Attempting to game the mysteries of love – or, in dating site eHarmony’s terms, “the secret sauce of attraction” – is nothing new. Equally old, of course, is the failure inherent in all such attempts to do so. All of which makes the current trend among the ever-renewing stock of dating entrepreneurs both amusing and ludicrous in equal measure.
The idea du jour is a version of the much older strategy of dating PLU (people like us). Except now it’s through superficial externals, such as facial hair and fashion accessories, rather than those stalwarts of pre-1960s courtship: respectability, income and religion. Having taken note of the fatigue generated by mega-sites such as Match, eHarmony, OkCupid, and apps like Tinder, Hinge, Happ’n and Bumble, matchmaking moderns have glimpsed an opening in going radically in the opposite direction by narrowing choice to an almost obsessive compulsive set of criteria.
Thus last week saw the launch of Ex on the Beach star Jemma Lucy’s dating app for people with tattoos: datingink.com. As she eloquently put it: “When you join Dating Ink you know that you’re going to see loads of profiles of people with tattoos.” Whereas on Tinder you just get “bored” waiting for the right tattooed Adonis to appear. She added:
You don’t need to have tattoos to use the site, you just have to love them! My mission is to bring tattoo lovers together!
Lucy’s launch follows hot on the heels of dating expert Charly Lester’s app for people with specs. Spex (get it?) relieves those tired of being discriminated against for having four eyes, and who are desirous of banding together with another bespectacled hottie. “With so many specialist dating apps out there … I realised there wasn’t one for glasses,” noted Lester, holding to the increasingly surreal norms surrounding the justification of a dating platform launch. Users connecting through Facebook can post as much or as little personal information as they like – as with Tinder – but they do need to answer the question: “I think my glasses make me look …” using just five words.
If the course of true love never ran smoothly, and finding someone to be with remains one of the most complex social and emotional operations there is, it’s not immediately obvious how a five-word limit on a question about how one thinks one looks wearing optical aids will help.
Still, this kind of dating appears to be the future; Spex and DatingInk merely join a slew of others, including apps for Pokemon Go lovers (PokeMatch), beardy types (Bristlr) and for those who voted Remain in the EU referendum (Remainder). At least the Remain app pairs people on something of old-fashioned weight: political values.
For all their relentless topicality, though, and their niche appeal, my money is on these services going the way of their countless predecessors. People have been selling new matchmaking ideas in Britain since at least the late 19th century. In 1897, newspaper man WT Stead was one of several people to start a dating venture with the launch of The Wedding Ring Circle.
Similar to a social networking site, it enabled bachelors and spinsters to browse a catalogue of options and then write to each other via a central office in London. A variety of matrimonial agencies, marriage bureaux, correspondence clubs and magazines followed.
By the 1970s, there were dating agencies for vegetarians, people of different religions and environmentalists. Technological development as well as social change also inspired plenty of attempts to crack the mystery of third-party matching: (largely unsuccessful) video dating services sprang up in the 1980s and 1990s, along with weirder gizmos, like the Lovegety, a bleeping device that made a noise in your pocket when you were near another Lovegety-holder.
In the end, it wasn’t the appeal of niche dating services or bizarre gadgets that transformed dating: it was the economies of scale, or the sheer “network effect” of the giant sites. Yes, it can be gruelling going through picture after picture, but it’ll take Charly Lester a very long time to get as many wearers of glasses signed up to her site as there are in even the remotest corner of OkCupid.
For if love is mysterious, sourcing love today is a slog. No amount of whittling down the criteria to glasses, beards, tattoos, single-issue politics, hair-colour, or preference for the countryside will allow you to bypass the simple fact that finding someone takes work. We are, in this sense, the lucky victims of sexual freedom and choice.
One day, perhaps, someone will invent an app that sprays pheromones at you when the right person flits across your screen. But until then, singles might as well hunker down. No matter how promising the app that is sympathetic to your facial hair: there are no shortcuts.