Apps made dating a game. That’s changing our relationship to matchmaking — and each other

Apps made dating a game. That’s changing our relationship to matchmaking — and each other

Yukon Morning6:58Elyn Jones talks to Katy Swailes, one of the producers of CBC News Explore’s Big Dating

Smartphones have changed the way we interact with each other, the world — and how we date.

Now a standard way to meet potential partners — especially for younger generations — apps have made dating as easy as swiping right to say “interested,” or left for not.

Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid and dozens of others have turned dating into a game, and some experts worry that’s also changing how we relate to one another.

With only a few photos and short bio, users choose prospective partners. Some set a deadline for initiating a first “hi,” evaporating matches that haven’t started a chat within 24 hours. Others might display the users closest to you, measured down to the metre, indicating who can swing by for a hookup the fastest.

This approach — known in the tech industry as “gamification” — reels users in and keeps them coming back for more. For some, it can feel inescapable.

“With the social media era every company is trying to make you engaged. That’s the magical word there,” said Jaime Woo, a Toronto-based cultural critic and writer, in the CBC News Explore documentary Big Dating.

Cultural critic Jaime Woo is the author of the book Meet Grindr: How One App Changed the Way We Connect. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

“These apps want you to come back and keep finding different matches and keep being interested. And even if you need to take a break, they’ll find little ways to ping you and say, ‘Hey!'”

This approach rewards outcomes — like a colourful animation when you successfully match with someone — rather than creating space for genuine connections.

“It gives us the illusion of power in a process that is traditionally filled with vulnerability and uncertainty,” said Dr. Alina Liu, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco, who has studied the impact of dating apps, in an email interview.

“Without intention or thoughtfulness, dating apps can easily become a pocket-sized dopamine machine for distraction and self-validation.”

Three in 10 U.S. adults say they have, at some point, used a dating app, according to a July 2022 survey by Pew Research. Younger users significantly outweigh older users, with more than half of respondents aged 18-29 saying they’ve used one.

That’s compared to 37 per cent of respondents aged 30 to 49, and only one in five of those aged 50 to 64.

Dr. Alina Liu is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in San Franscisco. (Mary Lukas Pierce)

“Gen Z doesn’t know any other way to date. They don’t know anything else but this world,” said Nancy Jo Sales, a journalist and author who wrote about the rise of Tinder for Vanity Fair in 2015.

Younger generations are no longer meeting new people in places older generations did — churches and synagogues, said Michael Kaye, associate director of communications for OkCupid.

“Convenience plays a big role in dating apps because there are so many people available to you 24/7, and if you’re putting in the work, you are actually seeing and being shown more compatible people,” he said. OkCupid is owned by Match Group, which also owns other dating apps including Tinder.

Journalist and author Nancy Jo Sales says the ‘gamification’ of dating apps leads to dehumanization. (Zebediah Smith/CBC)

Also, studies suggest people are “more transparent, they’re being more vulnerable,” when communicating online, he said.

That Pew survey also found Tinder is among the most popular apps.

Tinder’s swipe-based mechanics — right for yes, left for no — were seen as making dating easier and more fun when it launched in 2012.

It’s almost like this unspoken rule … that you are being as shallow as you humanly can be.– Kyle Velasco, TikTok creator

Selecting potential mates by swiping through matches as if they’re a deck of cards to be sorted started the trend toward gamification.

“At the heart of gamification is human psychology and the little pay offs of innate human psychology that we can catch at,” said Tinder co-founder Chris Gulczynski in an interview for Big Dating.

“Humans innately want to get to the bottom of the stack of cards. No matter if it’s an endless stack, you just want to see what’s next.”

Chris Gulczynski is the co-founder of the dating apps Tinder and Bumble. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

But the effect of this gamification, Sales warns, is that it changes how we think and feel.

“One of the things that I really think is very dangerous about it is it’s making us look at other human beings as less than human — as more like objects, as more like commodities,” she said.

  • Big Dating debuts on CBC News Explore at noon ET, and on CBC Gem at 9 a.m. ET

Pushback from others

For Christina Wallace, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, dating apps became a “time filler.”

By using them to connect with potential partners, we lost “a lot of the intentionality” that came with other forms of communication; writing a letter or an email for instance, she said.

On TikTok, some young users are pushing back against the idea that apps are a best source for romantic connection.

One video encourages young users to delete the app Bumble. Another warns that dating apps are hijacking our attention in a way that makes us devalue real-life connections.

“It’s almost like this unspoken rule when you’re on these apps that you are being as shallow as you humanly can be,” said Kyle Velasco, a 20-year-old TikTok creator whose videos about dating via apps, and consequently deleting dating apps, have tens of thousands of views.

“I don’t want people judging me off three photos and a two-sentence bio, so why would I want to do the same thing to another person?”

Kyle Velasco is a TikTok creator who has shared his feelings and experiences about dating apps in short videos. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

Be intentional, say experts

As dating becomes a mindless habit for some, users are saying they’re feeling burnt out.

“People kind of go on and off [the apps],” said Kelly Bos, a Gravenhurst, Ont., psychotherapist specializing in relationships. “I’ve heard people report … struggling with that mindless scroll piece or swipe piece that just feels like a habit more than something meaningful.”

“I think that the burnout is that disconnect.”

For those that don’t feel best served by apps, Bos and Liu offer some tips for meeting potential new partners.

Kelly Bos, a psychotherapist, says people wary of dating apps can talk to friends and coworkers for potential matches. (House of Gemini Productions)

Liu says, for those using apps, being intentional — knowing what you want — can help keep them from feeling overwhelming.

“Most digital apps are designed to increase our behavior frequency (e.g., swiping, liking, placing orders) by reducing friction and decision-making time,” she said.

“Setting intentional limits is one way of adding friction to this otherwise mindless behaviour. Set an alarm and give yourself just 30 minutes a day, or only swipe through a set number of profiles.”

For those wanting to meet in real life, Bos suggests asking around.

“More things are opening up now. Put yourself out there in ways that feel comfortable for you,” she said.

“Talk to friends. Sometimes people don’t know that you’re actually looking, so they’d be happy to set you up with a coworker or some great person they know.”

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