Back in 2012, when Tinder appeared in Britain, it had a seedily alluring air of sexual venality, but nobody I knew used it. With its focus on pictures and the location of users, to the detriment of any more substantive information, it had apparently emerged from Grindr, the notorious and universal gay hookup app. Tinder had first been unleashed among horny American college students who – just as with the original Facebook – immediately saw its potential for facilitating sex. And it was free, lending it even more the air of the wild west of dating.
That wild west has become the whole country. The demise last week of Guardian Soulmates – the standard-bearer of a better class of dating site, which users actually paid for – was an epic final nail in the coffin of the old era of courtship. Its death shows there is no place anymore for the slow-burn model of getting to know someone; for a selection process based not solely on location or ripped abs, but on proper messages and exchange of ideas. In stamping out even Soulmates, which continued to be a sanctuary for 40-somethings horrified by apps long after other paid-for sites withered, the meat market vision of courtship has definitively won out.
In an email to users, Soulmates explained: ‘today’s online dating scene is dramatically different’ to the one that existed in the years after 2004, when the service first went online (Soulmates was a lonely hearts column in the Observer before). ‘Whilst Soulmates has always aimed at providing a premium and safe experience, introducing like-minded people in the hope of finding love, we now find ourselves as very little fish in a very big pool.’ It added that the dating market is so ferocious and fast-paced, it would have to reinvent itself and cannot afford to do so. In other words, it would have to become more like Tinder, Bumble et al: a free app, with totally different algorithms that focussed on swipes and location, not browsing.
This is a shame. As much as Soulmates had its fair share of the ghastly pretentious sorts you might imagine signing up for a dating service run by a left-wing newspaper, it also had a genuinely plausible array of people. In 2016, aged 34, after a long relationship ended with someone I had assumed I would marry, I made my first sally into online dating – and, like most of my once-single friends, I began with Guardian Soulmates. I wanted fun and fun is what I found: but rather than bruising hookup after bruising hookup, which was what was to come with Tinder, I had a proper lover, with whom there was a beginning, a middle and an end to the affair. After that I had dates with a high-up man in English Heritage who taught me about the intricacies of planning permission; a handsome doctor who read academic texts about the sociology of love in his spare time, and so on.
Soulmates cost about £30 a month; immediately making it a premium product – the people you met on it all thought the chance of meeting you and your ilk was worth the price of six pints every month. This was a great comfort to women I knew who lived in fear of being treated as a free prostitution service.
Soulmates, though online, belonged to the epistolary age of courtship, which ranged from the 19th century matrimonial press and 20th century lonely hearts postbag to the ‘You’ve Got Mail’-style build of words that defined online dating in the 1990s and 2000s. One had to compose messages, and to wait for incoming missives, the types that could only be written on a keyboard. By contrast, messaging on apps is instant, and indistinguishable from the dribbles of pointless banter encouraged by Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and so on.
Apps aren’t without appeal. They discourage wordiness and verbosity where Soulmates was a magnet for windbags intoxicated by self-description. Instead of waiting a day for a reply to a message, one gets instant feedback. It’s easier to stockpile options, though each option is worth less.
Above all, it was nice to have the choice. The dating industry has never been as unitary as it is now. Until the rise of internet dating, singles could choose from lonely hearts ads, computer dating, or agencies. The internet folded the lonely hearts ad into the churn of technology; everything became an online dating site. But there was still great variety; depending on how mixed a bag you wanted, you could opt for the rowdy Plenty of Fish, the solidly professional Match, the Jewish-oriented J-Date or indeed the artsy, intellectual Guardian Soulmates. Now there’s just one market for those seeking love: and it sells meat.
Zoe Strimpel is the author of Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury), out now.