YouTube is Changing How Indian Women Date
Digital video series are trying to coax India out of its traditional system of arranged marriage — but they need to rewrite perceptions of dating apps
A woman in an uncomfortable, toxic relationship breaks up with her boyfriend just before they take a trip. Her friend convinces her to go online to find a date, who turns out to be a charming, kind, considerate man who has also been looking for commitment.
This is the story line for a popular YouTube series called Yours Cupidly, produced by a channel called Shitty Ideas Trending (SIT) [editor’s note: yes, really], founded by Indian actress Chhavi Mittal. The eight-episode series was made in collaboration with the dating app OkCupid. The finale aired on November 5th and gathered over 200,000 views in a few hours (which has since gone up to 331,068 views).
Similar themes run across a variety of short films and videos on the platform. Some are about matching with school or neighborhood crushes on a dating app, others are based on connecting with older students in university or meeting someone with a shared common history. The storylines tend to follow the narrative arc of romantic comedy movies and the conversations between protagonists are light-hearted and respectful. Most of these videos rack up 3 to 4 million views in short order.
In reality, though, women users of these apps speak about a greater variety of experiences. I spoke to seven of them for this story, many anonymously because they did not want to be judged for their choices . Nearly all of them mention that they were ghosted at some point. Many felt fatigue and boredom at initiating repetitive conversations with strangers. They encountered offensive language and entitled behavior just as often as they did offline. Most found the experience overwhelming after a few months. One of them mentioned that her love life became better as soon as she quit the app.
However, the fantasy is an important one to sell because the digital space for dating and marriage in India is a multi-billion-dollar business. Until recently, much of the market was cornered by matrimonial websites where parents created profiles for their children and looked for potential spouses. The internet was only a tiny technological tweak to a centuries-old process.
Over the past few years, though, numerous dating apps have started finding a foothold in India. In 2015, Tinder reported 7.5 million daily swipes in the country and TrulyMadly, one of the older, homegrown dating apps, has over 5 million subscribers. Chinese dating apps like Tantan are also finding a market, with their user base doubling every three months. Some reports estimate that the market will soon reach $100 million.
Though a large number of users are men, most executives running these applications believe that women will drive future growth and are tweaking the products to empower them. However, they are avoiding mainstream media in their marketing efforts. For instance, when Bumble launched in 2018 with Priyanka Chopra Jonas as an investor, it tried using television commercials and large billboards. The initial attempt faced a backlash. Instead, most apps now focus their attention on targeted advertising through digital media storytelling and content creators. Often, the apps and experiences are embedded in short ads, romantic comedies or talk shows that tell the stories from a female or non-binary perspective.
For instance, BuzzFeed India made a video series in collaboration with Tinder. In one of the episodes, six women chat about meeting people and making friends in a new city. One of the participants mentions that interacting with a person online allays her social anxiety before meeting them in person. Others speak about advantages like the choice and control they experience from being on a dating app. A third person says that she lives with a lesbian couple who met through Tinder. This appears to be a shift in the image for an app that is more commonly known for casual, one-off sexual encounters.
Tinder is not the only app that has tried to tweak itself to suit the expectations of a young Indian audience. Most apps are actively positioning themselves as safe spaces, usually for people looking at serious relationships. For instance, Able Joseph, the CEO of Aisle, one of the most commercially successful dating apps to be developed in the country, says that they are straddling the middle ground between traditional matrimonial websites and casual dating. Over the last couple of months Aisle has partnered with a YouTube food channel called Gobble to set up dates between digital media celebrities. The videos show them sharing a meal together, and having a relaxed, fun conversation. There are generous references to food as well as the app’s features.
Additionally, most apps are creating features that make it a desirable space for women. For instance, OkCupid asks its subscribers to write about their response to the #MeToo movement in the country. Bumble, on the other hand, allows only women to initiate conversation. They can also choose to disclose their first initial rather than their complete name.
Chhavi Mittal, an actress and one of the founders of SIT, echoes similar concerns. She says that she feels a sense of responsibility towards her viewers and subscribers. When any dating app approaches her for a collaboration, someone in the team tests the experience. “We check whether we receive too many strange messages or if the interaction is awkward,” she says, adding that the extensive questionnaire on OKCupid made her think that there would be some level of compatibility when people met through the app.
It appears that her hunch was accurate. One of her subscribers mentions in the comments section that she is dating someone she met through the app.
Seeing these normalized representations of women on dating apps is necessary to change perceptions. Priyanka A, a writer who tried dating apps for three months, remembers that it helped her to see Katrina Kaif, a mainstream actress, using a dating app in one of her movies. “I became a little more comfortable with the idea,” she says. Many people also hear of friends or colleagues who have had positive experiences. For instance, someone at Priyanka’s workplace shared an anecdote about meeting a spouse on a dating app. Joanna Lobo, a freelance journalist who is occasionally on dating apps, also mentioned that she knows married couples who met online.
These anecdotes are also important because, in spite of its public nature, online dating isn’t openly accepted or even discussed in the country. While most women were happy to speak freely about their experiences in private, they baulked at the idea of being quoted. Many requested anonymity. Lobo was one of the few who agreed to speak on the record but even she mentioned that there is a stigma against online dating. In her social circle, she said, it would be seen as an act of desperation.
Some women were worried that having their name associated with online dating may affect their personal lives far into the future. Nearly all of them mentioned that their parents did not know that they were experimenting with the medium.
“Dating in India is always unsafe for a woman,” says GM, a writer from Pune. Instead of physical safety, though, she mentions that on her first Tinder date, she took care to choose a restaurant that wasn’t frequented by her parents’ social circle. “I never gave out my cell phone number to anybody on Tinder — all conversations were strictly on their chat service,” she adds before wondering if she was being paranoid.
“I love that dating apps are allowing women to freely express what they desire”
On the other hand, Mittal mentions that when they were casting for Yours Cupidly, she felt that most people who turned up for auditions were comfortable with the idea of using a dating app, and had been on at least one of them. These apps, therefore, seem to be young India’s clandestine rebellion — one that is familiar to their peers, but an experience that they are careful to curate out of their parents’ lives.
To sustain this, however, they may need to find the financial resources to make these apps profitable, and opt for a sufficient number of paid services. Because, in spite of the growth in engagement and membership over the past two years, dating apps are only just beginning to make money. Traditional matrimonial websites, on the other hand, backed by the economic heft and legitimacy of an older generation, show double-digit growth, with the more popular ones having revenues of 10 billion Indian rupees ($141 million).
An equally important prerequisite for success will be the ability to position dating apps as safe and interesting spaces for women. “I love that dating apps are allowing women to freely express what they desire,” says Lobo.
Despite YouTube, directed marketing and a generational shift, though, dating apps (and women) are coming up against fairly strong resistance to the idea that female agency and sexuality are desirable. But as millennials grow older, more of them may echo Lobo’s sentiment — “I always hope that something interesting may come out of it.”
At that point, perhaps dating apps and matrimonial sites will be more equal competitors in the online matchmaking game.