Love in the time of Tinder

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Standing apart: Local dating apps like Truly Madly hope to attract youngsters who are looking for partners without parental supervision

Standing apart: Local dating apps like Truly Madly hope to attract youngsters who are looking for partners without parental supervision

Indigenous dating apps are giving new agency to young people who now believe romance, and perhaps even happily-ever-after are just a click away

Life had just become easier for singles in the city. Or so I was led to believe. The solution for melancholic solitude was now just an app away. Having proved their worth as effective icebreakers in the West, mobile dating platforms were fast galvanising lonely Indian hearts into action. The arrival of Tinder neatly coincided with the advent of indigenous doppelgangers such as Thrill, Woo and Truly Madly, which demanded a similar drill. Start by signing in through your Facebook account. Scan profiles of likely matches. Make snap judgments on the basis of age and appearance. Scan the personal details — digests of career achievements, trite pick-up lines even obtuse quotes by Rousseau. Then, as Tinder vocabulary would have it, swipe left to reject, swipe right to accept.

Approximately 48 hours after I had downloaded Tinder, my phone buzzed in the dead of night. The app had finally found me a match. Devika*, a Mumbai-based advertising professional, was passing through Kolkata and was booked on a flight the next morning. A formal date was logistically impossible. A Tinder chat, however, helped ease some boredom. “The other day,” she typed, “I started speaking to a man on Tinder who looked dishy and obviously Punjabi. It turns out, that wasn’t a picture of his to begin with. He was basically middle-aged, married and Bengali. His wife, he later said, just wasn’t interested in sex.” I assured the 35-year-old that if I had to choose a fake picture for myself, I’d pick someone with a far richer crop of hair. She laughed. And promised to party together when in the city next. My first Tinder exchange had left me both curious and confused.

Concerned about the breed of half-witted and desperate men I might be mistaken for, I asked 23-year-old blogger Nisha Manchanda* if Indian men knew how to navigate the world of online dating. Her answer was a categorical “No!” She explained, “One of the first messages I received on Tinder was hilariously puzzling. This guy just said, ‘Meow!’ Men use images of dogs and picturesque landscapes as their profile pictures. Sometimes you’ll see them putting up a group picture. How should I decode who I am speaking to?” Though tired of looking for the proverbial Waldo ever since she became a Tinder user this May, Nisha does believe that most dating apps are more women-friendly. “I’d say that I have been matched with 98 per cent of the men I swiped right for. It gave me a great ego boost at first, but after a while you realise that men swipe right for almost every woman they see. It can get a bit much.”

Evidence suggests that dating platforms can be equally puzzling for men. Browsing through prospective profiles on Thrill, I paused at pictures of women snug in the arms of possible boyfriends and husbands. Thrill’s co-founder Josh Israel says he shares my bewilderment. “I don’t know if they are just bored or looking for another relationship, but such anomalies can be seen the world over.” Two years after shifting base to India from New Jersey, Israel believes there are perhaps other peculiarities which set the country apart. The 27-year-old entrepreneur says that despite sharing many a habit with the West, the Indian man still struggles when approaching women. “Parents have found life partners for their children for so long that a strange mindset has come to define India’s youth. Every man wants to know — how do I talk to women?”

Released earlier this year, Thrill already boasts 60,000 users and 20,000 matches. Israel, though remains realistic about such numbers. “Apps like ours are only taking a crack at a minute urban population. Our users are part of that hip, young crowd, which is already frequenting bars and nightclubs. The idea is to access the larger populace.” Thrill’s founders have their hopes pinned on the country’s much-hyped 18-25 age demographic. “For them, shaadi.com is just not cool. As time progresses, a slice of that matrimonial pie will belong to mobile dating apps,” says Israel.

The likes of Tinder and Thrill are taking on a veritable Goliath. A matrimonial service like shaadi.com claims to attract 10,000 subscribers every day. Chances of a radical transformation seem remote, but for some, matchmaking is up for a swap and a swipe.

The traffic attracted by an online matrimonial profile is often the subject of an entire family’s curiosity. Mobile dating and discovery apps, on the other hand, offer more private agency. No longer reliant on just an aunt’s or colleague’s introduction, hundreds of Indian youngsters now carry in their pockets the possibility of an independent and sudden romance. Since social apprehensions dictate that the use of these mobile platforms remains both awkward and surreptitious, most urban users only secretly admit to playing a new kind of virtual roulette. The odds of rejection are high, but that doesn’t seem to dampen their hope for love and intimacy. Many believe that these novel wheels of Tinder-like fortune will one day turn enough for them to get lucky.

Finding middle ground

Six months ago, writer Esha Kakar* and her friend talked about the difficulties of meeting single men in Mumbai. “At some point, this friend took my phone from me and downloaded Tinder,” says 26-year-old Kakar. The first date proved disappointing. Her Tinder match needed alcohol to converse with women. Worse still, he was preparing for his GMAT and wanted Kakar to proof his English. “It felt like I had just met Rajesh Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory.” Another Tinder conversation one night carried itself to the phone and then to an impulsive breakfast. “We even got wet in the rain. I had spoken to a stranger for eight hours straight. It would have all been a dreamy first romantic date, but things fizzled out.”

There have been other long drives and nights at the movies. Wanting to record her adventures in this brave new world of mobile dating, Kakar is cataloguing them for her first book. Though she still remains part of the arranged marriage framework, she feels that applications like Tinder and Truly Madly help engineer a more direct correspondence, thereby eliminating the middleman. But a suitably meaningful relationship, she asserts, might well be a rarity. “The general idea is that if a girl is using a dating app, she must be promiscuous. Men often end up viewing such spaces as hook-up platforms.” To counter such perceptions, the founders of Woo and Truly Madly are trying to shed the ‘dating’ tag, deliberately positioning their apps as social discovery and matchmaking products. “Hardly anyone wants to be matched with a thrill-seeker or someone looking for just a casual fling,” says Sumesh Menon, CEO and co-founder of U2opia Mobile, the company that launched Woo this July.

Rather than attracting the college-goer, Menon stresses that Woo’s target audience is the young professional who has made some headway in his or her career. “These people are financially independent. They don’t want to outsource the process of finding their life partner. Unlike the conventional matrimonial website, where matches are made on the basis of caste and complexion, individuals now want to set their own parameters that aren’t transactional.” Menon clearly wants to create a virtual environment that is conducive for a “serious” relationship. Hitesh Dhingra, co-founder of Truly Madly, seems to be on a similar page.

In the months of research that Dhingra and his team conducted before releasing their app, they noticed that a majority of their respondents felt that dating in an Indian context felt too frivolous. “We had never had a good dating site. On the ones that existed, over 90 per cent of the users happened to be male. There was no security,” says Dhingra. The online matchmaking space, he adds, hadn’t transformed in over a decade. “Moreover, even matrimonial sites weren’t safe for women. There was this obvious proliferation of fake profiles.”

With improvement and sanitisation in mind, the founders of Truly Madly hit upon a novel idea. For new users signing up, Facebook accounts would only provide a first key to the matchmaking platform. The process of proving one’s credibility was to be more exhaustive. Determined by a verification of phone numbers, LinkedIn profiles, driving licence and passport numbers, the app’s makers began assigning each of their subscribers a ‘trust score’. The idea, says Dhingra, was simple — “The higher this score, the better your eventual prospects.” Most dating apps often only allow users to connect with individuals who are located within a radius of 100-150 km. By allowing its users to find matches even beyond this circumscribed limit, Dhingra says Truly Madly serves a more noble purpose: “We will ensure that compatibility slowly comes to supersede geographical limitations.”

I do and some don’t

If you are looking for a match across the oceans, matrimonial websites should be your next stop. A few days after I had filled out an endless questionnaire on shaadi.com (the things I do for you, dear reader), I saw that my profile had attracted the attention of a British-Asian government employee. Checking the boxes of our criteria, I finally found the catch I instinctively knew existed. She expected me to earn a crore and more every year. My inadequacy plaguing me, I stayed away from the website. A week later, I received an afternoon call from a Shaadi executive. She wanted to know what I was looking for in a potential life partner. “Like-mindedness,” I muttered. “No caste preferences, Sir?” Taken back, I realised my ‘No’ sounded more apologetic than emphatic. The conversation ended with an invitation to the matrimonial portal’s city office and the carrot being dangled — “You can even get numbers, Sir!”

Mallika Garg*, a 31-year-old educationist working in Bengaluru, had for long navigated the space of online matrimony before she found her husband on shaadi.com three years ago. Her first tip — “Make sure you don’t have bad grammar. Badly written profiles are an instant turn-off.” Dating applications, she says, might possibly have been attractive to her if she were 21. “Once you are 26 and have decided to settle down, you certainly wouldn’t want to be on a public dating platform.” Even though her husband doesn’t like telling acquaintances that the couple met on a matrimonial platform, Garg is grateful for the relatively anonymous search Shaadi allowed her. “I didn’t have to give out my picture or any other information I felt uncomfortable sharing. But that said, finding someone on Shaadi is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Garg remembers sifting through hundreds of profiles that were quite obviously faked. “It just made the whole process that much harder.” Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi clearly had the interests of several Mallikas in mind when she recently demanded that online matrimonial sites revamp their security features. The minister even suggested that such portals make Aadhar numbers mandatory. “It’s a suggestion that obviously has the right intent, but the penetration of Aadhar might not be enough for it to be an altogether reliable method. Besides, we are also a global business,” says Gourav Rakshit

As president and COO of shaadi.com, Rakshit doesn’t feel threatened by the advent of dating and matchmaking apps. He says it separates the wheat from the chaff. “It’s well understood that if you are looking for a life partner, Shaadi is the place to be. If you are looking for a casual date, you have other apps for that.” It has now been two years since 30-year-old architect Vikram Ghosh* posted his profile on BharatMatrimony.com. “I met some women from the site, but they expected my parents to be a presence from the start. I wanted to leave that encounter for later. I had a bottom-up approach. They seemed to want a top-down one.” After turning his attention to apps, which gave him access to more single women in Kolkata, Ghosh did go out on more dates. “I think I blew my chances with the last girl by suggesting we spend a weekend together. She said no. I moved on,” he says.

Writer Esha Kakar, however, deserves the last word. She says, “The more I use these apps, the more I start believing that people are disposable. If I don’t get along with you, there is little reason for me to give you a second chance. There is someone else waiting and he’s only a free app away.” Fearing my lot in the bins of modern matchmaking, I decide to quietly hit delete.

(*Names of some respondents have been changed on request.)



Published on November 28, 2014

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