Dating apps have become a huge trend in Korea, with more than 170 targeting consumers. The value of the market is estimated to reach 50 billion won ($46 million) with 3.3 million users.
Amanda is one of the top 100 most popular apps on Google Play Store. More than 4 million users have subscribed to Amanda since its release in October 2014. According to Next Match, the developer of Amanda, the app is “the most popular and profitable dating app in the market.”
Swithme, developed by BNK Lab, is the No. 3 dating app by sales on Google Play Store as of Nov. 30 and has about 50,000 active users daily. BNK Lab describes itself as a “dating app specialist,” having rolled out four so far.
The huge popularity, however, seems to be driven mostly by male users. And when it comes to in-app payment, there is an even greater gap between the genders.
According to a Next Match official, 90 percent of paid members of Amanda are male. BNK Lab also said 70 percent of in-app payments come from males.
Most dating apps charge higher amounts to men than women for the same services, such as opening other users’ profiles or sending messages.
For instance, at both Amanda and Swithme, men have to spend 5 points to open a woman’s profile, while women only need 2 points to do so. On both apps, 30 points cost 4,500 won.
Another feature that raises questions is messaging. At Amanda, a user who wants to open a chatroom with another user has to pay 15 points. While Swithme requires double that, the app operators said men open chatrooms in most cases due to the unbalanced gender ratio.
With the different charging system and one-sided gender ratio, both apps are deemed almost impossible for a male user to start a conversation with a female user without payment. However, such conditions do not occur with women, especially when they have an attractive profile.
The gender difference reappears in app operators’ sales pitches as well.
Noon Date, ranked No. 3 by sales on the Google store, targets women’s curiosity avoiding explicit mention of dating: “Are you cute or not?” “Check your first impression here!” or “Make casual friends in your town!”
On the other hand, ads for men read: “Be a couple in five minutes!” or “Girls flocking to your inbox,” implying direct relationships with women.
Raising controversy is that the app operators consider this unbalanced structure as their key revenue source and encourage it.
Dating app officials say their priority is to retain as many female users as possible. But they have low expectations for women’s in-app payments.
“We do have a low expectation for women when it comes to in-app payments,” a BNK Lab official said.
According to him, the lower payment for female users is designed to lessen their resistance to joining and using the dating app, a policy aimed at bringing more female users.
“Less female users mean less opportunities for men. This is not just for our company but the users,” he said. “Instead, we offer other services such as free events so men wouldn’t feel displeased.”
However, not everyone seems to agree with the company’s explanation. “It is understandable that the conventional idea in Korea is that men pay more to connect with women, but it feels really uncomfortable that companies are exploiting such a mindset,” said a Seoul citizen who asked not to be named.
“I don’t think companies’ explanation that the imbalanced payment system lowers women’s resistance to dating apps makes sense,” said Jung Seul-ah of women’s rights activist group Womenlink. “If there’s resistance in those apps, it would rather have stemmed from fears over prevalent online sex crimes.”
Jung said men might expect women’s feedback depending on the amount they spent on the app, which results in unhealthy relationships. She said such marketing reflects the conventional idea that men should be financially successful in order to attract women.
“I’m afraid it suggests sexual prejudice is being reproduced,” she said. “Dating expenses should be dealt with differently in each relationship, not pre-made by social norms or apps charging systems,” she said.
Next Match said there have not been many complaints about the charging system so far.
“It reflects real life. The interested one would express affection _ it just happens to be male most of the time,” the official said. “We wanted women to be active and we will see how our charging system benefits successful matching.”
“It is really about the culture _ how users manage their conversations and build a dating culture,” Jung said. “Dating app companies should build entertaining strategies so users voluntarily join.”