Within three weeks of launching in 2013, mobile trivia app QuizUp had become the fastest growing mobile game in history. It had also become, to some, more than just a mobile game. “Flirting via QuizUp is not for the faint of heart,” wrote The DateReport, a blog created by dating app HowAboutWe. “But the spirit of competition might make you a little bit bolder than you would ordinarily be. With any luck you can school some people with your Hunger Games knowledge, and find someone who wants to make out in the theater while you see Catching Fire for the fifth time.”
“This is not at all at something we originally planned for,” says Thor Fridriksson, founder of QuizUp creator Plain Vanilla Games.
But maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. As sure as any platform that allows users to upload content has been used for porn, it seems that any platform that allows people to interact has been used for dating.
In 2007, people were falling in love over ornamental bird purchases on eBay.
By 2010, they were meeting over Yelp reviews.
Then came marriages from relationships sparked on social sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Imgur (and its own Imgur-specific dating site). This was perhaps more predictable than the stories of people who met while playing Words With Friends (the app’s parent company, Zynga, once reported that one in 10 of its users had a hookup that stemmed from using Words With Friends), but were still surprising enough that the meet cutes made news.
Eventually, singles had begun to think of Lyft Line and UberPool, the ride-hailing apps’ carpooling features, as dating venues (“Our generation is really bad at meeting people organically,” one 24-year-old adopter of this strategy explained in an interview with NBC News.)
Every app, under the right circumstances, is a dating app.
This is not due to a dearth of actual dating apps. There are dating apps that offer unlimited swiping and apps that keep it to one match per day. Apps for dating people with whom you have mutual friends, who self-identify as elites (have fun!), and who you pass on the street. Apps that match based on music, zodiac signs, or travel plans. Apps that ask you to video chat or propose a date. There are enough dating apps.
So why are people still hitting on strangers on mobile games and Yelp?
Well, there are some theories.
The most common theory goes something like this from Business Insider: “There’s still stigma and uncertainty around meeting someone from Tinder. Some mobile users might prefer even more anonymity than what Tinder gives them.”
But the stigma around online dating isn’t what it used to be. According to a recent Pew Survey, almost half of Americans know someone who has used online dating or met his or her partner through an online dating site (granted, 21% agreed with the statement, “People who use online dating sites are desperate”). Signing up for online dating is no longer the deep dark secret it was when Match.com launched in 1995. Hitting on people through Yelp reviews is probably less socially acceptable.
But there’s one advantage that Yelp has over Tinder. “Here’s the way I see it: My first dates with people almost always involve either coffee, food, or drinks,” writes Steve Dean, a New York-based dating consultant, on Quora. “So why would I ever pass up the opportunity to definitively KNOW exactly where my potential dates like to go out to eat and drink?!”
Meeting a potential significant other in a nondating-app scenario, in other words, makes it easier to connect around a passion or interest, rather than the fact that you are both single (or not single but looking). “When you started to have people randomly matched up against each other playing something they’re both interested in and giving them a chance to communicate with each other, there was something magical that happened there,” Fridriksson says of QuizUp. “It’s like the magical ice breaker. You compete with someone, and then you have a reason or context to start talking with each other.”
Fridriksson’s theory is that part of what makes non-dating apps work so well as dating apps is the fact that they’re not dating apps. “The deniability of intent is something that can be very powerful,” he says.
You know that friend who signed up for the climbing gym just to meet cute girls who are into climbing? Or anyone who has ever been to a bar? There’s a similar angle to hitting on someone in a non-dating app. Meeting a significant other by happening into Airbnb? Cute! Signing up for a dating site that works like Airbnb, but only for attractive people? Less cute! It can be less awkward to prowl under a pretext. “You’re connecting with someone on something that’s not quite so superficial,” the CEO of anonymous sharing app Whisper, Michael Heyward, told Business Insider about his theory for why people use his app to date. “It’s based on a thought or feeling or emotion or experience.”
Or, as an UberPool dater named Shane Singh explained: “I’m meeting you solely because we’re in the same neighborhood, and going to the same neighborhood, to boot. Two people heading to the same strip of bars, the same concert or the same sports event are now forced to converse. Small talk breeds questions. Answers determine chemistry. With geographic proximity and mutual interests out of the way, all you have to do is score on the last variable: mutual attraction. You win there, and your UberPool turns into speed dating.”
The Internet is part of real life. If in the physical world, you’d rather meet someone through a shared interest or bump into them at a bar than go on another blind date set up by your great-aunt Norma, it should be no surprise that the same happens online.
And like a real-life bar or a real-life hangout place, the idea that you could meet someone, romantically or otherwise, through an app intended for something else can’t hurt.
Take Secret, an anonymous sharing app (and for a moment, Silicon Valley buzz-machine favorite) that shut down in April. At launch, the app had no messaging feature, so users could not talk privately (it eventually added one). But users so wanted to connect that eventually one of them built a tool called Anonyfish to facilitate anonymous chat on the platform. “Unless you’re forming stronger connections, a product doesn’t really tie back into your reality or your life,” David Byttow, the company’s former CEO, told Fast Company. “And therefore it’s easy to let go.”
Perhaps this is one reason why social apps pitch the stories of love found on their platforms to reporters and publish congratulations on their blogs.
Ultimately, QuizUp decided to follow its users’ lead. When its novelty as a mobile game started to wane (as mobile game momentum tends to do), instead of trying to build another hit game, it pivoted to make QuizUp into a social network. It now focuses on facilitating conversations between people with similar interests.
QuizUp hasn’t marketed itself as a dating app for several reasons: It matches people across the world, it didn’t want to promise proximity, and it didn’t want people who were in relationships to stop playing. But the dating use case has certainly helped.
Recently, the company noticed an explosion of usage in France. “They were using the social features way more than we had ever seen,” Fridriksson says. When the team looked into it, they weren’t surprised by what they found: “You could see hundreds of thousands of tweets in French where people were saying, ‘QuizUp is better than Tinder.’”