It’s 2am, the tingle in my right wrist threatens long-term damage (RSI – repetitive swiping injury), and I’m not sure I’m even blinking.
Yet I keep going, staring at my screen. Why? I’ve sent 35 messages so far – to men of varying attractiveness – and they all remain unanswered. I look for another match, hoping he’ll appear on my next swipe.
I’ve been doing this – on and off – for the past five years. Why am I still single? It’s a horrible thought that leaves me reeling. But then another idea springs to the surface… what if the apps want me this way? We’re in the age of the tech giants: Deliveroo and Uber are making billions off us. Yet food and transport are commodities, we’ll always need them (yes, I know I could learn to drive and cook…), while dating apps rely on me not finding anyone – I’d delete them as soon as I did. Dating apps boost the UK economy by £11.7 billion a year, thanks to a steady influx of singles and repeat business. If apps have monetised dates, and most technology is designed to keep us on it, could it be that the apps are hoping I’ll stay single? It’s time to find out.
The first thing I discover is that getting dating apps to reveal their matchmaking algorithms is like asking KFC to share its secret recipe – it just isn’t going to happen. But what I can do is ask coders and engineers for their theories when it comes to how our most-used dating apps are designed. There is a consensus that most use similar technology, which – behind the scenes – is doing a lot more than checking your location and set preferences of what you are looking for.
“Most apps use ‘collaborative filtering,’ which was first developed by Amazon,” tech expert Rhys Maddocks tells me. He’s the founder of JobSwipe – an app that allows job seekers to swipe their way through different potential roles in the hope of a mutual match (sound familiar?). “[Collaborative filtering] assumes if you buy the same product as someone else, you’ll also be interested in the other items they purchased.” We all recognise it as “the shopper who bought this item also bought this” and, translated into dating terms, if you like someone you’ll then be shown recommendations based on the preferences of others who also liked that person. They’ll appear first on your feed. It could be the reason why you end up seeing carbon copies of the one person you liked over and over.
I’m also told that some apps use face-mapping, pinpointing physical features you have a preference for and then sifting those with similar features to the top. Others use language- matching – so when chatting about travel, food or fitness, you’ll be shown matches who have put similar things in their profiles. It all seems very clever and makes sense; the apps show me who they think I’ll like the most.“The more popular people will be put at the top of your stack because you’re more likely to swipe on them, because everyone else has,” says Rhys. “That’s the general rule of any shopping site – the products that most people are buying are shown on the first page.”
This could all be well-intentioned. Algorithms can’t be sure who I am going to click with, but they can try their best – is it the apps’ fault if I like someone and they don’t like me back? Still, there are rumours that it’s possible to “game” the system – I was once told you can cheat Tinder’s algorithm by liking one person, then rejecting five to ensure your profile climbs up the hierarchy. But this claim was based on the now-defunct Tinder Elo Score – the more likes you got, the higher your score and you would only be shown to people with a similar score to you. When asked about the hierarchy of its algorithm, Tinder says,“We prioritise potential matches who are active. We don’t want to waste your time showing you profiles of inactive users.”
But just because that method is extinct, that’s not to say apps don’t control our positioning in someone else’s feed. The main apps all clearly outline their privacy policies on their websites – and are also clear that they use your data to help give you the best matches. “They know what times you’re active and can tell which accounts are being used to make real-life connections,” says Rhys. “The goal is to put people who are very active on the app high in the stack.” This helps the dater, he explains. “They want you to get a message back when you send one.”
You know those prompts on Hinge asking if you met the person you’ve been messaging? Rhys tells me I should say yes. He reckons more active users and those who meet up with people in real life will be shown to more people. It will help me climb that stack. The app’s tagline is “designed to be deleted” – and they ask you these questions so they can learn more about your type. It makes sense that they’d favour those who are actively trying to meet people, rather than those who are perhaps only using the app for a bit of light browsing.
Whenever I quit an app, for the first week or so I feel bored and wonder what I did before I compulsively swiped every spare second I had. I watch my single friends swipe through TV shows, during a dinner together and even mid-workout. I’ve been there, too – if I’m out with a friend and they pop to the loo, straight away I take my phone out to see who has swiped right on me. Behind the algorithms, is there something physically addictive about how I feel when I get a match? I’ve felt sky-high when someone hot likes me – but then, 10 minutes later, I want more. One isn’t enough… I want so many matches and yet I only want to be in a relationship with one person. It doesn’t make sense.
Psychologist Dr John McAlaney from Bournemouth University likens my need for validation to the high that gamblers get – they keep spinning the wheel in the hope they’ll scoop that one big win, while I keep swiping in the hope the perfect person lands in my matches.“The harms of gambling are well-known and there are the same dangers with any immediate validation and gain,” he tells me. “Feeling rewarded is a basic psychological desire. It’s not really that complicated that making people feel good is a very powerful and basic concept.” The difference is, of course, that with gambling, you might lose your savings. With swiping, the most you’ll lose is an evening of your time (and the feeling in your swipe-tired fingers).
There have been no studies into what a “like” on a dating app does to your brain but there are numerous ones into gambling and how its addictive qualities have the same effect on the brain as drug and alcohol cravings. And, more so, our brains quite simply like looking at hot people – it’s been said that when we see attractive people, an area on the left side of our brains becomes active and pumps out dopamine. That rush can even make us feel slightly giddy. It’s not to say that all dating apps are designed with this in mind, that the developers wanted them to be addictive, but simply that they may have ended up this way.
I’m starting to see how my desire to be desired may well subconsciously outweigh my desire for a relationship. I have to admit, I spend more time swiping than speaking to my matches. With three billion swipes around the world per day on Tinder alone, and limited data on how many chats happen per day, we might have become a nation that swipes… and never actually speaks to those we are craving.
But, of course, there are those who do meet and find love on apps. Hinge told me that its users spend more time on first dates than they do on the app, and three in four dates on Hinge lead to second dates. Last year, the Future Of Dating report found that a third of relationships that started between 2015 and 2019 began online, and that if the trend keeps going the way it is then by 2035, more than 50% of UK relationships will begin online.“If we’re feeling compelled to check things, like our matches on an app, this is a psychological issue – it doesn’t come from tech,” adds McAlaney.
In the past few years I’ve given up trying to meet people in real life; no one really interacts with strangers the way they used to. They don’t need to – we can just get our phones out. But, yet again, are the apps to blame for that, or us? It’s the same way you can barely get through a conversation with friends without one of them Googling something on their phone, taking a photo or showing you a photo of the thing they were just Googling.
Plus it is convenient – and a lot less scary. After all, it’s much easier to message someone and have them ignore that message than it is to go up to them (gulp) and take that rejection to your face. Seeing someone’s preferences can also help you suss out if they’re going to be into you or not.
“As a lesbian, I definitely find it easier to approach someone on an app who I wouldn’t necessarily have spoken to in real life simply because it’s not always apparent that they like women,” my friend Mandy muses. But while the apps make meeting multiple people easier and rejection seem less bruising, I’ve found – over the years – that whether it’s in real life, or online, I still feel the impact of someone brushing off my advances. App dating has slowly eaten away at my confidence.
Even if I do meet someone and go on dates, I find myself constantly thinking about how they are messaging and meeting lots of other people. Feeling like I’m one of many means I often hold back so as not to get hurt. It might sound paranoid, or unromantic, but just under half of online daters admit they find it hard to commit to a partner because of the breadth of dating options now available.
“Modern dating can chip away [at] your self- esteem and your sense of self,” Dr Zoe Strimpel, historian of gender and dating, tells me. “We become very dependent on external validation. That’s notorious for being a bad starting point for attracting the right kind of person. It’s a vicious cycle because you feel bad about yourself, go back to the app to try and get that validation and the same thing happens, it doesn’t work out.”
I feel as if Dr Strimpel is articulating what’s inside my head – it’s very easy for me to moan to my dates about how I’ve been ghosted and have felt disposable, but I also need to look at how I have behaved on apps, swiping past perfectly eligible people, and not replying to messages because someone else shinier and newer got in touch. “Apps tap into a very basic need to keep searching,” Dr Strimpel adds. “But the sense that you have a lot of choice really is an illusion.”
“You do develop an ideology of the certain person you would like to match with, which can become a little unrealistic,” adds Mandy. “I would rather not have to rely on a dating app in order to find my future wife but until I’m able to meet her in person, I feel the sad reality is that I will have to persevere and continue swiping.”
It’s not difficult to look at the parallel between how tech has infiltrated so much of our lives and the fact that we’re now in the midst of a loneliness epidemic – 97% of Cosmopolitan readers said they felt lonely. Studies have also found that compulsive use of dating apps made those individuals feel lonelier than they did before they started. However, 2020 would surely have been a much lonelier place – particularly for singles – without these apps allowing us to stay connected and date, even during the lockdown.
There’s also a human element at play here, according to academic and author Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos.“We tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short-term, and underestimate the impact of technology in the long- term,” he says. “There’s this hype that dating apps are going to change everything, and we do now have less romantic and sexual encounters. But it’s not only because of dating apps. What used to happen in a club isn’t miles away from what is happening on dating apps – people would go to a bar and say, ‘OK, yes, no,’ to people, based on very little. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. With dating apps it becomes official. It’s just mating rituals playing out online.”
It’s hard to think of a single person’s world pre-dating apps, but I met every boyfriend I had before them organically – in the park, in a queue, through work – and the interactions and connections felt more emotional. Now when I look back, I don’t think I’d have swiped right for any of them had I seen them on an app.
It would be nice to blame my lack of luck with love entirely on dating apps, but I don’t think I can. Apps are certainly steering me to behave in certain ways, but can they alone take the blame for my quest for endless choice? In my search for validation I feel I have somehow come to value matches over meaningful connections. Yet I keep spinning that wheel…
ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS GETTY IMAGES, MOA THORNEBY. BARBIE AND KEN FASHIONISTAS DOLLS, AMAZON. ‡BUSINESSOFAPPS.COM. **COSMOPOLITAN POLL OF 46,000 READERS. ††JOURNAL OF SOCIAL AND PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS, 2019