When The Best Online Dating Starts Offline

Once a way to widen our romantic circles, online dating is turning to more familiar faces.

Two months ago, I matched on Tinder with a lovely woman, R, who did not seem particularly happy to be there. She had downloaded the app while bored in the nail salon one day, she told me, and had found a single week of swiping and chatting totally exhausting. R had only been on one date, and it was a disaster: The guy kept suggesting they move from a coffee shop to locations closer to his north Brooklyn apartment, and moments after she finally refused to go home with him (in the middle of the day!) and hopped a cab, he messaged her: "Thanks a lot for sitting on my face," perhaps missing the meaning of the phrase.

Like many successful, smart, attractive young people, R felt, despite herself, that the impersonality of online dating was beneath her, an "ocean of average," as she put it to me. Still, we managed to begin talking over the app. She asked me to tell her five facts about myself, so she could decide whether she was interested. Fact four: I'm from Washington, D.C.

"I lived there when I was a kid," R wrote. "Though more like Bethesda, Maryland."

"Me too!" I wrote.

"Wood Acres Elementary School," she wrote.

"Me too!" I wrote. "I had the biggest crush on Christine P."

Of course, Christine P. had been R's best friend. After R left D.C., they wrote each other letters for years. A decade passed. They fell out of touch. R excitedly texted me a picture of her and Christine, age 7, dancing in a suburban living room; naturally, she wanted to meet. A date was no longer, well, beneath her. I had been vetted. I had context.

At the time, I shared this story with a few friends who also date online, and their reactions felt to me somehow lacking, insufficiently gobsmacked. It turned out that while my story was unlikely, it was hardly unique. Nearly everyone I talked to had similar ones — about themselves or friends — finding, amid the endless scroll of deep-sea fishing prize shots and tiger preserve selfies, quasi-familiar faces: a charming publicist previously met at a party, or a dark and handsome art dealer glimpsed but not talked to at a big group dinner, or a pretty friend of a friend from college.

My story may have been a particularly serendipitous example of a trend, but it was a trend nonetheless: People using online dating as a filter on their offline lives.

We tend to think about online dating as blind dates plus photos, a kind of You've Got Mail–inflected fantasy of two lonely people disconnected in every way but a list of interests and the desire for love or companionship or sex. It's a stereotype left over from the days of video dating that lags behind the way we date today, through a series of complex interactions between offline lives — work, school, social — and online ones. As in every aspect of our culture, the walls between our online interactions and our physical lives are coming down. And the websites and applications that once helped to widen our romantic worlds, are now helping to vet, narrow, and familiarize them.

The most typical kind of the new offline-online dating happened to my friend Andy, who works in the arts in Seattle. Andy dated a young woman for three years in college, and he couldn't help noticing a very cute member of his girlfriend's sorority. They never spoke, and Andy and his girlfriend split up after college. Years later, Andy noticed his ex's sorority friend while Tindering. They matched, went out, and have now been dating for nearly a year. Andy doesn't talk to his ex anymore, but I wondered if she knew about his new girlfriend. "We don't hide it," he told me. "It's the internet."

Andy's story — a missed connection resuscitated at a later date thanks to a dating app — is becoming increasingly common: Offline life as a discovery mechanism for online dating. But the negotiations between online and offline can be much more elaborate.

Take the case of my friend, who I'll call Tim. Tim met a woman at a party, and they hit it off. She gave him her number, but they never made plans. Some time later, they matched on Tinder. The girl texted Tim, they saw each other at another party, they made plans, they started dating. In Tim's case, and in so many others, the dating app isn't a silo — it's one of the many potential instruments in the suite that comprises a modern single life.

No one knows that fact better than the people who make the dating sites themselves. "A common misperception about online dating — and the internet in general — is how much people have integrated it into the daily flow of their lives," Christian Rudder, the data scientist and cofounder of OkCupid, told me. That is to say, very, very thoroughly. Rudder pointed to the proliferation of dating apps that let people inconspicuously flick through matches during even the most marginal downtime (as I have been known to do, shamefully, on the toilet). When anyone can pass through dozens of matches whenever they want, the likelihood of matching with someone somehow related to one's life is simply much higher.

Justin McLeod, the founder and CEO of Hinge, a dating app that shows users friends of Facebook friends, is living proof. Over the summer, McLeod started chatting with a woman in a Flatiron coffee shop. They didn't exchange information, and he couldn't find her online. Then, a few days later, he got a message from her on Hinge. It turned out they had matched two days before meeting in real life.

Hinge, which has more than quadrupled its active user base since the start of 2014, represents the collapse of the offline-online dating distinction better than any other dating app, because it shows users the very people they would be likely to meet through a friend.

"We don't really like to call it online dating or a dating app," McLeod told me, "because it's just like a house party or a dinner going on all the time. That's why we're so transparent about your name, who you are, where you work, and where you went to school."

And it turns out — perhaps unsurprisingly — that people want to meet the same type of people online who they would be likely to meet offline. The closer the connection of the suggestion, the more likely Hinge users are to swipe right to match. According to Hinge data, users pick 44% of the second-degree connections (friend of a friend) they're shown, 41% of third-degree connections (friend of a friend of a friend), and only 28% of unconnected suggestions. According to McLeod, those figures hold true even when Hinge doesn't display the degree of connection.

What Hinge users emphatically do not want is to be shown people they already know. Hinge used to occasionally suggest first-degree connections — actual Facebook friends — but stopped after receiving negative user feedback. This suggests that online daters genuinely do want to meet new people, but new people who come implicitly recommended, validated, contextualized. In other words, no strangers, and no Ross and Rachels. There's something about people who know us too well encroaching on our dating lives that is undeniably uncomfortable.

As Rudder told me, "We all love hanging out with our best friend, but the last person I'd want sitting near me while I was on a first date is my best friend."

It's easy to imagine a transformative app in the near future — some combination of Hinge and Happn, the app that prompts a swipe when you are physically near another user — that normalizes the deferral of all flirtation to future digital approval. Of course, that's a little sad. It would do away with an entire universe of uncertain and exciting feelings. But it might just be suited to our cultural moment, which has asked straight men to examine deeply the way we approach women. Men who may have felt comfortable asking out a friend of a friend or a co-worker in the past can proceed on a dating app with confidence thanks to what McLeod calls "the double opt-in thing." It's a comfort to know that the idea of an advance, if not the advance itself, is kosher.

And it's not like catching the eye of someone at a party with the hope of matching on Tinder spares you the usual hazards of dating at the periphery of your friend group — future awkwardness, or worse. There's no setting on Tinder or Hinge, yet, to weed out the friends of your friends who are creeps, or liars, or weirdos.

Case in point: The "thanks for sitting on my face" guy? It turned out he was a friend of R's friend.