When it comes to online dating, what’s old is new again — sort of.
Some Gen Zers, whom the Pew Research Center defines as people who were born after 1996, say they are increasingly turning to apps like Instagram to date, preferring to connect in what they perceive as a more “organic” way.
YPulse, a youth research firm, said in a recent study that 2 in 5 young people say they met their partners through social media, compared to 29% who met their partners through dating apps.
These days, Gen Zers' app of choice has become Instagram, according to experts like Joy Ofodu, host of the podcast “Dating Unsettled.”
Ofodu, who is also part of Gen Z, described the platform as the new “neighborhood block” for a lot of young people. Instead of meeting at a bar or club, they meet through mutual followers or shared communities and strike up a conversation from there.
“For me, Instagram wins for dating because of everything that I can see,” said Ofodu, who connected with her boyfriend over Instagram direct message over a year ago. “I see your friends. I see what your friends are eating. I see what your mama shot last week. It’s really creepy, but it works. And I just get a fuller picture of who that person is. It breathes off the page a little bit more. You can even see how they interact with their friends a little bit, like through comments and replies.”
I think that feels a little better because it feels almost organic, like as if we were meeting someone in person.
Josh Roque, 20, on instagram
People across ages are growing fatigued of dating apps, and Gen Z in particular is yearning for relationships that feel more organic. However, as a generation that grew up online and became increasingly physically isolated during the pandemic, many don’t know how to make a move in person.
Although “sliding into the DMs” has become a meme at this point, the Gen Zers who spoke with NBC News said most people are put off by a strong come-on. Instead, striking up a casual conversation using posts, Stories or memes on Reels as a jumping-off point in the DMs can ease a person into a connection.
On Instagram, young daters also said they feel there are a lot of subtle ways to engage with a person that communicate that you’re interested in getting to know them, without the romantic or sexual pressure that sometimes comes with a dating app interaction.
“Social media doesn’t have that underlying notion of like, something needs to happen between us,” said Josh Roque, 20, who uses they and them pronouns. “It can just be casual and friendly or we can take it slow.”
For example, Roque said that “if somebody gets a DM and it’s casual and then it naturally moves into more of like a flirty vibe, I think that feels a little better because it feels almost organic, like as if we were meeting someone in person.”
Gen Z “missed out” on milestones like a “prime first year of college, or second year of college,” Roque added.
“We kind of didn’t really get that experience for a little bit, and I think we just want that organic stuff so much,” they said.
Vetting someone can also prove to be easier on a social media platform versus a dating app. Preeya De Silva, 23, said that “you can get so much more information from Instagram.”
While she’s now in a relationship, De Silva said when she was dating, she would use Instagram to determine if a person was real, if they were single and if they followed a bunch of Instagram models — a turnoff in her eyes.
On apps, oftentimes “the only information you get is whatever that person wants you to think of them,” De Silva said, “which is, for the most part, a really small view of who that person is. And it’s usually kind of inaccurate in my experience.”
In December, Instagram released its own predictions for 2023 in conjunction with trend forecasting company WGSN, which surveyed 1,200 Gen Z social media users in the U.S. More than half of those surveyed “feel more comfortable being vulnerable online and over text than in person,” the companies said in their report. “On Instagram, DMs and messaging continue to drive connection and conversation between friends and love interests.”
But that’s not to say dating app culture is dead. YPulse noted in its report that “while some young people are finding love though social media, 44% say it makes dating harder.”
In recent years, a new wave of dating apps has attempted to lure Gen Z users and other people who are over the more traditional dating apps.
Some younger daters said they like to find connections on dating apps and then migrate to Instagram to get a fuller picture of a person.
“If you want to talk to someone and you don’t necessarily want to give them your phone number right away, that’s like a perfect thing in my book to just say, ‘Oh, hey, yeah, add me on Instagram,’” Denis Alexander, 26, said. “We can be friends and grow from there.”
There also can be less certainty about a person’s relationship status or romantic interest on Instagram.
“I think dating apps win slightly with intentionality,” Ofodu said. “So you don’t have to guess whether or not ... someone is single, whether or not someone is looking for a relationship, or whether or not someone is nearby.”
However, Ofodu said she feels dating apps can often make a person appear “flat” because you have to stand out against a sea of singles using a limited amount of space. On the other hand, if someone on a dating app writes too much information on their profile, Alexander said it comes off as “try-hard” — such are the unspoken, fickle rules of online dating.
Ofodu said the “perfect marriage” of the apps is when someone links their Instagram to their dating profile. This way, people know that a person is open to dating, but they have the opportunity to cut out the go-between of the dating app algorithm and head straight to someone’s Instagram DMs.
In tandem with their desire for organic relationships, Gen Z craves authenticity, and because most people have a years-old archive of posts on their Instagram, those profiles can feel like a more personal, truer-to-life depiction of someone compared to a dating profile.
“A lot of people will post, like, broodish pictures on dating apps,” Alexander said. “And I’m like, I don’t want to see that. … I don’t care what your Blue Steel face is. I just want to know if I’m gonna have fun with you, and if you’re a cool person and we’ll get along.”
Although, not everyone is convinced that Instagram is much different from the apps. Some Gen Zers say it serves as a slight step up from dating app culture.
“I think there’s a lot of stigma around dating apps, although I think it’s a bit ironic because social media is almost used as an alternative to dating apps and it becomes practically the same thing,” Roque said. “I think it’s just a way for Gen Z to kind of fool themselves a little bit.”