A Pinterest search for “anti-Valentine’s Day” generates thousands of results. There are hundreds of similarly-minded events happening all over the country, each expressing approximately the same sentiments: we are lonely, love is hard. The popularity of these events shouldn’t seem surprising, because the feelings they express are a core to the narrative of a whole generation; loneliness is part of the millennial identity, and they think tech is to blame. With this in mind, narrative analytics company Monitor 360 recently analyzed hundreds of thousands of data points across published and social media to better understand the scope and impact of this narrative.
The concept of the “swipe left generation” has been hotly discussed in the digital world, most notably in a notorious Vanity Fair article that called the phenomenon “the dating apocalypse.” But it’s not just a matter of a few outspoken media personalities or mainstream commentators-- narrative analytics reveals that millennials themselves also consider dating to be strenuous and connections difficult to form in the modern age. It is one of the most frequent narratives held by people between 19 and 35, and, sadly, the topic most frequently associated with it is depression.
In addition to the problems presented by Tinder and other dating apps, this widely held millennial narrative implicates other technology like video games, VR and even social networks to be detrimental to relationship-building because of the level of distraction they offer. The idea is that people can’t form real bonds because they’re too absorbed in their digital experiences--a concept reiterated across popular media and personal mediums.
These narrative strains present an interesting problem for tech companies that operate in the fields of dating, social or entertainment: how to address the negative conception and change it. Millennials are the largest generation and have the strongest buying power. If they start to associate gaming and entertainment companies with more superficial relationships, those businesses stand to lose millions in lessened user activity. Movements like #digitaldetox significantly impact user engagement. If dating apps become synonymous with hookup culture, they’ll lose popularity (and revenue). Brands in these fields need to pay attention to these narratives and work to understand them if they want to avoid falling prey to them down the line.
Narrative One: The Swipe Left Effect of Modern Dating Apps
In today’s post-fact society, stories can be more powerful than reality. For example, a recent study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University found that millennials hook up less frequently than either of the two generations before them (the researchers attribute this to better sex education amongst other reasons.) This clearly stands in stark conflict with the idea that dating apps have spawned a generation that only cares about casual sex. Yet that narrative still exists and drives user decisions; whether or not it’s true, millennials believe they’re living in a hookup culture, and that’s stressful.
According to Pew research, one in five single people has a profile on a dating app, and one in three matches never meets in person. The seeming malaise around actually pursuing opportunities that arise from dating apps could be traceable to the popular narrative that surrounds them: dating applications present too many choices and create too superficial a culture to be a path to real connection.
Millennials make up a sizable majority of dating applications’ target demographic; if companies like Tinder want to combat this mythos, they’ll have to find a way to alter the narrative or tap into a new one.
Tinder’s most recent advertising campaign reflects the company’s awareness of and eagerness to change the brand perception; a commercial for Tinder for Apple TV features a family sitting together reviewing a young woman’s matches. A blog post accompanying the ad explains, "With a new, swipeable remote control and the world’s hottest app now in HD, modern dating is taking a page from the age-old book of matchmaking. Let’s face it—the people who know you best have traditionally had a high rate of success when helping you pick a partner."
The company’s product development reflects a similar motivation, with the introduction of non-romantic Tinder Social, which removes the sexual element from the swiping experience. Whether these efforts enable the brand to escape the prevailing narrative remains to be seen.
Narrative Two: Immersive Tech as a Barrier to Intimacy
A 2016 Intel study found that 49 percent of millennials are willing to leave their smartphone at home while on vacation, while only 37 percent of people in their 40s and 50s were willing to do the same. In spite of their reputation with older generations, millennials aren’t married to their phones. Being connected isn’t always perceived to be positive. In fact, digital connection can mean emotional division.
Mainstream entertainment provides a steady influx of stories that tap into this narrative. The popular Netflix series Black Mirror--of which millennials are a target demographic--consistently revisits themes associating technology with avoidance and escapism. The sentiment is echoed, albeit in a lighter tone, by shows like The Big Bang Theory, which equate gaming with isolation and poor social skills. The analysis showed that amongst the brands most frequently mentioned by millennials complaining about their love life are Facebook, YouTube, SEGA and Nintendo--so the media archetypes of the disengaged gamer and the internet junkie are reflected in the common discourse as well.
As with the Swipe Left narrative, major brands are not blind to the perception that tech inhibits intimacy. Whereas Apple’s early ads mostly centered around lambasting competitive Microsoft products, its more recent ads are decidedly heartfelt and emotional, emphasizing creating new connections (even with monsters.)
For all their frustration, millennials still vent their insecurities and empathize with one another through technologies like social networks, publishing platforms and gaming communities, and dating applications have become an increasingly common way for millennials to meet their significant others. There is space for a new narrative to emerge, if brands pay attention to the trends and act strategically. Tech may have broken the traditional way of love, but it has also laid the foundation for a new one.
If brands can uncover and nourish this narrative instead, they’ll uncover a generation of loyal and happy users. If they don’t--especially the dating apps--they risk failure. When it comes to securing customer loyalty, especially for easily abandoned apps and digital services, narratives make or break a business. The first step to positively influencing them is understanding them.