When I last dipped my toes into the dating pool in 2007, online dating was considered the last resort for the desperate or the socially awkward. Sure, the internet helped circumvent the many obstacles our conservative society put up to prevent young men and women from intermingling. Many a romance blossomed on Yahoo chatrooms or MSN Messenger, teenagers exploring love and (cyber) sexuality in the middle of the night, hidden from the prying eyes of tech-illiterate parents. But to actually go looking for love on dating sites was a strict no-no.

The online matchmaking industry was centred around matrimonial sites like Shaadi.com, which saw great success by simplifying the complicated calculations of class, caste and community into a few clicks and keystrokes. A few local dating sites did exist, such as IndiaFlirt and Match.com. But most were shady at best, overflowing with desperate men wanting to “make frandship”.

Ten years down the line, the landscape looks completely different. Online dating is now a growth industry, the subject of visual art projects (#100IndianTinderTales), social anthropology experiments (50 dates in Delhi), and a new genre of think pieces and op-eds about finding love in the digital age. Nearly 67 per cent of Indian singles know couples dating online, and 33 per cent of the couples surveyed had met online, according to digital research consultancy Mindshift Metrics. By 2040, they project the 33 per cent to grow to 70 per cent. Way smaller than the multi-billion-dollar online matrimonial industry, the online dating space, however, has been growing at an explosive pace in urban India, driven by the unlikely popularity of the American app Tinder. With over 14 million daily swipes, the app has helped legitimise dating culture to some extent in a society that still has a patriarchal stranglehold over young people’s sex lives and marriage choices. Even Indian online dating services are attracting a lot of funding these days. Alongside international competitor OkCupid, local apps like TrulyMadly and Woo are snapping at Tinder’s heels.

It’s tempting to believe that a clever enough algorithm and adequate computing power can solve one of life’s complex riddles — the act of falling in love; but the reality falls short of what is advertised. For every TrulyMadly or OkCupid success story, there are a dozen tales of disasters — awkward dates, hilarious mismatches or frustrating hours of futilely trudging through profiles and online conversations. In a recent survey by Consumer Reports, respondents gave online dating sites the lowest satisfaction score, below even the much-maligned tech support providers. Open to all, the apps have little or no verification processes, leading to security concerns, especially in a country where women routinely face harassment, stalking and worse on a daily basis.

Fake profiles, unsolicited ‘dick pics’ and a skewed gender ratio make the user experience exhausting. Moreover, many of these apps, especially Tinder, are designed to incentivise quick hookups and instant gratification over long-term matches. While the ‘hook-up platform’ tag alienates many potential users among the conservative base, the impersonal, almost transactional nature of this scrollable meat market is off-putting to many among the more liberal users too.

Date with matrimony

Newer apps like SirfCoffee and Find Life Over Here (FLOH) are trying to create a middle ground between the transience of casual dating and what SirfCoffee co-founder Sunil Hiranandani calls the “used car approach” of classified ads and traditional matrimonial sites. Positioning themselves as bespoke matchmaking services or singles’ networks, they target a well-heeled niche — urban professionals — with the offer of a safe space in which they can interact with like-minded peers looking for a serious relationship.

“The idea is to bridge the gap between traditional values and modern expectations,” says Hiranandani, who started SirfCoffee together with his sister Naina in 2008. A banker by profession, he had just returned to Mumbai from London and found many of his peers stressed about the nitty-gritty of dating and finding a life partner. “There was nothing that was relevant to most Indian urban professionals — namely, this idea of dating, but with a view to getting married.”

“One of the first things my wife suggested when we were building FLOH was to take the women’s perspective,” says Siddharth Mangharam, who co-founded FLOH with his wife Simran and two other partners. “What they want to make sure is that the person is safe, the person is articulate and that there’s good chemistry [between them].”

Both FLOH and SirfCoffee take the exclusive route — you can’t just join, you have to go through a rigorous screening that includes detailed application forms and face-to-face interviews, either in person or through video-conferencing. The rejection rate is high — FLOH picks 5,000 out of over 50,000 applicants a year. SirfCoffee has an even smaller pool of 1,100 members, spread across 18 countries. University education is a must, together with politeness, ability to engage in conversation and seriousness of intent. The fee — ₹3,000 per month at FLOH, and about ₹20,000 for six months at SirfCoffee — helps weed out those seeking casual hookups and others with malicious intentions, the founders say. “The relationship is on a first-name basis,” says Hiranandani. “We’re like your BFF, we get to know you, become your friends, and then set you up with other friends.”

Meeting ground

The aim is to simulate a real dating environment, where personal connections and serendipity are more important than how many of your data points match. “We don’t believe in algorithms, we’re anti-algorithm,” declares Hiranandani. “The thesis of my company is that technology has destroyed courtship, because you can engage in multiple conversations without really having any skin in the game. Half the battle nowadays is [in] actually meeting, and we conquer half that battle for you.”

SirfCoffee sets you up on a blind coffee or dinner date, and all you have to do is show up. Beyond that, everything depends on how the date goes — the app will not share contact details, as that would be the prerogative of the dating couple. “The stakes are very low, about an hour of your time and the cost of a coffee,” says Hiranandani. “The upsides are, maybe, planning your sangeet (pre-wedding ritual) next year.”

FLOH, on the other hand, avoids one-on-one interactions in favour of a fun get-together for a carefully curated group of 15-20 people. The activities at such meets range from learning how to make a cocktail at a bar to going for a hike, attending vintage car rallies or wine-tasting sessions. “We’ve found that people really don’t want to meet their [future] partners on dating or matrimonial sites,” says Mangharam. “They want to meet them during an activity, like a dance class or a trek. And that’s the spot we’ve filled.”

“It’s a really fun way to get to know people, because you’re more focused on the event and what you’re doing, so your basic inhibitions about meeting up with other people fade away,” agrees Taru Chandra, who met her husband, Shaleen Srivastava, at a BBQ cookout Floh organised in 2012.

For a few, by a few

Both Hiranandani and Mangharam insist their apps are exclusive but not elitist or discriminatory. There are no salary caps, and the only criteria is the need for a cultural fit, they say. Nevertheless, their screening process, and even the mission statements, such as FLOH’s assurance of guaranteeing a “gene pool of a much higher quality”, which while leading to a higher success rate (400 weddings in six years) does leave many of us out in the cold.

Luckily, other entrepreneurs have woken up to the challenge, including two online dating services catering to two historically marginalised communities — people with disabilities and the queer community.

Kalyani Khona and Shankar Srinivasan started Wanted Umbrella in 2014 as an offline dating agency focused on people with disabilities. “People with disabilities are generally the first to get filtered out from a pool of possible choices,” says Srinivasan. “That’s the biggest challenge for them — they don’t get an equal shot at finding somebody or getting that opportunity.”

By 2015, they had over 2,000 sign-ups. After interviewing people with disabilities in over 55 cities to find out their pain points and preferences, they spent a year putting together the Inclov app, paid for by a successful crowd-funding campaign. Open to everyone, the app matches people based on variables that include disability type, percentage, availability of cure, and assisted devices. To ensure this sensitive information — as well as contact details and photos — is not misused, the app has disabled screenshots. The Inclov team remains constantly in touch with everyone who’s logged on, to ensure there are no fake profiles on the app. “It’s also fully accessible to people with visual impairment and we’re working on introducing voice notes, as well as video calling for the hearing impaired to interact in sign language,” adds Srinivasan.

Inclov is now venturing into offline networking with the Inclov Social Spaces initiative, where users get together, participate in activities and talk to one another in a natural environment. “What we realised was that the people who matched on our site don’t get to meet in person,” explains Srinivasan. “The apprehensions are high even in the mainstream audience, and here it is tenfold. So, this becomes like a very fun, 2-3 hour getaway for people on a Sunday afternoon.”

With 8,000 users and 2,500 matches already, Inclov plans to expand to other countries by the end of the year. Interestingly, one of the app’s biggest success stories came barely 10 days after its launch, when the team was still looking for bugs to fix. “Someone called to say, ‘Hey, we’ve found someone on this platform and our parents are meeting’,” says Srinivasan. “A week later the marriage was fixed. I took a train to Surat to attend the wedding, and when I met the parents I realised that even if we only ever managed to match just these two people then it’s all worth it. Because they told us that after years of looking they were ready to give up, but then Inclov helped them finally.”

Queer, that’s the pitch

Online dating has also proved a boon to India’s queer community, which has long suffered a lack of safe social spaces due to the prevailing conservatism and the spectre of Section 377, which criminalises them. Internationally, websites like PlanetRomeo.com or apps like Grindr and Her were quick off the block, but they may not always be the best fit for Indian users.

“The biggest problem is that there isn’t a home-grown app for queer people in India,” says transwoman writer and researcher Nadika Nadja. “And even with many of the international apps, there’s no recognition of trans identities, there’s no recognition of orientation — [the assumption that] if you’re a transwoman then you’re automatically attracted to men and vice versa. Queer identity is written with the granular identities missing, and there are obviously other issues of what constitutes femininity and masculinity.”

The other challenges for queer people looking for love online include the constant threat of harassment and being outed to family or colleagues. There have even been cases of policemen posing as gay on dating apps to entrap users and extort money. Even within the LGBTQ community, trans- and bisexual phobia remains a worry, especially among gay men. Determined to change this unhappy state of affairs, Karan Kariappa and Dolly Koshy started Amour, an inclusive queer dating platform in May 2016. Prospective members must fill a detailed Google form — carefully scrutinised by moderators — before they can join a curated Facebook community. Users can post their information and scout for a match from the profiles listed in an Excel-sheet database. To protect identities, only unique Amour IDs are in use, with no personal or contact information on display.

“Security is a big challenge,” says Kariappa. “We continuously scan profiles for offensive and insensitive language and point it out to them. Also, if anyone harasses anyone on FB discussions, we won’t hesitate to throw them out; but, thankfully, we haven’t come across such a situation yet.”

Amour not only supports the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality but also allows users to choose from different types of companionship, whether monogamy, polyamory, or anything in between. “On most apps, this [the types of companionships] is dictated by a few people who want everyone to conform to their idea of “monogamy”. At Amour, we feel that people should be free to make that choice and we are no one to judge.”

Their zero-tolerance policy extends beyond matters of sexuality to discriminatory remarks on caste, community and religion. The Amour Google form is available in English, Hindi, Kannada and Telugu, with plans for more languages in the works, to be able to reach out to queer people outside the urban Anglophone community. “Many tier II and smaller places do not have any access to resources, and this is a good way to include them in the community,” says Kariappa.

Amour has also organised LGBTQ dating events in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Mumbai, and wants to launch an app, although funding is not easy for the volunteer-run operation. The page has over 1,000 members, including many from outside the big metros.

The pool is shrinking

In a country like the US, it’s boom time for niche dating apps. A quick search of the Android and iOS app stores throws up varieties ranging from somewhat understandable to slightly off-kilter and the absolutely absurd. Millionaires, for instance, can check out Luxy (a company spokesperson described it as “Tinder minus the poor people”), sci-fi fans can head to Trek Passions, while stoners can bond over their love for pot on My420Mate. There are dating apps for farmers, dog lovers, people who eat gluten-free food, Ayn Rand enthusiasts, and even one for people who love hot sauce. Which begs the question, how niche is too niche? Or, as Srinivasan put it when I told him about a dating start-up catering to Indian metalheads, “Is it really that much of a problem for metalheads to find a date?”

Online dating’s biggest value proposition was that it allowed you to cast your net worldwide, vastly expanding your pool of potential partners. There was a certain amount of filtering, of course, but you largely had an entire planet of options to choose from. These were the little breaches in the walls of geography and society, enabling love across borders, classes, races and castes. But many — though not all — niche dating apps are doing the opposite, carving the world back into tiny slivers based on the old social walls, and new ones like consumption patterns.

Besides, does anyone really think a mutual love for fiery Sriracha is a great foundation for a relationship?