We meet for coffee at a nondescript Starbucks. It’s roughly three in the afternoon. Rain, whipped into a frenzy by a harsh November wind, slashes against the window and casts subtle shadows over the holiday specials board. Toasted White Chocolate Mocha. Eggnog Latte. Caramel Brulée Latte. Instead, I order a tall hot tea, so that I won’t feel guilty if the stranger with me offers to pay. He offers to pay. We sit at an available table for two near the bathroom and I shred a piece off of the sleeve on my cup. By the end of this 45-minute encounter, it will be in pieces.

This Starbucks, one of many clones, is the ideal background, where a cup of coffee buys you an hour or two of real estate in a semi-public place. Now and then, one of the customers closes their laptop and squeezes past our table to use the facilities. It’s anonymous, impersonal, and halfway between our workplaces, as romantic as a business meeting.

To everyone who passes, it must be obvious what is happening between us. It’s as palpable as chemistry—though chemistry, it is not. We are two 20-somethings who have made a series of small steps toward each other. First, we mutually swiped our approval of each other’s standard profile and generated a match. Next, we entered a conversation on the app that lasted until one of us wrote: “I’m so bad at checking this app! Why don’t we grab some coffee?” Now, 24 hours later, it is time for the third step.

I burn my tongue on my tea and clear my throat. “So, did you grow up in Dallas or …?”

Nowadays, that’s how people in their 20s, 30s and above meet each other, hoping for a spark. We appraise each other’s pictures and basic interests—usually the outdoors, The Office, dogs, and Game of Thrones—decide yes or no, date or no date, meant to be or not meant to be. In the era of fidget spinners and streaming television, each of us has a small window of opportunity to make a lasting impression and that window is already shrinking.

Where, oh where, in Collin County are the millennials?

Once upon a time, almost as soon as Match.com invented online dating, it became taboo to actually engage in it. The perception was that only desperate people meet online because they can’t find a partner in the real world. For example, take How I Met Your Mother’s 2007 episode “How I Met Everyone Else,” in which the protagonist, Ted, meets a girl online and brings her to dinner with his friends. She’s called “Blah Blah,” because, narrating years down the line, he can’t remember her name. The drama of the episode revolves around Blah Blah insisting that Ted tells everyone that they met in a cooking class instead. The show is not kind to Blah Blah, whose behavior progresses from odd to unhinged. In fact, much later in the show’s run, it’s implied that she ends up in a psych ward. The message is clear: the online woman was bad news. In a show that hangs on the magical moment when Ted eventually meets his wife, i.e. the titular “Mother”, first encounters of the romantic kind are incredibly meaningful.

But that was 2007. This is 2019 and online dating has, by and large, transferred into user-friendly dating apps on our smartphones and the stigma has, for the most part, vanished. Bumble has been downloaded over 27 million times. Tinder, the Kleenex of dating apps, has been downloaded 50 million times.

The world is littered with more: Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, eHarmony, Match.com, Zoosk, Badoo, OkCupid, MeetMe, happn, Grindr, Qeep. Millionaire Match is an exclusive app for the rich and successful (and attractive) where members are reviewed, verified and required to pay a minimum of $66 to communicate with anyone. Some users decry it as a scam. Others call it “the best solution to find a rch lover.” There’s an app for farmers. There’s MilitaryCupid. One can date by religion, sexuality, body type, race, and nationality. Specific dating apps cater to divorced or single parents, and others to sugar daddies/mommas. Cowboys even have their own apps.

The heart of the game is the same in every iteration, but each app plays it differently. On Bumble, the woman must reach out first. After a match, she has 24 hours to make a move and her chosen paramour has 24 hours to respond. Bumble also has platonic matching for those who need more friends and even Bumble Business. It’s bright, peppy and female-positive, geared toward young women.

Tinder is an after-hours tequila shot with more prominently featured shirtless selfies. Hinge markets itself as a more thoughtful approach that ensures that 75 percent of first dates turn into second dates. Each member answers a series of offbeat questions about themselves, revealing their pet peeves, the worst gift they’ve ever received, and an extra tablespoon of personality.

Bracket Dating, developed by Dallas entrepreneur Whitney Linscott, uses Fantasy Football as a model, beginning with a range of potential mates and winnowing them down until you’re left with one great match rather than 20 mediocre ones. However, most people have the same basic profile posted across multiple dating platforms, a scattershot that defeats the purpose of having different apps at all.

When a conversation starts, so does the clock. Most people are on the app looking for an excuse to leave it, so no one wants to message a match indefinitely. If after roughly 72 hours no one has offered a phone number or suggested a date, the conversation usually fizzles; one person or the other simply stop replying. It’s called ghosting when a match vanishes back through the revolving door of carefully written online profiles. People in their 20s and 30s understand it and, in my experience, no one takes it personally. It can mean anything from “work got super busy” to “I met someone and I like them,” to “my ex returned from the Australian Outback with a ring and a downpayment on a house.”

If at the end of a coffee date, no one texts, it’s still not a big deal. It just, you know, happens. That’s exactly what happened on the coffee date I described earlier: a natural fizzle. We met. He eerily reminded me of my brother-in-law. We had a nice conversation. No one asked for anyone’s number or suggested future plans. We parted amicably with a “maybe we’ll see each other around,” and then we didn’t.

Such low stakes are a blessing and a curse. Many people find themselves trapped on the app indefinitely simply because so little is invested in each interaction and there are so many opportunities for interaction. The most tempting option you’ll find on an app isn’t any single attractive, funny person. It’s a question, a thought, a nagging doubt that reminds you that there could be “more out there.” Texas Monthly’s Sarah Hepola, in an interview with Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd, described the infinite void of profiles and the young adults who wade through it, overwhelmed with possibility: “Everyone was chill, casual, too scared of missing out on something better tomorrow to commit to something today.”

But perhaps daters are wary out of self-preservation. While being the ghost is easy, being ghosted on can be demoralizing. A ghost can appear at any time. While ghosting on someone two hours into a conversation is relatively harmless, ghosting two months into a relationship is another story. Rapid-fire meetings followed by rejecting or being rejected, all without explanation or closure, creates an exhausting and impersonal cycle.

Once one reaches a certain age—let’s say 40 for the sake of overt generalization—there’s a major shift in the way dating apps are perceived and in the expectations of their users. It’s suddenly not about finding a soulmate; it’s about finding someone, and for some, almost anyone will do.

Serendipitously, while I was conducting my research on this subject, one of my relatives started her own new romantic journey. We’ll call her Cathy to somewhat preserve her anonymity. Our situations were different; I was in my mid-20s, browsing because my boss told me to. Cathy is in her 50s and genuinely wanted to meet people in the hope that a relationship would develop naturally. Apples and oranges.

We chatted often about our various endeavors. Why, we wondered, did so many men post so many pictures of themselves brandishing caught fish?

“It’s like some primal instinct to prove that you can hunt down your food,” she said.

“Or is it like a cat bringing its owner dead birds to show affection?” I offered and started taking notes. “Five profiles in a row with fish pics. Is species a factor? Is salmon better than trout perhaps? Or bass?” We still haven’t reached a consensus on the matter of the fish, but very quickly, it became apparent that dating in one’s middle-age and dating in one’s 20s were different animals. In fact, my progress was boring. She was the one with the interesting stories.

My dating pool has grown up in a world where meeting on an app is normalized. Apps can be useful resources for busy people working long days, who want a simple way to meet someone. However, after a certain age, while the rules are technically the same, the attitude is very different.

“I have a full life. I don’t need someone to complete me, but I’d like a relationship,” Cathy explained to me one day. “I want companionship.” She wasn’t looking for a casual fling or to remain perpetually in small talk purgatory, but she wasn’t planning to settle either. Women tend to be choosier on dating apps in general, so she’s sorting her options carefully. According to a 2014 story in The New York Times about Tinder, women swipe right 14 percent of the time, compared with men’s 46 percent.

However, right from the start, the tone of the men she spoke to was incredibly different from what I experienced. One man’s opening gambit, before even a cursory greeting, was a long description of a committed relationship between two soulmates and a challenging question: are you that woman?

“Well, I don’t know,” she said to me wryly. “We’ve never met.”

More unconventional dates in Collin County

In a crowd of fully-formed adults who have been divorced, widowed, raised kids, she found that prospective suitors were, by and large, more aware of time and, therefore, quicker to commit. She matched with one Oklahoman gentleman in the middle of the night and by the time she checked her Zoosk account in the morning, he’d sent her 10 messages and invited her to visit him out of state, all without any response from her. They were also much more sensitive about rejection, no matter how politely she handled it. She learned, “It’s better to be direct.”

Most daters in her age bracket have had some significant relationships in their lives, while at my age, that might not be the case. But the more experience someone has with long-term committed relationships, the more commitment they’re likely to want—and for good reason. The younger you are, the more likely it is that dating online, conducting first introductions over text, is ingrained in you; the rules are inherently understood and followed.

I’ll admit that I don’t particularly like dating apps. I didn’t before this project and now that it’s over, I still don’t. To me, it doesn’t feel right to search for love in the same medium where people play Angry Birds. At their core, apps are low-commitment and low-investment, something to occupy yourself with when the doctor is running late to your appointment. Love is none of those things. But while researching this story, I learned a lot about them and I’ve come to appreciate what they offer. While it takes some level of self-awareness to pull one special person from the universe of potentials, the algorithms yield results. What you do with those results is up to you.

It’s cliché, but what you’re willing to offer the world, whether it’s on Bumble, Tinder, Zoosk, Facebook or Instagram, decides what you’ll get out of it. In the end, I got what I wanted to out of the experience, which was a story for my job that pays me. Cathy found someone she liked enough to turn off the app notifications. That’s what most people on the apps want: a reason to uninstall.

“It’s too soon to know what’ll happen between us,” she says. “But I can tell you one thing: I wouldn’t have met him if I hadn’t gone online. Our paths would never have crossed in real life.”

These days, when we date on apps, we’re judged by our five most recent pictures, hobbies, and a sentence that encompasses who we are, what we want, if we’re funny, and whether we like dogs. But dating doesn’t stay on the app. The app only provides opportunity. The magic—felt in the first five in-person words and first hour that stretches into three—still has to happen in person.

Originally published in the February 2019 issue under the title “Swipe in the Name of Love”