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Jenny’s plan was to go to chinatown and get some chicken. It was a first date – she had met a guy on Hinge and met in Leicester Square at 6.15pm. After sending a message that he was leaving, he jumped on the Northern line. Emerging on the other side, back in phone signal range, he suddenly sees two messages from his date pop up. “Are you kidding me Jenny,” asked one. Then, he realized that his WhatsApp photo was gone. I had blocked it. It was 6:17 p.m., two minutes late.
In a TikTok, Jenny revealed that she and her date finally got together — she claimed their WhatsApp had been a “mistake” — but her story came out anyway, serving as apparent proof that they’re dating now. in the pits. A few days after Jenny posted her TikTok, another video went viral. In it, a New York woman claimed she went out on a date after he refused to pay a $3 cheese charge for her burger. The internet quickly jumped to her date’s defense, but many people also suggested that the woman’s behavior was indicative of a rotten dating culture. Block people at any time. Turning encounters into content. Fear of intimacy and fear of rejection fighting it. So what’s going on?
Annie Lord, Vogue columnist and author of Notes on Heartbreak, blames dating apps. “They give you so many options,” he says, but suggests that this illusion of infinite choice actually works to erode accountability and dehumanize potential matches. “They have no connection to your social circle, so it’s easier to disappear.” As a collection of images and prompts on a screen, people seem insubstantial: ghosts in the machine.
Since apps transformed dating into something that could be managed with the swipe of a thumb, much has been written about how they have revolutionized relationships and hookup culture. Most of the discussions revolve around the same arguments: apps reduce the attraction of a formula; they are based on superficial and quick judgments; they make dating transactional. And, as Lord pointed out, the endless streams of “choices” seem to make accountability a thing of the past. However, one element of app culture that can sometimes be overlooked is the fact that apps are profit-driven businesses. Regardless of what your marketing copy may proclaim, they are designed to never be removed. Companies like Bumble and Match Group don’t want you to get caught: they need you to keep coming back to swipe, ‘super like’ and, in desperation, upgrade to premium.
Studies have shown that dating apps are pathologically addictive. Just two years after its launch, Tinder reported that the average user logged in 11 times a day. Cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, who specializes in gambling addiction, has compared the design of dating apps to that of slot machines. What the infinite swipe design does is hook you to random rewards, not positive interactions, but the dopamine hit of getting a match. In fact, according to a 2016 study, less than 10% of matches are followed up with any contact. Instead, users choose to continue “playing the game.”
Lord believes this is a crucial part of why dating feels bad right now. “Before, when people wanted affirmation and intimacy from anyone, they used to go out and meet people to do that,” he says. “Now apps fill that space. So if you feel the need, you’ll just send someone a message.” That cycle means it can feel like dating apps are “pretty much just for pen pals now,” she continues, which is “really annoying if you really want fluff.”
Emotions become currency, with the “winner” being the party with the least to lose, the least invested and the least emotionally attached.
Zoë*, who lives in London, recently deleted her apps and says she has “given up on dating”. She believes that apps have led everyone to “wait for the next best thing and not”. [being open] to embrace the person in front of him at that moment”. She herself admits to being guilty of this. “There are so many things in profiles that I find totally off-putting,” she says, “but it got to a point where I was rolling my eyes at every profile and thought, ‘I’m not being a very nice person here.’ because of that’.” Sarah Kenchington, based in Edinburgh, has also decided to quit the apps. “If I had to walk past one more man with a giant fish, I’d lose the will to live,” she says. “Every time I open the hinge, I’m reminded why I never open the hinge.” But more than men flaunting fish, Kenchington grew tired of apps because they “turned dating into a job.” Essentially , it looks like apps can have gamified dating, but the game isn’t much fun.
Alice Revel — who, at 38, describes herself as “a geriatric millennial” — has done her time on apps. “I’ve used OK Cupid, Tinder, Bumble, and they’re all so mean to each other,” she says. According to her, the main problem with dating right now is simply exhaustion. “There’s so much digital going on in our lives that this is just another thing to do … to make time for,” he says. However, Revel also takes a swipe at the companies that now control so many people’s love lives. “There’s very little control over these apps as businesses,” he says. “We have this weird habit of forgetting that these apps are corporate structures, not friendly services designed to make our lives better.” She believes people should be more aware of how apps use personal data to make money. “They are not our friends,” he adds, “they are companies.”
Although Big Tech companies present themselves as helpers in the pursuit of love and happiness, many of their users resemble machines. Charlie Rosse says he didn’t feel like a human being while on the apps, ‘the way they messaged me [and] how I judged others”. Dating requires you to be vulnerable, he says, but he believes it’s much easier to treat someone badly when they’re “a faceless person behind a screen.” She found that this created a loop of negative feedback online and offline that led her to shut down emotionally. “I became very discouraged by the amount of casual cruelty and misogyny I encountered,” explains Rosse, “which then affected the way I talked to men in real life, who might have been more suitable partners if I hadn’t felt the need. to protect myself with barriers.” But isn’t it just the fear of cruelty that makes people keep others at a distance, but the fear of emotion itself?
Lord believes that some of the current dating discourse comes from a kind of protection mechanism. “We’re so used to rejection that I think it’s easier to blame it on toxic behaviors,” she says. “The fact that so many people don’t like you is too painful to wrap your head around.” Then buzzwords can become their own kind of barriers. “You’re like, ‘Oh, he led me on, he love-bombed me, he gaslighted me,’ because it sucks that you can meet someone and have a really awesome date and then they’re like, ‘No, you don’t they’re perfect for me,” or they ghost you. It just feels like crap. [So] we pathologize it”.
This idea that people are increasingly afraid of painful emotions and vulnerability in general has been picked up a few times lately. In a January Substack post, writer and journalist Rachel Connolly described how “creepy and sneaky” the young people she interviewed for an article about ghosts were. “They all seemed a little terrified of other people, but also of feelings,” he wrote. Sociologist Alicia Denby recently came to similar conclusions in her research on modern dating practices. Based on in-depth interviews with 18- to 25-year-old UK-based dating app users, she found that young people “were reluctant to show emotional vulnerability, which they saw as weakness, should they be rejected or humiliated”. Denby used the term “emotional impasse” to describe this metaphorical confrontation, with each party waiting for the other to open up and confess their feelings. “Emotions become currency, with the ‘winner’ being the party with the least to lose, the least invested and the least emotionally attached.” The irony of this logic, of course, is that if privacy is the prize, neither side will win “since neither is willing to put themselves on the line,” Denby wrote.
“I was very disheartened by the amount of casual cruelty and misogyny I encountered, which then affected the way I talked to men in real life.”
It seems this isn’t limited to dating either. Denby’s research into the “emotional stagnation” of dating draws heavily on the work of sociologist Eva Illouz, who argued that the culture of capitalism has led to intimate, close relationships becoming increasingly defined by the economic models of negotiation and exchange, imagined as things to be evaluated. measured and quantified. In the case of dating and dating apps it seems obvious that this is the case, but in the realm of platonic relationships there is also a growing tendency to view friendships as transactions. Relationships become like work; every emotional interaction is conceived as work.
“People think they’re communicating better because they use these words, but they can actually be quite jarring,” says Lord. This kind of therapy can “obscure what the person is really trying to say,” he argues, “so it’s easier to let go of responsibility.” Lord echoes Illouz in suggesting that problems with relationships, both romantic and platonic, are related to greater individualism. “To be successful in our society, people think more of themselves because they are encouraged,” he says. “People now often think, ‘we have so little time, we’re really overburdened, we don’t have much money.'” As much as this mindset may be based in reality, however, the Lord believes it can prevent us from forming and cultivating relationships with other people
“We often feel like we don’t have time to deal with people’s emotions and support the people around us,” she suggests. However, this feeds a culture that encourages people to avoid strong attachments. Or value control and emotional distance over the compromises, sacrifices, and vulnerabilities required to develop intimate connections. This is what leads to emotional stagnation. It may not be a quick fix for the dating landscape, but it would help to stop conceiving of other people as a drain on our limited emotional resources. Instead, as the Lord says, we should think that “if you have time for them, then they will have time for you, and it will be a mutually beneficial and lovely thing”.
*Names have been changed
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