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The new dating app disrupter? The pub

Having written a book about the demise of dating at the hands of tech, I would never have dreamt that I would see the comeback of the singles bar. They had their heyday in the 1970s as a backdrop to the sexual revolution, wooing a female clientele with piña coladas, Bahama Mamas and wine spritzers. It wasn’t the internet, or even dreadful pick-up lines, that led to their decline; they became plagued by a seedy reputation with the rise of cocaine use in the 1980s, before being felled by the fear of Aids. (Gay bars continue to serve an important function in the LGBTQ community, although many have sadly closed in the past decade.)

Today, most singles-mingling isn’t seedy so much as cringe-making. The most excruciating event I’ve attended (and there is stiff competition for that title) was silent speed-dating, which advertised eye-gazing as a fast track to intimacy. I can’t say which was more awkward, the staring contest with strangers or the icebreakers (parlour games such as musical chairs), but when our evening’s MC shouted, “Cross the room if you’re wearing your favourite knickers!” I should have beat a hasty retreat.

But it seems the singles bar is back: from Brixton to Brooklyn, twenty- and thirtysomethings are lining up around the block to attend weekly singles’ events at cocktail bars. The meet-ups are aimed at people who are sick of fruitless scrolls through dating apps and online conversations that go nowhere; but, perhaps inevitably, they’re organised via a dating app, Thursday, which promotes in-person encounters. After making the “match, chat and meet” on the app more efficient by limiting user access to one day a week, it launched in-real-life events in a handful of UK cities and New York; the company plans to expand into 20 US cities soon.

Thursday’s pitch is old-school: “Just a bar. Like any other bar,” reads one invite to a drinks party in Notting Hill. What’s remarkable about its popularity (the app had nearly 86,000 downloads last month) is that the bars had been there all along; all that singles were missing was the courage to converse.

After beginning to date in London, it didn’t take long to clock that the English require large quantities of alcohol to make a move. In our continued quest for a friction-free existence, dating apps evolved in part to mitigate the risk of rejection: Tinder’s paradigm-shifting feature was the “double opt-in”, which only allows users to message once both parties have indicated their interest by swiping right.

If you put the people with whom I’ve had my best relationships on an app, I would probably swipe left on most of them

But while technologies emerge to solve a problem (ie finding people to date), they invariably create new ones in turn (having to get off the couch to meet them). Thanks to the dark arts of addictive design, with a dopamine-hit of a ding when you match, the vast majority of matches remain unconsummated, with little more exchanged than a half-assed “hey”. A study by the Center for Humane Technology showed that Tinder and Grindr were both included in the top 10 apps that make people sad, with more than half of users left unhappy by swiping.

Like so many aspects of our lives, the pandemic only drove daters deeper into tech dependence. Dating app traffic soared during lockdown, ushering in a new era of video dating as offline opportunities to meet people dwindled. Although many users say they’ll continue using video as a way to vet people, in my humble opinion, sharing a glass of wine online has exceedingly little to recommend it.

Despite fine mathematical minds mining user data, algorithms have failed to crack the code of compatibility. Dating apps exaggerate the importance of looks, which turn out to matter far less than we think. If you put the people with whom I’ve had my best relationships on an app, I would probably swipe left on most of them. Face-to-face flirtation offers a much deeper arsenal of tools than texting, including body language, voice and that oh-so-elusive chemistry. In a study of singles on the pull in a bar, researchers observed 109 distinct “attraction tactics” — from hair flipping and chest-puffing to “sucking seductively on a straw”.

There’s a certain irony that the return to the analogue format of catching eyes across a bar, buoyed by booze for the courage to strike up a conversation, is being achieved through . . . an app. Do we need more tech to solve the problems caused by tech? And why not just hit the local pub on any old night of the week?

For a cohort unpractised at risking rejection and concerned with consent after #MeToo, a big advantage of dedicated singles’ events is knowing that people are available and open to being approached. Part of Thursday’s appeal may also be safety: membership is predicated on uploading proof of identity, to minimise catfishing.

We may think smartphones simplify our lives, but for many, apps aren’t optimising the path to intimacy. As some companies double down on the multiverse, incorporating TikTok-like clips and “shared digital experiences”, there’s something heartening about the idea that Gens Y and Z might find their way towards one another in person. And for those that do, a word of advice from Jean Smith, a social anthropologist with whom I had the good fortune of taking a “fearless flirtation” course before she pivoted to professional coaching. Smith warns against losing time deliberating a pick-up line: if someone’s interested, they’ll never remember how you started the conversation. After all, a simple “Hi, how’s it going” has propagated the species for ages.

Mia Levitin is a cultural and literary critic. She is the author of ‘The Future of Seduction’

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