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Finding a partner, once reliant on social circles, has become big business. The contemporary ‘blind date’ is no longer a known person recommended by friends but a stranger suggested by algorithms. What are the psychosocial dynamics behind dating platforms and are they changing the basis of romantic love?
Until a decade ago, looking for love or sex on the Internet was heavily stigmatized, and the prevailing opinion was that only those with no alternative, the unlucky, or the broken-hearted, resorted to dating sites. While things were actually more complex, the fact remains that only a small niche of people that remained partially hidden trusted online dating. In recent years, instead, the ‘platformization’ of social relationships facilitated by digital technology, most specifically the widespread use of dating apps, has (almost) completely normalized practices of digital intimacy, especially (though not exclusively) for young people (aged 18 to 44) living in urban contexts. At present, dating apps are estimated to have more than 300 million users worldwide, and this figure is expected to grow steadily in the coming years.1
While, from a certain point of view, dating apps can be seen as a mere remediation of dating ads or marriage agencies, we cannot ignore the specific features of digital media. First, their pervasiveness: dating apps, especially in big cities, are becoming the primary medium through which to search for romantic or sexual partners, so much so that many people now perceive them as ‘unavoidable’. In this sense, they are to some degree creating a monopoly in organizing the practices of dating.
Moreover, as recent studies on the subject have shown, dating apps not only serve to bring together potential partners, but also offer a space for negotiating one’s own desire and desirability. In other words, it is entirely possible, and in fact a frequent occurrence, for a person to use a dating app without meeting or wanting to meet anyone above and beyond the app itself. This is because the affordances of the app are able to create a libidinal economy through which a subject can access romantic imagery and discourse, regardless of an embodied relationship with another human.2 That said, more and more couples are meeting via the Internet. Since 2013 in the United States, relationships born out of the mediation of digital tools have surpassed those originating in traditional contexts such as family, work and friends.3
Academic research on these topics, particularly in the social sciences, is growing rapidly. An interdisciplinary and multifaceted body of studies has focused on understanding how dating apps work, their users’ motivations, the business models of these digital enterprises and their social and cultural significance. What clearly emerges is that the increased use of dating apps has contributed to a cultural and social change in the codes of courtship, which have adapted to the more concise and ephemeral language of digital sociality. On dating apps, as is the case with any other social media, users are called upon to devise new strategies and tactics to present themselves, to evaluate the way in which others are portrayed and to produce a version of themselves that ‘works’ within these contexts.
This entails a re-signification of the codes linked to engaging with strangers in the context of a possible romantic or sexual encounter. How does one determine whether a profile is ‘authentic’? How does one decide who to trust, or understand who it would be worthwhile to meet? How is it possible to read the intentions of others using only the few signals available? And above all, is it true – as it might seem – that dating apps are efficient tools for meeting potential partners? In short, what are the implications when courtship practices are transferred to platforms?
In this article, we will offer some reflections that take their cue both from previous research in the fields of sociology and media studies, and from our own empirical work. From the outset we would like to acknowledge that the dating app market is becoming more and more specialized, with platforms targeting very specific pockets of users, classified according to their sexual orientations and religious or ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, the following observations concern the use of mainstream apps, most notably Tinder, and thus focus on predominantly heterosexual users. Some aspects of our reasoning, however, especially those concerning the structure of the platforms, may be useful for understanding the phenomenon of app-based dating in general, regardless of the multiple forms it takes.
This article first appeared in il Mulino 3/2022.
In spite of these changes, Tinder was immediately labelled as a ‘hook-up’ app: a device meant to facilitate casual sexual encounters that ultimately reproduces and exaggerates a vision of sex and love as consumer products This sort of view also appears in the academic literature. Sociologist Eva Illouz, for example, has defined dating apps as devices through which an economized type of choice is made, marked by an evaluation of potential partners through a comparison based on certain general criteria.4
This logic is quite explicit in the advertising slogans of most dating apps. OkCupid promises to use its ‘Algorithmic Magic’ to help millions of people find love, while E-Harmony claims to have found ‘The Brains Behind the Butterflies’. Tinder’s slogan, ‘Match Chat Date’, reduces the aura of mystery surrounding romantic encounters to a simple three-step procedure, while the app Plenty of Fish hints at countless potential partners while evoking a popular adage about coping with loss and failure in love.
Undoubtedly, dating apps offer users a range of possibilities and choices that take concrete shape with the reciprocation of the swipe, the technical object through which, inside the platform, one expresses a positive evaluation of another user. We may therefore say that dating apps move towards a gamification of romantic relationships, which are transformed into a form of play that obeys a certain consumerist rationale. As American scholar Arrington Stoll emphasizes in a contribution included in the anthology It Happened on Tinder, all users have to do is ‘identify their needs, establish what they offer in return, understand the dating market, evaluate options and, lastly, pick the best fit as per their cost-benefit analysis’.5
Users are well-aware of this process. They acknowledge the need to produce a desirable self-presentation that will distinguish them from their ‘competitors’, and act according to a type of rationality that is more economic than romantic. Those operating on dating apps, in other words, are entrepreneurs who grapple with the uncertainty of a market that in many ways resembles the unpredictable fluctuations of the financial market.
One of these, perhaps the most obvious, concerns the realm of risk assessment inherent in online dating practices. The market for love produced by dating apps is indeed intrinsically uncertain, and it is difficult to build trust between participants who have very little data available to assess the situation. For these reasons, as the most recent research shows, it is increasingly common that, after the first contact mediated by a dating app, users brought together by a match migrate to another platform – often Instagram or WhatsApp, perhaps Snapchat for younger users – where they can tap into a broader set of information.
Promotional slogans aside, the truth is that dating apps do not provide users with tools that adequately enable them to reduce risk and rationalize their choice. On the contrary, what takes shape is a social ecosystem characterized by what Frank Knight would call ‘structural uncertainty’, within which users are asked to accept an intrinsic degree of risk. Betting, as opposed to choosing, or guessing, as opposed to knowing, are the metaphors that best describe the construction of intimacy that takes place on dating apps. Therefore it would seem that dating app use involves a process of identity construction that might be considered as akin to the seeking of financial security – the making of an investment that is expected to provide a return.
Further evidence of this financialized approach to love dating app use is provided by the tools’ socio-technical way of operating. Personal data and algorithm-based matchmaking processes are indeed what regulates social exchanges in these contexts. Algorithms re-mediate, organize and coordinate (potentially) romantic exchanges between users, making suggestions for possible matches thanks to the data the platform has collected about the users themselves. By way of this algorithm-based matchmaking process, dating apps systematize the interaction between users who rate each other according to certain parameters.
This produces a narrative that enhances users’ broader tendency to rely on a technological tool to solve their problems, in this case in love. As a sort of reaction against a culture that sees an individual’s free choice as the main means to realize their ‘sentimental utopia’, dating apps produce an ‘algorithmic imaginary’ that allocates the selection of possible romantic encounters to the technological rationality of matching. It would almost seem that, after decades of more or less unsuccessful attempts (as is arguably suggested by divorce figures in the West) to make love ‘work’ on the basis of individuals’ characteristics and preferences, a desire has more or less consciously arisen to rely, at least to a certain degree, on an external system – an ‘other’ presumed to know something about our desire that we do not.
This other, in a digital society, is simply ‘technology’, more specifically algorithms, from which we constantly receive solicitations, recommendations and injunctions. From this point of view, what dating apps do is not so different from the work of apps in other spheres, from entertainment to work to consumption. In fact, it might be considered one of numerous examples of the process of ‘platformization’, whereby technological platforms come to mediate – and, in so doing, coordinate and regulate – the labour and consumption involved in everyday practices.
A peculiar and somewhat neglected feature of dating apps is that, unlike social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, user profiles do not accumulate contacts in an incremental way. On a dating app, an individual can neither build up lists of ‘friends; nor scroll through content that other users have ‘liked’. Instead, interaction originates from each individual match and takes shape within the messaging function, where the exchanges supplement the limited amount of information provided by a single user. All users are offered a pre-packaged set of contacts – which we might call ‘ready-made social capital’ – to draw on, and in which they must, indeed, ‘invest’ with the expectation of some kind of return. This list of suggestions is produced algorithmically (or, more rarely, on a statistical basis, as on the eHarmony platform) and, as mentioned, it carries with it the perception and promise of a degree of scientific rationality.
This ‘ready-to-use social capital’ is made up of connections that otherwise could not be established. Potential matches are, to all intents and purposes, ‘virtual strangers’ about whom users have extremely limited knowledge, and whom they have to assess based on only limited information, relying instead on strategy. The effort required to gather knowledge about others on a dating app may be greater than on traditional social media, where the variety of multimodal content allows a potentially large amount of information to be gathered. It is also, however, more considerable than in non-digitally mediated encounters, where non-verbal communication often plays a crucial role..
This leads to a notion of trust that is based not on mutuality or reciprocity, but instead is reminiscent of what the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann defines as the risk assessment carried out when interacting with ‘non-familiar’ subjects.6 Love, for Luhmann, is a means of communication characterized by a ‘codification of intimacy’, understood as a social system within which social actors ‘enhance communication by largely doing without any communication’. Dating apps appear to be a faithful representation of Luhmann’s conception of love, since users interpret the ‘signals’ put forth by others rather than engaging in more robust acts of communication.
From this point of view, even the most archetypal form of reciprocity on dating apps – the swipe – does not make the mutual relation concrete, but rather represents a request to provide more signals in order to further reduce uncertainty. Following this line of thought, we can interpret a ‘swipe right’ as a mere expression of approval for an individual personal brand, rather than as the outcome of a reciprocal interest between people.
However, trust inevitably plays a key role within this codification of intimacy. On the one hand, it raises obvious questions concerning personal security during a (potential) face-to-face encounter with a ‘virtual stranger’. On the other, it consists, more strategically, in evaluating whether a face-to-face date is actually worth its (positive or negative) value in romantic terms. In this process, technological features – such as the profile picture, biography or text messages – play a very important role, insofar as they enable these signals to be produced and interpreted.
This behaviour shows significant analogies with the reputational rationale commonly found in other contexts where self-branding is a widespread practice, such as among freelance workers in cultural economies. For such workers, self-branding is equivalent to a hermeneutics of a self that ‘works’ in a given context and serves the accumulation of a reputation. On dating apps, while it remains impossible to accumulate social capital, self-branding also represents a source for the construction of trust between individuals who know a bit, but not enough, about each other, and who in a context marked by scarcity of information must construct the necessary conditions for a productive social transaction.
It seems, therefore, that the sociality typical of dating cultures in the digital era replicates the rationale of an extremely volatile market, in which choices are made based on intersubjective feelings and expectations of future behaviour. What’s more, dating apps emerge from this reflection as techno-social institutions that systematize a form of commodification of romance. However, far from offering a technological solution to the ‘mystery’ of love, they instead appear simply to reproduce its uncertainty through digital means. While dating apps can be seen as offers of love-on-demand, much like other apps providing services or goods (such as Deliveroo or Uber), the matter of actually going on a date, let alone a successful one (in whatever sense this is to be interpreted), is a different story altogether.
The degree to which technologies such as dating apps have become embedded in the mediation of romantic relationships points towards a complete normalization of the use of these apps as a habitual gateway to cultures and practices of love, especially for younger generations. It seems important, therefore, to maintain a critical outlook towards the ways in which technology has been integrated into these processes and represents an important driver of cultural and social change.
D. Curry, ‘Dating App Revenue and Usage Statistics (2023)’, Business of Apps, 9 January 2023, available at https://www.businessofapps.com/data/dating-app-market/ (last accessed on 26 January 2023).
C. Bandinelli and A. Bandinelli, ‘What does the app want? A psychoanalytic interpretation of dating apps’ libidinal economy’, Psychoanalysis Culture and Society, No. 26, 2021, pp. 181–198.
M.J. Rosenfeld, J.T. Reuben and S. Hausen, ‘Disintermediating Your Friends: How Online Dating in the United States Displaces Other Ways of Meeting’, PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 116, No. 36, 2019, pp. 17753–17758.
See E. Illouz, The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Relations, Oxford University Press, 2019.
A. Hestrioni and M. Tuncez (eds), It Happened On Tinder, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2019, p. 90.
N. Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986; and ‘Familiarity, Confidence, Trust: Problems and Alternatives’, in D. Gambetta (ed.), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, pp. 94–100.
Published 13 February 2023
Original in Italian
Translated by Brent Waterhouse
First published by Il Mulino (Italian version); Eurozine (English version)
Contributed by Il Mulino © Carolina Bandinelli / Alessandro Gandini / Il Mulino / EurozinePDF/PRINT
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