I’ve been thinking about dating apps recently because, like millions of Americans, I’m on them. I know a lot of people hate “the apps.” To be honest, I don’t mind them. They take a lot of the stress and ambiguity out of meeting people or asking someone out. But the longer I use these dating apps, the stranger the whole experience feels.
For one thing, quite a few of the suggested matches I’m seeing don’t make a ton of sense. I figure the algorithm has reached the point where the apps could predict my preferences pretty well. So even though I’m a pretty open-minded guy, I do have to wonder why I, as a democratic socialist of modest means and faith that the international working class shall free the human race, am regularly shown profiles of venture capitalists and Wall Street types.
I’ve also noticed that my use of the apps sometimes feels weirdly detached from the aim of actually trying to meet people. I open them just because a push notification has informed me that I have new recommended matches, or because “swipe surge is now in session”; soon the smooth-flowing interface is inviting me to peruse and “like” profiles. Not long after, colorful, eye-catching icons are gently persuading me to spend a few extra dollars for more matches or getting my profile seen by more people.
Before I know it, I find myself surrendering to the dull compulsion of algorithmic relations — even if I’m not actually interested in messaging anyone or going on a date anytime soon.
All of which got me thinking: What are these apps really for? I know what they are supposedly for for users like me, but what matters to the app owners is not getting their users good dates. What matters is that they can make money off of us.
With roughly one in five American adults estimated to have used online dating services in 2021, and at least one study showing that it’s now the most popular way for straight couples to meet, there has been no shortage of attention paid to the social and moral questions raised by online dating. But little has been said about one particular implication of the rise of dating apps and websites: the vast power it has given unaccountable, for-profit companies to manage how we meet potential romantic or sexual partners.
We could consciously uncouple our dating lives from the tyranny of the profit motive, though — with publicly owned apps that will democratize how we meet people online.
The Money Comes First, the Love Comes Second
Anyone who’s used the dating apps for a minute — and plenty who haven’t — probably has concerns about them.
One concern, far from unique to dating apps, is about the way the apps collect and use our data. From what we publish on our profiles to our swiping behavior to geolocation data, the owners of apps like Tinder and Hinge are collecting treasure troves of data on users, to refine their own apps and also to sell to third-party firms. With so much data from internet users having been gathered already, companies actually need to gather relatively small amounts of data to accurately predict many details about users’ lives (my finance matches aside).
Users, of course, have little say over whether or how the companies use their data — it is simply a “price of admission” for using the apps. This obviously raises concerns about privacy: people have an interest in anonymous strangers not having access to the most personal details of their lives and might understandably be worried about that information getting out.
In fact, public leaks of online dating user data are not as rare as users might hope. Maybe the most famous leak affected users of Ashley Madison, a website for married people seeking extramarital affairs: in the wake of a data breach that saw their entire customer base (including names and street addresses) hacked, two users committed suicide. And that’s setting aside the way dating app companies hand over sensitive personal information to advertisers on a regular basis, potentially even violating privacy laws in doing so.
On top of that, companies profiting from user data handsomely without compensating users smacks of exploitation. After all, if it’s my app use that generates data and therefore profits for the company, aren’t I entitled to a share of that value I created?
For Love or Money
Similar issues are raised by most online platforms and services. Dating apps give rise to special worries, though.
Some dating apps let users filter whose profiles they see or might be matched with by race or ethnicity. Understandably, some have argued that this feature exacerbates or promotes racial bias, so apps should remove this function. Some have.
But even without allowing users to exclude matches by race, individual preferences make designing socially just dating algorithms tricky. Since many people do have preferences about the race or ethnicity of their potential partners, app designers have to decide how to deal with them. Should they cater to racial preferences? Try to ignore them or even override them?
In 2016, the app Coffee Meets Bagel was discovered to have taken a particularly high-handed approach, suggesting matches only of users’ own race or ethnicity even when those users had indicated no racial or ethnic preference. The app’s cofounder Dawoon Kang helpfully explained to Buzzfeed News at the time that even if a user said they had no preference, they probably did in fact prefer to date people of the same race or ethnicity.
We might ask similar questions about dynamics of class or how to deal with gender disparities in use and match/like frequency. I don’t pretend to know how dating apps should answer these questions. But it does seem strange that questions about the implications of dating for social justice should be left in the hands of Silicon Valley MBAs — whose ultimate motivation, of course, is to turn a profit. Questions about how to deal with bias or prejudice in dating apps would be far better off as a matter for public, democratic deliberation.
Through online discussion forums or in-person meetings, app users could discuss the potential harms and benefits of allowing certain preference filters, or how algorithms should respond to users disproportionately swiping or liking members of certain minority groups. They could then come to a consensus or vote on the best way to proceed.
A Mismatch of Interests
Some researchers and theorists have argued that dating apps fuel the commodification of relationships and dating or promote certain kinds of self-alienation. The philosopher Axel Honneth, for example, suggests that online dating may encourage users to adopt an artificial stance toward their own mental lives:
One doesn’t need an overactive imagination to picture how [online dating platforms] might promote a form of self-relationship in which a subject no longer articulates his or her own desires and intentions in a personal encounter, but is forced merely to gather and market them according to the standards of accelerated information processing.
With such serious and potentially damaging impacts of these apps, we shouldn’t leave it up to profit-driven dating company execs to decide how to deal with these implications.
That these companies are ultimately motivated by the bottom line brings us to the fundamental problem with for-profit dating apps: there’s little reason to expect the interests of the app owners to align with the interests of its users.
What matters to the owners is that users continue to use the app, so it can show them more ads and convince them to buy premium features or subscriptions. It’s probably not a coincidence that Tinder, like other apps, in many ways resembles modern slot machines. Its mechanics and visual and audio cues are designed to get the user to keep playing even in the absence of a real payoff.
The fundamental problem here isn’t just that the apps are bad at matching users with long-term partners. Many people don’t use the apps to find long-term partners, and some apps are designed for casual dating or hookups. Nor is the issue that the apps are particularly unpleasant to use (though many users do love to complain that the apps are awful).
The most basic problem is that the terms on which we meet our partners, serious or otherwise, are increasingly being dictated arbitrarily and opaquely by corporate actors whose motivation is very different from that of users. We want love, they want money.
Don’t we want to understand how this crucial aspect of our experience is being shaped? And shouldn’t we have some say in how it’s shaped? If you think so, then we should work toward socializing the dating apps: bringing them under collective, democratic ownership.
What might that look like? It doesn’t necessarily mean establishing a government-run National Dating Service or taking Tinder under state control. Digital platform scholar James Muldoon has argued that many digital platforms ought to be democratized and liberated from the profit motive, but what exactly this “platform socialism” looks like will differ from platform to platform.
We could democratize dating through the creation of online dating co-ops, in which users and workers would collectively own and control their platforms. This approach would allow users to take control back from unaccountable investors and CEOs, while preserving the diversity of the dating-app ecosystem and avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy.
An app’s users and developers could become the app’s co-owners as well, with the size of one’s ownership share being adjusted, for example, to the length of time one has been a user or developer. These shares would entitle users to votes of a certain weight in making decisions about the app’s function and management. That would include important choices about what sort of information users provide in their profiles, for instance, and how the algorithm deals with ethically fraught preferences. Users could collectively deliberate about the possible impacts of different choices, from the perspectives of social justice as well as users’ individual well-being.
Each user-owner could pay a subscription fee to fund the app and pay its employees; users and developers could democratically decide how high to set the subscription fee, with the goal being not to maximize profits but to raise enough revenue to invest in creating the best possible dating experience.
Freed from the imperative to deliver value for shareholders, cooperatively run apps could do away with premium subscriptions, add-on purchases (like paying to “boost” your profile’s visibility or paying for extra “likes”), and annoying in-app advertisements. The co-ops could also institute collectively agreed-upon policies around privacy and data sharing; they would no longer need to exploit user data to sell to third-party companies.
But without the lure of lucrative profits drawing large investments, these dating cooperatives may find it hard to raise adequate funds from subscriptions alone. Here’s where the state would have an important role to play: in providing public funding for the development of cooperatively owned dating apps.
This idea isn’t as outlandish as it might seem: after all, even in the United States, governments already fund many cultural institutions for the benefit of their citizens’ quality of life: museums, the arts, research in the humanities, public parks, even nightlife. Dating apps are an increasingly important avenue for a central experience of being human. It makes sense for the government to devote public resources to them.
In fact, some countries are already paying to set up their own dating services. The Singaporean government’s Ministry of Social and Family Development has a webpage devoted to helping the uncoupled find partners; it advertises a government-run online dating portal, officially accredited dating agencies, and a “Partnership Fund” which “supports ideas and initiatives that you are passionate about to create opportunities to bring singles together.”
These government initiatives admittedly do have an ulterior motive — they’re trying to reverse sharply declining birth rates. Still, these programs show that there is nothing particularly strange or novel about publicly funded dating.
Corey Robin once wrote that “the point of socialism is to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.” That goes for socializing online dating, too. It wouldn’t do away with the frustration or disappointment that many people experience on the apps or in dating more generally. But it could be an important step toward making a dating experience that’s about people instead of profit. Then we could swipe, not to create wealth for the capitalist class, but for the simple and essential purpose of finding a date.