There are plenty of fish in the sea, the old saying goes, and since joining the mobile dating app Bumble, Maggie McManus has encountered no shortage of them.
Every time the 26-year-old Topsfield native fires up the app, in fact, she is met with a barrage of marine wildlife, the result of the
“Maybe it’s some primal thing,” McManus theorizes, “where they’re trying to show that they can provide.”
As modern-day dating has undergone a massive digital overhaul — with young adults’ use of apps more than tripling in recent years — the ability to set one’s self apart from the masses would seem a valuable skill.
But in a curious phenomenon that has been puzzled over by everyone from bloggers to scholars, something closer to the opposite has occurred: Dating app profiles — that is, the handful of photos and short written bios used to woo potential suitors — are curiously similar.
For men, that means lots of references to working out, a devotion to professional sports teams, and, yes, photos of dead fish. For women, their male counterparts point out, it’s an endless stream of wine, yoga, and world travel — the latter, apparently, as a way to carry out their various humanitarian works.
“If you looked at Tinder,” says Will Noonan, a 35-year-old comedian from Boston, “you’d think . . . every one of these women has gone to Africa and saved children.”
It’s become a kind of running joke among users, who have met these homogenized profiles with a mix of curiosity and mild annoyance.
After downloading a couple of dating apps, for instance, it didn’t take Robert Barnacle, a 27-year-old Natick resident, long to notice that, as he puts it, “every girl under 24 wants to travel the world and watch ‘The Office’ and eat cheese.” Bridget Conway, a 28-year-old from Peabody, has been struck by the pervasiveness, in male bios, of the same Michael Scott quote from the NBC series “The Office” — in which he takes credit for a famous Wayne Gretzky line — a favorite, apparently, among all sexes and orientations.
And before meeting his husband through OkCupid in 2015, Von Bringhurst became well acquainted with several photo staples.
“There’s your headless torso, there’s your guy in a suit, there’s the guy in a suit where the photo has obviously been cropped to exclude someone in the photo — possibly an ex,” says the 33-year-old Natick resident.
In Boston, meanwhile, it has occasionally taken on a local flair.
After noticing an abundance of dating app photos of women lounging on a swing at the city’s popular Lawn on D, Noonan began screen-shotting them as a kind of impromptu social experiment; within 15 minutes, he’d amassed about 20.
The phenomenon has become so rampant that Jess Carbino, who works as an in-house sociologist for Bumble, one of the country’s most popular dating apps, has coined a phrase to describe it: the “safety in interest” approach.
“People are relying on what is commonplace,” says Carbino, who lists food, exercise, and film as three of the most commonly referenced interests among national Bumble users. “You don’t want to put something out there that might put people off because it’s obscure, and that’s why you see a lot of similar profiles.”
It’s a theory with some psychological basis.
In her book, “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating,” Harvard junior fellow Moira Weigel examines an idea called “pooling,” which she describes as the human tendency to not venture too far from social norms. Instead of running the risk of painting ourselves as unusual, she says, we tend to stick to safer, more central social areas.
“People want to stand out,” Weigel explains. “But they don’t want to stand out in a bad way.”
Indeed, even those who roll their eyes at the monotonous nature of others’ dating profiles admit that constructing their own can be an anxiety-inducing endeavor.
What to include? What to leave out? And how do you go about making yourself as attractive to potential suitors as possible?
It can make the process seem like little more than a crapshoot, some say, especially when those doing the swiping don’t always seem entirely sure what it is they’re seeking in a mate.
Asked what she looks for in a profile, Tricia Auld, a stand-up comedian and sales rep from Somerville, initially replied that she appreciates a photo of a man with his mom — before quickly adding: “But then you have to wonder, How involved is the mom going to be? Is she going to be a problem?”
Of course, if the goal of a dating app is to attract as much interest as possible, sticking to subjects with wide social appeal might not be a bad thing.
“It’s not that a profile has to be different to stand out,” says Meredith Golden, who runs Spoon Meet Spoon, a business that — for a price — will not only construct a client’s dating app profile but carry out the early stages of texting banter on their behalf. “A profile has to be interesting enough for someone to want to initiate a conversation.”
Which brings us back to the fish pic.
Despite some initial reservations, Justin Marino decided a while back to update his profile with a photo taken during a fishing trip near Cape Cod. In the photo, the 24-year-old Tufts University dental student can be seen hoisting an impressive 38-pound striped bass, an image he hoped would convey both his love for fishing and his willingness to venture outside the city.
It has proven to be a fairly effective move.
“It does get some responses,” Marino says. “It helps that it’s a pretty big fish.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.