Dating apps have gotten so bad that speed dating is in again

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SAN FRANCISCO — Seven men and six women sit scattered around a tiny Irish pub in a sleepy San Francisco neighborhood on a Wednesday night. A woman with a sleek ponytail and jade blouse posts up at the bar. A man in a blazer tucks into a high-top table.

Then there’s John Tierney, 30, sporting a bleached mullet, patchwork cardigan and unwavering self-confidence. This is his first attempt at speed dating, he said, and he’s loving the novelty of meeting single women in real life, rather than swiping on a dating app.

“I come off better in person,” Tierney said. “I just try to match people’s energy.”

Tierney had discovered this event in the most analog way possible: He spotted a paper flier on a nearby telephone pole. It had led him to a site called Shuffle, a speed-dating service he and other participants said seems like a “nice break” from the “discouraging” process of app dating. They had paid $24.99 to attend — and would be charged twice that if they didn’t show, a penalty meant to prevent the flakiness endemic to online dating. The event has no in-person host, relying instead on Shuffle’s website to signal the start and end of each conversation. At the end of the night they’ll “match” or pass on each 10-minute date, and the next day they’ll learn whether any prospects return their interest.

Speed dating isn’t new. But like flared jeans and silver jewelry, trends from the early 2000s are circling back around. Participants say the resurgence of speed dating is a direct response to frustration with dating apps, which take more work and yield fewer matches than they used to. Speed dating comes with its own challenges — like talking to strangers — but for people craving more in-person connection, the risk is worth it.

A surge of scams, fake AI-generated profiles and harassment is making dating apps increasingly unfriendly to users. About 4 in 10 North American users have encountered a scam on a dating app, while about 2 in 10 have fallen for one, according to estimates from cybersecurity company Kaspersky.

Last month a class-action lawsuit against Match Group — which owns dating apps Tinder, Hinge and the League, among others — claimed the company chases profits at the expense of daters, deliberately keeping users swiping rather than helping them find romance. Plaintiffs alleged the company has built addictive features, compelling them to pay for upgrades. Combined with opaque matching algorithms, these features prevent users from reaching their relationship goals, according to the lawsuit.

Match called the lawsuit ridiculous and said its products are designed to get people off the apps and on real-life dates.

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Lots of people treat dating apps like mobile games rather than pathways to actual meetups, said Anwar White, a Montreal-based dating coach. From last year to this year, the number of dates his clients set up from dating apps has dropped sharply. So he’s trying a different tack.

“I’m the type of dating coach that has been pumping these dating apps,” White said. “But just last month, I told my clients: ‘We’re not doing dating apps any more. We’re going outside. We’re touching grass. We’re talking to men.’ ”

White said his clients are hungry for more in-person interaction. During the height of the pandemic, some replaced hangouts with social media scrolling, and now they’re wondering how to get back out there. Many go to speed-dating events and come home with new friends, he said, even if there isn’t a love connection.

Showing up is only half the battle. White helps clients pinpoint their “flirting style” by assessing their personalities: Are they deep and emotional? Fun and breezy? Singles have to embody their “main character energy,” White advises, because being “cute and mute” doesn’t cut it.

Some personalities take faster to speed dating. At the Shuffle event, certain pairs glance at their phones to watch the timer tick down, while others talk right through the end of their “date.” At one point, Tierney finds his upcoming date still chatting with another guy.

“Well excuse me for being on time!” he jokes. The couple blinks in surprise.

As the night goes on, the atmosphere loosens. Tierney talks with a bleach blonde in lug-soled boots, then finds her again between other dates. Will they match? He’ll have to wait until the next morning’s email from Shuffle to find out.

Speed dating is a city phenomenon. Will it stay that way?

City dwellers looking for local speed dating probably have multiple options. Shuffle operates in nine cities, with multiple get-togethers for straight and queer daters in different age groups each month.

On Meetup, Eventbrite and Reddit, local clubs and organizations post one-off speed dating events for fundraising or networking. Some host “used date” parties (bring someone you’ve dated but aren’t any longer) or mixers at secret locations. Matchmakers and dating coaches are setting up private speed dating events for their clientele, while New York City’s We Met IRL and Ambyr Club plan “curated and exclusive” in-person soirees.

Soon, another dating app, has channeled a similar energy into its design. The app nixes regular in-app messaging in favor of immediate invitations to meet. So instead of “sup,” you might get a request to grab coffee. In “blind mode,” users get invitations to in-person group dates.

For people in small towns and rural areas, the choices are fewer. But those folks are increasingly looking for love in person as well, said dating coach Lily Womble, whose advice book “Thank You, More Please” comes out in June. Womble tells clients to start “joy building” — getting out of the house to do things that make them happy, like pottery classes or bowling leagues.

Shuffle founder Austin Yeo said he hopes to take Shuffle to smaller American cities, then international ones.

It will take a delicate touch to avoid re-creating the problems of 2010s dating apps. Each Shuffle website should feel entirely local, Yeo said, with none of the bells and whistles that turn app dating into a chore.

The awkwardness of showing up

For people like Tierney accustomed to dating apps, speed dating comes with new trials.

You’ll have to talk to strangers — many of them, back to back. For shy people, it can be tough, Womble said. Both she and White said their clients struggle to socialize like they did before the pandemic.

Participants will also see far fewer matches than they might after swiping on Hinge for two hours. Rather than hundreds of eligible dates, you might get just a few, but the odds of a real connection and follow-up plans may be higher.

Speed dating also requires a bigger emotional investment than app swiping — so the sting of rejection can feel more intense. Yeo said he gets emails from disgruntled daters after they hit it off with someone at an event but never heard from them after. Is there a bug in the system, one asked?

“I had to be like, ‘No dude, I triple-checked, and there’s no bug in the system,’ ” Yeo said.

After paying his tab and leaving the San Francisco pub, Tierney had to decide which of his mini-dates to match with. If they liked him back, the app would share their cell numbers.

The deliberation isn’t easy. Three women had attended the event as friends. Tierney had enjoyed talking to all of them, but only wants to match with two. Is that rude, he wonders. Should he match with all three, in case they compare notes? He ends up choosing “yes” on all of them.

The next day, results arrive. Tierney’s preferred dates hadn’t matched. It’s a bummer, he said, but he won’t dwell on it. He’s already making plans to attend a matchmaking party in a local warehouse.

“I genuinely had fun,” he said. “It’s a funny story to tell, anyway.”

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