Courtship Through Capitalism
People’s virtual avatars on these dating apps seem less like representations of people and more like non-playable characters in a game, characters with whom the player can do whatever he or she wishes because such digital avatars do not appear to have the full dimensionality of a real person.
An advertisement from New York Magazine asks a rhetorical question:
Does She Exist—If so, she is a slim trim woman, 30 plus, articulate, strong, but not pushy, plays tough tennis and runs for pleasure. She is sensual. She neither smokes nor wears pink and lime green fashions. This 44, 6’4’’, 6-figure male executive would like to meet her. Suggest midtown drink for easy first meeting. Photo would help. NYM Box 559. September 26, 1983.
One sees in this paragraph hints of a world to come. A man sending out a missive to the opposite-gendered populace of an impersonal metropolis, describing what he wants in a connection and describing as well the seemingly salient characteristics that make him an attractive match.
That the characteristics he uses to describe himself constitute the veneer of an individual—the age, height, salary, and job—is arguably not so much the fault of the person as of the medium, the tacit character and spatial limit requiring that the words can only hint at, but never fully reveal, the depths of the individual who writes them. His age suggests that he is mature, the height perhaps implies a commanding presence, and the salary and position suggest that he has, respectively, wealth—or at least its derivative—and high status in his career, thus having the socioeconomic rank that could support a family.
But, then again, he did choose to not describe anything beyond such characteristics, and did not touch upon anything that could be identified as a “personality,” and perhaps the fact of this omission suggests he has no unique attributes that are definitive of one. And yet he has ideas about both the looks and the personality of his suitable match. In this, he appears demanding. There is no photo adjoining the advertisement (though perhaps it was just not copied on the web page), yet the suitor asks for a photo from the reader. He describes his desired woman as if he is an employer looking for a candidate with specific qualifications, wishing to find a person that fits a mold he has already decided is the correct one. That such fitting is his priority comes not only from his oddly specific descriptions of the woman—“plays tough tennis,” “wears neither pink nor lime green”—but also that these descriptions come before he even describes himself. In a very clear sense, he has outlined what he desires much more completely than he has outlined what would make him desirable.
In the background of the suitor’s description is one question that the existence of the advertisement already answers. Why place the ad in the first place? The reader can guess at an answer: Because he could not find what he sought in his daily contacts. Years ago, workplaces (for better or worse) were not forbidden places of romantic entanglements, and people also did not have the media technologies of today sapping their attention and will to venture outside. But it appears that this person writing in the 1980s had not found in his local communities the woman who fulfilled his stringent filters. So here he was serving himself up to a larger space of people who do not know him. Perhaps this is why he focused on the superficial in himself. Perhaps he knows this larger space of people would evaluate him according to those characteristics which were most immediately obvious even if they were the least essential aspects of his identity.
This question of “why” connects us to the world that came after this advertisement, the world that this advertisement only represented the beginnings of and which we now all occupy. Here we have an individual paying a business to market himself to an anonymous many. In this individual’s description, one sees hope and desire, all amounting to a plea for connection. The business perhaps knowing that idealism is a powerful motivator for people also realized that profit could be made by selling people the dream that connection and desire could be found from such limited forms of self-advertisement. By placing such an ad, people purchase the dream even if they do not realize it, and the business is happy to remain silent about this.
If you scale up this transaction—people paying for the chance to advertise themselves—many million-fold and incorporate its mirror image—people also paying for the chance to evaluate others who have similarly advertised themselves—incorporate the entrancing elements of a game, and finally convince an entire country of young and hopeful people that this form of connection is, like all technological advancements, an improvement over what existed before, then you get something very much like the current ecosystem of 21st-century dating apps.
This intersection between business interests and the desire for human connection has evolved since the time of personal ads. Or perhaps “evolved” is too strong of a word, connoting progress and improvement. It would be more accurate to say this intersection has become more of what it was and in this increase the things that we were on the precipice of losing have all but been destroyed making the lonely person's failure to find connection seem more tragic, more existential.
It is fitting that Tinder, the most dominant of the modern dating applications, began as a month-long hackathon project focused on creating a largely frivolous game. In the last months of winter 2012, it was called “Match Box: the flirting game” and in these origins are many of the features that still exist today: The user was presented with an image (no description seems to be present) of another user and could press “yes” or “no” indicating interest or its lack. If both users submitted “yes” to each other’s profile a conversation began. The creators of MatchBox even recognized some soon-to-be common routes toward revenue: They suggested that people could pay to see extra matches, send virtual gifts, or simply be seen more often by other users.
Today Tinder has fully committed to and expanded on this initial vision, and its game-like nature is more prominent than ever. Rather than pressing a “Yes” or “No” button on a profile, users can now swipe, windshield-like, through stacks of profiles, lending efficiency and a sort of mindlessness to the process of evaluation. The ease of swiping does not encourage users to read what little text accompanies most profiles, making the experience very image-focused. Moreover, the differing standards of heterosexual men and women have led to different strategies for acquiring what each supposedly wants from the experience. Men end up swiping indiscriminately in the hopes of finding anyone who likes them back and only after collecting matches do they more carefully screen their profiles. Women on the other hand look more selectively at each profile knowing that they could match, albeit superficially, with most men employing the indiscriminate strategy.
Tinder is a daughter company of the mother corporation the Match Group. This corporation’s name is fitting as we will see. Most of the companies in the Match Group’s portfolio are what the popular culture calls online dating services. This includes Tinder but also many of its early and late competitors like OKCupid and Hinge.
Other applications remove some of the standard Tinder features and add others. For example, some don’t allow swiping (though there is still often a way to quickly get rid of a profile you are not interested in) and others provide the user with more text to describe him or herself. But all the applications sell one-off features that give the user the chance to ostensibly improve his or her experience. And all the applications are bound by the most obvious business models for their space.
Under the Match branding, all of these apps have evolved into much of the same user experience. Even the most prominent competitor app not within the Match Group (Bumble) has a virtually identical user experience to those of the Match Group apps.
Popular culture calls these apps dating apps, suggesting that they could suitably serve as the foundation for those early stages of the courtship process that may lead to a relationship. But the economic realities of such applications require them to actually be “matching applications,” that is apps that are defined by algorithms and user experiences that encourage users to optimize for the quick and repetitive gratification of matches rather than for behaviors that might lead to actual relationships but would also lead to less consistent engagement with the services.
All the dating applications under the Match Group exist in the space known as “Software as a Service.” Software in this space typically consists of online applications that provide something of value to the user. In exchange for this value, the user pays for these applications, in much the same way that a reader of an online publication pays for that publication.
The analogy of the publication is useful here because people do not always pay for such software with money. They often pay with their attention and the opportunity cost of where their attention could have been otherwise directed. This might seem like an innocuous or empty form of payment (after all, can “attention” pay your rent?), but it is decidedly not to the people who invest in such applications. The attention of the populace has monetary value since people generally only buy what they pay attention to. So if you can get people to spend time on your application and pay attention for just a few seconds to an advertisement for another product, then you have created a potential revenue stream for this second product. Often these products are themselves online applications which, when downloaded, are revealed to have their own advertisements, as if the entire process is an elaborate shell game created to separate unassuming consumers from both their time and money.
Advertising models are the low-hanging fruits for SaaS businesses. They are easy to implement once you have a solid enough user base, but they are not really where the money is. What is preferred is a subscription model in which your users pay you, hopefully into posterity, for the service you provide. But if the service you provide is of the kind that would lead the user to cancel the subscription, then you as a company are in a bind. This is the problem faced by dating applications.
The user comes to you hoping to find a connection with another individual, and when that connection is found the user (and the person they found it with) will no longer have any use for your platform, thus eliminating two points of revenue from your portfolio.
If users leave the platform having found what they want without giving you any money then your platform will eventually fail as a business. You will not be able to pay the engineers to maintain the application or to build new features. You will not be able to satisfy the investors who want growth by any means necessary. And even paying you once is really not enough. Imagine if newspaper funding models were based on people paying only once for their news and then never returning to the service again. Thus your task as a dating application is to make the application experience both sufficiently interesting that users will participate and also sufficiently frustrating that they will pay for an improved likelihood that they will find what they are looking for. But most importantly, you must make it unlikely that they will ever find what they are looking for and thus that they will remain on your application into posterity.
In both the subscription and advertising models for these businesses, you cannot have the user leave because you need the user’s money and attention, but if you tell the user that you have no intention of encouraging their departure, then they will never pay you in the first place. The solution to this bind is to sell the user a dream of connection, define your success by how many people have bought into that dream (rather than by how many have achieved it), and use that success criterion to get even more people to buy into it. Specifically, you tell your user that your application can lead to relationships, you cite the number of people who have “matched” with each other through your application (e.g., as of March 2022 Tinder says it has led to “55 billion matches”), and you use this metric to encourage more people to join. The fact that the matches alone perhaps are not really what users want is left unstated, and the hope is that these users become so stupefied by the experience of the app that they do not realize the difference.
The fact that some people manage to find relationships through these applications does not weaken the claim that this is not the application's purpose any more than the fact that some people leave a casino more wealthy than they came in weakens similar claims concerning the functioning of the casino. Casinos largely rely on the lucky few who win as a means to attract more people to participate. But of course, if everyone was similarly lucky the casino would be unsustainable.
There is a logic to the functioning of these applications, and this logic determines how people exist in these spaces and how they act towards others. To make users come to these applications every day and month, the app developers had to make the experience addictive and immersive, but at the same time sufficiently non-serious that nothing serious could result.
The users of these applications react accordingly.
People’s virtual avatars on these dating apps seem less like representations of people and more like non-playable characters in a game, characters with whom the player can do whatever he or she wishes because such digital avatars do not appear to have the full dimensionality of a real person. The fact that these avatars can instantly be made to disappear by the player logging off and putting the device away does not help. Humans were never really great at recognizing the humanities of those demographically distant from themselves. Place those humans behind a screen and have them interact with digital representations of the demographically distant and one sees the predictable results.
Reducing the start of human connection to a game does wonders for capital, but it erodes something in the human connection itself. It makes it feel trivial and easily replaceable. Further proving this replaceability is the fact that the supply of people one can connect with appears to be endless. It is again like a game, one where you have infinite lives, and seemingly infinite potential opportunities to match with another person. Thus it does not seem to matter if one match does not work out. There are so many more waiting in the wings, so the stakes for failure seem abstract.
Because of the game-like nature of the apps and the abstraction of failure (and its counterpart), there are many people on dating apps who exist in this liminal and passive state between deliberate action and doing nothing. They log on, lackadaisically flip through a few profiles, starting conversations and dropping them when they get bored or distracted. Their engagement with the applications is maladaptive not because they are rude or cruel but because they are not fully invested in an outcome, certainly not invested enough to commit to any particular person or to commit, in action if not in words, to any deliberate claim that they want some sort of relationship. The bind they are in is they do not want to leave the application because doing so would seemingly cut them off entirely from the possibility of meeting someone else. But then again they don’t want to engage in a search too deliberately, maybe because they have done so in the past and have become jaded, or because they have realized that many others see the application as a game that cannot be taken seriously, or because the ease and simplicity of the interface has convinced them that finding deeper connections should be similarly simple.
Intentionality, when it comes, does so in a hurry, when people find they have fallen behind scripts they previously claimed to have never believed in. It is at this moment the games must stop and one must find something “serious.” Unfortunately, it is at this point, the point at which the search takes on the tenor of the existential, that the farce of the entire activity becomes most clear. How really can you tease from a dozen pictures and less than 100 words the indication of depth that could sustain at least two lives?
As a result online dating can become a bastion of desperation, disappointment, and disillusionment. Whatever positive ideas one has about the basic decency each person supposedly owes another are quickly disabused and replaced with a lowest-common-denominator form of morality where whatever one can get away with is allowed. For most people, their offense is not a deliberate attack, but social negligence bolstered by the fact that such negligence has become the norm. Many people are dating online these days and thus many are both victims and perpetrators of this behavior, and, if they spend long enough on online dating, most of the former transform through a learned indifference to other’s pain into the latter.
Markets have arguably always defined the ways people have formed romantic connections. In such markets people themselves were both product and consumer, presenting themselves as someone worthy of connection while seeking connections they felt were worthy of themselves. And enmeshed with this was the way economic markets (in particular for men) raised or lowered the values of individuals within the romantic market. But in the past, the mediation of the romantic market occurred informally, or within the context of a family. Now, that mediation has been ceded to private industry, resulting finally, in the market having fully encircled all aspects of our lives.
The individual in the society of capital is hemmed in on all sides concerning how the market logic affects his life. Within the sphere of his work, he fulfills a role more rewarding—both existentially and financially—to his employers than to him. He is a supply of labor from which a market demands an outcome. In exchange for his labor, he is given money to buy things that make his life entertaining or distract him from its emptiness. When he seeks meaning by trying to find a partner, he finds that the world of capital has operationalized most public spaces, taking advantage of the secular turn of a society that is increasingly online, transforming most natural communities into ones that require payment for participation.
Finding most public avenues for connection closed off to him, the individual turns to the forces that engineered this closing and seeks from them the solution to the problems they largely created. He of course must pay them for them to find a proper solution, but in the end, they care more about his money than they do about helping him find another individual who can help add meaning to a life where such meaning seems hard to find. And then even within this online space where he seeks a partner, or a companion, or someone with whom he and they could mutually distract themselves from the rapidly encroaching permanent loneliness of this transactionally capitalist society, he must market himself as though he were a product, something that others would want to engage in, something in which others would want to invest time and energy for the possibility of connection.
I think there is a fair statement that what has occurred is an elevation and an increased prominence to things that have always occurred. People have always been products whose exteriors, at first glance, were more important in fostering initial interest than anything deeper. Yes, but what I contest is the destruction of the roads towards depth and the supplanting of these roads by modes of connection engineered by people who care very little (and are possibly financially disinterested) about making those connections real. You meet someone in a library. You meet someone in a community center. The first thing you see defines an initial impression, but there is often time to look beyond this first view. Time which slowly reveals layers of personality and character that exist beyond the surface. None of this is possible in the anonymous cascade of individuals you pass through in a dating application. The quantity leads to a devaluing of the individual, and their devaluing of you makes you devalue them even further. No one is left better off from this, except the capitalists who manage to line their pockets with the artifacts of human misery.
Although this alienation indeed affects people regardless of their gender, there seems to be something about men today that makes this state particularly trenchant and particularly dangerous. Heterosexual men overwhelmingly comprise the population of these applications, and from the resulting inequality in matching opportunities, men are also the population who find the least success on them. These men also seem to have fewer alternatives to intimacy having failed, either from myopic disinterest or inability, to do the work to cultivate relationships outside the romantic. Women who fail to find relationships seem able to fall back on a larger space of social support. Men on the other hand seem to do one of two things: disconnect or get angry. A large swath of angry and lonely and disaffected men, made increasingly so because promised technological solutions do not deliver what they promised, is obviously dangerous to a society. It is of course also tragic for those men, but the only language that capitalism understands is the one of self-interest, and so if there is any motivation for change to the way capitalism has infiltrated courtship, it would likely come from what these men could do to a society where their alienation has become complete.
But maybe in this, too, capitalism will pretend to have a solution. It is not true that there is always a spark that leads to a fire and then to dissolution. Sometimes people substitute sleep for rage. Capital knows that disaffection can be remunerative if you can convince the disaffected that the distractions they purchase from you are the closest they will ever get to meaning. When one considers the people and their corporations and their society, the image that comes to mind is that of the ouroboros—the snake eating itself, the society allowing the pursuit of capital to slowly degrade the connections that constitute the society itself. In this, it is not clear what the world will look like when the coming substitutes for human connection have become widespread in the population. But what is inevitable is that the people who engineered this situation will not take responsibility for it.
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