Hooked on Dating Apps: Where is China’s Gen Z Swiping Right?

Since coming back to China over a year ago, more and more of my peers have started talking about dating apps. A few years before when I left for college in the US, the hype wasn’t that obvious. Perhaps I only had a vague idea then of how things worked in Chinese schools, but for all I knew, the need to find suitable partners wasn’t frequently put on the table compared to my experience at an American institution where Tinder stories were often discussed among friends, and where events with fancy names like “Datamatch” and “Marriage Pact” are prevalent.

During my time at school, I was a frequent participant in such events. Of course, I wasn’t expecting the matches that came out from them to be anything more than random pairings (despite the alleged compatibilities), but they did help me meet new people outside of the group I usually interacted with – the bit of randomness that we all needed in our seemingly unchanging routines of everyday life. I always wondered if I would find the same thing back home.

So when school came to a halt last May due to the pandemic, I decided to put myself on several dating apps in China. My attempt originated out of boredom and curiosity, but, after familiarizing myself with the available platforms and talking to people about them, the experience ended in surprise. The popularity of such platforms among younger generations in recent years has gone beyond the level I had expected.

According to an industry report, the total number of users in the stranger-meeting/dating app category in China exceeded 600 million by 2020, with about half of those born after 1995. Since 2019, internet giants like Tencent and Bytedance have all put out new products to compete in the market, with Tencent introducing more than eight new apps in two years. What’s so appealing about them?

A Platform Shift

Throughout the years, China has witnessed a growing single population: from 2013 to 2018, the number has risen from 170 million to 240 million, and is now the largest in the world. Many firms have understandably vied for a chance at this huge market.

The popularity of traditional matchmaking services tells us that young people in China might be more open to finding partners through third-party involvement more than anywhere else. Dating TV show Fei Cheng Wu Rao (If You Are the One), in which each episode features one guy who is judged by 24 female guests, has an audience rating of 36 million and has aired over 600 episodes since 2010. Matchmaking sites Jiayuan.com and Baihe.com, where people poste their profiles to be matched with those deemed most suitable by the platform, already hosted over 300 million users combined by 2017.

This might be attributed in part to the stigma in Chinese conventions forbidding young people to date before college. After entering college they are thrown all of a sudden into a dilemma of being barely good at dating but needing to find a fitting partner soon for marriage, for which they face pressure most often from parents and other older family members. In this case, it seems most natural that some help is required.

But traditional matchmaking websites, having enjoyed their moment in the sun, have started to lose favor. In an interview with Sina, a user in his late twenties voiced his distaste for these platforms. “They are used and look like products of the last century,” he complained. “I got countless calls the first day of signing up, urging me to pay for updated service. The pressure is too overwhelming.” Other users have also expressed disappointment that such services are way too business-oriented that the sincerity is lost.

Taking their place in today’s market are newer dating apps that became popular around the same time domestically and abroad. The form of quick, location-based matches through mobile apps was first introduced in gay communities by Grindr and Scruff, released in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Following their success, the now mainstream global platform Tinder was launched in 2012, while in China, stranger-socializing app Momo, Grindr counterpart Blued, and Tinder counterpart Tantan were launched in 2011, 2012, and 2014, respectively. Many more have followed.

Dai Gaole, a recent college graduate who has worked on several matchmaking projects, told us that he believed the bigger social-networking market had low barriers to entry that contributed to its popularity and affluence of opportunities. “With each shift in mainstream media, there is always a change in the social products people use. But no matter how everything changes, the underlying demand to meet people despite time and location barriers is and always will be there.”

He also acknowledged the effect of the pandemic on social app users. “I don’t know if the fanfare for dating apps and livestreaming platforms will persist, but people are definitely more open to meeting others online in the post-pandemic era.”

Dai’s projects include holding matchmaking events both on-campus in the US and across Chinese cities, where participants fill out surveys to be matched with someone by digital algorithms and complete in person tasks or play games with their partner for a short period of time. With regards to the format, he believes that the face-to-face aspect is absolutely necessary. “A lot of online platforms stop at matching and facilitate nothing further,” he commented, “but I think spending time with someone in person is a high-cost but high-reward step.”

Hitting a Soft Spot for Each Bunch

Each successful dating app has a distinct selling point. Though Tinder and Tantan won over users looking for efficiency with their “swipe right to like” mechanisms and straightforward profiles consisting of a few pictures and a short bio, Soul, a voice chatting app launched in 2016, aimed to facilitate connections through audio and games. Female-oriented apps like Bumble and its Chinese counterpart Ta Shuo (“She Says”) allow just female users to text their matches first, while apps like Coffee Meets Bagel boast “high quality” matches by limiting daily recommendations and enabling more comprehensive profiles.

After trying out a range of apps, I had come to the conclusion that there was some kind of pattern for each one. For example, many people on Tinder in China were students who went to school abroad, and almost one out of several dozens of swipes would be someone I knew. Tantan was something else – you could get just anyone within a 10-mile radius, and my recommendations went from a high school classmate to a security guard at a nearby supermarket. Ta Shuo users were largely college students and pretty sincere, while a large proportion of my recommendations on Coffee Meets Bagel were not even in the country.

Since Tinder and Tantan are basically for casual dating, and I was looking for either something serious or nothing at all, my conversations on them rarely lasted for more than one or two days. But the other ones weren’t necessarily better. If someone is on Bumble and Ta Shuo, they are likely on Tinder already. However, I did get a lot less annoying and inappropriate messages, and their longer profiles substantially widened the range of potential conversation topics.

Tinder is also the most popular app among the people I’ve talked to. “I only use Tinder and I feel like it’s fair enough. Both male and female users are choosing and being chosen at the same time. You can also find people with similar niche interests easily through the straightforward bio,” a senior in college told us. “The swiping mechanism is very efficient and saves a lot of unnecessary trouble,” another student remarked.

Different apps definitely appeal to certain groups, however. Female friends who recommended Bumble and Ta Shuo to me said that they liked them because there are “a lot less weird people”. A newer app called “Orange” under Jike, a social app that encourages brief documentations of hobbies and moments, took such “feminist” spirits further by introducing the function of “Dating Kill,” through which female users can drop “bombs” on guys they don’t like – when someone is bombed enough times they are no longer able to use the app unless their profile is changed.

Xu Xin, a female user on Orange, told us that she dropped bombs on two people because their profile appeared too condescending, but thought the feature was “kind of mean,” adding, “if I want them to stop showing up on my feed, I have no choice but to bomb them. But if there was an ‘unlike’ button, I probably would have used that more.”

When asked during a podcast why a platform would choose to actively “kill off” its users, COO of Jike and director of Orange Lin Hang said that the function was mainly designed to prevent male users from treating interactions on dating apps as trophies to feel better about themselves. “Some people think they are too important,” remarked Lin. “There has to be ways for them to realize that they are wrong.”

Lingering Doubt

Despite repeated attempts by developing teams to make interactions more trustworthy on dating platforms, users still can’t help having reservations.

“I think I’ve grown to feel a natural sense of distrust towards these platforms,” Xu recalled. “If someone has a pretty good profile, I will start wondering if the account is fake. If a guy specifically says he’s a feminist, I will start thinking if he is just using this to get more girls.” Another student said that he couldn’t trust dating app profiles anymore because the pictures are almost always edited.

Despite their faltering credibility, dating apps’ close relationship to hookup culture is also an impression difficult to do away with. Of China’s current mainstream dating platforms, Tantan, Soul, and Blued have all been taken down from app stores due to inappropriate content. Since 2015, more dating apps have been removed than launched each year in China.

This might have contributed to generally low expectations of finding long-term relationship partners even among the most devoted users of such platforms. A female college student told us that she had already given up on dating apps. “All the people I met just made me certain that they would never work for me, but I guess I didn’t have high expectations for them in the first place.”

Another student enrolled in a local university gave a similar opinion. He met his current girlfriend on a dating app, but didn’t expect it when he first signed up. “You really can’t count on dating apps to get into a serious relationship, though – it only works when you’re lucky.”

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