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4 March 2023

Dating apps are ruining everything fun about romance

Whose idea was it to recreate the experience of online job hunting?

By Marie Le Conte

I am very bad at dating apps. I am so bad at dating apps that there is currently a book, written by me, available in all good bookshops, in which I talk about how bad I am at them. Today I have decided to go one step further by writing about it in a magazine. What next? Maybe I’ll make a series of t-shirts and caps. Maybe I’ll hire a plane to write, in the sky over London, “Marie Le Conte is very bad at dating apps”.

Why am I writing about it now? Well, every columnist comes with their own biases, and sometimes it is better to be upfront about them. I may be very bad at dating apps, and it may colour my views on the topic, but I would still like you to hear me out. I think we, as a society, as a mass of single people tethered to their smartphones, should consider moving away from Tinder, Bumble, Thursday and whatever else people swipe on these days. I think they’re making our lives worse.

I’m not the first person to make this case. Dating apps are often poorly designed and endless, brainless swiping doesn’t make anyone happy. They make people become their blandest selves to maximise the number of matches they receive. They encourage bitterness by endlessly showing you beautiful and successful people who are unlikely to ever match with you. They make many women who date men overwhelmed and at risk of receiving constant, grossly lewd messages and pictures. They make many men who date women feel invisible.

[See also: Big Dating: apps need to stop pretending men and women want the same thing]

We know all this. It’s all been discussed before. My complaints are, on the whole, more esoteric.

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The first is a chicken and egg problem. I worry that dating apps force you to spend too much time thinking about the sort of partner you want to have. Teenagers and young adults often start out by believing that they have a rigid “type” – tall, dark and handsome; slim, blonde and smiley – then they usually grow out of it. The same goes for other traits: education level, interests, profession, political views, heaven knows what else. We all thought at some point that some of those things really mattered, until someone came along and made us realise that they didn’t.

Attraction isn’t a strict formula. That’s the whole fun of it: the unpredictability. You meet someone and your expectations shift, they meet you and their expectations shift, and together you work to build something that suits you both.

By making you think about exactly what it is you like in someone, dating apps encourage you to build an ideal person in your head then work backwards to find a real, live human who fits those criteria. Is that really a recipe for long-lasting, healthy success?

This may be the point at which you start frowning, remember what you read in the introduction, and gently remind me that if I hate dating apps then I could simply choose not to use them. You would be right – but only temporarily. Let me finish making my case first.

My second point, you see, is that dating apps have changed dating for everyone. Dating is work now. It’s not something that can happen to you serendipitously, it’s something you do. “Looking for someone” is an action; it is assumed that if you are single and no longer wish to be, you should build a profile and swipe and go on date after date, until the point at which you are no longer single.

[See also: How dating apps are reshaping our desires for the worse]

Like the CEO of your own life or the bouncer of your own bedroom, you meet people and interview them, speak to candidate after candidate, assess their qualities and flaws, keep going until you have found a match. It’s work!

Clearly some people enjoy it and that is fine, but if you opt out it is easy to feel guilty, like you’re giving up. Why aren’t you trying? Your friend has three dates planned in the next two weeks. What are you doing to ensure that cats won’t devour your carcass in a few, lonely decades?

A friend asked me recently, with amusing bluntness, how I find dates given that I am not “on the apps”. The answer wasn’t really helpful, because I have no idea where I meet people. I just go about life and sometimes things happen, and sometimes they don’t, for a while, then they do again. It’s often frustrating and occasionally maddening but that’s normal, I think, when you don’t really have control over a situation.

That’s why I hate dating apps, really. They offer you an illusion of control in exchange for turning something that should be unexpected and fun into constant admin and effort. It’s not even foolproof: I can’t count the number of people I know who have been on the apps for years yet remain resolutely single. Whose idea of fun was it to recreate the experience of online job hunting?

I’m very bad at dating apps because I tried using them then I realised that everyone who had, at some point, made me very happy was not someone I would have swiped right on. It made me panic – so I went through phases of swiping on everyone then swiping on no one, and it led me nowhere.

Still, the world we now inhabit keeps making me doubt my decision not to use them, because mirages always look attractive from afar. That’s what’s so insidious about them. Meeting someone you can form a deep, joyous bond with has never been easy, and apps keep tricking us into thinking that, with enough time spent glued to a screen, we can find our own shortcuts. How can it not be tempting to keep walking towards the horizon, parched but certain that only a few more steps will do the trick?

Enduring faith is one of the most human feelings there is, but it can make us fall for the promise of easy fixes. In love as in war, there rarely are any. For the most part, dating apps offer comforting lies – empty productivity making loneliness feel less final. Perhaps that is how they should be seen: hobbies for people who could do with a dose of flimsy hope.

I find that depressing but well, each to their own, right? That’s the whole point.

[See also: The one thing dating apps will give you for sure? Addiction]

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