Indirect Message

Episode 5: Did Apps Kill Dating?

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What’s up you guys? Welcome back to Indirect Message. I’m Laci Green. Thanks for being here. 

On today’s episode: online dating. It’s one area of the brave new digital world we’re in that I find especially interesting. In part because of my own forays into online dating, which started really early...maybe too early. 

 

Chapter 1: Woman Seeks Man

 

As a rambunctious internet lover, I started meeting people online when I was 14, 15 years old and I started meeting those people in person when I was 17 or so. I ended up having a lot of weird experiences that shaped my dating life as a teenager. I’ll give you one example….when I was 17, my boyfriend that I met on YouTube, moved to my parent’s town from out of state. We dated for a few months, as teenagers do, before the relationship rapidly deteriorated. When I broke up with him he...literally fled in the night. He robbed the guy he had been renting a room from. He stole his camera and took all the prescription drugs in the house. Neither of us ever heard from him again.

 

Now, I realize this is a Facebook Mom’s worst nightmare and it’s the type of narrative that dominated the online dating discussion for years. [Sound bite: “Stranger Danger! If you use a dating app or know someone who does, there’s a new warning tonight from police”] Fortunately, stranger danger never quite materialized in the ways that people...umm...prepared for. [“I’ve actually role played with my daughter and chased her around the house.” “They say you have to do that now, it’s like a fire drill.” “So important.” “Drill it, drill it drill it drill it drill it”] A few of my best relationships in my 20s started with dating apps. Must have been all the drilling. 

 

Online dating itself is nothing new...in fact it’s about 60 years old. The first online dating service started at Stanford University, when students programmed an IBM 650 computer to match people based on questionnaires. [“Indeed, the day is not far distant when these electronic brains will take a great deal of guesswork out of decisions.”] A number of online dating services like this popped up in the 60s, while video dating services became popular in the 70s [“Hi, I’m Maurice. I’m an executive by day and a wild man by night.” “Hi My name’s Mike and if you’re sitting there watching this tape with a cigarette, hit the fast forward button because I don’t smoke and I don’t like people who do smoke.” “I consider myself a refined valley dude.”]. The 80s saw the rise of pen-pal networks and the “personals section” of newspapers. But by the 90s, we get something more familiar. Kiss.com was the first modern dating website that even remotely resembles what we use today. Kiss was closely followed by JDate, and then Match.com. 

 

Before the floodgates broke, there was plenty of speculation about what dating websites would become. Would they bring an endless marketplace of single people, systematically paired up by algorithms? Would they usher in a new era of on-demand sex that would challenge traditional notions of relationships?

 

The reality is both, and neither, and more.

 

Chapter 2: Failure to Launch

 

Today, in 2019 the year of our lord, dating apps are more popular than ever but people are a bit mixed on how they feel about them. About ⅓ of us (age 18-44) have used or are using dating apps. Now of those who use them, slightly more than half like them. But on the whole, just over half of us hate them.

 

What happened to all those hopes of better relationships and sex? There are a number of complaints echo across the internet every day.

 

One of the most common themes is that... that the apps feel dehumanizing. Many apps force you to quickly judge your compatibility with someone based mostly on a profile picture. It encourages us --even requires us-- to indulge our most superficial impulses.

 

A common theme is that the apps feel dehumanizing. Many apps force you to quickly judge your compatibility with someone based mostly on a profile picture. It encourages us --requires us-- to indulge our most superficial impulses.

 

Another common dating app woe is sheer overwhelm. Some users bemoan that, counterintuitively, there are simply too many options. It’s like going to a restaurant where the menu is...40 pages long. This is what cognitive overload feels like - our lizard brains are simply not equipped to choose between thousands of options. [“Does not compute. Does not computer. Does not compute.”] And when we do choose, we are more likely to wonder if we made the right decision. This paradox of choice can make finding and choosing a mate a much more stressful process than it already is.

 

I wonder if these tools really bring out the best in us. Interacting through screens has brought out a lot of unsavory behavior, and in the context of dating, it’s no different. We are less tolerant of each other’s normal human flaws. The social norms of respectful, polite conversation are in shorter supply. And --one of the biggest problems in my opinion-- is that dating apps have made it easier than ever to “snack” on the pleasurable parts of dating without ever having to deal with the hard stuff.
 

Every like, message, swipe - gives a little hit of dopamine. It doesn’t ask much, just make a cute profile and keep up appearances and you’ll keep feeling good. But what about the actual dating part? It requires vulnerability. Putting ourselves out there and getting rejected sometimes, getting out of our comfort zones, and talking about how we feel. These aspects of dating are easier to avoid with the security blanket of a dating app. If things get too hard, too serious, too uncomfortable - just X out. Ghost. Put them on the backburner. Retreat into the land of comfortable, feel good dopamine hits.

 

Of course, let’s be honest, not everyone is on apps to find love. There’s also the sex. Millenials have been characterized in the media as the hookup generation. We are thought of as sexually liberated, having a ton of crazy sex with random strangers. But the research doesn’t back this narrative up. 60 years of data shows that millenials are actually having less sex than than any generation in modern history. And...we’re lonelier. In some parts of the world, like Japan, the sex and dating crisis is so severe that leaders worry the country could go extinct down the road. 

 

This conundrum defines our generation. How is it possible that we are more connected than ever, and yet more lonely? I wonder if we’re growing more addicted to the illusion of connection.

 

Experts are split on whether or not the sexual roulette of dating apps is addictive, but most agree the potential is there. Gay psychiatrist Dr. Jack Turban warns that apps like Grindr, which randomly reward us with sex and orgasm, operate like slot machines.

 

“Because gamblers never know when the next payout will come, they can’t stop pulling the handle. They hold out hope that the next pull will give them the pleasurable sound of coins clanking against a metal bin, and they end up pulling for hours. Now imagine a slot machine that rewards you with an orgasm at unpredictable intervals. This is a potentially a powerful recipe for addiction and may explain why one user I spoke with stays on Grindr for up to 10 hours at a time.”

 

This phenomenon is known in psychology as variable ratio reinforcement. And it may be one of the mechanisms built into these apps with unintended consequences. 

 

Now, lest you think I’m all doom and gloom here, I recognize that there’s plenty to be optimistic about as well. It’s pretty wild that 13% of happily married couples now find each other on dating apps. Better yet, the couples that meet online tend to be happier when they’re married. It’s so sweet...I’m getting a little misty in here. Online dating also has exceptionally high success rates for people on the margins. Those with disabilities, older singles, and LGBTQ couples are really making dating apps work for them. Researcher Tom Jacques notes that about 40% of relationships today start on a dating app, but for LGBTQ folks that number is 70%. Dating apps are removing some of the dangers and stigma of dating in areas that are not the most accepting. There’s also data showing that more marriages than ever are happening across cultures and races, suggesting that the American melting pot is alive and thriving on dating apps. [“The great american melting pot!”]

 

Jacques writes:

 

"This is what dating apps do. They break down barriers and allow you to connect, form relationships, get married to people who you might otherwise never have the chance to meet. What isn't romantic about that?"

 

Well, I’m not gonna argue with that. Clearly, we’re onto something here! Maybe a better dating app experience it’s just a matter of fine tuning the technology that we already have.

Chapter 3: The Matchmakers

 

Here to discuss dating apps with me is Michael Bruch, the creator of the dating app Sweet Pea, which is the official partner of Indirect Message. Now, you might be wondering if Michael asked to be here. But the truth is, I kinda had to persuade him to join me. I find his perspective interesting: he’s shockingly candid about the dating app industry and he’s on a mission to figure out how to do digital dating better.

 

I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Michael:
Every app we use, especially the ones that are really popular, have underlying incentive structures built into them. Take Tinder. Uh, the most popular one, the incentive structure created is to swipe until you find a match. The gamification of it is designed such that when you do get that match screen, you feel a bit of a dopamine rush. You're like, yes, a match. So for men, I need to swipe right on as many people as I can to get matches. So they say, all right, swiping right on 50 to 65% of the profiles. I see women then get inundated with attention and overwhelmed and say, Oh my God, what am I gonna do with this? I need to start swiping left on more people. So it ends up, they swipe right on three to 5% of profiles. And so you have this game where people are spending enormous amounts of time swiping past each other and, and very little time actually having conversations with one another.

It makes a lot of people very pessimistic and sort of nihilistic about the experience. And because that's such a big part of dating culture now, I think you can kind of see that seep out into more general attitudes about dating. I think we need to take seriously the idea that we can build something better than what's out there. Something that makes meeting people online feel more like meeting in real life that at least tries to capture the, you know, the nuance that makes meeting people in person a fun and exciting experience. So how do you do that? So you have to first have the right set of questions. You're asking, how do we prevent swipe fatigue? How do we incentivize thoughtful messages as opposed to quick swipes? How do we prevent women from being overwhelmed? How do we prevent women from being harassed? How do we prevent men from lonely men, from being catfish?

How do we bring sort of that in real life nuance to a digital screen? How do we create social context between strangers when there really is none other than sort of just profiles appearing on a phone screen? You know, what is it that gets people talking in a substantive way as opposed to just, you know, sent saying Hey and expecting a response. And so I think a lot of times people when they ask this question, they're looking for one silver bullet. Like give me this one thing that'll solve all the problems. And, and there, there isn't one. It's a whole bunch of different things that have to happen all at once.

Laci:
Well, I feel like some of the apps that are now really popular became popular because they attempted to solve some of the problems that are out there. So, for instance, um, with dating apps, a lot of women were discussing their experiences and still are discussing their experiences of harassment and really unsavory behavior. I'm pretty sure that's how Bumble got its rise, right as like a woman centered dating app for sweet pea. You know, one of the things that I think is interesting about it is the way that you are focusing on conversation, and this is actually just a thread that I see that runs through all of this stuff that you've worked on. Michael, is kind of getting people to talk about things.

Michael:
Yeah. Well I think you have to give people something to talk about. And so when thinking about how would you create a better dating app that feels more like meeting in real life. To me the answer was something that really had nothing to do with, you know, physical characteristics. It was creating social context outside of the person's photo, outside of the person's profile. And so like looking in the app for example, you can create your icebreaker questions and then sort of tag them with conversation category tags or activity tags and then go to the discover section and discover people who are like, okay, I want to meet people who want to talk about art or I want to meet people who want to talk about books, you know, whatever it might be. You find that that social context causes people to message each other really, really quickly versus just swiping through people on the home screen.

Laci:
What do you think people can do to improve their experience with dating apps and to have more success with them? Is there anything that you've noticed?

Michael:
The most important thing you can do is give people a chance, try not to be so jaded, try to have an open mind. Try to treat each social interaction as something new to experience rather than applying it to this, it creating a narrative in your head that it's another link in a chain of shitty experiences that are potentially, yeah,

Laci:
I think you're right. Um, I think there is a temptation because we are inundated with choice.

Michael:
The data shows that people with complete profiles naturally garner more interest just because there's more there, regardless of, you know, what your photos are, we're not going to just, you know, take the Victoria's secret model and throw it in front of a bunch of men to try and get them to buy a subscription. Right.

Laci:
Isn't there literally a lawsuit happening because Match did that?

Michael:
It wasn't quite that, but it's something around profiles being flagged as spam, but the company letting them, the company still sending emails saying somebody wants to meet you click here to get a subscription in their email marketing despite knowing that those profiles were spam.

Laci:
Yeah. I'd say that's pretty similar.

Michael:
Yeah, it's not great.

Laci:

I think a really common dating woe (or dating app woe) is you know, what do you talk about? Like how do you approach someone on an app? I've used OkCupid, which had a lot of more information. I've never actually used Tinder, but I've seen, I've been on my friend's profiles on Tinder and there's almost nothing there. And I feel like that encourages people to dehumanize each other, whether they want to or not.

Michael:
The entire design of it is around impulsivity. You know, you have maybe, I dunno, half second to like make a yes or a no decision on someone. So it's very sort of, it's very impulsive. It's not meant to be used super intentionally.

Laci:
Do you think that dating apps are easier for men? In what way is it less frustrating for guys? I guess like,

Michael:
I don't know how to, I don't know how to answer that. It's frustrating in different ways I think.

Laci:
Yeah. Well, the main, the main complaint that I hear from guys is that, um, dating apps, it's a waste of time. You spend so much time swiping and messaging and you know, you become jaded and eventually start sending sort of boiler plate messages to as many people as you can. And um, you deal with a lot of rejection and that frustrates them. I think that for women it's like there's so many people who, it depends on the woman, but you know, I'd say for like a conventionally attractive woman, it's like there's so many people that are, that want your attention and that can be sort of thrilling in and of itself. And I think there are people who get addicted to that feeling.

 

Michael:

Um, it's a much larger number than most people think.

Laci:
Yeah. And men and women alike, obviously, it's just really, really powerful emotionally to be validated and to be getting this positive feedback that you're attractive, that you're sexy or desirable, whatever. Um, but it can become overwhelming because there's so much of it on apps. And, um, I think that there is some poor behavior by some guys as well. Like it might be a small minority of guys, but they do it to so many people that it sort of poisons the well.

Michael:
So there are a couple things don't pack there. One thing I would add, a lot of women probably look at that. Some of them might be validated by it, but a lot of them, you know, are thinking, do any of these guys actually give a shit about me? Like, or are they all just like swiping right super fast and you know, very few of them are actually sending thoughtful messages and it's not necessarily because they're bad guys, but because they're like, ah, this person's not going to respond anyway. Or they're just like, they get into like this nihilistic Headspace about the whole process.

Laci:
Do you think that dating apps are maybe making the loneliness worse? In some ways?

Michael:
Loneliness and society has a lot of different root causes. Some of it is definitely smartphones and addictive technology and people getting glued to them and becoming antisocial or adopting all kinds of other behaviors that are, uh, not necessarily productive to interpersonal wellbeing. But other parts of it have to do with the fact that people are just fucking broke. People are struggling economically. There's so much stress, there's so much pressure to work all the time and be your maximal economic self and, and you know that that really eats away at a lot of people. Makes it very hard to tend to your social life when you're constantly worrying about, about your bills, about getting sick, about, you know, just being able to have a sense of security and a sense of place in the world. I would not discount the economic factors when we're talking about about loneliness, but do I think that smartphones and dating apps and things of that nature have contributed to it? Yes, but it's not the only thing.

Laci:
I think there is a world where social media and dating apps, which I would call, you know, a type of social media, it's more specific type of social media, um, are, you know, really do help us to connect with each other. I think part of it is getting away from the, uh, addictive feedback loops that are built into all of this technology. You know, the little dopamine hit you get when you get a message or when someone likes your photo or when you get a match. All of those things, um, feel a little predatory to me because they prey on our physiological responses. But I think it's possible for social technology to exist that is not addictive and really does help people to um, foster the types of connection, um, and exchanges in person that we know contributes to health and wellbeing. But it seems like its gone the other way. And I think a lot of that comes back to the way that the apps are being built to keep you on them as long as possible to keep you in the infinite scroll. 

Michael:
I think there are some negative incentive structures there inherent to it, right? It's like if your business model works, you lose all your customers. And so there's a clear incentive not to match people up or as fast as you can even though you have the largest marketplace and the most data to do so.

Laci:
Do companies do that? Do you think they try to slow the process?

Michael:
The most money is made through dating apps. By capitalizing on impatience, you can pay to boost your profile. You can pay to super like people to try and stand out and cut to the front of the line. You know on apps like Tinder and Bumble where you're paying to see who liked you quote on quote. A lot of those profiles are buried deep in the your stack of cards, your potential matches or whatever. With the idea being that a subset of users are going to get very frustrated and impatient and just say, all right, I do not want to swipe through a thousand people to figure out who's interested in me. Let me just pay to see right now. I mean that is the business model is impatience.

Laci:
So do you think that the big ones like Tinder and Bumble want, want their customers to like find real relationships? I feel a little bit jaded. It seems like, you know, they have everything to gain from keeping people in perpetual frustration and singledom.

Michael:
you can't just be total shit, right? Like otherwise the people won't use it. People won't use it at all. Right. So there has to be hope. It has to work for some people.

Laci:
You know, what's kind of striking is that a lot of these apps seem to work the same. Why isn't there more innovation in this field?

Michael:
The biggest reason I think is the fact that most of these dating apps are owned by the same parent company. And so if you have a business model that's working really, really well and that business model is sort of predicated on impatience and loneliness and you're a publicly traded company, there's not a ton of financial incentive in the short term for you to change things.

Laci:
What apps are those?

Michael:
Yeah, Match Group owns Tinder, OkCupid and match.com hinge plenty of fish. I mean they own a lot of companies. Almost all of them. The only truly big player that's quote independent is Bumble, but they're not even really an independent company. They're almost owned entirely by a group called magic lab. This guy Andre Andre of owns Badoo and a couple of other companies, Badoo being the largest online dating company outside of America that basically helped incubate Bumble. So it's kind of like a duopoly. It's like iOS or Android. There is sort of an illusion of consumer choice. But at the end of the day, they're all owned by the same company.

Laci:
I did not know that it was that much of a monopoly.

Michael:
Furthermore, from an investment perspective, usually when you invest in something and you do a really good job, you keep your customer for a long time and dating and your customers leave. You know, it's a tough thing to sell. In these interviews, Laci, you will probably not find anyone else building a dating app or trying to build a dating app that'll say these kinds of thing out loud because they all secretly know that like Match Group might be their only option to buy the company. They're scared to piss them off.

Laci:

Aren't you scared? 

Michael:
I mean not really. There's no amount of money that's worth me losing my ability to speak freely. I think if you want to make an impact on something like this, you have to, you have to really care. Like you have to really, really care because it's hard. I mean, the odds are not, are not great and you're going up against any monopolies. Odds aren't going to be great. Um, you know, even hinge, right? Like I have great respect for for hinge and that company, I think they started doing something pretty innovative but they just figured it out too late. You know they had burned through 25 million or so dollars in cash before they started getting it right and then match group bought them because they didn't have a choice. I don't think they wanted match group to buy them. 

Laci:
So what gives you so much optimism then? Why do you care so much?

Michael:
Contrary to what a lot of people think and I'm not, you know, you meet people sometimes and they're like obsessed with just dating? That is not me at all. I am fascinated and obsessed with how technology and specifically social networks in their feedback loops affect society and culture.

Laci:
When you say negative feedback loops, can you just do a brief overview on what you mean by that?

Michael:
How people behave in real life, how that affects the way they behave online and how they behave online affecting how they behave in real life and sort of dilute between those two things. And this is just where I think I can have the most impact and start. It's also the place that people probably discount the most and ignore, you know, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram are way juicier targets. The other challenge is building a new brand and a new company and trying to do something very different. People are not coming to you as a blank slate. They're coming to you already jaded and it's a lot to try and you know work against. It's a lot.

Laci:
My knee jerk impulse on a lot of this stuff is any social media stuff that's pissing me off is just to not use it anymore. Kind of go back to more traditional way of engaging with people. Like you know a friend of mine sent me a party invite in the mail the other day.

Michael:
That's awesome because these days when I get mail I'm like, well it's going to be a bill or it's going to be some boat yet you know it's like bills and spam, but like reading an actual letter from someone now is like is a thrilling.

Laci:
Do you think that individuals who are using the apps have some sort of culpability? Like maybe part of the problem us?

Michael:
When you're talking about social tech, the hardest thing about it is figuring out what is just human, like human problem versus what is a technology problem that somewhere in between and we're always just muddling through trying to figure out which is what a, so yeah, occur people definitely have some responsibility

Laci:
And dating itself is also just kind of, it's always been hard...

Michael:
Oh, it's taxing. It's a very taxing thing. It's emotionally draining. My dad, my dad told me a joke one time, he was like, yeah, "I think the reason people, you know, they finally get married is because they're just tired of breaking up."

Laci:
Yeah, it is. Isn't that what settling quote on quote is all about? You just don't have it in you to keep plowing forward.

Michael:
I think it's so important to society that we have a culture that, you know, gives people that confidence and the know how to get into healthy relationships. There's because really, really healthy relationships make the two individuals better together than they otherwise are on their own and brings out the best in people, men and women alike. You know, I just, I really hope we don't, don't lose sight of that as a society.

Laci:
Yeah. You're like a, like a modern matchmaker.

Michael:
I am not, don't say that.

Laci:
Kinda!

 

Michael:
I guess reluctantly. That's kind of cool. I don't know why reluctant. It's a lot of responsibility, let's say. Could put that on someone. I don't know. I just try and help. If I can help bring out the best in people and bring good people together and hopefully have some kind of positive effect on the world through my little experimentation with digital social communities and make people feel a little bit more optimistic about the goodness in each other, then then I'm happy with that. You know, I don't have any delusions that I'm going to save the world on my own, but if I can do my part and, uh, help, help create something good, then you know, maybe it'll inspire others to do the same.

Laci:
On the next episode of indirect message. He said. She said, we'll talk about rumors, how they spread online and why we're in the rumor renaissance. Have a great week everyone. I'll be back November 13th.

BLOOPERS

 

Laci:
I'm trying to think if there's anything else that we haven't touched on yet.

Michael:
I thought you said you were supposed to be more aggressive in this interview Laci!

Laci:
I feel like I've been as aggressive as I am humanly capable of being. Hahaha.

 

Michael:
Hahaha, okay.

 

Laci:
I've told you how I feel about dating apps and I think we've explored a lot of the feelings that people have about dating apps.

Do you want me to bully you more?

Michael:
No! No. I like not being bullied. I'm happy.

 

Laci:

Hahaha