Photo by Basak Gurbuz Derman

The devil in the dating apps

Modern technology does not encourage long-term relationships but a spiral of swiping

Artillery Row

Gen Z is suffering a sex and relationship recession. From 2019 to 2023, singlehood amongst young men increased from 51 to 57 per cent; young women, 32 to 45 per cent. Over 50 per cent of men aged 18–20 have never had an intimate partner. 52 per cent of single men are interested in dating, compared to 36 per cent of single women — with 50 per cent of in their 20s not dating at all.

Dating apps, counterintuitively, are partly to blame. Though they promise a preponderance of options and opportunities to meet The One™️, swipe apps have the perverse incentive to keep you perpetually single.

As a lonesome twenty-five-year-old, I’ve endured intermittent stints on these apps. I joined with all the joy of an ogre chased by pitchfork-wielding villagers. Despite a handful of dates, the relationships I’ve had came from chance in-person encounters. Recent YouGov data found 66 per cent of singletons have the same experience. To confirm my suspicions, I rejoined Tinder, Bumble and Hinge to report from the warzone.

The algorithm has you subsist on enough dissatisfaction that you pay for unlimited swipes

We erroneously assume the stated purpose of dating apps is their actual purpose. We think they facilitate people picking their perfect match from a plethora of potentials — to go on dates, get married and have the families they consistently report wanting. Were that the case, they wouldn’t paywall off options like filtering out fake accounts, de-anonymising who liked you, or narrowing your criteria to men who have the triple-sixes. Despite superficial differences, all three are branches of the same twisted tree: Tinder’s parent company also owns Hinge, and the founder of Bumble is a former Tinder executive. None are, in fact, “designed to be deleted” — or the company would go under. Without lonely hopefuls, there’s no customer base. Instead, the algorithm has you subsist on enough dissatisfaction with the profiles presented to you that you pay for unlimited swipes and more control over who you see — but not enough discouragement that you delete the app. The algorithm rations the rate at which you find someone right for you, to sell your time to advertisers and nudge you toward premium subscriptions.

Is this by design? As Christine Emba documented in Rethinking Sex, Tinder’s first ad campaign in 2018 was “Single, Not Sorry” — a strange phrase for a dating app to promote. The selling point was dating with “no rules, no critics, and lots of options”. Tinder’s 2023 Spotify ads end, “No matter what, all matches lead to self-discovery.” Don’t consider how the Other might feel: it’s all about you. Don’t swipe to find someone to settle down with: mutually use each other for validation, whilst preserving perpetual availability as a prerequisite to autonomous personhood. When that wanes, detach and get back on the app for your next source of gratification. This is why some don’t even swipe: they just put their Instagram handle in their bio, and let their profile accumulate attention over time. Dating apps are an asset of an economy where we sell ourselves — as ambassadors, influencers, mannequins for brands and lifestyles. Love takes too much time out of work to bother with.

The apps need not be designed to keep you single for that to be their true purpose. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” The purpose of a technology is revealed through how, with repeated use, human behaviour conforms to the incentives it sets. The pressure to distil yourself down to a few photos and a digestible bio creates the incentive to over-sexualise, exaggerate or hide parts. That performance cannot be kept up over the course of a relationship. Do these incentives prime people with the type of mindset that makes for good partners? When conflict inevitably arises, why should you stay and work through it? The hypothetical promise that a more perfect partner exists only one swipe away looms over the relationship. These carousels of commodification render human connection gamified, compromised and transactional.

Reactionaries have personified technology as “Egregoric”, when human inventions act in contravention to natural human interests. Egregores are composite intelligences formed through aggregated human activity, which appear to act as if with a will of their own that influences human beings. For example: Twitter intends to assist the spreading of information, but it is actually a lunatic asylum for washed-up journalists. (I too wear this straightjacket.) The instruments we make may be “demonic” in that, in practice, they oppose human ends. This is what McLuhan meant by “the Prince of this World is a very great electric engineer”.

Dating apps are a Faustian bargain: providing a false sense of ownership, whilst outsourcing a proactive process (meeting a partner incidentally in social settings) to a passive accumulation of attention at the mercy of an algorithm. It generates an insatiable desire for novelty that is anathema to commitment. Dating apps are not wish-granting genies, but act like gestalt entities in rebellion against our desire to find loving partners.

The sexes aren’t approachable. We are lonely in larger crowds than ever

Another of McLuhan’s concepts which applies is “the Global Village”: how the interconnectivity provided by technology dislocates us from belonging to place, people and culture. Dating apps have expanded the pool of potential partners beyond local communities — to other cities, other countries. In increasing the quantity of prospective options, we decrease the concentration of quality like-minded partners that make up our frame of reference for who’s out there. It also engenders diminished consideration towards others. There is an absence of accountability if we can just unmatch or block somebody. Yet, a series of swipes on unappealing options, and matches that end in unpleasant exchanges, burn us out and leave us feeling demoralised.

What’s the solution? Not, as some have suggested, a return to the anachronism of pick-up-artistry and cold approaches. At the tail-end of the sexual revolution, in a time before phones, men and women mixed in social settings, with lots of eye contact and alcohol. This was called “the 90s”. Not only do Zoomers drink 20 per cent less than age-equivalent Boomers, but with the advent of phones and AirPods, social barriers are everywhere. Soulmates could be sat opposite one another, mutually swiping away on apps, their eyes never meeting. This is why 59 per cent of men aged 18–25 have not approached a woman in the last year: the sexes aren’t approachable. We are lonely in larger crowds than ever.

Nor is the solution another app, where we can use AI chatbots to practise talking to the opposite sex. More tech will not fix this. The likelihood of a Lysistrata for dating apps is doubtful. However, the rebuilding of local villages is possible.

My new years’ resolution for Boomers and Gen Xers is to introduce at least one single young male and female that you know. Even if it doesn’t lead to a date, you’re more likely to know what’s best for us than an app which makes money off our loneliness.

Don’t desert your duty as village elders. Listen to this swiped-out Gen Z’der: you have our permission to interfere away.

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