Dating apps present an endless sea of potential matches. But do they actually expand our horizons? And is that good for us? Some studies suggest that dating apps can make us feel that settling down with someone isn’t important or that our chances of romantic and sexual success are infinite and guaranteed, increasing the likelihood of infidelity to a current partner.
In The Equality Machine: Harnessing Digital Technology for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future, author and law professor Orly Lobel examines the influence of algorithmic matching on the “meat market” of human companionship. A founding faculty member of the Center for Intellectual Property and Markets at the University of San Diego School of Law, Lobel examines the differences between IRL and online dating in the design of the apps—pools of potential matches seemingly freed from real-world constraints, an absence of direct rejection, and an invisible hand that guides people toward each other. With all that in mind, she asks, “How can we protect against the pitfalls and hazards while maximizing online dating’s potential to develop a more diverse, more interconnected, and, well, loving world?”
As with the job market, the market for love—yes, market, the ultimate “meat market,” we might say—can be a source of long-standing exclusion, or it can become the great democratizer. Today there are over 1,500 dating apps. Tinder boasts of having coordinated more than 20 billion matches, and the numbers are growing every minute. More people are likely to start a relationship through online dating than any other type of dating. Already, over a third of new married couples say they met online. With same-sex couples, the percentage of online matches is even higher. And the Covid-19 pandemic made people rely on digital dating even more than in the past, connecting people when bars and parties were on hold. Bumble, Tinder, OkCupid, and Match.com all reported dramatic increases in traffic during the first months of the pandemic. OkCupid reported a 700 percent increase in dates in the second quarter of 2020, and Bumble reported a 70 percent rise in video calls during the same timeframe. “What the internet apps do is that they enable you to see, for the first time ever in history, the market of possible partners,” says Eva Illouz, director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, who has studied the ways in which capitalism and the modern world have transformed our emotional and romantic lives.
Online dating apps can expand the pool of potential love matches and can re-engineer our patterns of dating and mating like never before. To use the all-too-popular tech term “disruption,” algorithmic dating has disrupted the way we meet and mate. The new digital love market has the potential to make our age-old identity markers—race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality—less sticky. Yet algorithmic matching and digital design are also shaped by the histories and ongoing norms of our offline worlds, and as such, they can reshape our preferences in ways that are narrowing or inclusive, confining or liberating. In extreme cases, online dating has even proven to be dangerous, and disproportionately so to vulnerable individuals. The question is, how can we protect against the pitfalls and hazards while maximizing online dating’s potential to develop a more diverse, more interconnected, and, well, loving world?
Imagine a typical dating app user whose relationships are born via algorithm: the user fills out their profile, uploads a picture, and lists some preferences about a potential mate. Pictures of other dateseekers begin appearing, and if two people mutually swipe right, a match has formed. In this Tinder model, rejection is removed from the dating and mating game upfront: you never even see those who dismissed your profile. You are also not seeing the entire playing field—Tinder determines who you get to see. By following a user’s patterns, the app outputs future recommendations. For example, the more selective a user is, the more the algorithm might match that user to other selective users. Dating algorithms rank and cluster people, keeping the lower-ranked profiles invisible to the highly ranked ones. But what if selectivity is dampened with racial and ethnic bias?
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In 2019, Tinder’s founder, Sean Rad, explained how the Tinder algorithm gives each user a “desirability” score to represent how much of a catch any particular person is, based on how often other desirable users “swiped right,” or chose them. Users were sorted into desirability tiers based on a measurement known as an Elo score and presented with people who approximated their level of attractiveness per swipe. An Elo score, originally created for chess, is frequently used in gaming (think World of Warcraft) to divide players of different skills into groups, matching them with players who have similar skill levels. Ergo, if you were losing the dating game on online apps, more often than not you wouldn’t find yourself swiping on higher-ranked profiles but instead would be matched with other less successful romantic hopefuls. Today, Tinder reports that it no longer relies on the Elo score and instead focuses on users’ geographic proximity to one another and their relative levels of activity on the app. Tinder now asserts, “We don’t care (or store) whether you’re black, white, magenta or blue. Our algorithm doesn’t know if you make $10 or $10 million a year. And we aren’t going to show you all the blondes first because they supposedly have more fun. We don’t believe in stereotypes. So whether you’re celebrating Diwali, Carnival, Eid AlFitr, or Gay Pride, we think the party gets better when great people, from all walks of life, can get together. Our algorithm is designed to be open and we love our results.” This shift away from “desirability” scores may result in more diverse matchups than the previous technology by steering users away from their own implicit biases. Tinder celebrates a reported increase in overall interracial marriages since its launch.
All this means that online platforms have the power both to expand the dating pool and to steer our dating patterns and preferences. Algorithms are classifying our identities as tangible categories and coding our desires as consumer choice. In their book Re-engineering Humanity, Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger worry that technology is changing us, rather than simply replicating human functions with machines. We are being conditioned to want to obey the cues of technology, to allow our preferences to be manufactured rather than freely chosen: “Companies, institutions, and designers regularly treat us as programmable objects through hyperpersonalized technologies that are attuned to our personal histories, present behaviors and feelings, and predictive futures.” The concern that we are becoming engineered to follow what Frischmann and Selinger deem “a deviously programmed script” is certainly true with online dating. We check boxes and upload images, and the algorithm learns how to direct us toward a successful connection.
Online, we seem to be reduced to a menu of preselected choices. Despite Tinder’s recent announcement about forgoing automated scoring that takes ethnicity and socioeconomic status into account, most dating algorithms still use statistical models that allow them to classify users according to gender, race, sexuality, and other markers. At the same time, we can redefine our communities, seek love outside of our regular circles, and to some extent test the plasticity of our online identity beyond the rigid confines of the physical world.
The fast-paced, easy access to a seemingly infinite scale of dating opportunities has also meant that settling down with one partner seems less urgent. People can meet dozens of matches per month, potentially leading to hundreds of sexual partners a year. Dating technology changes our relationship patterns by offering an overabundance of potential matches. One study has shown that a person’s perceived success on dating apps will increase their likelihood of committing infidelity. Many come to believe that they have infinite possibilities for love and can simply continue the search each time a match inevitably turns out to be imperfect. The availability of online dating rewards those interested in immediate casual sexual encounters. People become goods themselves, interchangeable and available to be acquired or traded. Psychologist Esther Perel worries that dating technology signals the decline of relationship accountability.
This question about the potential for online dating apps to contribute to infidelity or to undermine relationship accountability assumes an ideal of monogamy and dyadic (rather than poly)—and in turn heteronormative—relationships. At the same time, we can reject moralizing about some forms of intimate relations while acknowledging the experience of seeking love and the reality of love markets, which is still gendered, even in the digital dating world. Despite our changing norms on how we form families and despite immense advances in reproductive technology, women’s biological clocks still tick more rapidly than men’s. The stereotype that women therefore might be more anxious from a certain age to settle down still holds true on average, reminding us that stereotypes do sometimes have grains of truth. How we tackle these truths as a society—and whether we strive to challenge unequal realities—reflects on our moral standing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies show that men are more likely than women to seek short-term sexual relationships through Tinder. Still, these patterns are evolving, and we need to remember comparative measures: does dating online present a greater gap between men’s and women’s relationship goals compared to offline dating patterns? According to a survey released by Tinder, more Tinder users, including both men and women, are interested in a committed relationship compared to offline daters. This is a changing landscape, and while our romantic patterns have always been the last taboo in social engineering, we need to recognize that technological design matters in the shaping of our contemporary intimate relations.
This article has been excerpted from The Equality Machine: Harnessing Digital Technology for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future by Orly Lobel. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.