Dating Apps Put Profit Before Love. Why Are We So Surprised?

You can’t outsource romance to an algorithm.

by Moya Lothian-McLean

20 February 2024

Hinge is becoming a byword for romantic disappointment. Nikos Pekiaridis/Reuters

According to many, many sub-editors, ‘we’ have ‘fallen out of love’ with dating apps. In recent months, a bevy of articles have appeared bemoaning a decline in user satisfaction of those who employ apps in our search for love and connection. As evidence, writers proffer first-person testimony, alongside decreasing paid subscriber rates across Match Group – the biggest dating app conglomerate with brands like Tinder, Hinge, The League and Match.com in its stable – as well as tanking share prices in competitors like Bumble.

Discontent with app-based dating is nothing new; I’ve been writing about such fatigue since at least 2017. But this unhappiness has been articulated through a new, uniquely consumerist expression this month in the form of a would-be class action lawsuit filed against Match Group. The suit, brought by six plaintiffs from across the US, claims the company has violated state and federal consumer protection laws by failing to deliver on promises of finding love for its users. 

“Match intentionally designs the platforms with addictive, game-like design features, which lock users into a perpetual pay-to-play loop that prioritises corporate profits over its marketing promises and customers’ relationship goals,” reads the complaint, filed showily on Valentine’s Day. 

The suit is a logical endpoint to the marriage of business and pleasure, especially in the hyper-capitalist and hyper-litigious US. The way the plaintiffs see it, as customers they have invested time, energy and money into various dating apps and were promised a happy ever after as a return. That outcome failing to materialise, they feel hoodwinked, bamboozled, taken for a rube. The ROI has been staggeringly unfavourable; now they want to recoup their emotional losses in the form of monetary compensation.

Central to the complaint is an apparently massive revelation: that a giant tech corporation like Match Group isn’t actually driven by a mission to find people their perfect matches, and their profit model doesn’t incentivise pairing compatible people together who will take their romance offline, away from the app. Surprise! Like all the other social and networking apps we use, ever – the real cash comes from keeping people locked into the platform. 

To which I am tempted to say: duh. But that feels cruel. 

As a young woman who’s been dating via algorithm since her late teens, I have watched and participated in cyclical discourse surrounding dating apps. A decade on, the laments remain the same: app connections are fragile, prone to disintegration at the slightest pressure or missed reply. Everyone on the apps is boring or flaky or a narcissist or an aspiring stand-up comedian (aka all three). Older and hopefully a bit wiser, I question how this can be true if everyone has the same grievances about each other. Rather, I think it’s more instructive to examine who, exactly, is complaining and about what apps.

Most of the cultural and peer-to-peer critique of dating apps revolve around those with a primarily heterosexual user base (although the likes of Tinder and Hinge have become more ‘inclusive’ over the years, as it transpired there was cash to be made from queer people too). Often, the faces of the romantically aggrieved are heterosexuals under 40, living in the West, mirroring the demographics that use the platforms most. 

Right now, Hinge is receiving particular flak on social media platforms and becoming a byword for romantic disappointment. Nine years ago, it was Tinder in the firing line, with Hinge positioned as a market upstart that would actually make good on its promises. The cultural script is the same; all that’s changed is the casting. Dutifully, younger generations are flocking to different digital dating spaces, like Feeld (designed for alternative relationship practitioners, now fast becoming a watering hole for straight men who use ‘ethical non-monogamy’ as a euphemism for casual dating). I have no doubt in another five years, there will be a rash of think pieces beamed straight to our Neuralinks decrying Feeld as ‘hell’ too.  

To borrow a cliche, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I can more than understand the anger and frustration that arises from entrusting a mission as sensitive, as supposedly life-affirming as finding romantic love to the tech gods and realising your relationship prospects have not improved. I’ve engaged in the traditional cycle of app downloading and deletion. But as I watched American writer Shani Silver tearfully reacting to the news of the Match Group lawsuit, I couldn’t help thinking too much credit was being laid at the doors of these platforms.

“I’m trying not to get emotional,” Silver says to the camera. “But the validation that there is a federal lawsuit filed that’s talking about what I have been fighting about for five fucking years […] “Dating apps have been destroying single people on purpose, for profit and this is the first time I have seen something done about it.”

This is where I get stuck. Dating apps, to me, are not a cause of a problem in romantic connection. They just lay horribly bare the gap between cultural fantasies of love and the social reality, which is that no one really knows what they are doing, or what for. 

The purpose of heterosexual romantic relationships has undergone a titanic shift in the past century; their economic rationale, and accompanying strict, assorted courtship rituals, have changed beyond all recognition. We have, thankfully, more freedom in love – but the landscape is chaotic and uncertain. It’s also still pockmarked by incredibly unequal gender dynamics, even as we’re supposed to be enjoying the level playing field seeded by the sexual revolution. Additionally, protection of the ego and public image is central in our social panopticon, and never more acute than when dating: saving face, not being taken for a mug, seeing the ‘red flags’. People are permanently on guard and communication is haunted by all we feel they can’t say. Instead, exchanges are peppered with ‘lols’ that actually mean “I like you”, or an “ok!” that carries the weight of a thousand dashed hopes. 

I don’t think most of us understand what romantic love means in the here and now. How could we? It was only recently invented. Many of us are involved in painstakingly building a conception of love and partnership from scratch. This tends, despite best efforts, to be hyper-individualistic, as befitting generations suckled on the teat of consumer libertarianism. Cultural fables around soulmates and love-at-first-sight are considered passe but still persist. There are so many conflicting wants and needs we’re still sifting through. 

Personally, I’ve come to believe that finding a mutual, loving, long-term heterosexual partnership in a patriarchal society will be almost impossible until there is a true, total gender revolution, one that completely reorients how masculinity and femininity are constructed and enacted in the public and private sphere. I’m sure there are heterosexuals reading this who think they already have that. Maybe you do. All I know is that expecting big tech to be able or willing to provide an answer to problems of the heart that we haven’t even fully managed to articulate yet was always going to end in tears. You can’t hurry love – and you can’t outsource it to an algorithm either.

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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