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Sex, love and algorithms: navigating the dating app economy

Young adults now dominate the complex and evolving world of online dating

dating story-01.png

Sex, love and algorithms: navigating the dating app economy

Young adults now dominate the complex and evolving world of online dating

Ruby decided to join Tinder. 

It took seconds for the app to download. And after inputting their personal information and uploading some photos, they were swiping left and right on an abyssal database of Tempe singles in no time.

Ruby, a sophomore majoring in museum studies who asked for their last name to be omitted due to privacy concerns, was new to Arizona, new to ASU and new to adulthood. They were aware of the various negative stigmas surrounding dating apps — the platforms are unserious, unsafe or just for hookups — but decided to try it out anyway.

Within a few months, Ruby found a serious partner.

No longer a sketchy prospect or a desperate last resort, online dating has become an integral resource for today's singles. After all, if it wasn't for Tinder's algorithmic match-making process, Ruby might still be single.

According to Liesel Sharabi, a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and a leading expert on the psychology and sociology of online dating, the dating app userbase is increasingly dominated by young adults. Over the course of her research, Sharabi has met multiple young college students who say they have only ever met partners through the internet.

Online dating has never been more prevalent. Reaching all-time high engagement rates during the pandemic, it is now the No. 1 way American couples first meet.

Behind the boom is a sprawling and experimental multi-billion dollar industry. Tech entrepreneurs are using data collection and algorithms to fundamentally reshape the way sex, romance and relationships unfold in the 21st century.

"This is how people are dating," Sharabi said. "Sometimes it's surprising to me how little attention is paid to it. It's treated like a superficial game when it has really serious implications."

Data, dates, decisions

The original dating sites were essentially search engines. Match.com, eHarmony and Gaydar allowed users to browse and message the profiles of other singles.

The proposition seemed intuitive. In a world where social media was becoming ubiquitous, there was no reason to limit your dating pool to the neighborhood bar or a local pottery class.

As userbases grew and diversified, so did the industry. Its biggest recent breakthrough was the introduction of algorithmic curation. Instead of users filtering through profiles themselves, matching algorithms could use data to suggest potential partners automatically.

According to Sharabi, it can be difficult to discern what effect, if any, these algorithms have on user satisfaction.

"On the one hand, you have what the algorithms are actually doing," Sharabi said. "On the other hand, you have people's perceptions of what they're doing. Some of these platforms really talk up the process. They set really high expectations."

Sharabi found evidence of what she calls "Placebo AI" in her research. When users believe the matching algorithm to be effective, they also tend to have better outcomes after meeting a match in person.

A more sinister side of dating app algorithms emerges when race, gender and other identity factors are considered. Though most apps do not feature overt race filtering anymore — Grindr only recently removed its ethnicity filter in 2020 — they can still facilitate discriminatory behaviors and profiling in a process known as algorithmic racism.

Sarah Florini, an assistant professor of film and media studies, said preference-learning algorithms like those used in dating apps should be subject to greater scrutiny than they currently are.

"It's very naive to act as if an algorithm picking up on our preference for a racial group is equivalent ethically to an algorithm picking up on your preference for musical genre," Florini said.

Florini's research centers on race, surveillance and digital cultures. Like Sharabi, she is skeptical of placing more culpability on algorithms than on the people designing and using them.

"People like to blame the algorithm like it's a monster that lives in the hills and comes down periodically to terrorize us," Florini said. "Yes, they do have bias built in from the beginning, but also they learn by watching us."

Because matching algorithms are a major selling point for dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, they are usually kept proprietary. Sharabi said this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct public research on them.

"Maybe they have figured out the secret to compatibility," Sharabi said. "I mean, they have massive amounts of data at their disposal. But there's also this possibility that it has to do with perceptions and how they influence people's behavior."

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Data is a key asset for online dating companies. Tinder and Hinge collect and utilize a wide array of user data, from message histories to ethnicity to bodily statistics.

Perhaps most important to app functionality is user location data, which Florini said is the most powerful data companies have to make predictions and alter people's behaviors. Though user data is encrypted and private, it is typically shared with third parties and used in advertising campaigns, and it may be less secure than companies claim.

Whether or not algorithmic dating apps are effective, harmful or secure, they are undeniably lucrative for investors and shareholders. Global dating app revenue has been steadily increasing over the past decade, reaching over $3 billion by 2020.

On the market

In many ways, dating apps are a utilitarian extension of social media.

Online dating and social media business models both operate within the attention economy, competing for users' time and recurring engagement.

"Dating apps can be very curated," Ryby said. "You don't really know what you're getting into until you meet in person."

Profiles are essentially advertisements, allowing users to present a flirtatious, idealized and selective version of themselves. The result is sometimes an artificial experience in which the user "can start to feel disposable," Sharabi said.

While social media is designed for habitual engagement, singles looking for monogamous relationships usually plan on deleting their dating apps upon finding a partner. That doesn't always make for a sustainable business model.

"I think of Tinder's advertising," Sharabi said. "They really promote single life. 'Date around! Be single! Being single is amazing!' You have to think that that would probably be their ideal scenario."

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Some believe dating apps are often better designed for singles interested in short-term flings and hookups rather than long- term commitments.

"Many of my friends use dating apps casually," Ruby said. "They don't necessarily find a long-term partner, but they do find somebody who they can have fun with, you know, temporarily."

With a seemingly limitless pool of options, dating apps appeal to those looking for casual relationships, but they can also entrap users seeking emotional intimacy. Ruby did find a long-term partner on Tinder but not before observing the psychological impact the app can have.

Sharabi said less research exists on mental health in relation to dating apps than for other social media. Like social media, dating apps can exacerbate users' insecurities while simultaneously making money off their engagement.

But online dating has another problem with user well-being: harassment and abuse.

With their semi-anonymous user interfaces, dating apps can easily become hotbeds for sexual harassment. According to Sharabi, women and LGBTQ+ people experience high rates of unwelcome sexual advances and harassment on dating apps.

Joris Van Ouytsel is a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication who researches digital sexual behaviors and abuse. He said studies have shown women sometimes feel unsafe using dating apps because they are more likely to be pressured to engage in unwanted sexual interactions online.

"It sometimes becomes uncomfortable to go on dating apps because there is that perceived pressure," he said. "You never know when someone's going to turn a conversation."

Both Van Ouytsel and Sharabi noted that casual dating is never inherently bad. Still, dating apps can attract sexual predators and have failed to keep users safe from abuse in the past.

Online identity; digital future

Online dating is all about options. For some, its capacity to weed out a perfectly matched partner in an intimidating dating pool is its biggest advantage. 

For others, online dating is an indispensable resource in the absence of abundant options. For LGBTQ+ people, it has changed the landscape of queer community building entirely. 

"(LGBTQ+ people) are the original dating app and online dating users," Sharabi said. "This is where it really started."

Today, LGBTQ+ people continue to predominate the online dating scene. According to Pew Research Center, lesbian, gay and bisexual adults are around twice as likely to have used a dating platform and more than twice as likely to have met their current partner online. 

Blake Matthews, an undergraduate psychology student and vice president of communications of BeYouASU, said LGBTQ+ people typically have a different relationship with dating apps than other users.

"The difference is that LGBT people are often either not on dating apps for dating purposes at all, or they're looking for a serious long-term relationship," Matthews said.

Like Matthews, Ruby sees online dating as an essential tool for queer relationship and community building. As director of publicity for the Barrett LGBTQ+ club and facilitator of advocacy for the Rainbow Coalition, Ruby has seen many LGBTQ+ students create platonic friendships through dating apps.

"Online dating has been such an integral part of how our community is able to connect with each other," Ruby said. "It can be a very positive thing."

Still, the downsides of online dating are the same for LGBTQ+ people and sometimes even more serious.

Matthews said he has been objectified, misgendered and even received explicitly transphobic comments on dating apps. Ruby said they believe their negative experiences correlated with their queerness.

The security risks for LGBTQ+ dating app users are also significant. The dangers of private data leaks are particularly sensitive for LGBTQ+ people — Grindr even has access to some users' HIV status.

Then there's the psychological impact. Already a demographic that deals with mental illness at disproportionate rates, a growing reliance on online dating may leave some LGBTQ+ people feeling more lonely and more isolated.

But Matthews sees a bright side to this. In a time of social isolation and anxiety, he said dating apps have the potential to make people feel less alone — not just LGBTQ+ people but everyone.

Ruby thinks a cautious-yet-positive approach to dating apps may be the wisest path forward for relationship-seekers at the dawn of the 2020s.

"It has its downsides," Ruby said. "But with the queer community, I've seen the upsides.

"I feel like as long as people are being safe, conscious of what they're putting out there, and respectful of each other, dating apps are a very positive thing."

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included Ruby’s last name. It was omitted on May 18, 2022 at 7:45 a.m. to protect their privacy.


Reach the reporter at ammoulto@asu.edu and follow @lexmoul on Twitter. 

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