It is not particularly original to talk about hating dating apps, but recently there’s been a growing understanding of the power they have over people’s lives. Friends now regularly mention how offended and confused they are by the people dating apps suggest they’re compatible with – particularly on Hinge, the app of choice.
“Every time I get a new like on Hinge I have to mentally prepare myself to see the ugliest man I have ever seen in my entire life,” said one viral dating tweet this year. Videos online mock Hinge’s claim that it’s “designed to be deleted”. “Let me get this straight,” one influencer asked recently, “you use an app to find a life partner, but the main metric of its success is to keep you as addicted as possible?” It’s the right question.
We’re no longer in the heady days of Tinder being a cute novelty – apps are still a free-for-all cesspit of sexual harassment. But they are also the primary way younger and older people date. Almost 20 per cent of people in the UK use dating apps. Apps determine more than just the quality of sex people are having: in 2019 it was estimated that by 2037 more babies will be born to parents who met online than offline.
Dating apps are shrugged off as a diverting quirk of modern life, but they operate more like a utility. Ask any single person and they will tell you: dating apps have cemented their ubiquity by ensuring that going up to someone in a bar is at best brave, and at worst a sign you’re a bit of a deviant. This wasn’t the case ten years ago.
People rarely mention the fact Hinge, Tinder, OK Cupid and Match.com are all owned by the same company, Match Group. App makers are cagey about how many users they have, but it’s safe to say almost every young person on apps uses either Hinge, Tinder, Feeld or Bumble. Dating apps essentially have an oligopoly. It’s not that there aren’t new dating concepts or apps (at the moment it’s Pear, which aspires to make life a 24-7 traffic light party by getting people to wear a mint-coloured ring to advertise their singledom). It’s that we never hear about them gaining any traction; network effects mean apps need a critical mass of people to become worth downloading. Thursday.com, an app which – wait for it – only works on Thursdays, is an example of how every new app must desperately find a new twist to differentiate itself. In Thursday.com’s case, they chose not working for six days of the week (amusingly, this is one of the chief complaints on its App Store reviews).
Dating has always been contrived. In 17th century Britain it was the parish vicar doing the matchmaking, in North India and Pakistan the village barber. But now it’s not some nice provincial deacon in charge, but rather black box algorithms which apps repeatedly refuse to share with the public, overseen by Silicon Valley’s socially inept tech bros (I often think about how people suggest Mark Zuckerberg set up Facebook because he couldn’t meet girls).
This year there has been a flurry of government activity around regulating AI, with worries about its influence over the future of everything from the media to the justice system. But there’s almost no talk about the fact that AI is already determining who we fall in love with or whether we manage to do so at all.
There’s always been discourse about how dating apps entrench biases around race, height and class. But what about the possibility that algorithms invent a bias that was never there? People have written about how when they change information about their ethnicity on Hinge – information that they’ve hidden to prospective matches – they suddenly receive matches from people with different backgrounds. (Hinge told the i that “the only goal behind its algorithm is to help daters have good dates by introducing them to people who meet their preferences”.) Coffee Meets Bagel, an app which prides itself on more “curated” matches, once admitted it didn’t take users who said they had “no ethnic preference” at their word.
Despite all this, dating apps are unanswerable to lawmakers. This isn’t true with other social networking sites: Facebook has been asked to appear before parliamentary committees, Elon Musk has faced demands for Twitter’s algorithm be shared, and there’s an Online Safety Bill in progress to regulate both sites. But the history of the government’s interaction with dating apps involves nothing except a feeble partnership to get users to display “vaccinated” badges on their profiles during the pandemic. Meanwhile our Prime Minister wants AI governance to be his legacy. He could do worse than start by downloading Hinge, and thinking about how to regulate it.
There are precedents for this. Singapore’s Ministry of Social and Family Development runs an online dating portal (it also, almost impossibly, runs singles cruises to rival Club Med). Instead of doing something like that, our government is full of MPs who panic about how no one settles down and has babies anymore – while ignoring the people and the technologies that determine whether we do.