Technology has given us the gift of choice. With apps to manage everything from what type of Thai food we want delivered to which model of car we summon to drive us down the road, the modern world has allowed us to curate our lives to a degree our grandparents would find baffling.
So when it comes to sex—where our tastes vary a lot more than they do for take-out or transport—it’s no surprise that a vast global industry has been built around choosing the right mate. Swiping right began with LGBTQ dating app Grindr, launched in 2009, followed by Tinder in 2012. Biting at its heels came other imitators and twists on the same format, like Hinge (connects you with friends of friends), Bumble (women have to message first), and a multitude of options including choosing people according to the size of their Instagram following, their religion and whether or not they went to private school.
These apps were born in the US and quickly spread to Europe, but Asia—with a distinct dating behaviour and a different set of social norms and expectations—needed apps that tapped into local culture.
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Yu Wang, the founder of Tantan, says he is solving a societal problem brought about by young Chinese people moving to cities for work, often to places where they have no families or strong friendship circles. “In China, meeting people is a challenge,” he says. “It’s difficult because there’s no flirting culture. Very few young people go to bars and pubs. We wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger.” Tantan provides the solution to this, boasting over 3 billion matches to date from 100 million users.
Another Chinese app, Momo, has got more of a hook-up reputation and is particularly popular with ex-pats living in China (make of that what you will). In order to combat the idea that it’s a place to go for casual sex, the founders have widened its reach to allow users to locate new friends in the area (much like Bumble has done with Bumble BFF), play online games together or join user-generated groups. This has proved popular in a culture where people are generally more reserved about approaching someone, even on dating apps, than they are in other parts of the world.
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In China, this kicked off with Tantan, which operates almost identically to Tinder. But it quickly outclassed its American doppelganger by attracting a significantly higher proportion of users in China, particularly outside of mega-hubs like Beijing and Shanghai. Interestingly, Tantan is very vocal about how focused it is on relationships, rather than casual dating. There are even reports that users get a slap on the wrist, aka a text message warning, if they use suggestive language or words that imply they’re looking for a hook-up.
In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, negative perceptions around dating apps continue to linger. Finding love online has been historically frowned upon in many of the more conservative societies such as Malaysia and Indonesia, and this stigma has kept singles looking for love IRL (Internet parlance for "in real life"). A few tech innovators, however, have found a way to break these difficult markets.
We found that successful tactics used by US and European dating apps just didn’t translate to Asian societies, because of our more conservative dating norms
Paktor has quickly grown to become one of the biggest dating apps in Asia, and now has 15 million users in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Their secret to success has been tapping into a need for discretion. Since they changed the rules and said people simply needed to enter a phone number to join, rather than link to a social media account, membership soared. Like Momo, they have also introduced group settings, where shy daters can get to know each other more informally. An eager market responded and hundreds of thousands of matches have been made.
This includes co-founder Joseph Phua, who met his wife on Paktor two years after he launched the app. “We found that successful tactics used by US and European dating apps just didn’t translate to Asian societies, because of our more conservative dating norms,” he says. “Our approach had to be about thinking local, and Paktor started differentiating itself by tapping into our own knowledge of local culture and people.”
And he is not alone—throughout Asia, app innovators have been coming up with creative solutions to traditional cultural barriers. In India, meeting prospective partners is less of an issue than finding a place to spend time together when you live under the watchful eyes of your family. As a result of soaring hourly rates for Airbnb rooms, the (oddly named) app, Stay Uncle, helps “couples who need a room, not a judgment”.
In Japan, there is the opposite problem. While there is no shortage of love hotels, people are still looking for matches to meet them there. Apps vary wildly—at the traditional end, there is Omiai “where respectable guys and girls can meet” on websites that are so old-fashioned, you can’t even upload a picture. The name harks back to the concept of arranged marriage and users are urged to go on wholesome first dates such hiking or tea-drinking.
9monsters combines Tamagotchi, gay dating culture and cartoons
At the other end of the spectrum, 9monsters must be one of the most eccentrically modern apps around, given that it’s combines Tamagotchi, gay dating culture and cartoons. Depending on who you interact with online, your Tamagotchi hatches into one of nine monsters aligning with types within Japanese gay culture: chubby piggy, say, or bulky bison. Users then meet under that guise.
As 9monsters alone proves, dating apps have radically transformed the way we approach love and sex. And while hundreds of hand-wringing articles have been written about the death of the relationship and the dating apocalypse they have created, it is more realistic to admit they are a simple way of helping us get what we crave.
If you’re single and under 40 you’ve probably tried an app at some point, and whether your ultimate goal is marriage and babies, someone to keep your sheets warm for the next few hours or a gay Tamagotchi—dating apps are becoming the best way to get you there.