Dating in the Digital Age

The future of falling in love.

Online dating illustration

Jianan Liu / This art work is copyrighted and may not be reproduced or distrubuted without consent of the author. Notice: Remvoing copyright notice is a crime

There’s no one new in your area. 

It’s been 30 minutes of half-hearted swiping and my Tinder app no longer has any profiles to show me. It’s a bit annoying because my thumb was mastering a swift choreography of left swipes and right swipes. I close the app, ignoring any messages I have gotten from new matches, and open up Instagram to look at memes instead. My thumb instantly settles into the familiar scroll across the smartphone screen. The battles of human boredom today can be fought against with either swiping or scrolling.

If the advent of online dating apps, such as Tinder or Bumble, brought the collective of single smartphone users any excitement at the new expanses of romantic possibility, that sentiment seems to be ebbing. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be deleting these apps any time soon.

In theory, location-based dating apps should make dating easier than ever. Millennials, who characteristically never want to leave their homes, never have to leave their homes to find “love”. The concept of swiping through potential real-life romantic partners online has become a normalized tenet of modern dating, whether we like it or not.

And yet, dating in the digital age is exhausting. In 2018, Tinder reported a collective 1.6 billion swipes on the app per day. Our daily existence seems to operate through screens and devices more and more. Swiping left and right becomes a game; the people we swipe on become bite-sized versions of themselves, and the nuance can get lost. And in many ways, the profiles we swipe through on our dating apps have themselves become more content to consume.

“That’s the thing with dating apps, they’re just another social media platform,” says Preethi*, a 23-year-old writer. “When I downloaded Tinder [after a breakup], I wanted it to kill time, but it’s more energy than what it requires. You’re always forcing a conversation.” And when a conversation did lead into making plans, she didn’t go. “It was just the idea of like, ‘Ugh, I have to go out and put on a persona.’”

There is always some level of a “persona” when it comes to dating in general. A lot of the time, we want to be more interesting than we actually are, and our online persona is a performance to prove this. It’s also normal to do things to people online that we wouldn’t do in real life. Ghosting, cutting off all communication when you’ve already established a personal relationship with someone, has become so common that the Internet-born term can now be found in the dictionary.

“Being ghosted is torture,” says 27-year-old Carmen, a Vancouver hair salon receptionist who has been stood up on a Tinder date once before. “Because it happens so often, we forget to think about how much it actually affects us. Being cut off from someone so abruptly can be traumatizing.”

Maybe it’s the lack of accountability that face-to-face interactions naturally impose that makes ghosting so prevalent in online spaces. Being behind a screen is a safe place to act in bad ways. And when we are exposed to a seemingly infinite conveyor belt of other people to talk to on dating apps, we forget the real people on the other side.

Swiping left and right becomes a game; the people we swipe on become bite-sized versions of themselves, and the nuance can get lost. And in many ways, the profiles we swipe through on our dating apps have themselves become more content to consume.

Perhaps online dating is so exhausting because of this conveyor belt.  A 2019 study compared the challenges of online dating with the economic concept of diminishing returns—the idea that satisfaction decreases over time. Over the course of three online dating simulations, participants rejected potential partners with a cumulative decrease of 27 per cent in the chance of acceptance from the first to last choice. The authors of the study called this the “rejection mindset” when it comes to online dating. “[With] all these choice options, the longer you search online, you actually become more critical and more prone to rejecting partner options,” explains Dr. Tila Pronk, the main author of the study and assistant professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Dr. Pronk, who has been studying relationships since 2006 and online dating for the past three years, is a big fan of dating apps. “It opens the possibilities to connect with people beyond our bubble. The problem now is that we can meet so many people,” she says.

As humans we love the freedom that comes with choice, but the breadth of options on dating apps is overwhelming. Swipe-based apps that prioritize images and scale over depth are part of the problem too. “Solely focusing on appearance [as well as] the magnitude of the choice options is sort of a lethal combination, which stimulates people to make very quick decisions and sets off the rejection mindset,” says Dr. Pronk.

There is no scientific formula for love. And that’s a good thing. But if dating apps want to foster quality connections, Dr. Pronk suggests a people-based approach that focuses on small-scale selections based on common qualities—which has yet to be implemented with current apps.

 “[With] all these choice options, the longer you search online, you actually become more critical and more prone to rejecting partner options,” explains Dr. Tila Pronk.

Vicki, a 30-year-old freelancer and influencer originally from Alberta, shows me a Tinder conversation on her phone from a few days ago—the term “conversation” is used loosely here. After the pair matched, Charlie messaged her asking what she was doing that day, she responded, and he never replied. We can safely assume that Charlie has not been abducted by aliens, or that his phone has not been dead for the past week, because things like this happen all the time. Half-hearted or one-sided conversations are a symptom of apathetic dating. The ease and accessibility that dating apps provide make space for casual usage. We indulge ourselves in micro-doses of dating while we wait for the bus, or in line at the grocery store, with no real intent most of the time.

This type of cursory dating makes up a large portion of the conversations on dating apps. A 2016 University of Oxford study analyzed the metadata of about 20 million messages from a mobile dating app (the actual app is unnamed, for legal reasons) and found that only about half of all messages sent out were responded to. Only 19 per cent of those mutually responded conversations resulted in a phone number exchange, which indicated the conversation was a “success”. One can assume the other 81 per cent were circuitous routes to dead ends.

“Sometimes I’ll delete [Tinder] because I’m exhausted by it. It’s a series of small talk conversations that never lead anywhere … The format lends itself to be less about feelings and relationships and more about convenience,” says Everett, a 26-year-old filmmaker in Vancouver. “I feel deep down I would like to meet someone in a meaningful way, and I’m really not taking [dating apps] that seriously.”

“I don’t feel like anyone really takes it seriously when they’re on there,” says Carmen, who also routinely deletes her dating apps. “I get to a point where talking to people for the sake of talking to them just doesn’t do anything for me.”

But for a lot of us, dating apps are like a bad habit we just can’t quit. “Every time I leave, I’m like ‘I’m not coming back,’ and then I do,” says Vicki. Why do we keep returning to these apps that we’re so clearly disillusioned by?

“[It’s] the need of wanting and being wanted,” says Preethi. Those who use dating apps want to be desired, and the apps provide a sense of that. “It makes people feel wanted,” says Everett of the match notification on Tinder, which, like the hearts on Instagram or likes on Facebook, are a strange source of validation (and endorphins).

“[There’s] also a fear of missing out. You feel like as long as I’m not on the dating app, I’m definitely not going to find a partner or I have to do it the old-fashioned way and go to a bar,” says Dr. Pronk. “[But there’s also] a laziness of not going out in the real world when you can check your Instagram, for example, and have this boost of connection.” Is this boost enough to fulfill our sense of belonging? Her intuition says no: “All of a sudden we’re all so connected, and at the same time, so lonely.”

Whether or not dating apps are the source or cure of our loneliness, as long as they continue to exist, we will continue to love/hate them. “It probably would be more empowering if I deleted [Tinder] altogether,” says Carmen. “But, y’know, not today.”

Those who use dating apps want to be desired, and the apps provide a sense of that.

Dating has never been easy, regardless of the tools we use to find dates, but there is something uniquely counterintuitive about dating in a hyper-connected world. We’ve never had so many potential romantic options as now: smartphone dating apps have revolutionized the way we meet people. And yet, so many of us find ourselves exhausted by these apps; caught in an infinite loop of dead-end conversations, ghosting, and apathetic intention. We delete these apps in frustration only to return to them to feel, as all humans do, wanted.

The rejection mindset tells us that the longer we use these apps, the more critical we become. We keep coming back to dating apps, each time a little more disillusioned than before, because it can feel like the only option. But even as we perfect our online personas in hopes that they could translate into the real world, swiping on dating apps—like scrolling through any other social media platform—is, in the end, just another thing to do to pass the time.

*Surnames have been removed for privacy.

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