WHEN EMY EDWIN returned home to Kovalam earlier this year, she found her old group of friends talking about a new dating app. It wasn’t an app meant for casual relationships or hookups, nor the sort that would function like a matrimonial website. Its purpose lay somewhere in between. Named Arike, meaning “close” in Malayalam, it was also one meant only for Malayalis.
For Edwin, just 24 years old, who was returning from London where she was pursuing her studies, Arike became a way to reconnect with her hometown and meet new people. “I wasn’t really looking for a boyfriend,” Edwin says with a laugh. “But if one came along, who knows, right?”
Arike is among a new category of dating apps flooding India’s smaller towns and cities. According to the creators of these apps, not only has there been a technological jump in tier-2 and 3 regions over the last few years, a huge cultural shift is underway where the idea of single men and women getting into a relationship before marriage is becoming increasingly common and permissible.
When Able Joseph launched the dating app Aisle (then a website), he dithered from calling it a dating platform, and instead chose the term “online singles community”. First established in Bengaluru, and in other metropolitan cities soon after, and now available across the country, in its earlier incarnation, users had to apply for membership and the platform’s employees would call the individual to vet them. “If you called me [in 2014], I would have probably called Aisle a matchmaking platform. The word “dating” was not normalised back then, even in the big cities. It had a negative connotation, something one did for hookups. Now if you see “dating” and “hookups”, the two terms have sort of split from each other,” he says.
The infiltration of the internet via smartphones and inexpensive data plans in smaller towns and cities along with the boom of over-the-top (OTT) platforms, especially during the pandemic, he says, has created a new culture of permissiveness. “Back in the day, the baby boomer generation would not have been familiar with anything beyond their city or town, or, at best, their country. Now, they instantly know what is going on across the world, say, the Black Lives Matter protests. So, parents are aware of the changing culture. This whole phenomenon of meeting someone before starting a courtship period has got normalised to a big extent,” he says.
In Bhopal, a 22-year-old college student who requested anonymity says she began using Tinder last year once the pandemic disrupted physical classes. “Many of my friends also use it. Although not all of us tell our parents about it,” she says. “Because it was so frustrating spending all this time at home, it became a good way to connect with people.” Although she wasn’t looking to jump into a new relationship, she did meet a couple of people once the lockdown was eased, she says. “My friends and I continue using it on and off this way,” she says.
The use of dating apps, their creators say, is growing at a faster pace in smaller cities and towns. Snehil Khanor, the founder of Truly Madly, points out that while the revenue they earned from tier-1 cities comprised about 78 per cent of their total in 2019, it now accounts for just 55 per cent, with the rest coming from smaller cities and towns. Even the difference in the average revenue per paying user on the platform across markets is negligible. At Aisle, which has about seven million users, the percentage of revenue from tier-2 and 3 markets has risen from 38 per cent in 2019 to 45 per cent in 2020. “In the next one or two years, it’s going to be even larger,” Khanor says, pointing out how there has been a relative stagnation in the growth of dating apps in larger cities. According to media reports, even Tinder witnessed twice as much growth in tier-2 cities as in metros in 2020.
Joseph talks about how difficult it is sometimes for those living in cities to realise what is going on in smaller towns. Earlier, he was not sure if the youth in these regions were smartphone-savvy, or if large numbers even owned phones. “But once TikTok came out, everything became super clear,” he says. “They not only had phones, they knew how to use its many features, edit videos and what not.” Just before the pandemic hit last year, when he travelled to Kerala to his father’s house in a distant village, he found those in the neighbourhood ordering from e-commerce stores, and hailing cabs and autorickshaws from ride-sharing apps. “Once you have the evidence that people are using the internet to transact, you know that even an online matchmaking platform could be brought to that internet economy,” he says.
To target these markets, many dating platforms are now reorienting their strategies. Aisle launched its first regional dating app Arike for Malayalis in early 2021. Since then, it has also launched Anbe focusing on the Tamil community and Neetho for Telugu speakers. Truly Madly, apart from its original version that caters to English speakers, has launched a version for Hindi speakers, with another two regional versions (for Marathi and Gujarati speakers) in the pipeline. By the end of 2021, Truly Madly will have 10 regional apps in the market, if not 13, Khanor says.
Regional dating apps allow these platforms to find new users, while also allowing current users to find better matches based on shared interests from their communities. “Couples from different regions might not be interested in questions like whether their favourite actor is Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan, or whether their favourite food is butter chicken. A regional app brings a new cultural element. They may rather want to get into whether they like Mohanlal or Mammootty,” he says.
Edwin is not necessarily looking for romance on
dating apps, although she is not closed to the idea. “Dating apps are pretty common in Kovalam now. Although it’s tough to find something promising,” she says. “Tinder, I feel, is meant for one-night stands. In Bumble, I realised I didn’t get matches easily. So, something like an app meant for Malayalis, where the cultural references are the same, the same vibe and interests, made more sense. And I’ve met some interesting people on it.”
The idea of dating as it travels to these regions is changing. It is now “high-intent dating”. The purpose of the app is a long-term relationship, one that might eventually progress to a marriage. A regional version better serves such a purpose because of the common community.
“Algorithms can work in a society where diversity is non-existent. Where you are only choosing based on looks and some personality traits, it probably works. But if you look at India as a whole, it’s not just that,” Joseph says. Dating apps, such as his, do not have just the couple in mind, he says, but also their entire families. “We are mindful that a relationship between two people is eventually a relationship between two families,” he adds.
Entrenched platforms like Tinder have also realised that a casual dating framework might not work in India. Pointing out that most people logging on Tinder in India do not necessarily seek romance, a Tinder spokesperson had said in an earlier interview to Open, “Tinder as a product does not make you define your intent [when you join the platform]. You get to decide what you want from it. We get people joining for a diverse range of reasons. Over 60 per cent are looking to just make a connection. And only about 30 per cent is really looking for love.”
Apps such as Aisle can make it difficult to distinguish them from matrimonial platforms. Instead of letting users swipe left or right on matches an app’s algorithm throws up (a decision that is based primarily on appearance and personality traits), apps such as Aisle allow users to use filters such as an individual’s profession, income levels, height or relationship status (divorcee, widow/widower, etcetera). “If you are an earning member, especially women, their circle kind of shrinks as and when they go up the [corporate] ladder. If you are an independent woman making a healthy salary, you definitely want to meet someone who suits you,” says Joseph. “Or you find divorcees or those separated or widowed or people who have been through similar experiences. So, using relationship as a filter helps.”
Although one cannot use caste as a filter, like matrimonial platforms, these apps allow individuals to mention their castes. “About 10 per cent of the country’s population must be living in the largest 30 cities. Out of which at least four per cent will be people living in slums. The rest is Bharat,” Khanor says, as he compares the scope of dating apps in smaller towns and cities. “Tier-2 and 3 are not really into hookups. Even in tier-1, many are not. You find even men in their late 20s looking for steady long-term relationships. India has a really evolved definition of dating. The intention is to find a life partner,” he says.
Joseph, however, admits there are certain issues. A disproportionate number of men log on to these platforms compared with women, reflective of the gender ratio of internet use in India. Many women from smaller towns and cities on these platforms also tend to be shy and hide behind anonymous accounts or avoid using their photos. “But this will change. As the status of women grows, as more get educated, employed and independent, more women in smaller towns and cities will come online to look for partners as in the larger cities,” he says.