A flurry of news articles has told of steamy goings on in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the 2018 Winter Olympics are now under way. So it’s perhaps not surprising that multiple media have reported a 348% increase in usage of dating app Tinder in the area since the games began in early February.
Several athletes have been popping up on local Tinder searches, including U.S. snowboarder Jessika Jeson and her Australian counterpart Jarryd Hughes. Meanwhile, other Tinder users outside South Korea have reportedly changed their geotags in attempts to secure a match with a potential gold medalist.
Tinder made its debut in South Korea in 2015, three years after its birth in Los Angeles (it is now available in 196 countries — even in North Korea apparently — and has made more than 20 billion matches according to its official website). But despite its international popularity, the world’s biggest dating app is still largely unknown in a country notorious as the graveyard of many foreign-born startups and companies, notably Uber.
But it’s not because South Koreans aren’t into dating. The country’s online dating service industry is valued at 70 billion won ($66 million), according to a 2017 study by An Hyo-Jin and Kim Seung-in of Hongik University.
Shin Sang-hoon is CEO of Nextmatch, the company that owns the most popular South Korean dating app Amanda. He told Korea Exposé that Amanda had so far clocked up more than 4 million user registrations in South Korea. Given that there were more than 8.54 million bachelors (aged between 20 and 39) in the country in 2016, it can be inferred that roughly one out of two South Korean bachelors has used or is using dating apps.
After all, this is a country with enormous societal pressure on young adults to find a partner — it’s no wonder Tinder has dipped its toe in the market. However, even the name of the app is unfamiliar to many South Koreans.
“Do you know what Tinder is?” I asked a random stranger in his early 20s who shares my co-working space (I do not know his name or his occupation). “Tinder? I’ve heard the name but the idea of using it puts me off because it smells too foreign,” he said with a nervous chuckle. I asked another guy of a similar age. “I’ve heard of the app, but that’s all,” he said.
Tinder has successfully established itself in other major Asian territories such as Hong Kong and Singapore (but not in China because the app insists that users log in via Facebook, which is blocked in the people’s republic).
The Los Angeles-based dating service ranked seventh in Hong Kong and third in Singapore in terms of consumer spending on apps in 2017 (including both iOS and Android devices) according to app analytics firm App Annie. However, it is nowhere to be found on the corresponding list for South Korea. Instead, five homegrown dating apps — Amanda, NoonDate, Simkung, Angtalk and Dangyeonsi — dominate the country’s top ten.
Interestingly, Singapore and Hong Kong both have their own local dating apps — Paktor, LunchClick, and Hong Kong Social — but with a lot fewer users.
So what makes South Korea’s homegrown dating apps invincible in the face of global matchmaker Tinder?
Shin says local dating apps have distinguishable features that set them apart from Tinder. “Public sentiment regarding dating services in South Korea is nervous, so it seems that locals prefer Korean services with better security. Amanda and other top-ranked local dating apps have features like reporting policy violators or avoiding meet-ups with people you know, which suit local preferences.”
Keeping out bad apples seems to be a top priority for South Korean dating apps. “Safety, credibility and quality of users are the top three criteria that South Koreans consider when picking a dating app,” Shin told Korea Exposé.
However, some have criticized South Korean dating apps for their exclusive and discriminatory nature. Sky People only accepts male users who attended certain prestigious universities, work for major conglomerates or are lawyers or doctors (these criteria don’t apply to women, for whom the only qualification is being aged between 20 and 43). Amanda imposes a somewhat dubious condition, too, requiring that new applicants’ photos be rated by current users before they are accepted.
But Shin describes this mechanism as another way of adding credibility: “We are eliminating the anxiety and uncertainty from online and mobile dating services and satisfying the needs of current users, increasing their chances of meeting the love of their life.”
Cover image: Two Korea Exposé staff enjoy a moment of manual intimacy. (Ben Jackson/Korea Exposé)