Online dating has taken off spectacularly in the past decade, with up to 200 million users around the world. Sarah Bates asks how much services such as Tinder change the ways we relate to each other.
Are we living through a “Tinder revolution”? Has finding partners been radically transformed by new technological routes to sexual gratification? In some ways, it has — it’s estimated that 200 million people around the world use the internet to find romantic and/or sexual partners.
Statistics vary, but one piece of research found that 39 percent of heterosexual couples and 70 percent of same sex couples in the US met online.
In decades past, hopeful singletons might have tried the local pub or church hall in pursuit of a sexual partner, but now increasing numbers of people turn to dating apps or websites.
So if someone is looking for love in the new year, the likelihood is they will start by downloading a service such as Tinder, Grindr or OkCupid on to their smartphone.
Of course, looking for love is nothing new. Lonely hearts, or variations of personal ads, have appeared in newspapers from the start. But at the height of their popularity, personal ads never accounted for more than 1 percent of marriages in the US. Now, around 17 percent of US couples who marry meet via the internet.
It’s important to be wary of using marriage as a measure of a successful or meaningful relationship, but it does give an indication of the size and scope of internet dating.
So what does this brave new world tell us? For socialists, Tinder is a mirror held up to our society — one based on the buying and selling of love, sex and relationships as commodities. Under capitalism, everything is for sale — even the most intimate parts of ourselves and our lives.
Tinder’s development has been shaped by the alienation of people in a society riven by competition, exploitation and oppression.
It was not set up for altruistic reasons. The platform is a huge money-making exercise which allows parent company Match Group to profit from the human need for sexual expression and connection.
We live in a world where personal relationships are shaped by the ideological and material roles of the nuclear family. The family shapes the lives of everyone under capitalism. As a result, rather than transforming sexual relationships, Tinder and platforms like it serve to underpin the dominant ideas about how people should relate to one another.
The pressure to find a partner is felt in every section of society and relentlessly pushed by the “dating industry” in an effort to sell its “products”. It’s arguably why millionaire actor Emma Watson declared herself “self-partnered” rather than single on the eve of her 30th birthday last November. No doubt Watson intended the phrase to show control of her sexual and romantic life. Her statement nonetheless reflected the pressure to be partnered by someone — even oneself.
The basis for this pressure lies in the nuclear family, which is an exceedingly helpful institution for the tiny minority at the top of society.
The capitalist ruling class rely on the unpaid labour of working people — mostly women — to raise, feed and clothe children, to socialise and help educate them until they’re adults and can enter the world of work with the required level of skills to be productive workers.
Tinder does not offer a radical break from the constricted way humans have relationships under capitalism, rather it seeks to entrench these. This is not the product of a conspiracy. Rather, the interests of those making profits from Tinder align with the prevailing ideas and interests of capitalism.
Tinder wasn’t the first dating app but it changed the landscape of the online-dating world. The real innovation was Tinder’s use of a “swipe” to indicate whether a user is interested in someone. Within two years of its inception, Tinder was garnering one billion swipes per day.
For the first time, users didn’t have to spend time looking at people’s carefully constructed profiles outlining their interests, desires, hobbies and so on. They simply swiped “yes” or “no” to a photograph, and the speed at which users can cycle through a seemingly endless conveyer belt of potential matches has become a core selling point for the brand.
A Tinder spokesperson said the app, “made the first step super easy — we get someone in front of you with an efficiency and ease that you couldn’t do before”.
So human connection, sexual desire and the thrill and excitement of meeting someone is boiled down to how quickly the service can be delivered. And choosing someone, with all the complexities of human beings — their experiences, memories, individual quirks — is boiled down to an instant binary decision.
Apps like Tinder have been compared to human “meat markets” where specimens can be quickly sized up and accepted or rejected for consumption.
Other apps are marketed in different ways, promising users bespoke services and curated memberships which will enable them to find “the one” for them.
And it can be an important space for groups that find it harder to meet people in other ways. The online sphere is now the most common place for LGBT+ people to meet each other, far outstripping other areas of life. It’s a hugely positive step that people have the opportunity to meet others in a space free of homophobia. LGBT+ oppression within society means that oppressed groups are driven into private spheres to seek out partners because they lack the much more widely available and generally safe spaces in which straight people can socialise. The Gay UK website reports that 151 gay bars shut down in London alone in between 2010 and 2016.
Most of the big players are owned by the same company as Tinder: the Match Group. The company boasted a revenue of $1.7 billion in 2018 and has swallowed up much of the industry, owning OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, Hinge, Match.com and about 40 similar firms. It manages to market a service for every imaginable romantic or sexual preference.
To this end, Match Group bosses have stopped marketing Tinder as a dating service. Instead, their recent “swipe life” campaign encouraged users to remain single and keep plugged into their apps as a mechanism to “go exploring”.
Of course, this is great news for Tinder’s bottom line. The longer users stay on the app, the more they can be squeezed for in-app purchases such as “unlimited swipes” or those that promise to push you up the visibility rankings.
But the company also wants users to transfer to different types of products.
One of these can be seen clearly on the Match.com website. It’s here that a more traditional idea of “matchmaking” and relationships appears, with the slogan “start something real” accompanying photographs of smiling couples in their 30s and 40s — some clutching dogs or bearing engagement rings. Here is the ideal of a long-term monogamous relationship.
Version of love
For those sick of this version of love, there are other products. Some are adapted to “dating fatigue” so instead of users being sold a romantic partner, they are encouraged to buy an entire lifestyle by Tinder slogans declaring “single does what single wants” and “single never had to go home early” — encouraging people to use the app to achieve an idealised life.
A recent advertising campaign from OkCupid saw the DTF (down to fuck) acronym subverted to sell self-confidence and the best version of yourself. From “down to farmers’ market” to “down to feeling fabulous”, the message was simple — suggesting using OkCupid won’t just get you an opportunity to have sex but a whole new life.
For many people, these apps are seen as a safer place to experiment and have opened up a new world of possibilities. It’s not surprising that LGBT+ people, in particular, were early adopters of dating apps.
But the online sphere isn’t a safe space for everyone at all times. Unfortunately, apps and platforms are not liberated spaces free from racism, sexism and the other forms of oppression experienced across society. Rather they reflect society. For example, receiving unsolicited pictures from men is a near-universal experience for women, and many men, online.
Racism is rife — ranging from subtle prejudice to outright bullying and harassment. Research suggests black men and women are ten times more likely to message white people than the other way around.
People are often subject to fetishisation based on ethnic or racial stereotypes — much of it shaped by sexual stereotypes perpetrated by pornography.
A study released last year by Elizabeth Bruch and M E J Newman analysed data from one of the main dating services in the US (the name of the app was not disclosed).
It found women received fewer messages via the service for every year they were above the age of 20. But the rate of messages for men rose to a peak around the age of 45. Depressingly, the same research suggested a postgraduate education made a man more desirable — but reduced the desirability of a woman.
The choices people make aren’t necessarily conscious, and neither are they hardwired into our brains. They reflect wider ideas in society about what is attractive — be it a young woman or an educated man.
People’s behaviour on dating apps is a reflection of deep-rooted prejudices. In particular, it is shaped by women’s oppression — with women’s place in society overwhelmingly shaped by their role as mothers and partners.
At the same time, online dating means people largely meet each other in a way that is separated from the support networks of the workplace, the family or their community. This can make dealing with rejection, or working out how to handle unwanted advances harder.
However, it’s not the dating platforms themselves that are the problem, it’s the fact that they flow from the logic of capitalist society.
There is an endless armoury of tricks deployed by dating apps and sites to get users to cough up more cash, from straight-up subscription services to regular emails telling you how attractive you are. Dating sites’ algorithms “know” exactly how to push users’ buttons.
And of course, users are not just the customers of these apps but also the product.
They are encouraged to give enough information about themselves to ensure a site’s algorithms provide a “better match”, and feel pressure to use certain keywords and upload the “right” kind of photograph.
Users can also be subject to vetting. EHarmony is a dating website that promises “love is found” every 14 minutes — as though such a claim could be quantifiable. It rejects applicants whose initial questionnaire indicates they have been married multiple times or whose answers suggest they may experience depression.
Caught in the logic
Every user is caught in the logic of these platforms, encouraged to represent themselves in a distorted way and to seek to present a sexualised and glamourised version of themselves.
But however people meet, and whatever their expectations about sex and sexuality, they come up against the limitations of the system we live in.
Regardless of whether couples met at a student union disco or over the web, their relationships will be shaped by the reality of having to make a living and pay bills, of raising children or caring for other members of a family or household.
Having the means to mitigate the pressures of life under capitalism which the majority of people experience — to pay for childcare, cleaning, taxis, holidays and so on — obviously helps. So the pressures on our relationships, and our reaction to these, are shaped by class.
At the same time the family, rooted in a society divided by class, narrows people’s expectations of what kind of world is possible and their expectations of themselves and of sex and sexuality. So the ideal of the family and of long-term, monogamous relationships goes largely unquestioned.
The reality is often far from the ideal, but the idea of the family retains a powerful hold, restricting people’s abilities and desires to live different sexual and romantic lives.
So much unpaid labour is undertaken within the family and how many have the time or inclination to undertake multiple sexual relationships amid a lifetime of paid work and domestic labour?
It’s also hard to untangle relationships that are, or may feel, necessary for the smooth running of family life and those that are based on genuine sexual interest.
When youg people, who form the core membership of dating apps, turn to online dating it is not necessarily because they buy into the hype around how it will transform their sex lives. In the past decade, young people have been hit by poor housing, zero hour contracts, inflated tuition fees and the welfare state being slashed to the bone. They often lack the time and resources to meet partners any other way.
It doesn’t have to be this way — sexual liberation is possible. Sex and sexuality need not be shaped by how the state relies on the family, or how dating CEOs turn a profit. But true liberation isn’t possible under capitalism, a system that distorts and narrows our sexuality. In a socialist society, people would have the time and resources to explore every element of their lives as they saw fit, and to free their lives from narrow expectations about sexual behaviour.
Capitalism has a problem with sex, even while it commodifies sexuality and uses it to sell every other commodity. Apologists for capitalism espouse the virtues of the family, while those at the top — the Boris Johnsons and Donald Trumps — ignore the morality they promote while making it harder through their policies for working class people to build meaningful relationships.
A socialist society would free people from the drudgery of work where they don’t have a say and where bosses control their lives. It would also transform the labour now performed inside the home, making this a social, collective responsibility. There would be access to appropriate levels of childcare, housing and other resources for everyone, so all could enter freely into relationships of their choice — meaning a transformation of possibilities and expectations.
The world we have now is one in which the best that Tinder’s bosses can offer is to find you a sexual partner. Our goal should be a world that meets the needs and desires of the overwhelming majority, not just those at the top.
Socialism would mean an end to a society in which complex, critical elements of our humanity are twisted to make profits.
OkCupid sells itself on the idea that “dating deserves better”. It is true — every one of us deserves better than what OkCupid and others like it offer. The answer lies in fighting for a system that works for all.