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Sexual Lab Rats

To the creators of the newest wave of dating and hookup apps, San Francisco's singles aren't just willing customers—they're walking science experiments.

Further reading: A down-and-dirty explainer of five new dating apps.

For some people, dating is a labor of love. For others, it's just a labor. Helen might put herself in the latter camp. A 26-year-old with a decent job in healthcare and an apartment on Nob Hill, she knows the dos and don’ts of dating. In fact, she wrote about them for a year and a half on her blog, Single/(Almost) White/Female, chronicling the adventures of a young, stylish, Asian bachelorette navigating a crowded city.

In May, when her blogging began interfering with her actual love life, Helen stopped doing it. But blog or no, Helen has digital street cred. After graduating from college, she briefly served as a freelance writer in Boston for the site HowAboutWe, tasked with conceiving cute date ideas for would-be daters—like stargazing at the local planetarium or riding bikes along the Charles River—and describing them in posts larded with perky advice: “Send a personalized message.” “Ask a question.” “(Maybe) Temper the honesty?” By many measures, she has become an authority on web-driven romance. And yet, she still can’t find a man.

Sitting in a Russian Hill café over an iced coffee and a half-eaten croissant, Helen explains her current situation: Over the last couple of months, she’s shifted from desktop dating sites to mobile apps that distill everything to a picture and (an optional) tagline. Her personal favorite is Tinder, the hookup app du jour that merges the age-old game of Hot or Not with the free-swinging mentality of Grindr. Users swipe through a series of profile pictures of singles within a 100-mile radius and pick the ones that they “like.” When two people “like” each other, the app lets them chat. Helen started using it on a friend’s recommendation and liked its ephemeral quality: It doesn’t require any real thought or time investment.

“Sometimes I just go through if I’m sitting in bed and I want to know who’s out there,” she says. “Or I use it while I’m watching TV.” Shallow? Sure. Convenient? Definitely. At your fingertips is a list of the city’s eligible bachelors, from which you can pick and choose and potentially make a connection—all during the Bachelorette commercial break. It’s a style of dating that’s perfectly tailored to gadget-happy professionals who grew up in an age of technological innovation. If the product isn’t perfect, it’s at least expedient—and instantly disposable. As Helen puts it: “I prefer calculated risks.”

Dating apps thrive in San Francisco, and not just because the city has an endless supply of overeducated, dissatisfied singles with disposable incomes and smartphones. They also appeal because this is a place of uncertainty and instability where many young people aren’t even sure where they’ll be living next month, much less whom they’ll be dating. And of course, the rules of dating have changed since the days of “going steady.” Now young singles don’t even know how to ask each other out, says Jessica Massa, the 30-year-old cofounder of the dating site The Gaggle. “What I hear all the time is, ‘This guy friended me on Facebook; he’s liking all my Instagram photos; is he into me or not?’” she says. Dating apps promise less ambiguity than day-to-day social media: Every user’s romantic availability is clearly stated, and they provide a platform to begin a conversation and a potentially lasting connection. But there’s also a disconnect with real-world emotions and consequences. He may never “like” you back. Your next message could end up unanswered, floating alone in cyberspace. She may flake out on the plans you made to meet in the real world. While the apps help cut through the red tape, they also add to the endemic angsty confusion of dating.

App or no, Helen knows what she wants. “I believe very strongly in physical attraction,” she confesses, rattling off a description of her ideal male: a Mr. America–esque guy who looks “like he just walked out of a J. Crew catalog,” but isn’t a total bro. Fortunately, there’s no dearth of such men in San Francisco, and Tinder offers a voluminous selection. Helen could have a date every night if she wanted to. But the prospects aren’t that appealing to her.

“I’m looking for a man, and they’re all boys,” she asserts. According to Helen, man-children—men unsuitable for a lasting, committed relationship—are a scourge both on Tinder and in San Francisco at large. There was the guy who didn’t buy sheets for his bed. Or the guy who texted her at 3 a.m. after she had canceled their date earlier that evening. Or the AWOLs, guys who suddenly disappeared off the face of the planet just when everything seemed to be going well.

And the immaturity problem isn’t unique to men. Lucas, who is 28 and works at a marketing research firm in the financial district, says that he used to go on OkCupid dates with women who would get drunk to calm their nerves. “And then,” he says, “maybe you’d make out, and you’d part extremely awkwardly.” Ben (not his real name), a tech research analyst in his mid-20s, is pretty sure that after he lent a date his jacket, she wore it to go sleep with another guy across town. “And I think she used his jacket to come hang out with me the next day,” he says.

Whether this kind of behavior means that we’re living in a city of childish, coddled millennials who don’t know how to behave for two hours at a bar and aren’t suitable for a long-term relationship—or that we’re surrounded by Helens whose dates never meet their expectations—is debatable. What is certain is that apps like Tinder allow users to indulge in such behavior. When Chuck (not his real name), a 30-year-old hedge fund analyst, tried to arrange a date on Tinder, the girl stood him up at the last minute—twice. “The day of the second date, I messaged her and she didn’t respond, and I never heard from her after that,” he recalls dispiritedly. That’s not to say that flaking is a new concept. But regardless of which came first— the app or the conduct—they aggravate one another. Because the apps don’t punish users for poor etiquette (for the most part, there’s no real way to monitor or review users) and there are no real-life consequences, they make it OK to stand up Chuck. The more that young people become accustomed to this behavior online, the less value they place on these romantic connections and the easier such behavior becomes. Even as this vicious cycle continues to spread, more apps are being created, each promising a new facet to the game, a new solution to the woes of dating. And San Francisco is where they’re tested first.

Page two: Dating apps are the new Angry Birds.