“In a city of 8 million people, you’re bound to run into your ex-wife,” Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) says in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally.
The remark was facetious, but 25 years later, where social media allows you to connect—in any number of above-board and illicit ways—with people quite literally across the globe in the remote corners, you really are bound to run into your ex in the web of online dating and apps in a region as relatively miniscule as New York City.
A few months ago, I was swiping through my batch of potential matches on various dating apps.
All was good as I swiped through until I recognized one of the faces popping up on my phone was a colleague standing merely feet away. My phone suddenly felt like a grenade that was about to explode.
Before even fully processing all of the potential implications —Had he already seen me? Was this somehow an HR issue? Should I tell him his first photo kind of makes him look like a d-bag? I quickly cast away my phone, screen downward.
After running to the women’s room, I managed to stop acting like a panicky adolescent tween who just heard that Zayn Malik left One Direction.
Though part of the allure of dating sites and apps is allowing you to engage in the vulnerable acts of courtship through screens rather than in-person interactions, I’ve discovered there isn’t the buffer of anonymity that I once perceived. In under a year, I’ve seen the faces of six former and current employees where I work flash across my phone.
Apparently, I am not the only one who has encountered colleagues in the IAC building, which is perhaps to be expected considering IAC owns OkCupid, Tinder, and a host of other dating websites and apps—as well as The Daily Beast, where I work.
A 26-year-old gay man in my building said he was going through Grindr when he recognized another guy who worked for his company. This would have been less disconcerting if he hadn’t also been in the office at the time, he admits with a laugh.
Still, he appears to have handled it with more aplomb than I did. “I was just like, ‘Oh, they’re there,’” he said and swiftly blocked him from his grid of options.
Grindr shows your range of potential matches in a geographical region, which the user sets, and you can also bar users from seeing you, explained a Grindr press representative. “You can immediately hit block for anyone. You can hit an “unblock all” later if you want, but once they’re blocked they will not see you,” he told The Daily Beast.
Other apps don’t let you scan the area, so to speak, but they have their own ways to block unwanted contact—to a degree.
“You can also turn off the ability to be seen or match with Facebook friends,” said David Yarus, the founder of JSwipe, in an online exchange, but noted the desire to block hasn’t been an issue as far as he know. “People jokingly say they match with friends from summer camp, etc., but no complaints!”
Part of the appeal of online dating site and apps once was the privacy factor. You had a safe buffer from rejection because you didn’t actually know the person: You weren’t dealing with a “real” human, but rather a picture and maybe some text.
But the more people use online dating sites and apps, the more likely you are to run into someone that you, or at least a friend, recognizes—and you’re more likely to be recognized in turn.
Asking someone out via Tinder or OkCupid or JDate may still carry lower embarrassment risks than asking someone out in person, but anonymity in online dating is dead, or at least dying.
Rosette Pambakian, Tinder’s VP of corporate communications and branding, also said the company hasn’t “received any complaints” about people running into unwanted potential matches.
With dating apps, swiping right is almost universally the way to approve of a potential match that flashes across your phone. You swipe left to reject the potential match.
“The beauty of Tinder is all it takes is a swipe left and that person will never come up in your Tinder feed again. And it’s anonymous—they’ll never know you swiped left,” Pambakian wrote in an email.
Still, the potential flaw that may be impossible to rectify is that you don’t know that a coworker, your second cousin, a boy from AP Biology, is out there until his face flashes across your screen. By then, there’s as much of a chance that he’s already seen you.
OkCupid agreed that this is a potential problem. “Currently on the site it is fairly difficult to filter out people that you know, other than finding them and preemptively hiding or blocking them,” Mike Maxim, the chief technology officer for OkCupid, said in an email.
“However, OkCupid has a couple [of] features that will be rolled out in the next couple months which we think will help address the problem. The first will allow a user to hide their profile from all users by default, and to only be seen by people they actively ‘Like’ or send a message to. The second will give the user an option of using a connected Facebook account to block any of their friends that are also on OkCupid.”
Until those features arrive, though, users will have to navigate the potentially choppy waters of real-life recognition.
The interviews for this article reveal an evolving set of social norms and protocol for seeing familiar faces on Tinder, Grindr, and the like—even if everyone has his or her own regulations and rationale.
“Always swipe right not matter who he or she is,” a 26-year-old male political reporter in Washington, D.C., told me. He has been relatively unperturbed by encountering professional contacts on his dating apps of choice.
“Yes, I did match with a source once,” he told me. “She’s a good friend of mine, and we go out for drinks, anyways, so I just asked her out on Tinder,” he said.
The night took a questionably unprofessional turn, though it would be hard to blame Tinder for that. “I drank too much and started to make out with her, and she pointed out that it was a bad idea,” he said.
Old classmates are their own category of potential awkwardness or delights.
Wudan, a 25-year-old in New York, said she tends to swipe left on Tinder when she sees someone she knows. “I just like to have a clean slate. I don’t want to go on a date with anyone who knows anything about me,” she said.
This rule has not spared her from uncomfortable encounters. “There’s this one guy I went to high school with and one day he texted out of the blue, ‘Hey, I saw you on Tinder. I swiped right pretty fast. Did you swipe on me, too?’ I had seen him and lied and said ‘LOL, not yet.’”
However, others said that running into old classmates from college or high school can be awkward or potentially a fun way to reconnect platonically.
“If I knew someone, I would automatically swipe right, even if I wasn’t interested in dating them. It would be a way just to say ‘hi,’” said Casey Ryan, a 24-year-old woman in the Chicago area.
Her experience has been that people swipe right if they know each other. “Everyone I see had matched with me, so I feel it’s a thing, unless everyone secretly had a crush on me in junior high,” she said with a laugh.
But the understanding isn’t always that the swipe is purely cordial.
Miriam, a 26-year-old in New York, said she used to always swipe right on people she knew to see if they liked her back until she realized her curiosity had consequence. “I changed that rule after I realized other people’s emotions were involved in a bigger way, like what if you were into me,” she said. “I realized it wasn’t actually very nice.”
The most “ewww”-inducing potential matches are the ones that cross bloodlines. “I’ve had my brother recommended to me on OkCupid. A [male] friend had his sister recommended for him on Tinder,” a 25-year-old female friend of mine told me.
She said these familial faces are by no means the most painful. For her, running into exes or people she is currently dating, but not yet exclusive with, on these sites has been the most emotionally fraught.
“I’ve had someone recommended to me [on OkCupid] who I’ve dated, or we’re dating and neither of us has deleted our profile,” she said. “It’s made me anxious.”
Coming across old flames on dating apps and sites can induce a mix of panic, sadness, and all the other negative feeling of doubt and yearning associated with the immediacy of a breakup.
Seeing them is proof that they are not living a life of self-imposed mournful chastity—as I assume all of us hope our exes do.
However, on the plus side, if you match on one of the location-based apps, you suddenly have a primitive GPS on his or her whereabouts. I have witnessed this tracking feature in action via a JSwipe match.
It is, perhaps, one of the more extreme examples of how much we can keep tabs on our fellow lonely hearts. It is also evidence of how online dating apps and sites have made our private lives quite public and easy to monitor.
The stigma of using online dating sites and even formerly mocked “hook-up” apps like Tinder and Grindr has fast faded.
With not only so many users, but so many people willing to admit they use these dating tools, the safe privacy bought by contact via computer and phone, rather than in-person interactions, has also faded.
“If it’s someone from high school or someone else’s ex, I’ll usually take a screenshot, send the screenshot to all my friends, and then swipe left. Or rather, I guess to the friends who would find it random/funny,” Valerie, a 31-year-old New Yorker, explained via an online exchange.
No longer is “Kaitlyn” a bikini-clad honey on Tinder or “KoolG876” just a bro in the Financial District who loves trying new restaurants.
There’s a chance you recognize him or her, and even if you don’t, a quick screenshot and a text to all your friends can help you figure out if any of them have encountered the beau or gal.
The Big Apple dating scene gets a lot smaller when you start setting parameters. There are the obvious geographic ones, but you can also set for age or height.
If you and your female friends all like guys ages 27 to 35 who are over 5' 10," you just narrowed the pool. If you want to date someone of a specific religion, let’s say Judaism, your pool just became a trickling stream (even in New York, the U.S. city with the most Jews).
Now, you and your friends are splashing around in it and coming across the same potential of matches.
I have a “boyfriend” that I share with a friend of mine. I matched with him first on OkCupid. A few months later, she matched with him on Hinge, and I recognized him.
By matching with him on multiple venues, the two of us have gleaned a fair bit of information on our “boyfriend,” including his real name, his college, and his occupation, without even lifting a pinkie to google him.
But is the end of dating anonymity something to fret about?
My own insecurity about a coworker spotting me came from the shame of admitting that I was looking—for a date, for a relationship, for a match—and wasn’t immune to the desire not to be alone.
Without anonymity, we are more vulnerable, but it may not be bad to be more open.
“I don’t think I have many friends who are single and don’t have an OkCupid profile,” said David, a 29-year-old editor in New York who says he has come across many friends on the dating site.
He is completely unperturbed by these encounters and shrugs off any concerns about the death of online dating anonymity. “We’re just all out there trying to find a companion,” he says.