Tinderella: Fairytale or Horror Story?
“Here we go again”, I think to myself as I type my password into the Tinder login page. As soon as I hit continue, an instant wave of regret floods my conscience. Thankfully, I don’t have much time to dwell on it, as an inappropriately cheerful Welcome Back message appears on my screen. Impatiently, I skip all the instruction reminders, and fall into the warm embrace of the (oh so) familiar interface. A few swipes is all it takes for the muscle memory to kick in and next thing I know, my right thumb swiftly navigates through the sea of profiles, as if it had never left its waters. Hundreds of pictures flicker in front of my eyes, like pages of a never ending human catalogue. The product options are endless: women, men, lawyers, doctors, artists, entrepreneurs; tall, short, blonde, brunette; even amateurs of blue hair will find a model appropriate to their liking. And yet, after a few minutes of swiping, in that realm of endless possibilities, everyone seems just the same. Because all these people have once had, or will have, their ‘here we go again’ moment too.
I must say, it is oddly comforting to see a familiar face in the stack of profiles and realise you’re not the only one who got dumped, or worse, ‘ghosted’1 yet again, but if so many of our dating app encounters end up in failure, why do we keep coming back? In January 2021, around 210 thousand people downloaded Tinder, and for many of them it wasn’t their first rodeo (Stancheva, 2021). In the fast-paced times where professional development and personal growth are put first, online dating has become one of the easiest and most popular ways of finding a partner (Whyte and Torgler, 2017). The abundance of choice is striking not only within the app users but also the apps themselves. With a total of over 1500 dating sites and apps on the internet, it is no surprise that each of them tries to sell a unique user experience (Lin, n.d.). There seems to be an app for everyone and everything: relationships, hook-ups, threesomes... The options are endless and easily accessible, and so many people opt into them in the hopes of finding... whatever it is they’re looking for.
Although Tinder remains the most popular app, with an estimated 1.6 billion swipes daily, other platforms such as Bumble and Hinge rise in popularity, targeting more specific demographics (van Hoff, 2019, p.5).2 I single out these two apps in particular, as they openly challenge the conventions of online dating, set out by the market leader. Bumble proclaims itself the ‘feminist’ alternative, claiming to battle the patriarchy by letting women make the first move (Bivens and Hoque, 2018). (If only sending the first text could prevent us from receiving unsolicited pictures of men’s private parts!). Ironically, this feature does not function in the instance of same-sex matches, effectively leaving non-heterosexual women outside of the company’s grand picture. So much for feminism. Hinge, on the other hand, boldly introduces itself to new users as “the app designed to be deleted” (Hinge, 2021) (although, judging from their app store ratings, this often happens for reasons other than meeting your one true match)(App Store, 2021). It differs significantly from the two aforementioned platforms, as it rejects the swiping mechanism in favour of like and dislike buttons. This aims to slow down the profile selection process, making it less superficial (The Dating Apocalypse, 2016). However, if you ask me, one can hit a button just as fast as they can swipe. So, are these apps actually any different from each other?
In an attempt to answer that question, I have registered my profile on all three of the platforms. Unsatisfied by my experiences on one, I turned to the other, hoping to explore new grounds and maximise my chances of success. And oh, did I get disappointed again. The thing about dating apps no one realises before agreeing to their terms and conditions, is that they feel more like marketplaces than meeting places. From the moment your account goes live, millions of people become entitled to scrutinise every detail of it in order to assess your value and potential (Heino, Ellison and Gibbs, 2010). Expressing their opinion through swiping, liking, and typing, they devour mass quantities of profiles, and yet they remain hungry for more. No wonder Urban Dictionary, the comprehensive compendium of slang expressions, defines Tinder as “the McDonald’s for sex” (David and Cambre p.2). However, trying to not be eaten alive is not the only skill you’ll need to survive in the dating app world. Discovering your own selling points and determining your market worth is detrimental to your success (Thompson, 2018). You need to sell the best model OF yourself in order to find the best model FOR yourself. How do you know you’re being successful? Simple – count your matches. The more you get, the more valuable you are. And if you don’t get many, perhaps it’s time to adjust your profile, or... delete it all together, because trust me, breaking through that algorithm will probably be harder than meeting someone in real life (Alexopoulos, Timmermans and McNallie, 2020).
In the digital age, when dating apps have become almost necessary to find a partner, this daunting reality might be a tough pill to swallow. The question therefore is, why does it look like this and how, if at all, can we change it?
A Fairytale for Sale
As psychologist Roy. F. Baumeister and behavioural economist, Kathleen D. Vohs (2004) observe, our sexual (and other social) interactions can be analysed according to the principles of economic exchange. We engage with people who are able to offer us assets, whether material or immaterial, that we ourselves lack (Baumeister and Vohs, 2004). It is therefore no surprise that the marketplace metaphor emerged in relationship discourse long before the creation of dating apps (Heino, Ellison and Gibbs, 2010). Since the primeval era, men would offer women their resources and protection in exchange for sex and continuation of lineage (Baumeister and Vohs, 2004). As the world and society evolved so did the relationship dynamics, as well as their economic implications, but although we no longer live in caves, sex remains a major economic resource (Baumeister and Vohs, 2004). Our inherent desire to establish intimate connections with other human beings is so strong that we will go to great lengths in order to fulfil it – and the corporations know it. Flowers, dinner dates, watches, rings, perfumes, vacations bought for engagements, anniversaries, and the biggest celebration of commercial love – the Valentine’s Day... All of these things appear essential to our relationship success all thanks to insidious advertising. Happy couples look at us from billboards, posters, TV screens and phones convincing us that the only step keeping us from having what they have is buying a new vacuum cleaner or an intelligent fridge. This monetization of the intangible aspects of life, such as emotions and relationships, lies at the core of neoliberalism; a silent actor behind all of our activities (Monbiot, 2016). This “philosophy viewing market exchange as a guide for all human action” (Dean, 2009, p. 51) spans across every dimension of our existence, from global state affairs, through social life to our most private thoughts. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han (2017, p. 9) describes it as “a highly efficient system for exploiting freedom”, as in order to control us, it monetizes “everything that belongs to practices and expressive forms of liberty – emotion, play and communication”.
In the neoliberal market feelings become products and products become feelings (Dean, 2009). Love is stuffed in so many places it becomes entirely mundane, transformed into yet another “sellable commodity” (Belk and Coon, 1991). The differences between the economical and emotional blur seamlessly, and without even noticing, we begin applying business strategies to our dating life (Ahuvia and Adelman, 1993).
With shopping being a natural part of our day to day it is no surprise that we often search for our perfect partner in the same way we do for a perfect pair of jeans. We want them to check a certain list of pre-defined requirements which will undoubtedly make them the right fit. They have to be visually appealing, match our aesthetic and keep up with the busy lifestyle. They may be pre-owned but can’t show any major signs of wear and tear, otherwise it’s certain they won’t last more than a few months. They have to be strong, but not too rigid because that will make them uncomfortable to be around. And most importantly they must be easily accessible and available to get immediately, because our favourite pair of jeans has just torn (our life apart).3
Thankfully, dating apps come to the rescue filling in the demand gap and providing a wide assortment of potential replacements. “Structured according to marketing principles, these platforms arguably represent an embodiment, or visualisation, of the sexual marketplace” (Thompson, 2018). Comfortingly familiar to online shopping, the selection process seems easy and effortless. Ample number of pictures allows for comparison of the candidates and a thorough assessment of their visual qualities, whereas the laconic descriptions detail out product specifications, such as the overall size of the package (and even its specific parts). The whole experience seems reassuringly predictable and allows for making informed choices. No unpleasant surprises! However, what might look like a guarantee of success rarely ends in one, as more than often the received products turn out to be completely different from what we were expecting (Illouz, 2017). Afterall, how can it be possible to package something as complex as a human being into 9 pictures and 500 characters?
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Prettiest of Them All?
9 pictures and 500 characters is the amount of space which Tinder gives its users to present themselves in (Garda and Karhulahti, 2019). One can expand their profile by linking their Instagram and Spotify accounts, as well as selecting between 3 to 5 ‘Interests’ from a pre-defined list of rather random topics, ranging from ‘British soaps’ to ‘environmentalism’ (Tinder Inc., 2021) (Das, n.d.). The profile structure is constantly reinvented, with the newest update allowing users to display badges with their lifestyle preferences, such as the favourite drink of choice or pet type (Tinder Inc., 2021).4 After all, your dog would never forgive you if you matched with someone who’s a cat person!
If you thought that wasn’t much information, you’ll be surprised that on Bumble the limits are even harsher, with a maximum of 6 pictures and a 300-character bio at your disposal.
However, the app introduces another way to present your charming personality and impeccable sense of humour – prompts. The user can (but doesn’t have to) select up to 3 of those, and hope that someone will eventually relate to the fact that ‘their personal hell’ is pineapple on pizza.
Hinge goes even further than that and eliminates the profile bio altogether, leaving us with just 6 pictures, 3 (compulsory) written prompts and, in case you wanted the world to hear your best Taylor Swift’s impression, a voice note prompt. Yes, that’s right, with the latest actualisation users are now able to not only read but also listen to their “best travel stories” and “biggest pet peeves” (Sundaravelu, 2021). How romantic.
Despite these content differences (Figure 1. Appendix p. 25) the 3 apps display profiles in a very similar way, putting emphasis on the avatar picture and effectively pre-determining users’ choices by that very first, visual impression. It is therefore no surprise that the picture-based interface is characterised as one of the biggest factors contributing to the marketization of dating apps. It perpetuates the use of commercial strategies throughout the entire process, from profile creation, through match selection to the dating itself (Illouz, 2007).
Sociologist Eva Illouz (2007, p. 81 cited in Thompson, 2018, p. 72) observes that “fixity of the picture(s) means ‘beauty and the body are ever-present’ and locked ‘in a competitive market of similar photographs’”. To maximise their success rate and stand out in that sea of profiles, every user tries to present the best possible version of themselves (van Hoff, 2019). The profiles are carefully curated, with attention to the smallest details, so that they appear effortlessly natural, as if they weren’t curated at all. As Christina Ungermann (2021), the writer for Real Life Magazine, outlines in her article Match Games, “there’s a craft to creating an enticing narrative, combining images with copy to sell yourself to the highest bidder”. In a way, the person on the dating app is not you but the person you’d like to be, or at least the one you think has the highest chances of securing a match.
“You create a brand, and my brand is not being like other men. (...) I am what they want me to be, so I present myself as an intelligent, sensitive man who offers them something better. My tagline actually says that I’m not like other men” – George, 45 (van Hoff, 2019, p. 9).
And so, you conform to the beauty standards to fit in the narrow definition of what’s ‘desirable’. In that few pictures, you try to show that you have a pretty face, a fit body, a passion for outdoor sports, great taste in food, a love for philosophy books, a cute dog, and a group of amazing friends – in short, that you’re a total package (Ward, 2016). Finally, after an hour of scrolling through your camera roll in search of the best selfies, you complete your online identity and enter the dating pool.
However, the curation process doesn’t simply end there. After all, trends change and so do the dating app ‘standards’. Looking at other people’s accounts, you constantly re-evaluate your image and its worth (Alexopoulos, Timmermans and McNallie, 2020). In the hope of getting more matches, you analyse the ways in which your profile could be altered and improved, to keep up with market’s ever-changing demands (Thompson, 2018).
Looking for Prince Charming
We not only try to present ourselves as a certain type of person, but we also look for people who are our type - possess a set of specific visual characteristics which we find particularly attractive. Therefore, if we come across someone who does not match them (or in the case of stricter users, matches only some of them) we immediately reject them, sometimes based purely on the first picture. It’s like “shopping for the perfect parts” and the more we do it the harsher in our judgement we become (Heino, Ellison and Gibbs, 2010, p. 437)
“Potential partners are anyone that doesn’t have ridiculous selfie pictures or anyone not pouting in all of their pictures. No one that has ridiculous cleavage on show either. Also no hideous girls. I don’t personally read the profiles because there’s just not enough time in the day.” – Ifran, 28 (van Hoff, 2019, p. 8)
“This is going to sound awful ... I’m quite fit and sporty and I’m really not into fat people. Fat people, straight away. Also pictures with dogs. And also when the profile pictures don’t show the person, like a landscape ... what are they hiding? And the other one is a picture of six or seven people. Who’s the person?” – Thomas, 52 (Ward, 2016, p. 1653)
We obviously have no time to waste, so if the first picture doesn’t catch our attention immediately, we discard the whole individual, without taking a mere second to have a closer look at their profile (Heino, Ellison and Gibbs, 2010). After all, if there are so many others available, why settle for someone who’s not the god or goddess of our dreams? They must be somewhere in there, right? With that hope in mind, we keep flicking the pages of that online human catalogue and yet, we’re not fully satisfied with anyone we encounter. We experience what psychologist Barry Schwartz (2018, cited in Stoicescu, 2020, p. 3) defines as a choice paradox: “faced with a wide range of possible options, (we’re) unable to make a decision” and commit to anyone. Even if we do match with someone and enter the ‘talking stage’ the initial excitement quickly wears off and we can’t help but feel like there’s someone better, newer, still waiting to be discovered in that pile of profiles (Lenton, Fasolo and Todd, 2010).
This idea of replicability lies at the core of the neoliberal market (Husain, 2021). In the name of profit maximisation, everyone and everything can be substituted by a finer and more efficient model. And just as the longevity of washing machines, phones and cars gradually becomes shorter, in order that they can be replaced with a newer version, so does the longevity of relationships. In the face of a minor inconvenience or the slightest sight of boredom, instead of working on what we have, we start looking for an easier, more compatible alternative, which, thanks to dating apps, is just within a finger’s reach (van Hoff, 2019). Despite what Hinge’s slogan might say5 these platforms are not designed to be deleted, they’re not trying to help you find your match, they’re simply aiming to make profit and that entails keeping you in their game for as long as possible (Swiped, 2018).
How to Win the Princess(es)?
“Games are a vector for the rationalization and monetization of new spaces, the perfect neoliberal mechanism, even when (or especially when) they make those spaces more fun.” (Austin, 2019). Dating apps are a perfect example of that process. Packaged in trendy and playful interfaces, are intricate mechanisms created to entertain, engage, and constantly stimulate you (Duguay, 2016). They stimulate you so much, that you don’t want it to stop. Ever. Swiping, liking, and scrolling become a part of your daily routine. They accompany you on your commute to work, during your lunch break and even in the private sanctuary of your bathroom. You’d think that with that rate of engagement, the love of your life could be found in a week, and yet the results are rather underwhelming. For the goal of this game is no to find THE match but to find as many matches as possible (Garda and Karhulahti, 2019).
Swiping mechanisms, employed both in Tinder and Bumble, play a crucial role in this process.
Being easy and intuitive, the swipe gesture can be performed quickly and repetitively. Left, right, yes, no, this binary choice logic is vital for the speed and sustainment of engagement levels (David and Cambre, 2016). It is important to observe that the same mechanism is employed in many other spheres of online life such as online shopping; creating yet another parallel between dating and consuming. As journalist Nancy Jo Sales (2015) points out in her article ‘Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse”’: “It’s telling that swiping has been jocularly incorporated into advertisements for various products, a nod to the notion that, online, the act of choosing consumer brands and sex partners has become interchangeable”.
The speed of swiping is further facilitated by the aforementioned picture dominated interface, which provides “the assessing glance a (simple) surface, instead of lines of profile information” (Duguay, 2016, p. 4). “It’s like cocaine for the mind. Picture after picture, and you don’t even have to read the descriptions. All it does is trigger all the same feelings guys have when they were young and stole their Dad’s first Playboy” (Wygant, 2014). The emotional stimulation experienced during swiping can be compared to one released by slot machine gambling (Garda and Karhulahti, 2019). Just like a player who repeatedly pulls the lever to generate a matching set of images, the dating app user repeatedly swipes on randomised profile pictures to get a match (Swiped, 2018)6 In both cases, the thrill of uncertainty of the next round’s result encourages continuous engagement and dictates the speed of the play (Garda and Karhulahti, 2019). This excitement is further built up by the app’s visuals. A flashy pop-up notification which appears when a match is made serves as an instant gratification device, encouraging users to continue swiping and be rewarded again (Swiped, 2018).
This fun and exciting aspect of profile browsing is one of the reasons why the activity is often performed collectively, as a form of entertainment, during social gatherings (Baxter, 2013). I bet many of us are guilty of swiping right through Tinder with our friends, just to see how many matches or ridiculous pick-up lines we can get. Passing the phone around we make fun of the forced profile captions and overly edited pictures completely forgetting that there are real human beings on the other side (Baxter, 2013). What’s even more upsetting, is that this ‘disconnection’ often prevails when we use the apps on our own (David and Cambre, 2016).
Claiming to battle such gamification and the consequential detachment from people behind the profiles, Hinge rejects the swiping mechanism in favour of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ buttons (Sales, 2016). Moreover, it doesn’t immediately inform you whether you’ve successfully obtained a match. Instead, when you do ‘like’ someone, they will be able to see that on their account and accept or decline your profile (Hinge, 2021). Likewise, you will be able to do the same with people who have liked you. In that way, Hinge reassures you that you’re not just swiping away into the void of profiles, and that the person you’ve expressed interest in will be notified of that (Aspinall, 2021). Following the app’s major rebrand during which it tried to position itself as an antithesis to Tinder,7 the founder and CEO of the company Justin McLeod himself admitted that “Most dating apps are just like games, designed to keep you single, and that sort of false advertising isn’t something I want us to represent” (Sales, 2016). But are their features enough to remove the gamification factor all together?
As some users observed, using buttons instead of swiping does improve the dynamics of profile browsing and encourages more in-depth assessment of potential compatibility (David and Cambre, 2016). Moreover, on Hinge one does not simply like the whole profile, but a specific section of it, such as a picture or a prompt answer, with an option to leave a comment that could spark a conversation (Hinge, 2021).8 However, looking at the app’s online reviews this system doesn’t have much positive impact on the user experience. Many claim that the comment option is often ignored, making the ‘like’ just as vague as a Tinder swipe.
“No-one uses the comment function anymore, they just like your photo and when you match with them, they don’t send a message, and ultimately you just unmatch again!” ★☆☆☆☆ @michiemooo (App Store, 2021)
Perhaps in order to battle such meaningless interactions, Hinge introduced a daily limit of 8 'likes’ per day (Hinge, 2021). The rule appears outrageously harsh compared to the constraints on Tinder and Bumble which are set out based on individual activity and oscillate around 100 swipes in 24 hours (Tiffany, 2019). This extremely restricted amount of ‘likes’ could be seen as encouraging of more informed and thought-out decisions, if it weren’t for the fact that all limits disappear as soon as you pay for a premium subscription.
“Boosting, obtaining even more functions to increase chances by paying extra resemble the seductive elements regularly observed in mobile games or slot machines” (Stoicescu, 2020, p.2). As Byung-Chul Han (2017, p. 32) observes in his book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, such gamification of communication is aimed at its quantification, and what follows, commercialization. Faced with the in-app limits, in order to keep playing the game and raise their success rate, mobile daters are constantly tempted to opt in to upgrades and premium versions. These extra features constitute the majority of apps’ profits, simultaneously perpetuating the idea that any relationship can be acquired with little effort and time, if we pay a certain price for it (Lin, n.d.).
Unlimited Liking and Rewinding
Although the costs and types of paid services vary (Figure 2. and Figure 3. Appendix p. 25), many features repeat across the apps, the first one being the unlimited number of swipes. The ability to ‘like’ countless numbers of people increases not only the odds of obtaining a match but also, unfortunately, the previously discussed speed and superficiality of profile viewing.
Knowing they won’t be limited, the users don’t need to dwell much on their decisions as they may simply ‘like’ every person, hoping at least one of them will eventually reciprocate their interest. This goes in pair with the ‘rewind’ action,9 which allows the user to reverse a careless swipe left, further enabling speedy browsing. The two functions discredit the above-mentioned degamifying limits, making them look increasingly like yet another way of capitalising our interactions.
In case a simple ‘like’ isn’t enough to express your admiration for someone, all apps offer the ability to send ‘Super Likes’10 which, naturally, give you superpowers. When the ‘super liked’ user comes across your profile on Tinder or Bumble, they’ll be notified, that you’ve already expressed special interest in them. Contrary to the regular ‘likes’, which are not disclosed, this makes your profile stand out from the deck and prompts the person to take a more detailed look at it (Tinder, 2021). On Hinge, on the other hand, sending a ‘Rose’ will make your profile appear first in the ‘see who likes you’ section, giving you a head start over the other suitors. Sounds great right? There’s just one catch. The free allowance of ‘Super Likes’ and ‘Roses’ is rather scarce, and the costs of extra ones are steep (Figure 4. Appendix p. 25). The users can either purchase them separately or permanently increase their weekly/daily limit through upgrading to the app’s premium version. Similar mechanisms are often employed in mobile game currency systems. The users usually have access to two or more in-app payment methods: the first one, e.g. coins is easily earned, but holds the least value. The other ones, such as stars or diamonds give access to far more exclusive products but are also very difficult to obtain, unless, of course, you buy them (with your real money) (Civelek, Liu and Marston, 2018). Looking back at dating apps we may therefore see that ‘Super Likes’ are nothing else but a more valuable in-app currency which, supposedly, can buy you more and better matches.
I say better, as ‘Super Likes’ are inextricably linked with another common app feature (available on Tinder and Hinge) – ‘Standouts’11 – a daily renewed selection of most desirable and compatible people, tailored specifically for you (Wong, 2021). On Hinge, the only way to even have a chance at matching with those perfect beings is to send them a ‘Rose’ (the Hinge equivalent of a ‘Super Like’) (Wong, 2021). You’re probably thinking, what’s the point in that? If we’re so compatible, their profile will sooner or later appear in my discovery page and I’ll be able to simply ‘like’ them, without sending a rose or paying extra. However, Hinge developers are one step ahead of you and have already removed the ‘Standouts’ from your main feed – with only one free ‘Rose’ per week – essentially forcing you to either pay or miss out on that perfect match (Dating App World, n.d.). Tinder Top Picks’ limits are less harsh, enabling you to ‘like’ one out of 10 profiles a day, yet many people still upgrade to Tinder Gold in order to access the full selection (Perez, 2018). For the apps that claim to help people find their one true match, constraining access to only the most compatible profiles seems rather hypocritical. By putting all the most attractive people in one place, the feature appeals to those leading a busy lifestyle, promising them best results in the shortest amount of time. Playing on our desire to establish a meaningful connection, it serves as a quick fix, aiming at popularising the premium upgrades.
Other premium feature aimed at speeding up our selection process is the enhanced filtering option, available on Bumble and Hinge. By specifying the type of people they’re looking for, users can narrow down the number of potential candidates and save time scrolling only through profiles that meet their desired height range (Beck, 2021). To an extent, this is undoubtedly a useful feature, however it also perpetuates our preconceived image of an ideal partner and closes us off from other people. It takes the previously mentioned ‘looking for a type’ behaviour to the next level, encouraging us to discard a large portion of profiles before we even begin swiping, and once again reducing those individuals to their binary profile data (Illouz, 2007).
If all these above-mentioned features still haven’t guaranteed your success in the dating game I present you your last resort – ‘The Boost.’ For a limited period of time, it makes your profile appear earlier, and more frequently, in other people’s feeds, giving you a head start over your opponents. Hinge, for instance, claims that you’ll be seen by 11x more people, all for a reasonable price of only 8.99 per hour. Isn’t that amazing? But what if you can’t afford, or simply don’t want to pay that price? You’re at the mercy of the apps’ algorithms. The three platforms operate on different systems and so I will not dwell on their technicalities. The gist of it is that all of them use data from your in-app behaviour, profile content, and its reception by other users and rank your position in the game accordingly (Gandhi, 2020). In short, the more attractive your profile, the more likes you get and the higher you appear in the profile stack (Duguay, 2016). This clearly puts paying users at a huge advantage: ‘The Boost’ not only pushes them forward in the deck but, due to increased activity on their profile, increases their position in the algorithm’s ranking as well. In consequence, the ones not subscribing will always be less successful and thus more inclined to eventually give into the premium versions, proving that the underlying goal of all the previously discussed features is profit maximisation.
Dating apps have completely revolutionised our approach to courtship. Never before did we have access to so many potential partners at one swipe of a finger (Swiped, 2018). Unfortunately, there’s no revolution without casualties. The constant availability and abundance of choices has resulted in the development of various non-normative behaviours which haven’t been observed on a large scale before (Stoicescu, 2020). These not only hinder our attempts at forming successful relationships but can also have negative psychological impact on individual users (David and Cambre, 2016).
Due to the indirectness of online communication, for some, dating apps might appear as a less intimidating alternative to face-to-face interactions (Bargh and McKenna, 2004). However, the distance created by the intangibility of the online space and the casual character of the gamified interface often results in emotional detachment on the part of individuals on the other side of the screen (Fetters and Tiffany, 2020). “Mediatization and depersonalization is encouraged as a result of the speed of profile-viewing enabled by the swipe logic and is thus as a top-down discursive hindrance to intimacy” (David and Cambre, 2016, p.2)
Spoiled by the abundance of choice and ever-present beauty, users become extremely harsh in their judgement of others, discarding them based upon the tiniest of flaws (Heino, Ellison and Gibbs, 2010). As previously discussed, the algorithm favours those users who are ‘liked’ the most, which in a picture-based interface means the most objectively attractive ones (Duguyay, 2016). In consequence, many of those who don’t identify with the conventional definition of ‘pretty’ report that the dating app environment has negative effects on their self-esteem and body positivity (Heino, Ellison and Gibbs, 2010). As they receive few matches and little positive affirmation, they begin doubting their image and often decide to leave the apps altogether (Swiped, 2018).
Sometimes this focus on physical appearance, combined with emotional detachment and lack of direct accountability, leads to emergence of offensive speech, and leaves users susceptible to verbal assault (Stoicescu, 2020). This has been proven to be particularly true for women, who, in the picture-oriented interface, are far more likely to be judged solely on their looks (van Hoff, 2019). In her paper on ‘Harassment and misogyny in the online sexual marketplace’, sociologist Laura Thompson (2017, p. 76) explores how the marketplace structure enables men “to socially locate themselves (...) a dominant position in online dating interactions and women as inferior and sexually objectified through hateful speech”. She points out that “men often perceive dating apps as ’a transactional space for sex where women are to be used as a ‘free’ source”, which helps them rationalise objectification and sexual harassment (Thompson, 2017, p. 83). It’s very common for female users to receive sexually explicit messages and pictures and to subsequently be bombarded with slurs and offensive, appearance-related comments, upon rejecting their authors (Thompson, 2017). In attempting to battle such behaviour, Bumble doesn’t allow men to send the first message, leaving it up to the female user to ‘officiate’ the match and direct the course of the conversation (Bivens and Hoque, 2018). If this is not done within 24 hours, the match expires (Bumble, 2021). Needless to say, this feature doesn’t really prevent the other party from sending offensive messages later on. Moreover, as dating historian Zoe Strimple argues, instead of regulating the aggressor’s actions, this superficial solution leaves it up to the oppressed side to find their way out of the situation, essentially shifting the responsibility for this abusive behaviour (Swiped, 2018).
The marketplace structure of dating apps not only influences how we behave within them but also how we approach our relationships when we take them to the next stage, outside the online realm (Isisag, 2019). And the truth is we struggle. In the face of a minor inconvenience, instead of putting in the effort to resolve it and progress with our partner, we choose the easier option: ditch them and look for someone better (van Hoff, 2019). The worst part is, many times, we do that without any explanation (van Hoff, 2019). We just disappear, because it is easier to end things that way. Easier for us at least. After all there are so many other people only waiting to be discovered.
“There is too much choice: girls on dating apps get a lot of matches and likes, from the moment someone says or does something they do not like, they have enough attention from other boys, this makes it possible to abruptly stop all contact and don’t feel bad about it” – Richard, 22 (Timmermans, Hermans and Opree, 2020, p. 9).
This ‘ghosting’ behaviour, although possible in off-line interactions as well, has been proven to be particularly enabled by the characteristics of dating platforms discussed earlier (Timmermans, Hermans and Opree, 2020). Due to the ‘just for fun’ approach encouraged by the gamified structure of the apps, and consequential short longevity of relationships, many users don’t want to maintain longer contact with their matches (Sales, 2015). Separated from others by the online facade, they feel no obligation to explain their reasons for cutting the contact and return to profile browsing just to repeat the same behavioural pattern with subsequent partners (van Hoff, 2019). Because it appears easier than working on a connection. Because the commercialisation is “destroying human communication” (Han, 2017, p. 32).
Here lies the answer to the question which I posed at the beginning of this article: why do we keep coming back to dating apps? It’s simple, they make us do it. They’ve been constructed to keep us in this loop. They convince us that a connection can be won if we just keep playing long enough or pay a certain price. However, instead of that real connection they sell us a cheap, fleeting feeling of excitement, an adrenaline rush which keeps us in their game. Because with every click and swipe we make, they make money (Gandhi, 2020). It’s as simple as that.
Is There a Happily Ever After?
So, what can we do? Boycott dating apps, or maybe, give up on dating altogether?
We all know that’s not going to happen.
As long as people keep looking for love, or simply connection, more and more services like dating apps will be developed, and they will find even more efficient ways to facilitate that search and profit from it. I believe that it is up to us designers, to find more ethical and user-oriented solutions for those new platforms, which will benefit not only their owners but also their users. Simple steps can already be taken to revert or at least diminish the above discussed, negative effects of marketization. As Heino, Ellison and Gibbs (2010, p. 444) suggest:
“(We) may want to reconsider (...) designs that privilege demographic criteria in favour of more holistic descriptions. Sites may also expand on their services to help users succeed in online dating by counselling them not just about how to write profiles and initiate relationships, but how to develop (them) as well”.
We need to be aware of the fact that we are designing these apps for real people with real feelings and that our designs have a very real impact on them. In a world ruled by online communication it is often difficult to even notice the impeding effects which device-led, gamified interactions have on our behaviour and perception. It is therefore more important than ever, to not only be aware of those negative implications but to raise awareness of them (Gandhi, 2020).
All that being said, know that the purpose of this article wasn’t to make you uninstall all the dating apps or kill your faith in true love. The truth is, the underlying concept of these platforms is incredible and potentially positive. They allow us to connect on a scale that has never been possible before. Thanks to them we are now able to look beyond our social circle or local area and form relationships with people we wouldn’t have ever encountered in real life. And because of that, some people do find their Tinderellas and live happily ever after, leaving the world of dating apps for good (or at least for a longer while). You can trust me on that. However, before we all find our happy ending, let’s be aware of the risks the places in which we’re looking for it carry, and remember – even the most beautiful fairy tales have a cautionary side to them.
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- ‘Unilaterally ceasing communication (...) prompting relationship dissolution (suddenly or gradually) commonly enacted via one or multiple technological medium(s)’ (LeFebvre et al., 2019, p. 134) ↩
- All further mentions of the apps refer to the following versions: Tinder (Tinder Inc., 2021); Bumble (Bumble Holding Limited, 2021); Hinge (Hinge Inc., 2021) ↩
- Commercial metaphors, such as this one are more common in the process of relationship initiation then the romantic ones (Heino, Ellison and Gibbs, 2010). Focus on the cost-benefit assessment rather than the emotional ‘magic’ factor shows how pragmatic we are in our dating choices. As seen below, the structure of dating apps only exacerbates this behaviour, by putting the emphasis on the superficial characteristics of their users. ↩
- A feature present originally in Bumble (Bumble Holding Limited, 2021). ↩
- ‘Designed to be deleted’ (Hinge, 2021) ↩
- This is what psychologists call a variable ratio schedule. Receiving, varied feedback while performing a repetitive action is proved to be more engaging and addictive than consistent, evenly occurring response (Swiped, 2018). ↩
- The anti-Tinder marketing is rather ironic considering that both apps are owned by the same company: The Match Group (Match Group, 2022). ↩
- This option is also available on Bumble. ↩
- Available in the premium versions of Bumble and Tinder and the standard version of Hinge ↩
- Roses on Hinge and Super Swipes on Bumble↩
- Top Picks on Tinder↩