As we’ve retreated online during the pandemic, several societal trends have accelerated. Amazon profits have soared as, stuck at home, we made more and more purchases online, while dating moved almost entirely to apps such as Tinder and Bumble as pub and bar closures made in-person socialising harder.
In the early months of the pandemic, while loved-up couples posted snaps of homemade bread on social media, lonely singletons flocked to dating apps hoping to form a connection. On 29 March 2020, Tinder recorded three billion swipes, its highest number in a single day. On Bumble, video calls increased by 70 per cent.
In a decade, dating apps have revolutionised courtship (the LGBT app Grindr launched in 2009, followed by Tinder in 2012). As the stigma attached to online dating has vanished, a new etiquette and vocabulary has emerged, from “ghosting” to “Netflix and chill” and the “deep like”. For centuries, we met our significant others through family or friends, at work or at a bar or club. Yet even before the pandemic, connecting online had become the most popular way for couples to meet each other.
Much like the smartphones through which we access them, we’re apt to view dating apps as extensions of ourselves – as a digital manifestation of our innermost desires. But I’m increasingly unsure if this is true. As the political scientist Langdon Winner has written: “If the experience of modern society shows us anything, it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning.”
Multiple factors come into play when we are drawn to someone in real life: chemistry, a compatible sense of humour, body language and charisma all create what we call “attraction”. Dating apps, by contrast, are funnelling our desires through increasingly narrow criteria. Today, we size up a potential partner through a luminescent screen, so physical attractiveness is paramount.
Yet the importance we attach to physical attractiveness in a partner is not fixed, and technology has the potential to reshape our estimation of its relative importance. Indeed, it has done so previously. As the American psychologist David Buss noted 25 years ago in his landmark book The Evolution of Desire, over nearly every decade since the advent of television, the importance attached to “good looks” in a partner grew significantly for men and women alike.
[see also: How Covid-19 changed the rules of relationships]
The critic Mia Levitin, author of The Future of Seduction (2020), told me that people look for qualities in a partner online that they care far less about in real life. Put all the men she’d ever dated on an app, she told me, and she would probably swipe left (reject) most of them.
Of course, you could argue that none of this matters; that dating apps are “just a bit of fun”. But just as algorithms have been found to entrench discrimination more broadly, so dating apps can formalise prejudices. On average, black women, Asian men, and short men of all ethnicities get significantly fewer matches on dating apps than others.
Online dating has helped millions find romance. But for young people who don’t match up to expectations of photogenic perfection online, identity formation is taking place within a feedback loop of constant rejection. In a 2016 study, Tinder users were found to have lower self-esteem and more body image issues than non-users.
Women have long been sexually objectified; now dating apps are creating a looking-glass world where men are subjected to similar pressures. While women are often bombarded with unwanted and degrading messages on dating apps, a man of average “attractiveness” can expect to be liked by less than 1 per cent of women on Tinder.
As such, growing numbers of young men are turning to extreme cosmetic surgery, such as jaw augmentation and leg lengthening, to fit in with app-driven standards of beauty. Douglas Steinbrech, one of the “go-to” US-based surgeons for men seeking to “looksmax” (enhance one’s appearance through surgery), believes a world where “everyone is swiping left and swiping right” has triggered “a seismic shift in our culture”, with “a significant change in the perception of masculinity and male perfection”.
In the superficial world of online dating, likes, swipes and matches are thought to reveal one’s place in the new sexual hierarchy. This heightened awareness of where we stand, and the extreme inequality generated by dating apps, may be leading to festering resentment that makes some men easy targets for radicalisation into the hate, misogyny and paranoia of the incel (“involuntary celibate”) community.
For centuries, historians and philosophers have traced technology’s role in shaping civilization. There is mounting evidence that we behave differently online than we do offline. Similarly, dating apps may be subtly reshaping our world as they remould our desires.
In recent years, many of us have begun to re-examine our relationship with platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps we’ll soon consider the wider implications of outsourcing romance to algorithms – algorithms dreamed up by corporations that don’t get rich off happily ever afters.