The Singles Have Spoken: Dating Apps Are Out. Here’s The Old-But-New Trend That’s Taking Their Place

We’ve re-entered the era of blind dating

Image by Dasha Burobina

Recently, I was writing at the Marlton Hotel (TikTok, don’t even think about blowing up my spot), when the miraculous happened: I was asked out by someone IRL. See, I’ve worked from coffee shops and hotel lobbies for three years now and *not once* have I been approached by a man (not while sober, at least). As a dating writer, however, I’ve long clung to the fantasy of meeting someone Before Sunrise-style. They’d approach me, ask what I’m writing/reading at the time; next thing you know the bartender’s yelling last call.  

All of that’s to say you can imagine my excitement when I heard, “This seat taken?” over the hum of my laptop. And while I wish I had a more promising outcome to report, the interaction was…disappointing to say the least. He had to have been nine or 10 years my senior—showed zero interest in my interests (or what I was writing, for that matter)—and after offering me a Chanel bag to join him for dinner at Nobu, it quickly became clear he was looking for a sugar baby. I was flattered, of course, but I’m more of an ​​Erin Brockovich Julia Roberts than a Pretty Woman. Still, after politely declining his invitation, I was left with a sinking feeling: Is this what the future of dating looks like? (God help us all.)

This fear comes on the heels of the recent decline in dating apps. ICYMI, Axios conducted a nationwide survey of 978 college-age people, and 79 percent said they didn’t use dating apps regularly. What’s more, Match Group—the parent company of apps including Tinder and Hinge—saw its stock plummet by 68 percent in 2023, after having fallen precipitously in price the previous year. (It seems investors were concerned with the brand’s dip in paid users.) So now, if we live in a world where my generation shuns the apps—and being hit-on IRL is about as disappointing as your roommate eating the last cupcake you’ve been dreaming about—how the hell are people dating right now? 

I decided to investigate.

Are Mutual Set-Ups Replacing Dating Apps?

I tapped as many single men and women as I could from New York to San Francisco, spanning from Gen Z (23 to 27 years old) to Millenials (28 to 36 years old). I wanted to know: When was your last first date, and how did you meet? While a majority of the 60 people I polled said they were still using the apps and meeting at bars (more on that below), I was surprised to find 20 percent of singles had the same answer: mutual friends. For some, this was a traditional, blind-date setup—something that almost feels pre-historic from our grandparents’ dating days: “My aunt actually introduced me to Ethan,” Ally, 28, told me. “She and my uncle were at dinner with another couple when I got a call from her the next morning, ‘I have the best guy for you.’ I was into it because, why not? She gave him my number, and we went out the following weekend.” In fact, many of the millennial women I polled said set-ups were their dating preference of choice: “I’d much rather meet someone through friends of friends,” Monica, 32, says. “That way you know they’re normal—and if it works out, you already have a fun couple to go out with.” 

The more interesting responses were from the men, however. Out of the 37 straight men I spoke to, eight of them (all Gen Z) were using Instagram in lieu of dating apps. Dan, 25, says, “Instagram is the biggest dating app on the planet—period.” Basically, he explained how he’s found the most success through direct messaging (DMing) women: “I saw this girl (let’s call her Carly) and I had 87 mutual followers on Instagram, right? So, I followed her and looked through some pictures. Right away, I see my college friend Nicole in a bunch of her photos. I texted Nicole and asked if Carly was single. Nicole said yes, so I messaged Carly and asked if she wanted to grab a drink. We have our second date on Thursday this week.” 

This seemed to echo a ubiquitous theme in each response: People want to date outside of the apps—even if 26 percent were still using them. “It’s much harder for men to find success on [Hinge] than it is for women,” Joe, 34, says. “The space is very oversaturated, and most of the time, you match with a girl and nothing comes of it.” Twenty-six-year-old Julia shared the same frustration: “The apps are f*cked. It used to be that you’d match with someone cute, talk for a while and grab drinks that week. Now it’s more like: You match, take days to respond to each other, and eventually forget why you liked them in the first place. The conversation drops and you’re not even going on a first date before you’re rejected.”  

On a personal note, I can agree that the anatomy of dating apps have changed in the last four years. After I graduated college (via zoom in 2020), Hinge was like a life raft when it came to meeting someone new. While in-person interactions were tab00—and we were less likely to be out in the world, doing something interesting—a majority of singles picked up swiping as an after-work hobby. Fast-forward to 2024, however, and I’m witnessing a universal fatigue of swiping to match and matching to date. Dating apps now carry the same undertone as ordering a mediocre poke bowl for dinner. Sure, it does the trick if you’re tired and too lazy to cook (or spend money on actual sushi, for that matter). But it’s more about convenience than putting effort into feeling replete. 

To that end, I was most fascinated by a hobby-related response from Lacey, 36: “I’m married, but I recently witnessed two people meet through Backgammon Club…a social club that meets every week at different bars and restaurants around Manhattan and Brooklyn. The whole idea is to meet new people while playing backgammon.” Immediately, my antenna went up. “I think this is a really easy, organic way to meet someone through shared interests. The club is small, so you’re meeting new people, but everyone is kind of brought in by someone they know (so it’s not a totally random group). It also doesn’t put too much pressure on dating, specifically. You’re there to enjoy yourself, do something you like doing, and if you meet someone, great!” 

How Else Are Singles Meeting These Days?

To no surprise, a whopping 53 percent of people said they met their last date at a bar. “It’s still the best way to meet someone,” Jason, 27, told me. “I want to see them out in the world. You get a real sense of who someone is—their style, what perfume they’re wearing, whether they can hold a conversation—when you’re in-person with them. It’s something you can’t do on the apps.” Naturally, Jason isn’t the only one who feels this way. Ashley, 23, says, “I’m one of those people who gets nervous meeting strangers. I don’t know who they are, and it’s always dangerous dating as woman…the bars are good because you have all of your friends nearby. If things start to go south, or someone’s getting creepy, you have an easy way to exit the interaction.” 

It’s also worth mentioning that dating apps are, in fact, not dead. As mentioned above, 26 percent of people I spoke to said they were still using Hinge. “Everyone might hate the apps, but I don’t think they’re going anywhere any time soon,” Brian, 27, backs. “For me, it’s the only way to meet someone new. Lots of people like meeting through friends-of-friends, and that’s cool, but I like to date outside of my circle…things get messy when people you know are involved. Apps are like a clean slate where you can find someone you’d never actually meet in-person.” And this made me wonder: Are the apps really the only way to meet someone outside of your orbit?

After my proposition at the Marlton Hotel, I was curious whether anyone is successfully dating in the wild right now. Could this kind of interaction—one that involved striking up a conversation with a total stranger—also be making a comeback like the age-old set-up? (I’m itching for the return of the coffee shop meet-cute.) According to the people I polled, to my chagrin, it was a resounding no. “The only time I’ve been approached by a guy I didn’t know was at Starbucks. I had no makeup on, and I had just come from a run. He seemed nice but I wasn’t really in a ‘dating mood,’” Emily, 23, told me. Even more interesting, Matthew, 36, says, “I feel creepy approaching women out of the blue. It’s not that I wouldn’t…I’ve just never found a scenario where it feels organic.” 

The Bottom Line: Many women voiced how they felt men have no idea how to approach them anymore (outside of the bars). Men argued that women are most likely to reject them in daylight; it’s easier to reach out via text with a mutual friend/family member’s blessing. While I have no qualms about the return of the set-up—a good ‘ol fashioned blind date feels on-brand for my generation’s preoccupation with nostalgia—all 60 men and women agreed: They’d much prefer to meet someone outside of the apps. My two cents? Marlton man’s approach may have been off, but I’ve got to respect the fact that he made an in-person effort at all…

Are You Dating a Soonicorn? And If So, Should You Dump Them?

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Assistant Editor

Sydney Meister is PureWow's Assistant Editor, covering everything from dating trends and relationship advice (here's looking at you, 'soonicorns') to interior design, beauty...