After writing a book about the demise of dating in the hands of technology, I would never have dreamed that I would see the single bar’s comeback. They had their heyday in the 1970s as the backdrop for the sexual revolution, where they are courting a female clientele with piña coladas, Bahama Mamas and wine sprinklers. It was not the internet, or even terrible pick-up lines, that led to their decline; they were plagued by a dingy reputation with the rise in cocaine use in the 1980s before being felled by the fear of AIDS. (Hossebarer continues to serve an important function in the LGBTQ community, although many have unfortunately closed in the last decade.)
Today, most single-mingling is not as dingy as cringe-making. The most intolerable event I have attended (and there is fierce competition for that title) was silent speed-dating, which announced eye-staring as a quick route to intimacy. I can not say what was more awkward, the staring contest with strangers or the icebreakers (salon games such as music chairs), but when our evening’s MC shouted, “Go across the room if you’re wearing your favorite jerseys!” I should have made a hasty retreat.
But it looks like the singles bar is back: From Brixton to Brooklyn, 20s and 30s line up around the block to attend weekly singles events at cocktail bars. The meetings are aimed at people who are tired of fruitless rolls through dating apps and online conversations that go nowhere; but perhaps inevitably they are organized via a dating app, Thursday, which promotes personal meeting. After making “match, chat and meet” on the app more efficient by restricting user access to one day a week, it launched real-life events in a handful of UK cities and New York; the company plans to expand to 20 US cities soon.
Thursday’s pitch is old-school: “Just a bar. Like any other bar, ”reads an invitation to a drinks party in Notting Hill. The remarkable thing about its popularity (the app had almost 86,000 downloads last month) is that the bars had been there all along; the only thing missing singles was the courage to speak.
After starting dating in London, it did not take long to see that the English needed large amounts of alcohol to be able to move. In our continued search for a frictionless existence, dating apps evolved in part to reduce the risk of rejection: Tinder’s paradigm shifting feature was “dual option”, which only allows users to send messages when both parties have expressed their interest by swiping to the right .
But while technologies are popping up to solve a problem (i.e. finding people to date), they are inevitably creating new ones again (having to get up off the couch to meet them). Thanks to the dark art of addictive design, with a dopamine hit when you match, the vast majority of matches remain unfinished, with little more exchanged than a so-so “hey”. A study by the Center for Humane Technology showed that Tinder and Grindr were both included in the top 10 apps that make people sad, with more than half of users dissatisfied with swiping.
Like so many aspects of our lives, the pandemic only drove dating deeper into technical dependence. Dating app traffic rose sharply during the lockdown and ushered in a new era of video dating as offline opportunities to meet people dwindled. Although many users say they will continue to use video as a way to survey people, in my humble opinion sharing a glass of wine online has very little to recommend it.
Despite fine mathematical brains mining user data, algorithms have not cracked the compatibility code. Dating apps exaggerate the importance of looks, which turns out to mean far less than we think. If you put the people I’ve had my best relationships with on an app, I’d probably swipe left on most of them. Face-to-face flirting offers a much deeper arsenal of tools than texting, including body language, voice and the oh-so elusive chemistry. In a study of singles pulling in a bar, researchers observed 109 distinct “attraction tactics” – from hair that flips and breathes in the chest to “suck seductively on a straw”.
There is a certain irony that the return to the analog format of catching eyes across a bar, driven by booze for the courage to initiate a conversation, is achieved through. . . an app. Do we need more technology to solve the problems caused by technology? And why not just visit the local pub on any old night of the week?
For a group that is not trained in the risk of being rejected and worried about consent after #MeToo, a great benefit of dedicated singles events is knowing that people are available and open to being contacted. Part of Thursday’s appeal may also be security: Membership is based on uploading proof of identity to minimize catfish.
We may think that smartphones simplify our lives, but for many, apps do not optimize the path to intimacy. As some companies double the multiverse, incorporate TikTok-like clips and “shared digital experiences”, there is something encouraging about the idea that generations Y and Z can find their way to each other personally. And to those who do, a piece of advice from Jean Smith, a social anthropologist, whom I had been lucky enough to take a “fearless flirtation” before moving on to professional coaching. Smith warns against wasting time considering a pick-up line: If anyone is interested, they will never remember how you started the conversation. A simple “Hello, how are you” has, after all, spread the species for ages.
Mia Levitin is a cultural and literary critic. She is the author of ‘The Future of Seduction’
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