What happens when the algorithm plays matchmaker?
Blind dates set up by your mom, coffee-shop run-ins, and grocery aisle prolonged eye contact are “meet-cute” stories of the past. More people are turning to online spaces to find that special someone. Tinder and Bumble were the most downloaded apps of 2021. Now, over 300 million people are using dating apps worldwide and 20 million are even paying for premium features.
But what happens when we let the algorithm play matchmaker? And who’s profiting off of our quest for love? Marc Tasman, the director of Digital Arts at Culture at UW-Milwaukee, discusses what dating looks like in the age of swiping left and super liking.
“These dating apps are set up much the same way that lots of other social media apps are set up: they’re either subscription of revenue based,” says Tasman.
Premium features on dating apps typically allow users to see their missed matches or gain extra “swipes.” While these apps make a large profit off of subscriptions, the money is in advertising and data selling. Tinder alone made $1.6 billion in revenue in 2021, a 17% increase from years before. These dating apps are not doing anything revolutionary, but following the internet economic model that has been cultivated over the years.
“Most of these apps rely on advertising, whether they’re putting advertising right on the app, or selling your data in the form of cookies to Google or to Facebook.” says Tasman. “It’s not just about us paying or clicking on one particular app, but little bits of likes and dislikes that the companies are collecting and selling.”
For this business model to work and to get people willing to pay premium prices, Tasman has found that dating apps have been gamified to become addicting. He compares this experience to pulling an arm of a slot machine. Even though the odds may be stacked against you, every once in a while you hit a jackpot.
“Getting any kind of message is what triggers a kind of dopamine response,” says Tasman. “My main concern about the apps is that they’re designed like the games that we play, winning on the app might be good… but that’s not necessarily winning at life.”
“Winning on the app” has the potential to alter the way we see dating and relationships. With the world going digital during the pandemic, we have already started to see our methods of communication changing. Meeting someone virtually does not allow for the tried and true “gut feelings” of love but evaluates the person on how well they can effectively communicate or create a dialogue with someone.
“Dating coaches are shifting and pivoting towards actually teaching people how to text,” says Tasman. “By these other standards of intimacy, if you make a connection and you’re relating to this other person and that relationship is filtered and mediated by this new technology.”
Not only is the way we communicate changing, but who we communicate with as well. Traditionally, people make romantic connections with others in their social circle or people with mutual friends, or people who go to the same establishments. But with dating apps on the rise, people are starting to meet people outside of their bubble.
“One of the interesting studies I was looking at was that the rates of interracial relationships and marriages had increased. And that correlated with broadband, so internet adoption. They were making the case that dating apps actually cause us to kind of blend and mix,” says Tasman.
Tasman reiterates that while it’s good to curate relationships with those different from you, it’s important to remember that your support systems can relate to each other. In relationships, emotional support is one of the main things we seek out. People in your social circle may be more familiar with how you receive that support, and without it, the relationship may be unsustainable.
"I think it's worthwhile to be critical. It's worthwhile to say, 'hmm, I wonder why the app matched us,'" says Tasman. "I think if people can tap into those kinds of questions, that's really connecting on a deep level, and that's uncovering each other's value systems on a deep level."