Revamping Romance

Finding Love in the Digital Age
April 6, 2023
Vincent Zhu
Adrian Abeijon
min read

Introduction (tl;dr)

As our lives have become increasingly digital, the way we find love and connect “romantically” has too. However, we believe current dating apps are doing the opposite of what they set out to accomplish; they leave many feeling “burnt out,” hopeless, and excluded.

Dating apps presently have algorithms that easily promote those who fit traditional beauty standards and leave many others frustrated as they are left behind. We believe the way we find love is due for an overhaul. Our belief is that the present issues of dating apps are that they do not encourage genuine connections, are not inclusive of all genders and relationship preferences, and gamify dating. New dating solutions should, from our perspective, be designed with genuine connections and inclusivity as the main driver that result in love forming serendipitously.

Starting in the friend zone

To build a truly appealing dating app, we believe it must lead with genuine connections first. Many current dating app users often complain about getting ghosted or not having engaging matches. Existing solutions emphasize matching with individuals first and leave it up to the user to figure out how to connect. We think they fail to provide a space where users can connect on shared interests, culture, or experiences in a meaningful way. If users are able to connect with each other first genuinely, then there is a possibility they stumble into finding love.

Additionally, photo-based online dating apps are one-dimensional and boring. They are quickly falling out of favor with people trying to spice up the dating market through audio, video, or interest-led dating platforms. Photo-based online dating is simply going out of favor.

What is needed to build in dating successfully?

  • Building connections. A product should help users build connections first. Oftentimes, romantic interest is born after users share an affinity for something. We think no current dating apps emphasize this enough.
  • Inclusivity. Build for all genders/relationships/races, preferences, etc.
  • Be more digital. Include options for individuals to interact more meaningfully online first. Many Gen Zers have grown up making friends online and are comfortable with going on their “first date” online as well.

Now is a great time to build a new dating solution

There is no hiding from it. Gen Z is saying they are lonely. 41% of male and 34% of female Gen Zers say they feel lonely, the largest numbers amongst any generation.

Source: New Consumer

With current online dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge all founded nearly a decade ago, we think it is a perfect time to be in this space. Though they are not perfect, these apps walked so that new dating apps can run. Online dating is no longer taboo and is now arguably just as mainstream as meeting IRL. Many of us are willing to give strangers we met online a chance to form a deeper connection with us. 

We believe Gen Z has also changed what love can look like; it is no longer one size fits all. Gen Z is more likely than any other generation to embrace gender fluidity, non-heterosexual relationships, and non-monogamy. We think no mainstream dating app appropriately includes these individuals.

Lastly, we think gamified “swiping” is dead. Gen Z is burnt out from swiping and craves a more genuine connection.

Love’s storied past: a brief history of dating

Romantic relationships and dating have been at the center of human existence since the beginning of time, but the definitions of relationships and dating have been redefined as time has progressed. Historically, in the Middle Ages in Europe, a “romantic relationship” was often an arranged marriage between a man and woman and sometimes a business arrangement amongst families. Romance was secondary to the needs of the family and societal pressures.

Later in history, dating turned into a courtship where young women would interact with gentlemen suitors at events or under the eye of a chaperone. As time went on, in the Western world, these practices brought romance to the forefront, and more relationships were born from romance instead of pragmatic reasons and familial influence. Additionally, young couples began going out in public together and convening at places like coffee shops, public parks, etc. However, many romantic relationships were still started with people within similar social circles.

A couple of centuries later, dating was often seen as the stage before marriage. Yet, as the concept of divorcing became more formalized, dating at any time in a person’s life was possible, as a marriage could end at any moment. As corporations grew, people began to meet at places like work, and younger individuals still often met at places like schools or local meetup hubs.

More recently, new ways to communicate with each other, like the telephone, texting, and the internet, have allowed people to interact more without face-to-face interactions. Online dating became a way to meet new romantic partners, albeit it was stigmatized until the last decade. Now, with dating apps, people are able to use their smartphones and find a romantic partner in the comfort of their own bedroom without the need to have ever met in person. With the COVID pandemic, more people defaulted to video chats to interact with other individuals and further evolved the definition of dating to be digitally led.

So what does this all mean?

Dating and the meaning of romantic relationships have evolved throughout history, and the twenty-first century is no exception. We believe the landscape will continue to evolve as Gen Z explores and redefines previous fundamental “truths,” such as gender, heterosexual relationships, and monogamous romantic relationships. As a result, we think dating apps of the future will need to consider all of these factors and decide where and how to build them amongst a digitally native population.

Current love affair: present-day dating apps

Tinder gamified the dating experience, made the user onboarding experience frictionless, and focused on people geographically close to you. However, one of Tinder’s most crucial features was its highly optimized algorithms. The algorithm ensured that extremely attractive people showed up first, meaning this population got more opportunities for matches and engaged many first-time users. Tinder quickly gained critical mass to the point where it was almost “uncool” to not be on Tinder as a single person. Other large players like Bumble and Hinge also leveraged these tactics and recognized the value of having an algorithm. The current large players optimized for attractiveness in photos and emphasized physical beauty. We think, unfortunately, these algorithms have left many behind since they rely on content from Facebook and Instagram, which Gen Z uses less frequently. Additionally, they have failed to adapt to Gen Z’s changed definition of love and relationships.

We believe Millennials broke down barriers to make online dating mainstream, but the industry has failed to adapt to Gen Z’s new ideas of love and relationships. For instance, a quarter of Gen Zers expect, at least once during their lifetime, to change their gender identity. At least 56% of Gen Z also know at least one person who uses a gender-neutral pronoun. In our view, these statistics show that if gender can be fluid and on a spectrum, relationships can be as well.

One in five Gen Zers identifies as LGBTQ, which we think implies Gen Z is more open to non-heterosexual relationships. Gen Z is also not afraid to talk about these ideas publicly. As a result, we think gender fluidity and redefining relationships (i.e., non-heterosexual, polyamorous, etc.) will increasingly become normalized as more conversations happen around these topics.

On top of algorithms favoring physically attractive individuals and not adapting to changing societal norms, there are many other frustrations in the logistics of matching on dating apps. This frustration potentially results from people being tired of getting ghosted, being judged solely based on appearance, and the time commitment to swipe. Are we willing to continue suffering through all of this to only maybe go on a date?

We believe Gen Z is less worried about looks and wants their personality to shine through. Roughly 75% of younger daters use personality as a barometer for deciding who to date.

Source: The Balance

In addition to all of the struggles above, the pandemic significantly changed the way Gen Z had to find love. Video dating over Zoom or socially distanced meetups meant fewer physical connections were possible. This amplified Gen Z’s mentality to focus on personality over looks. The COVID-19 pandemic forced our generation to consider new dating mediums that were not just photo-based. TikTok’s rise also contributes to our generation’s favorability towards video platforms that offer more than photos.

Gen Z is also inherently digitally native. For instance, 56% of Gen Z said they have friends online that they’ve never met IRL. This re-emphasizes that Gen Z has become increasingly disinterested in what someone actually looks like; instead, it matters more what they stand for and their voice (i.e., personality, values, opinions, etc.). Discord, a portfolio company, perfectly embodies this as it enables friends and communities to connect online.

What do we believe is broken?

Gen Z having less casual sex and going on fewer dates shows us that the meaning of love and relationships and how Gen Z finds romance is changing. Therefore, dating apps need to change as well:

  • Not inclusive enough. Presently, many of the largest dating apps are mainly built for individuals interested in a heterosexual relationship and are not inclusive of a larger population. As mentioned before, Gen Z’s idea of love and relationships has expanded outside of this box, while mainstream dating apps have not. Apps like Grindr and Feeld have been built but still only serve specific groups of the community.
  • Too focused looks. Many mainstream dating apps currently utilize a photo-first approach. This goes against Gen Z’s desire for their personalities to shine through vs. being judged on how they look first.
  • Optimized for IRL. Dating apps currently optimize for IRL interactions. However, as a digitally native generation, Gen Z may not always feel comfortable immediately going on a first date IRL.
  • Lack of serendipity. Dating apps are extremely intentional and, at times, can almost feel like transactions versus forming real connections and matches. Our portfolio company, 222, is attempting to solve this by facilitating IRL interactions amongst strangers to help them form serendipitous relationships.

What do we believe can be the potential characteristics of a successful dating app?

1. Prioritize inclusivity. Build an inclusive environment where users feel they can seek different types of relationships and love at different times in their lives.

2. Seek alternatives to a photo-first experience. With the rise of Vtubing, gaming, etc., dating apps should experiment with allowing users to meet first through video, audio, or even “dressed” as their avatar. The dating app that makes users feel like they can be themselves and express that to others will attract users.

3. Optimize for multiple “date” options. Gen Z is capable of making friends and developing trust online without meeting IRL first. This means we may be able to find love this way as well!

4. Lead with community building. Oftentimes, relationships can be born from similar interests like music, humor, food, etc. Giving users an outlet to express this with others can allow for more meaningful connections that will give a pathway for love to develop. For instance, our portfolio company, Sleeper, allows users to gather in an online community for their shared love of fantasy sports.

Overall, the next big Gen Z dating app, we believe, will allow users to bring their authentic selves to the platform and feel supported by the app to do so. Gone will be the days of worrying if they have six visually appealing photos and corny answers to superficial prompts. It will also give Gen Z multiple ways to connect with others virtually and offline. Most importantly, it will help Gen Z users seek to find a partner or partners that share their same values around love and relationships.

Using Generative AI to find love

Just like many other industries and spaces, it is important to understand the potential effects Generative AI (GenAI) will have on the dating space. For instance, in a photo-first approach, users could potentially make themselves more attractive and modify different features. We think it will also unlock many ways for people to communicate. Users could potentially come up with a funny meme to spice up the conversation or help visualize a thought in their head. Additionally, for those who struggle with “rizz” (Gen-Z terminology for flirt), Gen AI can help users surpass writer’s block while chatting with others. Needless to say, Generative AI will give users superpowers to stand out and express themselves in different ways.

If you’re building in this space, we want to hear from you!