Momo was the top dating app on campus when I was in college a few years ago. Although it connected strangers, their limited interaction and short-term relationships earned it a reputation for being a “booty call app.” The more recent Tantan seems to offer a better user experience.
I decided to downloaded and try Tantan last week to learn why it came to dominate the Chinese dating app market in recent years.
As a social app especially designed for young adults, Tantan is similar to Tinder in terms of its business model and user interface. Users can log in and swipe through a collection of beautiful faces whenever and wherever they want. They can also cultivate their own idealized image with self-aggrandizing tags such as “idealist” and “lover of beauty”. Tagging oneself gives users control over how to position Tantan’s primary product: themselves.
At first glance, Tantan’s “appearance-oriented” model seems rather superficial. However, in the fast-paced modern era, its time-saving approach offers singles – especially in first-tier cities like Beijing – a quick way to craft their first impression without attending time-consuming social gatherings in search of a date.
Tantan’s CEO Wang Yu said the company has two goals for user management: to locate and clear out fake profiles, spammy users and marketing accounts – which removed some 70 million dubious accounts – and to keep the male to female user ratio at about 6:4.
According to responses on Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer website similar to Quora, Tantan’s users mainly fall into three groups.
Some use it out of curiosity. Many users create an account just to browse Tantan’s faces but never reach out and attempt an offline date. One Zhihu user said he was matched with more than 200 girls during his two years on Tantan, but he never met any of them. For young women, a Tantan profile is a chance to assess their appearance. Foreign users tend to be targeted for English practice.
Other users see the Tantan community as a place to find company and emotional support. Most of these users are women. One friend told me she just wanted to find someone to chat with after her terrible breakup – it didn’t matter whether it was a man or woman.
The third category of users are more straightforward. I saw several bodybuilders posting photos of their muscles with captions like, “Nothing serious – just sex.” It reminded me of the movie How to be Single, in which the bartender Tom told Alice about his favorite pickup line: “If you are looking for the one, that’s not me. But if you are looking for the one to have a little fun with, I’m that one.”
At least they are being honest.
Of course, there are people who actually hope to find a partner on Tantan. But their chance of success seems miniscule.
I started using Tantan after work each day to analyze it. On my first day, I had four matches and more than 5,000 likes. I started “congenial” conversations with two of the men who responded. One seemed to have a lot in common with me judging by his labels. We shared a passion for the writings of Haruki Murakami and the movie Fight Club. Was my soul mate waiting on the other side of the phone screen?
Though still on alert, I agreed to meet for a drink in the spirit of adventure.
The man who arrived was far from the melancholy youth with a poetic affection I saw on Tantan. To be blunt, he was a chubby, middle-aged soul soaked in years of alcohol and loneliness, and he didn’t seem interested in talking with me. He told me he broke up with his girlfriend a year ago and resorted to online dating ever since. He is a programmer in the gaming industry, which kind of makes sense given his story. To avoid awkwardness, I tried to toss him a few questions about topics that might interest him. I was forced into silence when he suddenly asked, “Why so many questions?”
Are people not supposed to communicate during an online-to-offline date?
I did have another, more pleasant, date. But perhaps it was for privacy reasons, the man wouldn’t even tell me his real name. I managed to find it by tracking his phone number on AliPay. Remember the dangers of digital payment!
Some of my friends have managed to harvest quality dates or find their “the one” on Tantan. But much as in offline dating, the chances appear to be a one in a hundred. Or more. Maybe they had stronger social skills online and knew how to control the pace of capricious conversations. Maybe they chose the right person with whom to connect. Maybe they were just lucky.
Solax, a director returning from America and a friend of Pandaily, said many people who match on Tinder have a high chance of becoming friends in real life. People tend to end up talking about their work, which in his case is making movies. Chinese students who study abroad prefer to continue using Tinder once they return: the need to use a VPN in China helps to filter out many users.
This kind of social pairing simply isn’t built into Tantan. Most of the time, it is very difficult to continue a conversation when there is any hint the other person has no interest in “dating.” In my experience, I chose to “de-match” any man who kept silent on Tantan for more than two days. Without any emotional attachment between strangers, it seems easier to just move on than to spend the effort and save a budding “friendship.”
Dating culture is not as prevalent in China as it is in Europe and the US, and people care more about the stages of romantic progression. For dating apps like Tantan and Momo to be more presentable in China, they need to diminish the sense of shame people feel for “spontaneous flirting” or “relationships without responsibility.”
One Zhihu user said, “Using Tantan is like going to a nightclub. Everyone knows that when they go to a nightclub they are looking for a one-night stand. But they tell themselves, ‘I just want to dance.’” This somewhat biased impression may explain why many Chinese remain resistant to the idea of dating total strangers. A friend of mine in media said using Tantan for dates was “too radical, or even a little vulgar.”
A system of placing strikes on user accounts could also help to eliminate indecent content in conversations and provide incentives for people to upload authentic information.
But back to the point: can Tantan help you find a real date in China? I have a few tips.
If you care a lot about how the other person looks, you might need to spend some extra time analyzing those selfies. There should be at least three different pictures, and the lighting and angles can make a huge difference in how the person appears. Don’t forget that virtually everyone in China is using a beautycam app. Ask for more photos if possible!
Try to avoid an immediate invitation. In socializing with strangers, your impression comes exclusively from their description, which is guaranteed to be mingled with exaggerations or fabrications. You need to spend more time in conversation before actually meeting up to avoid being let down. Cut through any exaggeration early on.
Last but not least, avoid meeting in a private place. It’s not uncommon in China to be trapped in a sexual situation and blackmailed. Keep things public on the first date!
A sense of personal boundaries is essential to have a comfortable online-to-offline date. This is true in any culture. Getting overly persistent or aggressive won’t help you win a girl’s heart. After all, the app is just a medium. Whether you use Tantan, Momo or WeChat’s shake pairing to see who is nearby, what really matters is how you feel.
Try not to be obsessed: one app is not the whole picture of your romantic life.