Algorithmic dating – Loneliness of people on online dating apps
The advent of online dating applications has brought about a significant transformation in the way people communicate and connect with one another. Through technological advancements, individuals now have a simplified means of interaction, wherein they can effortlessly swipe left or right to establish matches, engage in conversations, or even engage in video calls, all with the intention of finding love or companionship. Nevertheless, despite the widespread availability and popularity of these applications in the market, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of individuals who remain single and experience feelings of loneliness within this digital realm, like many others.
This prevailing phenomenon of singleness, loneliness, and ambiguity can be attributed to certain changes in human behavior resulting from interactions with these online dating applications that are powered by artificial intelligence and algorithms. Furthermore, the nature of the online society, characterized by its rapid pace and constant flux, makes it almost impossible for perfect matches to meet in real life.
Engaging in the process of “swiping” is a necessary action within online dating applications, facilitating the identification of potential partners for conversation. Mutual “matching”, as indicated by both parties swiping right, enables them to initiate communication. The online dating realm presents a higher probability of encountering individuals who hold the potential of becoming future romantic partners, surpassing the chances offered by chance encounters in the offline world. However, existing research (Her & Timmermans, 2021) has uncovered correlations between the utilization of dating apps and elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and diminished life satisfaction. Nevertheless, the precise mechanisms responsible for these adverse consequences remain unclear, presuming that the duration of app usage does not directly impact an individual’s well-being.
Nevertheless, research by Thomas et al. (2023) has also found that even if we have many matches, it does not necessarily contribute to a sense of fulfillment or a successful relationship. Although the amount of time spent on dating apps is not directly related to negative outcomes, there is a behavior pattern that leads to these negative consequences, known as “excessive swiping.” This refers to the uncontrolled and compulsive habit of continuously swiping to find potential matches within the app, with an intense attachment to the act of swiping itself. One underlying cause of this behavior stems from the algorithms employed by dating apps, which operate similarly to slot machines. In other words, they provide us with a certain number of matches that entice us to continue using the app, leading to a sense of satisfaction when a match is finally obtained. However, upon deeper examination, this algorithmic process is linked to two psychological processes that can further explain the origin of this behavior.
Firstly, the act of excessive swiping functions as a form of risk-free reinforcement. Drawing from the Pavlovian perspective in the school of learning psychology, it is asserted that “actions that initially lead to improvements in self-esteem or mood are positively reinforced. In other words, individuals associate these behaviors with pleasure” As swiping on the online dating application brings pleasure to users through potential matches, it becomes a behavior that is positively reinforced. This act of swiping, itself, does not involve any inherent risks. If a match is obtained, it serves as a form of reinforcement, whereas if no match is found, there are no responses. Conversely, engaging in conversations or presenting oneself to potential matches carries the possibility of negative outcomes. Consequently, the optimal approach appears to be persistently swiping while avoiding conversations that may result in rejection.
Secondly, another underlying factor is the inclination to maximize outcomes. Users tend to seek a greater number of options, even if they have already encountered satisfactory choices. The availability of numerous options fosters a tendency to continuously pursue additional alternatives. In the context of online dating, this translates to continuous swiping behavior.
Engaging in excessive swiping behavior can have negative consequences, particularly an increased fear of being single. As the pool of potential matches expands, users feel compelled to meticulously evaluate and eliminate profiles that do not meet their standards. This behavior generates a sense of urgency to find a partner and undermines one’s self-worth when failing to secure a match. Furthermore, the abundance of options can diminish motivation to actively pursue potential matches in real life, as individuals may be misguided to do this excessive swiping. Despite the initial enjoyment of having a wide range of choices in the online realm, users are often unaware of the detrimental effects of devoting excessive time to swiping on dating apps. This lack of awareness can contribute to feelings of apprehension and ultimately foster a sense of isolation.
Based on research conducted in 2022 (Candiotto, 2022), loneliness can be defined as a profound sense of sadness and melancholy arising from the longing for meaningful social connections that remain unfulfilled. This concept goes beyond mere negative emotions experienced by individuals and encompasses situations where social interactions are hindered. For instance, it could be a result of relocating to a new location, being unable to meet with friends, or even occurring despite being surrounded by a multitude of people. Nevertheless, in the realm of online social networks, loneliness takes on a broader meaning. It not only denotes the absence of relationships but also encompasses a persistent yearning for connections that are left unreceived, even in a state of constant internet connectivity (hyperconnectivity).
The extended loneliness leads us to a highly interconnected world that instills a fear of missing out on stories or individuals. Consequently, our identity within this realm transforms into one that is unable to establish meaningful relationships. Due to the pervasive nature of online existence, the existence of that identity is diminished. The infinite possibilities of matching, which tantalize with the hope of finding someone, ultimately become an endless pursuit, replacing the sense of connection with a vague and unfulfilled feeling of loneliness in this world.
The emergence of this emotional state can be attributed to two underlying factors: 1) The prevalence of hyperconnectivity, characterized by prolonged self-engagement on the internet, and 2) longing for connections. Upon closer scrutiny, it becomes evident that excessive swiping behavior on dating applications is closely associated with the aforementioned factors, contributing to an extended sense of loneliness. To elaborate, a significant proportion of dating app users experience feelings of isolation and solitude, which serve as a motivation in their pursuit of a romantic partner or relationships within these digital platforms. Consequently, when individuals engage in excessive swiping, their online presence and connection are further prolonged. Hence, employing such usage patterns on dating apps often results in feelings of loneliness and a profound sense of emptiness, as they fail to foster genuine connections or encounters with empathetic relationships.
Understanding and coping
At this point, online dating apps may be perceived as a catalyst for loneliness. However, the truth is not always so straightforward. If we proactively confront and navigate through it with awareness, dating apps can serve as valuable tools that enable us to encounter people, we never thought we would meet. This, in turn, can lead to the development of meaningful connections and even evolve into lifelong partnerships. However, in order to effectively handle these situations, it is crucial for us to first understand and acknowledge the feelings of loneliness that arise from using dating apps.
The first question that may arise in the minds of many (including the writer themselves) is, “If using these apps leads to negative feelings, why do so many people continue to use them and even purchase subscriptions?” This can be explained by the underlying background feeling of extended loneliness. The negative aspect of extended loneliness is something that exists outside of our conscious awareness and is also overlaid with other seemingly positive emotions, such as enjoyment, relaxation, or excitement. Not only do we often fail to clearly recognize the undesirable feelings that arise, but it also makes it difficult for us to perceive the devices we use, which have a phenomenologically transparent nature (meaning that we may overlook the influence of these devices on our experiences). These phenomena complicate our self-awareness, leaving us with deep-seated anxieties or occasional feelings of unease that serve as signals to secretly alert us.
Therefore, dealing with this issue is not just about assessing satisfaction in using dating apps (including other apps and online-connected devices), but it also requires us to observe our behaviors and their consequences. For example, comparing the number of matches we have on online dating apps with the number of people we actually meet in real life, or examining our screen time of these apps. The underlying rule that amplifies the feeling of extended loneliness is something we are unaware of, and it leads us to excessively swipe on online dating apps without realizing how much time it consumes from our lives. Once we become aware of our online behaviors, loneliness will no longer extend. Additionally, engaging in conversations with matched people is recommended, and it may even foster meaningful relationships if we invest more effort in building connections in the real world rather than solely relying on the online dating apps.
Don’t forget the role of AI!
If we delve deeper, the root cause of this problem could potentially be AI or artificial intelligence that operates behind the scenes and powers these apps. According to a recent study (Narr & Luong, 2023), there is a correlation between boredom, ghosting, and being flaky and users’ perception of the algorithms used in these dating apps. In other words, users often experience matches disappearing without explanation, making it difficult to find a compatible dating partners. Users then have to seek new matches and start new conversations, be cynical if these interactions will lead to something meaningful, end up with the disappearance of someone they were previously engaged with. This endless cycle is a result of the underlying objective of capitalism-driven systems that rely on data to design algorithms that aim to increase user engagement. Furthermore, these algorithms often repeatedly present users with similar profiles, limiting the opportunity to encounter diverse individuals. This algorithm, known as “collaborative filtering,” works by suggesting popular profiles at the time alongsideprofiles that match our preferences (swiped right), like how Netflix recommends TV series (Wired, 2023).
You can learn more about “collaborative filtering” from this website: https://monstermatch.hiddenswitch.com/
Ultimately, dating apps serve as tools to help us meet people and seek out specific types of relationships. However, it is our collective responsibility to develop meaningful and enduring connections. Good encounters and relationships can be found not only within various dating apps but also when we lift our heads and look around. The person next to us could be a pastry chef at our favorite café, a singer at a bar we frequently go, or someone who brushes shoulders with us on the sidewalk.