A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with a friend and overheard what had to be a first date at the table right next to us. The conversation was awkward at first as they both seemed to struggle to get a good flow going.
I looked over a bit later to see that they were now much more engaged in discussion. They shared their interests and had started looking each other in the eye more often. They even touched hands. Slowly, the pair of them seemed to grow affectionate towards each other.
I went to the bathroom, and the guy on the date walked in and used the urinal next to me. And to my greatest shock, right there on his phone was an open dating app. With his less busy hand, he was swiping left and right.
Back at the table, he ended the date abruptly and called it a night. Just like that, he was moving on to the next option available to him at just the click of a button.
Maybe I’m a bit out of touch, but what I witnessed seemed so cruel and callous that I asked myself “Is that what dating is like now?” Where we just swipe human beings left or right, discarding and approving potential mates on our quest to lasting romance, a one-night stand or something in between?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Dating sucks and has always sucked.
Every date you go on, whether from an app or a more natural arrangement, you set yourself up for the strong likelihood of being disappointed or disappointing someone else. You might get your heart broken when your love is unrequited or have to tear someone’s heart out when you’re just not feeling it. You might say the wrong thing, or your date might not even show up.
These worries are the same now as they have been since romantic love became a thing in the 19th century There’s less emphasis on men needing to pick up their date in a hot rod and buy them dinner and drinks. And of course, gay and lesbian dates are more common. But otherwise, many of the worries are the same.
Sadly, though, there is something distinctly different and more sinister about the world of online dating. You may need to be older to remember, but online dating first became a thing in the mid-90s and was heavily stigmatized at the time.
Using match.com or kiss.com was for people who couldn’t handle the real world of dating. Culturally, It was seen as a sign of weakness.
Just like everything else that came with the internet, online dating grew and the potential dangers grew with it. Meeting a stranger, especially alone, poses a risk. Dating apps pose a slightly aggravated risk because they tend to attract an outsized portion of psychopaths and love addicts, with one seeing you as a victim and the other as their savior.
That’s not to suggest that you’ll end up at the bottom of a river if you go on a few online dates, but that, at the very least, you might have a really bad experience or two.
When services like e-Harmony arrived, they made a stronger case for computer-based matching using more-detailed information. The services required you to take a quiz and would then try to pair people up based on their compatibility.
Then in 2012, everything changed when Tinder arrived on the scene. The premise was simple. Once you opened the app, you were greeted with a multitude of options for a potential mate. A huge picture and a tiny description about them stared you right in the face. All you had to do was swipe right if you were interested and left if you weren’t. If two people swiped right on each other, bingo! They matched and could start a conversation.
Even with just this basic understanding of how dating apps work, it shows how we’ve managed to turn people into a commodity. This swiping feature isn’t much different than flipping through products in a carousel ad you might see on Facebook or Instagram. Or sifting through the different brand names in the grocery store.
Right, left, right, left. Is this really how we want to be viewed by others? Think about it, you’re looking for someone to be intimate and vulnerable with. And we’re presenting ourselves like a flavor of chips on a shelf. Realistically, how much can you expect from a relationship that starts out almost transactionally?
The state of modern dating is the consequence of this system that we have created. Dating on these apps is now ruthless, with ghosting, no-shows, and hostile and inappropriate messaging being much more common.
Meeting up with someone from a dating app is no different than trying to buy or sell something on Kijiji. If one of the parties loses interest, they typically just don’t show up. No message, no courtesy call. They just move on.
This is bad enough when you’re just trying to buy a product, but much worse when the product is your time, attention, and emotions.
When an app treats people like products on a shelf, this attitude rubs off on its users. You’re not swiping right on a human being, you’re swiping on a product. And if that product doesn’t seem desirable anymore, you discard it.
And these are the consequences of dating apps before we’ve even considered how their algorithms factor in.
Although Tinder insists it doesn’t use this system anymore, many of the card-based dating apps use a desirability score or ELO. The more you match with people you swipe right on, the more desirable you’re considered. The apps then push your profile to more people.
This process has little to do with making a match. The goal is to keep people on the platform by dangling desirable individuals in front of them. The more attractive people you see, the more likely you are to feel hope that “the one” is out there and you won’t delete the app.
It’s similar to how lotteries lure you in with bigger jackpots. Even though the odds are still next to impossible, the increasing pile of money keeps you hopeful when despair is the more appropriate response.
When someone ranks higher, it doesn’t make them more likely to be good in a relationship. It just means that people found them attractive based on superficial criteria. Putting more of these people in your set of cards does nothing to increase your odds of finding love. It just increases the odds of you staying on the platform.
Those with lower scores are shown less often, which gives them two options: give up or pay to have their profile boosted. This common feature among the apps exploits people who don’t present well for profit. Being able to boost your profile just gets you back to a more level playing field that you shouldn’t have been denied in the first place.
Remember that these platforms are, above all else, money-making systems. As we discussed in our recent video on algorithms, this bias toward profit has consequences. And in the case of dating apps, those consequences may be the dire state of the dating landscape or your chances for lasting love.
Maybe the most disastrous thing about dating apps is that we’re ultimately commodifying love and that can change the way we view and experience it.
When we’re attracted to someone, our brain releases the chemical dopamine as a reward response. Online dating apps train us to constantly seek this dopamine hit from attraction or lust.
Then, when we’re with someone and we’re no longer getting that high of attraction, we know it can easily be found on an app in our pocket. All we have to do is ghost, deceive or abruptly break up with someone in order to get it again. Even just looking at an attractive person on your app will give you a hit of dopamine, making loyalty to a lover much less appealing.
You get hooked into a reward cycle. It becomes addictive. Just as you get a blip of joy from a like on social media, you get a dopamine hit from a match on Tinder. It keeps you coming back, even if you’ve found someone worth keeping.
Most of us have been with someone we loved and still questioned whether there was someone better out there. Apps like Tinder, exploit this feeling. They overwhelm you with choice, making you feel like you’re never making the right one. And so you move on, back to the phone, back to the dopamine hits so readily available.
As you go on dates and start relationships, the app is always dangling that shinier object or human being in front of you.
Because it’s so fast and easy to get a new shot of dopamine by simply opening the app on our phones, we don’t give ourselves enough time to get to know a person. Once a date gets even slightly boring, we’re off to the bathroom to find the next dopamine hit.
The problem with this is that, although we’re spiking our brains full of dopamine, we aren’t spending enough time in relationships for our brains to produce oxytocin, or those warm cuddly feelings which are more common in long-term relationships or with close friends and family. Oxytocin helps reduce our blood pressure and cortisol levels, which helps reduce stress. It also promotes growth and healing.
If you’ve ever been in a long-term loving relationship, you know just how at peace you feel. How when you’re with this person everything feels alright with the world. Dating apps are weaning us off of this feeling.
Now, if those were the only problems with dating apps, then maybe the situation wouldn’t be so dire, but sadly, there’s more.
Like most online interactions, dating apps are often devoid of the empathy and consideration you typically get in real-world interactions. Sure, there are bad experiences to be had at your workplace or school. And occasionally, someone will behave callously towards you in person. But these bad experiences are far more prevalent online where people can hide behind their computer screens. The odd thing about this, though, is that even with all of their issues, dating apps seem to work. People do find long-lasting relationships on these platforms. And of course, people looking for hookups find that too.
Meeting people in real life is hard, maybe harder these days than ever before. When you meet someone in real life and want to ask them on a date, you’re taking a big risk. And we’re all hyper-aware of that risk, well, most of us.
If you ask a colleague or peer on a date, for example, you’re more likely to face some level of scrutiny now, even if it's small.
And if you ask for someone’s number in a grocery store, well maybe you become the weirdo people complain about on Twitter. Considering this, it’s not hard to see why people want anonymity in their dating life.
Still, these dating apps don’t need to be set up algorithmically to encourage cruelty or gouge less desirable people for money. Instead, we should emphasize getting to know someone before a date and caring about them as human beings first, not just another item for sale at the nearby big-box store.
To do that, though, we need to crack open the black box and fundamentally change how the algorithms that power these dating apps work. Click the video on your screen right now to find out more.