).

“It wasn’t a particularly bad story—it was practicality,” Acton says about her own breakup. “My ex and I had broken up a few days before Christmas and were meant to take a holiday together and suddenly I had these plane tickets that I didn’t want and I was like ‘Oh what am I going to do with these?’ And I had spoken to a whole bunch of my friends, just joking that wouldn’t it be funny if there was a place where I could sell the stuff that I don’t want anymore. And as I thought about it, I thought there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I probably don’t want anymore. And everyone started laughing and my friends were like ‘That’s such a good idea! The same thing happened to me. I’ve got stuff that I could get rid of.’ That there really was an idea: there’s a lot of of stuff that you’re left with and it’s a really healthy way to move on by sort of throwing things out.”

Acton’s site has been well received since it launched 18 months ago and Acton credits that to the unique tone of the site and her emphasis on positivity. The site manages to balance the tone between “not being a site where people come to name and shame,” but also not “a big group hug” either. According to Acton, what has resonated with people is the “focus on the silver lining.”

Acton herself says she has sold some of her stuff from past relationships on the site, including a ring from a boyfriend she had when she was 16. When asked what her favorite story was, she recalled a situation involving a woman and a Harley Davidson motorcycle: “One of my favorites is about a woman who bought a Harley Davidson because her boyfriend had one and the plan was to ride off into the sunset together. And then they broke up and suddenly she was like ‘What the hell am I going to do with this Harley?’ and sold it. And I thought that was pretty awesome.”

Technology can make finding and keeping love more complicated. There’s texting etiquette. There’s the danger of excessive Facebook stalking/snooping. But it can also make meeting new people embarrassingly easy (provided that you’re actually willing to step away from the computer and put down your smartphone to have an actual in-person interaction). It can make the pain of breakups worse (You got your face in my social media! You got your social media activity in my face!). Or it can give you a chance to commiserate with other people who really get what you’re going through because they’re actually going through it right now.

But the real beauty of technology, especially when it comes to love, is that you have choices. Now more than ever, there is life after being rejected. Time moves on. Better things are ahead. You still have options—and the best part is that they’re all at your fingertips. So if regular, standard, meet-cute courtships aren’t working for you, just pull out your smartphone or tablet, take heart and remember: there’s an app for that.

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