SINGAPORE, April 20 — Although she was left heartbroken after her seven-year relationship ended in 2014, Jessebelle Peh had not given up on love.
Then 24, she knew she “did not want to waste time” and wanted to settle down if the right person comes along.
Following recommendations from friends who had found their partners online, Peh decided to give dating apps a shot several months after her break-up. Over two weeks, she went on five separate dates with men whom she got to know via the Paktor dating app.
Among them was Andrew Chia, a bank analyst and part-time swim coach who was about a decade older than her. Less than two years later, the pair got married in 2016 and they just had their first child earlier this month.
“Yes, it is actually quite fast,” she said, “The app definitely helps to shorten the process in choosing the right one, because you are able to filter through potential matches and suss out who is likely to have the traits you are looking for.”
Peh's experience reflects just how much the dating scene has been changed by apps designed for those who are looking for love or companionship.
Not too long ago, the notion of meeting a partner online “seemed freakish, and not a little pathetic”, as The Economist put it in its article on modern love last August. Today, a growing number of young Singaporeans are finding Mr or Ms Right via dating apps — sometimes in a matter of a few clicks and swipes.
This new phenomenon may be welcome news for a society grappling with falling birth rates and late marriages. But while the process of finding love has become easier and more efficient, the old adage of “easy come, easy go” could describe how romantic relationships are formed these days, dating gurus and sociologists said.
Singapore Management University (SMU) Associate Professor of Psychology Norman Li, whose research interests include mate preferences and mate value, said relationships could become "shorter and much less stable", given the limitless choice the app opens users up to.
Apart from Peh and her husband, Jason Ye, 29 and Seah Ling Ling, 28, got attached in March 2017, within a month of connecting with each other on the app Coffee Meets Bagel (CMB). Exactly a year later, Ye got down on one knee, and the pair will get hitched this October. “It seems pretty fast, but modern dating has sped up because of apps,” he said.
“It allows two people with very similar intentions to meet, so that helps to accelerate the process,” he added. “All the good and bad, you compress it into two, three years because we meet so often.”
Dating apps, from the likes of Tinder, CMB, OkCupid — which are all based in the United States — to homegrown outfits such as Paktor, have radically changed romance and the way singles date.
With their speedy account set-ups and “swipe to like” interface, coupled with “secret recipes” — the algorithms which match different users — finding a potential date has become much faster and efficient as well as more convenient than ever before.
Ng Jing Shen, chief executive officer of Paktor Group, said that based on observations from the Paktor app, guys spend less than a second deciding on matches online while girls spend five to 10 times longer.
A new place to find love
Most dating apps are free, unlike speed dating or matchmaking services, which would require users to fork out anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars in search of the perfect one.
As such, since the early 2010s, the Internet has overtaken schools, universities, and offices as settings in which singles could potentially meet a partner.
Gone are the days of relying on friends and family to introduce potential partners too, said Ye.
Assoc Prof Li observed: “Before dating apps and technology, people would get introduced to others through friends and family. In the really old days, marriages were pretty much arranged."
“Now, decisions are made more by the individuals and less by the considerations of family and friends.”
But not all countries are embracing dating apps at the same rate, or in the same way.
Americans lead the way, in part due to the fact that most of the popular apps were invented in the United States.
In other countries like India, which has a history of arranged marriages, dating apps have also hit cultural walls, but are slowly seeing greater acceptance.
Dating apps first took off among the gay community, helping single men link up with others within a specific geographic radius. But the advent of Tinder in 2012 soon saw people of all sexual orientations to start looking for love on their mobile apps — casual, or for the long term.
Similar apps popular internationally include CMB, OkCupid and Bumble, which was started in 2014 by an ex-Tinder executive.
The success of these apps in the Western markets also spawned clones targeted at Chinese users, such as Tantan.
According to data by analytics company App Annie, published by the British Broadcasting Corporation, just four apps (Tinder, Badoo, Lovoo and Frim) dominated the entire online dating market in 23 European countries.
But in Asia, there are seven big players among the region’s 13 economies, which suggests that Asians have more idiosyncratic tastes.
This preference for a more localised dating app — an app that is, or perceived to be started by locals and targeted at locals — is observed in South Korea and Taiwan, said Ng from Paktor Group, which provides online as well as offline dating and coaching services.
“For example, we found that generally, Koreans prefer to date fellow Koreans,” he said.
The Paktor app, which means “dating” in the Cantonese dialect, was launched in Singapore in 2013, but has since expanded regionally to South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Singapore a major market for dating apps
While Asian countries seem late to the game, user activity is growing steadily — especially in Singapore and Hong Kong, which industry players say are more cosmopolitan and open-minded when it comes to the dating game.
The two cities were cited by CMB co-founder Dawoon Kang as the among its stronger markets in the region.
“Both cities are full of educated, young professionals, many from overseas, who are eager to meet new people but just can’t make the time for it,” she said.
She added that Singapore is one of CMB’s biggest markets, with the Republic’s users among the most actively engaged.
CMB data shows that in 2017, 2.2 million and 1.6 million introductions were made on its app in Hong Kong and Singapore, respectively.
Meanwhile, Paktor, which has about 850,000 users on its app in Singapore, has seen an increase in the number of “successful” matches between singles in recent years. The firm defines these as instances where two users exchange more than five messages and their mobile numbers.
In Singapore, Paktor saw a 7 per cent increase in number of matches between 2017 and 2018, with the figure rising another 36 per cent from 2018 to this year. Currently, Ng said the app has an average of about 60,000 matches a month.
According to Paktor’s data in 2017, Singaporeans also appeared to be more enthusiastic users compared to their South-east Asian counterparts.
Here, each user on Paktor swiped about 1,600 times, which is four times more than users in South Korea and twice of users in Taiwan.
According to App Annie’s data, Tinder is the top dating other apps such as OkCupid, CMB, Paktor are also popular among users here.
While such apps give users a variety of new matches a day, homegrown app LunchClick — founded by dating agency LunchActually — differentiates itself by providing only one match to non-paying users daily.
LunchClick’s CEO and Lunch Actually co-founder Violet Lim said the app “positions itself as an app for ‘serious singles’".
Apart from sending only one match to users daily, the app also screens new sign-ups for their marital status using their identification number.
Users who wish to get more matches and secure dates can subscribe to LunchClick's premium plans, which go from S$30 (RM91.60) to S$80 a month.
To help those looking for partners, most dating apps have given users some way to “cut through the clutter”, by allowing them to set up filters or indicate preferences for their matches — though the degree of control varies for different apps.
On Tinder, for example, users can set their preferred age group of matches. On CMB, users can go further to indicate their preferences for age, height and also religious beliefs.
On other platforms, such as OkCupid, users can also fill out a list of questions ranging from their favourite foods to movies and their faiths.
For Deanna Lim, 25, and her fiancé Leuven Lee, 27, who first met on OkCupid, such questions were useful in establishing a connection at the beginning — it was where they first found out they had a similar liking for the popular drama series, Game of Thrones, among others.
Deanna Lim, who writes for an online food publication, said: “It also helped us find out similarities in views, for example, we were both liberal, agnostic and leaned towards open communication.”
The couple noted that there is also greater clarity when using the apps — generally, users make known whether they are seeking a long-term relationship, or a casual hook-up.
“With dating apps, it is a lot more straightforward, there is none of that second-guessing as to whether this is a date when you go out. It feels more clear-cut,” said Deanna Lim.
Lee, a financial consultant, said: “With traditional dating, if you’re interested in someone, you usually meet up as a group of friends, get to know each other in a group, before meeting up alone, dating apps help bypass all of that.”
Ye, a public servant, concurred, saying that it was easier to meet someone like-minded and had similar intentions about settling down through dating apps.
Recounting an incident prior to using dating apps, Ye said he had been introduced to a potential partner through a friend. “But she was not ready, unlike me, who wanted to settle down.”
Widening one’s social circle
Dating apps have been soaring in popularity because they also allow users to expand their social circles exponentially, industry players said.
Said Ng from Paktor: “With its sheer scale, the volume of people, and the pool of people one can meet is unlimited. Spending 10 minutes on a toilet bowl swiping on potential matches, you essentially ‘meet’ more new people than you possibly would in a year.”
For those with relatively closed social circles, dating apps have proved to be useful.
A 30-year-old educator, who only wanted to be known as Mrs Lim, said that before she met her husband on LunchClick, most of her friends were women.
“Growing up, my interests were in Chinese dance, and when I studied linguistics in university, there were only three guys in my course. Then, I started working in the education industry which was largely female-dominated, all these didn’t help to expand my social circles,” she said.
She then tried using about two or three apps, including Tinder, before meeting her husband on LunchClick in 2015.
She said: “(Dating apps) expand your social circles beyond your immediate possibilities and friends’ recommendations.”
Apart from increasing interaction with the opposite gender, dating apps also allow users to date more broadly, by opening up a pool of racially and ethnically diverse users.
A 24-year-old marketing and public relations executive in the hospitality industry, who only wanted to be known as Tay, said she always thought she would end up with a Singaporean partner.
“I met my boyfriend on Tinder. He is American Chinese, and I never thought I’d date someone of a different nationality," she said.
“Since all the guys I dated before were locals, I had a small-town mentality, and I simply thought I would never really have the chance to meet or even date people who were not from Singapore.”
National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser agreed, saying: “I reckon the apps do open up more options, and in turn more opportunities for inter-ethnic dating.”
Different means, same ends
While dating apps have changed how people find and court potential partners, what they are looking for is largely the same, say experts.
Assoc Prof Li said: “We’ve evolved as human beings to look for certain characteristics, and these characteristics haven’t really changed.”
He added: “A majority of men continue to look for youthful and physical attributes, while generally women seek men who have resources and status.”
Ng had similar observations from analysing matches on the Paktor platform. “We found that for guys, looks are still important. Girls value looks, but to a smaller extent. To them, hobbies, personality and profession are also factors.”
But while dating apps are becoming more popular here, they have not quite become mainstream, as the stigma attached to their use still exists to some extent, said Ng. In addition, the use of dating apps comes with its own risks.
Dax Xu, for one, is steering clear of dating apps. On these platforms, “everybody is seeking a potential mate, and as such, they have a tendency to be the best version of themselves, not the true version of themselves”, he noted,
The 36-year-old tech executive, who is based in Hong Kong, added: “Fundamentally, I’m someone who believes in serendipity. I’m a sucker for romance.”
The downsides: From ‘catfishing’ to ‘ghosting’
Many dating users themselves, while welcoming the widening of choices that the online world offers, are also becoming aware of its downsides.
An increasing problem that has been highlighted in the media is the issue of catfishing, where a person creates a fake social media account, often in order to deceive a particular person.
In February, a 47-year-old Malaysian man was sentenced to five years’ jail for swindling a woman of some S$68,000 by pretending to be a silver trader by the name of “Daniel” on Tinder.
Then, there is also the blurred line between expectations and reality.
Tay said that one of the first few guys she met on the dating app was “quite unlike” who she thought he would be.
“Online, he presented himself (as) a smooth Casanova but when I met him he was a little awkward and shy. There’s always a possibility that you might get catfished,” she said.
While some are out to cheat, others create profiles to solicit potential deals.
“I’ve heard many stories of insurance agents, or financial consultants using the app to get clients,” said Peh.
While fake profiles and cheats have tangible repercussions, there are also emotional downsides to using dating apps, as many looking for love may also experience being “ghosted”.
This happens when someone cuts off contact often abruptly, without reason and a proper goodbye.
For those who are ghosted, it can often be emotionally exhausting to continue conversations with other people on the app, and they can experience feelings of rejection.
To eliminate the risk of users meeting scammers and married men or women, Violet Lim said that LunchClick runs all potential sign-ups through the Registry of Marriages in Singapore.
By giving non-paying users only one match a day, she said the app becomes less attractive for scammers and cheats, who hunt by casting a wide net for potential victims.
Paktor, on the other hand, said it uses artificial intelligence to sieve out potential bots which create fake profiles.
Ng said: “We put in measures such as crowdsourcing and machine learning to detect unusual behaviours, such as when a new user ‘likes’ and matches with every existing person on the app.”
“Bots tend to have very high activity, such as liking thousands of users’ photos in a second. That is not humanly possible, so the system is able to pick it up.”
He added that about five staff members manually screen new profiles on the app, to catch the use of fake profile photos, among others.
CMB co-founder Kang described romance scams as “a big problem affecting the industry right now”.
She said that her firm manually reviews the profile of every single person who signs up before approving them.
“If someone is reported for suspicious behaviour, our team investigates. If someone is reported more than three times, we ban them completely from being able to access our platform,” she added.
“We also have an internal scammer model running 24/7 that looks for suspicious profile attributes and behaviour.”
However, Violet Lim told TODAY that some fake profiles could be introduced by apps themselves to increase retention rates.
It was a point she raised in a TEDtalk which she gave in August last year at the Nanyang Technological University. It was titled “What dating apps are not telling you”.
“You actually have some dating apps which are creating bots to lure their users to pay,” she said then. “Take for example a guy who has seen many rejections and non-replies from many women, and he suddenly receives a match from a beautiful woman, but the app prompts him to pay to start a conversation with her. What is he likely to do?”
Then, there is also the possibility of losing personal data in the event of a breach. In February, over 6 million CMB users — including Singaporeans — had their details leaked.
The users of the popular dating platform were informed that their account data might have been “stolen by an unauthorised party”.
It was later reported that the data, which included the names and e-mail address of more than six million users, were put on the dark web, prompting the company to issue an apology.
The paradox of choice
Apart from changing the way people date, have dating apps changed the nature of relationships?
Assoc Prof Li said that a possible consequence in the age of dating apps is that “relationships end up getting shorter and much less stable”.
The main reason for that is the multitude of choices available on the apps.
Presented with seemingly endless possibilities, the irony is that users then find it harder to commit to a person at any one time.
Assoc Prof Li said: “What has changed is that people now have access to a wider (network) than ever before. When you perceive that you have many options, then it gets you to shift more towards a short-term mating strategy rather than a long-term one.”
He noted that while users have more options, “their options also have more options, and the result is that relationships end up getting shorter and much less stable”.
LunchActually’s Violet Lim added: “Because there is so much choice, there is a temptation to think, ‘is there a better one out there?’”
She believes that dating is ultimately “an offline activity”.
“When people meet in person, there is often a chance to get to know more about their personality and their charisma, even if they might not be so good-looking,” she said.
Most of the couples interviewed said that once they decided to get together, they deleted the dating apps.
For Peh and her husband, along with others who are in lasting relationships after finding Mr or Ms Right online, dating apps simply provide a practical and useful channel to connect potential soul mates. But that is just a start, Peh said.
“It doesn’t mean that just after connecting on the app and meeting, it means a fairytale ending,” she said. “The real relationship is built offline, through communication.” ― TODAY