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How swiping ruined online dating

Amanda Northrop

I’ve been dating online for the better part of the past decade. I joined OKCupid at the ripe young age of 23 when I moved to Brooklyn in 2009, after a particularly negative experience meeting someone the old-fashioned way. I then found myself on assignment at the media company for which I worked, to research the dating market. So I was early on HowAboutWe (RIP), Grouper, Tinder, Hinge, the League, Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel. Early for an American user on my personal favorite dating app, the French-built Happn. An early tester for the matchmaking service the Dating Ring. I even have dear friends who have built apps like JSwipe and Bubby (the first AI matchmaker).

I’ve also enjoyed secondhand Grindr and Scruff, thanks to having dear gay friends. And recently I spent two unexpected hours with my widowed older sister, exchanging stories about our equally hilarious and frustrating shared experiences from the very same apps. As it turns out, maturity of age doesn’t necessitate mature behavior.

The most dramatic change in online dating since I started has been the birth of mobile apps, which ultimately led to the feature “swipe right or swipe left.” OKCupid and Tinder were quick to change the face of dating, making it easier than ever to quickly make a microdecision about compatibility.

Rather than scrolling through a vertical stream of potential matches, mobile apps made the experience like playing cards. Each match is dealt, and can as quickly be played or discarded … but this time, “forever.” Once you swipe left, a match doesn’t show up again (though you can pay to change your mind, sometimes).

I despise swiping, mostly because of that subtle feeling in the pit of my stomach I get every time I make a “decision” about compatibility. As a meditator and person interested in our neurology, I believe we have a decision-making bank each day; if we’re using up the bank on microdecisions about other people in the search for love (or lust), how are our other decisions affected?

Less philosophically, should I have really swiped left on that one? What if that was one of the people and partners with whom I’d truly enjoy life? What if I don’t actually know what I want? What if my Instagram (linked to all of my dating app accounts) isn’t good enough at conveying how cool/kind/curious/ambitious/great I am? What if Brooklyn has ruined me forever?

I’m not alone in my discomfort with swiping. A Vanity Fair piece on Tinder, swiping, and hookup culture went viral last year, with the thesis that swiping and mobile app dating is ruining modern sex, dating, romance, and even possibly love. And Justin McLeod, founder of the popular swiping app Hinge, wrote recently that the swiping interface is “designed to keep you single,” with an emphasis on matching rather than messaging, on targeting the masses and treating users as cards in a “slot-machine interface.”

He also noted that his company wants to do something about it, and is launching a new, swipe-less version of Hinge: “We believe technology has incredible potential to help people find compatible partners with which they can form successful relationships. Given the current state of our culture, I believe it’s now more critical than ever that there exists a service that helps those bold enough to seek real relationships find meaningful connection, while still being accessible to the millennial generation.”

Dating apps are a game: a game for my attention, and a game capitalizing on my wants, desires, and fears

Don’t read this the wrong way: I’ve met and dated some amazing human beings. I mostly wouldn’t take back the time I’ve spent on apps thanks to those people I’ve met. (I would guess I’ve spent about a 15-to-1 ratio of time swiping and communicating to time actually going on dates.)

I’ve also learned a lot about myself through these experiences. I’ve even drawn my own wireframes and written a manifesto for the dating app I would build. And most pertinently, I’ve done the work outside of the app sphere to figure out what I personally want and how I want to be in a relationship.

Now I find myself walking the line between feeling the need to use the apps in order to optimize my love life (and play where everyone else seems to be playing) and using the apps out of sheer curiosity to see how the products evolve.

I realize that, as McLeod admits, the apps are a game: a game for my attention, and a game capitalizing on my wants, desires, and fears. A match! How exciting, how validating. What could happen with this one? Another one? And another? Who should I try to go out with this week? Next week? It’s shot after shot of dopamine, especially on the hard days. Though the apps by design are meant to be addictive in a way, is addiction really bad in the course of love or even technical curiosity?

But maybe most importantly, in the six years and 11 months I’ve been online dating, I’ve always wondered: What else could I have done with that time I spent in the dating app ether, when I wasn’t on a date but seeking and swiping instead?

Ads for the dating app Bumble in the New York City subway.
Erica Berger

I’m a New Yorker and a self-starter, and, as such, I’m always trying to optimize how I spend my time. Could I have learned another instrument? Written more? Watched more (we are in the golden age of TV)? Volunteered more? Cleaned more? Slept more? You get my gist. If our time is a scarce resource, then minding the amount of time we spend on dating apps should ostensibly be paramount.

Yet time spent on dating apps isn’t the same as time spent playing mobile games or checking your Facebook feed, right? Dating apps require a more Machiavellian approach; the time spent isn’t just for pleasure in that moment but rather for pleasure later, or, for some, longer-term results. Time spent on dating apps is more like investing, and having multiple apps is like diversifying your portfolio. As such, the question remains: How do you balance wanting to meet a partner, whether for that night or for “forever,” with wanting to mind your time? I’ve always wanted an equation, but truthfully never found it.

Appstinence: when you go through spurts of deleting apps or not using them at all

In the past year, I decreased my usage of the apps fairly significantly. A dear friend of mine and fellow tech-centric writer and creative, Lori, coined the term “appstinence,” for when we go through spurts of either deleting the dating apps or not using them at all.

It’s a period of time that usually follows a disheartening experience (or three) like being stood up (oh, hey, Nick), being unmatched with on the very day of a date (here’s looking at you, Michael), or, worse, being pursued a bit too aggressively by a relative stranger, who now finds himself with your contact information and all of your social media account handles on which to follow you from afar (why isn’t there one block button for all of my social accounts?).

Appstinence can also follow a more painful experience, like that of being ghosted (when a person decides fairly arbitrarily to stop talking to you or responding to your messages after you’ve had what you thought was a good set of experiences). I’ve found myself either a) taking a period of appstinence, especially if the perpetrator was found on a dating app, or, b) diving even deeper into the apps if the ghost was met through a friend, or through work, or in person IRL. I call that “sad swiping.”

Finding love is difficult, online and off

Last year, a yoga teacher friend of mine and I spent six months hosting a monthly gathering of single yogis, with the intention of testing a market for like-minded people looking for love offline. Out of at least 60 different attendees, exactly one couple went on a date (and two guys became best friends, so I don’t feel bad about that). And then, the universe played a wonderful cosmic joke upon me: The one person I met and was interested in at our very own holiday party was not, in fact, single; he didn’t realize it was a singles group.

Most recently, I met an amazing person at an event but found myself reeling after a month of getting to know him and ultimately not being able to be with him. I went on a long-delayed date from an app this past weekend, and while I was doing my best, I was ultimately still sad. Yesterday, he sent me a follow-up message, first complimenting me, then deprecating himself, followed by a low-key jab at my character and beliefs — all in six sentences, and with literally no idea if I was interested in going out again.

The importance of keeping in touch with your feelings when you use dating apps

Four apps remain on my phone: Happn (my favorite), Bumble (because I like the premise and the story), Tinder (because it’s useful in cities when I travel), and Bubby (because my friend built it). I deleted Hinge and the League because I wasn’t attracted to the user base. OKCupid and I fell out of love a long time ago. I barely use the remaining apps except for when I’m traveling, or in those darker moments of fear of being alone forever. Those moments generally occur after negative experiences with love and lust, yet I know intuitively that moments of scarcity aren’t exactly great times to attract the right type of person and partner.

So where does that leave a person conscious of her time and attention, but also looking for partnership and love in the age of apps? I would argue in between a rock and a hard place. And I definitely don’t have the solution.

What I’ve found to be beneficial is checking in on my feelings every time I use the apps and every time I go on a date, whether from apps or from other means. Reflection has led me to far better perspectives than mindless swiping. How did I meet that person? Take some notes. How did they make me feel? How do they make me feel now? Did I feel like today was productive, and that I don’t have the headspace to do anything else besides swipe while listening to NPR in bed?

I hope the revamped Hinge is something new, different, and mindful

In closing, all I’ll say is this: In a world where our technology is telling us all of the places to go, things to eat, content to read, and now people to meet and with whom to fall in love, let us not forget to ask the people we already know and love to set us up. (If that’s what we want, of course.) I set up my best friend from college with her husband (I met him through a guy I was seeing at the time whom I had met at a dinner party). That age-old technique still works.

And if you’re not willing to ask to get set up, or you don’t want a committed partnership, I’d offer this bit of advice: Mind your time on the apps. Count how many minutes or hours you’re using them each week, and take some moments to reflect on how you feel. Ask yourself if the dates you’ve been going on have made you feel more alive, or a little dead inside.

And don’t forget to spend some of your free time cultivating skills or hobbies that make you feel more confident, more vibrant, and proud to be you. Maybe even download the new version of Hinge; I harbor hope that the ultimately romantic McLeod (who was featured in the New York Times Modern Love column last year, as he and his fiancée have quite the romantic, cinematic story of finding each other offline) has built something new, different, and mindful.

And if you do continue using swipe apps, do mind getting caught in the swipestream. Because at the end of the day, it’s the people who feel alive and enlivened that attract like-minded partners, not the swiping zombies, sitting at the edge of the bar or walking down the street staring at their phones, missing the beautiful human who just walked in the door or brushed by them on the sidewalk.

Erica Berger is an award-winning writer, product manager, and entrepreneur who lives (and loves) between New York City and Los Angeles. This is her first public piece of writing about dating. At most other times, you can find her writing about technology, media, and culture or curating quality news for her people. Find her on Twitter @GoodBerger.


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