Swipe Right for Loneliness: On the Gamification of Dating Apps

Nancy Jo Sales Considers the Perils of Instant Gratification and the Hellscape That is Tinder

It was a couple of months after my story “Tinder and the Dating Apocalypse” came out in Vanity Fair in 2015 that a friend of mine texted: “Tinder’s attacking you again.” Oh, wonderful, I thought, clicking on the link my friend had sent to an interview with Tinder co-founder and then CEO Sean Rad in the Evening Standard.

Rad was “still defensive and upset about the article,” the paper said, “murmuring mysteriously that he has done his own ‘background research’ on the writer Nancy Jo Sales and ‘there’s some stuff about her as an individual that will make you think differently.’ He won’t elaborate on the matter.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or become very worried. Tinder was doing oppo research on me and coming up with what? I wondered. That I had high cholesterol? That I still owed the Park Slope Food Coop hours from the early 90s? The writer of the Evening Standard piece never called to ask me for a response to this smear, nor did any of the other news outlets that subsequently repeated it. It seemed clear to me that Rad was trying to get back at me for doing a piece that had raised questions about the cultural impact of his company, and so he was attacking me personally. This was online culture, and it was the culture of tech, a notoriously sexist industry: A woman gets out of line? Slam her.

But hadn’t Tinder done that enough already with their so-called “tweetstorm,” which happened soon after my story came out? I wondered. In a single night, the Twitter account for Tinder went on a rampage, tweeting at me more than 30 times, accusing me of bad journalism. It was an unprecedented case of corporate bullying of a journalist on social media, and yet, the many news reports which covered Tinder’s meltdown simply mused about whether it was a corporate gaffe, “bad for Tinder’s brand.” I was shocked at how I was left to twist in the wind, with none of my compatriots in the media coming to my defense.

“Next time reach out to us first @nancyjosales… that’s what journalists typically do,” Tinder had tweeted. But I had no obligation to interview the bosses of Tinder in a piece about the experience of users on dating apps.

“If you want to tear us down with one-sided journalism, well, that’s your prerogative,” Tinder tweeted. But I had interviewed more than 50 people for this piece, which is actually a lot for this type of lifestyle story, and I had talked to many experts as well.

“Talk to our many users in China and North Korea who find a way to meet people on Tinder even though Facebook is banned,” Tinder said. But while Tinder was already active in more than 100 countries by then, North Korea was not one of them. And China has its own dating apps. What were they talking about?

Initially, I didn’t think anybody would take Tinder’s Twitter fit seriously. Their response was so over-the-top. And the Twitterverse seemed to find the company’s meltdown amusing. People were tweeting humorous GIFs in response, like the one of Michael Jackson eating popcorn, indicating this was something juicy to watch. People were making memes of Kim Jong Un with a rotary phone, asking, “How do I swipe right on this thing?”

But as Tinder continued to tweet and tweet, and its tweets kept getting retweeted, I saw the company’s side of things started to gain traction. I went and looked at who was retweeting them—Who in the world would take Tinder’s side on this? I wanted to know—and I saw that it was mainly Russian bots.

“Russian bots” wasn’t a term in wide circulation yet, more than a year before the 2016 election. I wasn’t even really sure what they were; I just saw that these retweets of Tinder’s tweets attacking me were mainly coming from Russian accounts. Many had profiles in the Cyrillic alphabet, with pictures of half-clothed women as avatars. It struck me as so strange. I mentioned it to a few people and they just looked at me like I was crazy, but it was real. It gave me a feeling of dread about what could happen to a journalist—or to anyone—now, on social media, where the weapons of attack were getting stealthier by the day.

And what Tinder’s tweetstorm did, I think, was to manufacture a backlash to my story. In the media, there were suddenly several takes that misrepresented my reporting and the concerns I was trying to raise about how dating apps had changed the experience of dating, especially for women. Slate called my piece a “moral panic.” Salon said it “reads like an old person’s fantasy of Tinder.” The Washington Post said that I had “naïvely blamed today’s ‘hookup culture’ on the popularity of a three-year-old dating app,” Tinder—when, in fact, my piece clearly described the collision of a long-trending hookup culture with technology: “Hookup culture,” I wrote, “has been percolating for about 100 years.”

My piece was about misogyny in online dating. But none of these backlash stories mentioned that. It seemed ageist and sexist to me, this suggestion that I couldn’t have a valid take of my own on all this, or that I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d been a journalist for a long time, even won some awards. I was amazed to see myself cast as the naïve old lady, the pearl-clutcher, the prude…

If only they knew what I was really up to in my personal life!

It gave me a feeling of dread about what could happen to a journalist—or to anyone—now, on social media, where the weapons of attack were getting stealthier by the day.

Meanwhile, my story was going viral. Through my website, I was getting emails from people all over the world—many were from London, one of the cities where Tinder is used the most. (In a 2017 market study, the top places for Tinder use were listed in order as the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Scandinavia, Finland, Australia, and India.) People were telling me how the story had resonated with them. Which made me feel better, as did the many supportive tweets I saw:

“Hey @Tinder,” one said, “@nancyjosales is entitled to write anything she wants & if you think her article is misleading, you have no idea about this generation.”

“Well done, NJS,” said another. “Funny that an app that is known for casual hookups would take anything so personal. #scornedlover.”

But I still wondered what was this “background research” Sean Rad said he had done on me, and what was the “stuff about [me] as an individual” he allegedly knew?

I suspected that what his veiled threat was really about was that he knew, from his corporate access to my account, that I had been using Tinder.

*

I’d been using it a lot.

And OkCupid and Bumble and Hinge as well.

Like most people who use dating apps, I was on a few at the same time. Within a couple of weeks of going on them, in 2014, I was swiping, swiping, swiping.

I was swiping before I went to bed at night; I was swiping when I woke up. I was swiping while I was the riding train; I was swiping while I was waiting in the dentist’s office. I was swiping to procrastinate; I was swiping to battle insomnia. I was swiping in hotel rooms in the cities I traveled to, on the road shooting my documentary (Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age) with my cameraman, Daniel. But I didn’t tell Daniel about any of this—no!—because he would have made fun of me and called me out. And I wasn’t swiping in front of my daughter, Zazie—God, no!—because I didn’t want her to think that I thought it was okay to put a picture of yourself on a dating app for men to evaluate and swipe right or left. (I don’t even want her to read my new book.)

Dante’s Inferno begins:

“Midway upon the journey of our life,
“I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
“For I had wandered off the straight path.”

That was me, stumbling into Tinderworld.

2014 was the year you started to see people swiping everywhere—in line at the pharmacy, at the movies, at the bank. I saw a man swiping while walking down the street. I was in a boutique buying a dress to wear to a wedding when the saleswoman helping me stopped in the middle of ringing me up at the register to look down at her phone, where the animated Tinder match screen had appeared with its familiar ba-ding!

“Oh, I got a match!” she said.

People were swiping when they were on the toilet, swiping while they were on dates—22 percent of men in a study done by Hinge said they had swiped while on a date. It was in 2014 that Tinder boasted its users were spending an average of 90 minutes a day on the app. In 2014, people started developing “Tinderitis,” a pain in the thumb from swiping. The adoption of the technology was swift and overwhelming.

I would lie in bed at night and swipe and swipe, telling myself, I’m just going to do this for ten minutes, but then ten minutes would turn into 20, and then 20 would become an hour, and then two. A boredom would set in as I swiped and swiped on the interminable stacks of pics, which reminded me of the boredom I felt when I would click and scroll on Amazon even when I didn’t have anything I really needed to buy.

The adoption of the technology was swift and overwhelming.

I set my geolocation at just a mile, because I wasn’t prepared to travel very far for casual sex, and in New York, you didn’t have to. So my feed was showing me a lot of hipster dudes in the downtown area, college students, Wall Street bros, and assorted other bizarro guys I would have never known were living near me if it hadn’t been for dating apps. Like the guy whose profile pic consisted of an empty dungeon out of Eyes Wide Shut. Or the guy who said he was going to prison soon and wanted to “fuck until they locked the door behind him.” Swipe left.

What was making me do this so much? I wondered now and then as I swiped and swiped. It scared me a little bit. I’d never been addicted to anything like this before, except for maybe cigarettes when I was in my twenties and thirties, before I got pregnant with Zazie and quit. This felt like cigarette addiction to me in the way that it was always scratching at some corner of my brain, controlling my behavior. Except that this behavior was seen as totally acceptable, not socially censured like cigarettes had come to be; it was as normalized as cigarettes were in the 1950s, when tobacco companies were still hiding the truth of what they already knew, that this stuff could kill you.

It comes as no surprise to most people when they learn that swiping was designed to be addictive. We’ve been hearing for years how tech companies engineer their products with endless little bangs and whistles designed to grab our attention and get us hooked. What may have surprised us more, had we been able to look into the future, would have been to see how little we’ve come to care about how thoroughly we’re strung out on social media, and how much this has changed our behavior, day to day, hour to hour.

But all of this, too, is by design, chillingly enough.

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff described it this way in his book Team Human:

“The goal [of tech companies] is to generate ‘behavioral change’ and ‘habit formation,’ most often without the user’s knowledge or consent. Behavioral design theory holds that people don’t change their behaviors because of shifts in their attitudes and opinions. On the contrary, people change their attitudes to match their behaviors. In this model, we are more like machines than thinking, autonomous beings. Or at least we can be made to work that way.”

So how do these companies succeed in manipulating us? Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, confessed in an interview in 2017 that he and Mark Zuckerberg and other creators of social media had knowingly “exploited a vulnerability in human psychology” with the “social validation feedback loop” of “dopamine hits” and “likes.”

“When Facebook was getting going,” Parker said, “I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘Okay. You know, you will be.’ And then they would say, ‘No, no, no. I value my real-life interactions. I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.’ And I would say, ‘We’ll get you eventually.’”

And how does all of this relate to swiping on dating apps, and dating itself? And what does it mean for our choice in romantic partners, when the landscape of love, sex, and dating is now being commanded by a corporate GPS?

Jonathan Badeen, the sharp-eyed co-founder and chief strategy officer of Tinder, has said in interviews that the idea for the swipe came to him when he was rubbing the fog off a bathroom mirror after getting out of the shower. When I interviewed him for my documentary in 2016, however, Badeen provided a less folksy origin story for the swipe, saying that he had based the matching aspect of the swipe mechanic on the “variable-ratio schedule.”

The variable-ratio schedule is a concept from behavioral psychology which says that “having unpredictable yet frequent rewards is the best way to motivate someone to keep moving forward,” as Badeen himself described it. In the 1970s, the controversial behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner—who considered free will an illusion—illustrated the concept dramatically with an experiment in which he “turned pigeons into gamblers” by rewarding them at irregular intervals with the food pellets they were taught to peck for. Basically, it was pigeon Tinder.

It comes as no surprise to most people when they learn that swiping was designed to be addictive.

Skinner’s pigeons would keep pecking for food even when they weren’t hungry, just because they had become addicted to playing the pecking game.

“The pigeon can become a pathological gambler just as a person can,” said the mad-scientist-looking Skinner in a TV interview about his experiment. The variable-ratio schedule can also be seen in the design of slot machines and video games.

“We have some of these almost game-like elements,” Badeen told me. “It kinda works like a slot machine. You’re excited to see who the next person is—or excited to see, did I get the match?

“It’s a nice little rush,” he added.

The “little rush” is a shot of dopamine, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter. In a study of drug addicts, researchers found that just the expectation of taking a drug caused more of a dopamine release than the drug itself. And so with swiping, it’s the act itself that gets the dopamine flowing, as it incites the expectation of the reward of the bouncy, slot machine-like match screen. Which means that simply swiping on a dating app can become addictive whether or not a user ever meets up with their matches in person.

In fact, a third of people who use dating apps say they’ve never actually gone on a date with someone from an app. In a 2017 study of Tinder, over 70 percent of users said they had never met up with one of their matches in real life, and 44 percent said they used the app purely for “confidence-boosting procrastination.”

*

After your brain gets that little high of a dopamine spike, an inevitable dip follows; there’s a low; and so it isn’t surprising that more than half of singles report feeling lonely after swiping on dating apps. It’s one of the feelings that sends you back to swipe some more, to try and make this feeling go away; and so begins the cycle of addiction.

It makes a kind of twisted sense that swiping on a dating app can actually lead to more loneliness, if it’s causing us to engage with our screens more and interact with other human beings less. Which brings us back to social engineering. What exactly are dating apps engineered to make us do, again? Why, use them more and more, of course. The primary aim of all social media companies, according to Sean Parker in that 2017 interview, stems from the question: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” The value of these platforms rises with use; and the more people use it, the more of their data is collected.

So is the goal, then, really to help us find relationships? Or is it to get us to have a relationship with the apps themselves?

Well, if we’re getting some sort of satisfaction from merely swiping, then what do we need to go on dates for? Why do we need to have sex? What do we need other people for, when we’ve got this absorbing little app at our fingertips? It makes you wonder about those studies claiming that young people are having less sex; if, in fact, they are, then maybe it’s because they’re spending so much time on dating apps—an average of ten hours a week, according to a 2018 study—that they don’t have the time, or don’t feel the need, to have sex with each other.

It makes you wonder, too, whether dating apps are actually contributing to an increase in loneliness.

“There’s an epidemic of loneliness among people my age,” said a young man I spoke to at the University of California, Santa Cruz; and according to studies, he’s right. In a nationwide survey of 20,000 adults across America in 2018, nearly half reported being lonely, with the highest scores among Generation Z and millennials.

Young people are lonelier, I think, because they’re not having as many relationships—at least not ones in real life. And sadly, the isolation required to contain the coronavirus has only made young people, and all of us, lonelier, despite our ability to communicate through screens. When the virus hit, some members of the media seemed to revel in this chance to embrace screen life, as if to say, “Hey, now we can indulge our addiction without judgment or worry that it’s really bad for us!”

“Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won,” said a headline in the New York Times. “We’ve tried all sorts of things to stop us from staring into our devices. Digital detoxes. Abstinence. Now? Bring on the Zoom cocktail hour.”

But I think having to rely on tech companies to communicate is no cause for celebration. And it’s the tech industry that has actually “won” in this situation, as we’ve become even more dependent on its products to mediate everything we do. The challenges this presents to our health and well-being are still there. Studies suggest a link between time spent on social media and rising rates of anxiety, depression, and yes, loneliness.

Even before Covid-19, loneliness was a growing public health concern. Loneliness can be crushing not only for mental health; it’s been linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, and has been shown to have an impact on the immune system and the ability to recover from breast cancer.

Studies suggest a link between time spent on social media and rising rates of anxiety, depression, and yes, loneliness.

“We have robust evidence that [loneliness] increases risk for premature mortality,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, in an interview. Conversely, studies show that people who have good relationships, who are more connected to family and friends they feel they can count on and trust, live longer and happier lives.

In that article in the Evening Standard, Sean Rad said that “our research shows 80 percent of [Tinder] users are looking for a long-term meaningful relationship.” I don’t doubt that this is true. It’s a statistic Rad started quoting in answer to questions about Tinder being “just a hookup app” sometime after the launch. However in the past, Rad had bragged about how the app wasn’t actually designed to help people find a relationship, but as a “fun” “game” for them to play.

“We always saw Tinder, the interface, as a game,” Rad said in an interview in Time in 2014. “Nobody joins Tinder because they’re looking for something”—meaning a relationship. “They join because they want to have fun. It doesn’t even matter if you match because swiping is so fun,” he said.

The goal of behavioral design theory is to make people “change their attitudes to match their behaviors.” And the gamification of dating meant that dating was no longer an activity to be taken seriously—no responsibilities, no expectations, just the “fun” of instant gratification. It was after enough users became sufficiently addicted to this type of fun that Tinder started charging for its services.

In 2015, the company began limiting its number of free daily right swipes to around a hundred for users who didn’t buy into their new premium service, Tinder Plus, at $9.99 for users under 30 years old and $19.99 for those 30 and above. (In 2018, a California court ruled this to be a form of age discrimination.)

“It’s all a numbers game,” was a phrase I’ve heard again and again from dating app users.

__________________________________

nothing personal, nancy jo sales

Adapted excerpt from Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Nancy Jo Sales.

Nancy Jo Sales
Nancy Jo Sales
Nancy Jo Sales is the New York Times bestselling author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, New York, The Guardian, and many other publications. Known for her stories on teenagers, social media, and fame culture, she is the recipient of a 2010 Mirror Award, a 2011 Front Page Award, and a 2015 Silurian Award. She lives in New York City.





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