Where tech aligns

Meat-Market Blues

Swan is a new service that’s trying the impossible: bringing humanity to online dating.

In 2016, The Atlantic published “The Rise of Dating App Fatigue” about Americans’ growing disillusionment with how much effort was required to score just one good date off of the then-newish suite of dating apps, Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble. But its author, Julie Beck, is hesitant to blame The Apps for the frustration, proposing that maybe it’s a problem with the way we live, not our technology. 

Beck writes, “This desire for efficiency plays out outside of the apps as well – if a first date is iffy, people may just not bother with a second – but the apps certainly facilitate it,” finally concluding, “Dating hasn’t become an apocalypse; it’s just become another way modern life can make people feel overworked.” But six years have passed since Beck’s first article, and this fatigue has festered into exhaustion. 

The fingerprints are everywhere. A new type of feminist who (possibly ironically) refers to herself as a “reactionary feminist” has emerged. While these women don’t zero in on dating apps exclusively, technology certainly isn’t spared in their critique of modern romance. Books like The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry and Rethinking Sex by Christine Emba offer implicit criticisms of dating apps by deconstructing hook-up culture. 

Elsewhere, we’re offered a dizzying bounty of very public dating app complaints; attempts at meme-ing movements like “radical monogamy” into existence; men offering bounties in the tens of thousands to whoever can find them a wife; and a personal ads renaissance. And then there’s Elle, who’s neither trying to put the genie back in the bottle with tech nor shy about recognizing the problems around what writer Mary Harrington calls “Big Romance.” 

Elle is one of the founders of Swan Dating, which is, in her words, “a matchmaking service designed to make online dating human again by getting rid of endless swiping and the meat-market feel of dating apps.”

Katherine: What was the genesis of Swan? 

Elle: Good question! It started at brunch with friends – a terrible cliché, I know. But as the conversation moved to romance, two of my friends, both investment bankers at the time, noted sadly that whilst they’d like to date, their working hours made it impossible to spend time swiping on apps or trying to work around other people’s calendars.

This made me stop and think. Everyone knows that dating apps suck, but nobody has produced decent alternatives before unless you count high-end matchmaking services, which are typically aimed at the ultra-rich. 

Anyway, I wanted to set up my friends, so half-jokingly I put out a Google form on Twitter. In less than an hour, we had hundreds of responses, from people all around the world. I was astonished at how honest people were willing to be about their own flaws, vulnerabilities, and desires. It was so refreshing and made the matching process surprisingly straightforward.

My friends and I ended up creating half a dozen or so couples. We sent them all on dates, and the feedback was amazing. 

That was the birth of Swan.

Katherine: How’s it going so far? 

Elle: Better than we could possibly have hoped. We’re now post-revenue and in the process of raising our pre-seed funding round. More importantly, our members seem to genuinely like the product. Even when a match doesn’t work out, people enjoy the break from dating apps enough that they want to come back again and again. That’s the most important thing for us to protect as we grow.

Katherine: Swan uses a character assessment to create matches. How was that designed? 

Elle: So, by way of background, our character assessment is how we screen potential Swan members, and how we match people up once they’re in. You don’t have to be super-rich, hot, successful or whatever to become a member; you just have to meet our basic requirements for being a decent person. 

We designed it by doing a lot of reading. 

There’s an enormous volume of literature on personality and compatibility out there – we’ve written about some of it – and that took time to wade through. We also spoke to psychologists and academics to guide our conclusions, borrowing measures they’d pioneered as well as incorporating some standard psychological tests. I don’t want to give too much away, because it’s important everyone does the test honestly and without trying to game it. But it’s proving reliable so far.

Katherine: There’s a lot of debate around how the Internet has impacted romance. Some people think the claims about the Internet disrupting dating are overwrought; other people have become total nihilists over it. What’s your take? 

Elle: The Internet is the single most powerful tool in existence for meeting new people. If you use it right, you can change your life entirely just by tweeting or making videos, or posting on forums. That’s amazing and beautiful. But there are also a lot of bad incentives. 

Modern dating apps are amazing in some ways, but they also reduce humans to a couple of pictures and sentences. And we’re so much richer and more complex and more fascinating than that. 

We have to take care to treat each other like people.

Katherine: What do you think people misunderstand most about online dating? 

Elle: People often think that optimizing for maximum choice of potential partners is a good strategy. 

In theory, it sounds great, having your pick of the bunch, but humans get decision fatigue quickly and start making bad choices. There are also reasons to think maximizing choice is inefficient

But the problem is deeper than just one of optimization.

Ever been on a dating app and passed over someone perfectly good for a silly reason? Their hair looks bad in a photo, or they spelled something wrong.

Those aren’t great reasons to reject a prospective life partner. But on dating apps it’s completely normal – especially if you’re lucky enough to have lots of options. Your list of requirements becomes longer and longer as you scroll through more people, and in the end, you become incapable of settling on anyone. All you see are flaws that the next person you swipe on might not have. 

At Swan, we think optimizing for a handful of really good matches, rather than a high quantity of mediocre matches, is the way forward.

Katherine: What do you think the future of dating apps is? What about romance, more generally? 

Elle: I think there’ll always be a profitable market for facilitating hookups, but when it comes to serious dating… I’m not sure. Most dating apps make very little money per user and rely on overcharging lonely men for the promise of hot, interested women that rarely materialize.

Our goal is to make the future a bit more interesting, and a bit kinder, than that. 

Katherine: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to single people?

Elle: Stay excited about other people! Don’t let yourself become jaded; pessimism is the only reliable way to prevent yourself from finding happiness. Look for things you find attractive in others, not for flaws. 

Oh, and my co-founder will kill me if I don’t say, “join Swan.”