In the loneliness of lockdown, a distant light beckoned. Numerous sources spoke of an elysium which was slight enough to be carried in a pocket; a portal of promise and excitement.
Millions of lonely women were flocking to dating apps. This was an unprecedented opportunity to find true love and break the boredom of isolation.
I previously had some experience with dating sites and apps – all of them were like calling into an abyss. But this would be different! Because this time there was the precedent of lockdown. This time I would venture into Dante’s Inferno and make it out with Beatrice in my arms…
Individualism divides us, then releases the for-profit app to unite us.
Once upon a time, there was a post-modern nightmare where no one really had a clue what the hell was going on or who they were. We lived in an extremely fast, atomized, consumerist society. We were always busy, always supposed to be somewhere else, always trying to get somewhere else, and always worried about how we would get to that somewhere else we were meant to already be at. The system was not something you could participate in and remain a fulfilled, healthy human being. Doing the ‘right’ thing – running on the treadmills of capitalism – was very much the ‘wrong’ thing.
The system was unsustainable; a mental health time-bomb, an unfolding climate catastrophe, a trampling down of those worse effected by its breakneck pace. The mental state it created was one of constant void, not only unfulfilling to the ‘losers’ but also to the ‘winners’. The more winners won, the worse losers lost. The pool of intelligent, capable, fulfilled people diminished with widening inequality and the divided society became a riot waiting to happen. The system maintained itself with a cocktail of caffeine, anti-depressants, chemical anxiolytics and perhaps the worst drug of them all – an ideological addiction to endless activity.
Amidst all of this busy-ness and dissatisfaction, was the very human need for connection. Something which not even centuries of capitalist exploitation could destroy. Nor could it completely ignore the primal needs of the spiritual-complexes which make up human beings. Especially not when there was a whole new market to be ventured into and an entire domain of human interaction to commodify. A little l-word which some exalt, some decry and those like me shrug when confronted with.
Then a microscopic terror spawned from the cavern-dwelling bats of the east and it all came to a grinding halt.
Here in the present our atomized, individualistic society still has us hungry for real connection, whilst also separating us from that connection. We want to spend more time with others but have the precedent of survival to attend to, shunted around from rented-room to rented-room, uprooted from communities, always demanded upon to be productive.
People who are satisfied, creative and connected do not make good consumer-drones, nor do they let authoritarian institutions make all of the decisions. The system needs us divided and dissatisfied to maintain itself, whilst also needing to keep us just functional enough to carry it upon our backs.
The lack of true society creates an opening for exploitation. Social media begins to fill in a gap which is created by all this money-making, consuming and faffing around. But it cannot truly satisfy even those who fully embrace it, let alone those who know what it means to belong to genuine, organic, human community. It is a watered-down broth and the human soul fundamentally rejects it. There is no fooling the deepest soul of natural creatures; we are not evolved for atomized individualism.
The logical consequence of such digital non-connection is the Dating App – the portal into the abyss. People do not have time to explore real social circles, to meet potential partners through the more ‘organic’ channels. Meeting a partner is already a difficult endeavour, let alone when juggled against capitalist ego survival. So a market is created to fulfill our ‘connection’ needs. Also, fundamentally, our ‘fornication’ needs.
These abyssal apps are full of promise, accessible and in the palm of your hand. But they are more like a pact with Mephistopheles than a free path to fulfillment. Powerful companies hold information on thousands of people; their names, faces and even locations. This data can and often will be sold; the app is never free; Hell always demands its toll. Nor does it pretend to be fully free – those who pay monthly subscriptions get more chances to be seen and to be ‘successful’. Dating apps are for-profit, they are not for-love. Who would have thought that companies operating in a capitalist society would try to profit from something as ‘pure’ as love!
The longer you spend swiping left or right, the more time and hope you invest, the more of yourself you digitalize and commodify, the better for the owners and shareholders. The apps do not need to work for people to use them – they only need people to think they will. Just as we are fed a message of ‘work hard and you will prosper’ with the next million a mere business idea away, so we are always one swipe away from ‘The One’ who comes into our lives and fulfills us.
Shallowness is not a side-effect of these dating apps. Shallowness is the core value without which they could not exist. The apps depend upon the snap judgements of the human ‘want-love’ impulse and the sadness of the ‘am-lonely’ feeling. As they expand in scope to encompass more and more people, the effect grows worse and worse.
The images of people perceived in the digital realm are unlike the physical realm. They are a contrivance designed to signal perfections which cannot achieved in a spontaneous meeting. You only get to see what the other person desires you to see. In real life you might hear someone’s voice, see their artistry, catch their scent, before you get to see them. They could be confident, charismatic and vivacious. They could compliment you and show you interest, making them appear much more attractive. The spontaneity of the situation could excite and get the heart pumping. But the profile photograph is a lie designed to tell a truth. The ability to swipe through the wall of faces, the endless torrent of images, is unlike anything we have evolved for. From a sedentary position, you can dive into the infinite realm of ‘potential’. It is a massive amount of promised choice, when in reality it is the cheapening of choice until it is all but worthless, but for a privileged or lucky few.
As a man using these apps over the last few days, I delved into a near-infinite digital abyss. Competition is absolutely rampant and imbalance is manifold. Men tend to outnumber women on these apps and also tend to spread themselves more thinly. Women who are considered attractive have hundreds of ‘suitors’ liking them and no small number of barely-articulate opening lines to ‘admin’ through. Men who are considered unattractive or average are invisible. The app determines the chain of potential mates you are exposed to.
The algorithm determines who you see, which can massively determine your perceptions. In my last usage of a dating app I was initially getting a broad spectrum of women appear. Some had filled-in profiles, some did not, some had good pictures, some did not. But it was at least a varied affair of shallowness. Suddenly the ‘learning’ algorithm had a eureka moment, switched and consigned me to the lowest levels of its Stygian abyss. I was only being shown women considered ‘undesirable’ by the millionfold travellers who came before me. Almost all were older than forty, had badly taken pictures, put no effort in their profiles, and who would be deemed by social norms as extremely overweight. The app decided that I was a total loser, so going on its value-system, it tried to put me together with other people who were considered to be on my Stygian gutter-level – a back-handed compliment if ever there was one!
Of course, finding someone unattractive is as natural as desiring someone. It is perfectly within our right to not-like someone in a romantic aspect. But the systematic, algorithmic lumping of people into the lowest levels of abyss is the real injustice. It is a symbol of inequality, for on the opposite pole is the top tier of elysium where only those deemed beautiful may tread. On the other side of the spectrum were gods who were algorithmically exalted, those who would see only a procession of nymphs considered most appealing by the flailing, swiping masses of sweaty-fingered men. It was a deeply pathetic experience, if not a side-splittingly tragic one. It blasted me off the last app with such force that I now enjoy the spontaneous sight of varied, real-human beings outside in a way that I never quite did before. At least out here, in the real-world, I can be a fully three dimensional person.
A great deal of the abyssal feeling came from not knowing if the other person acknowledged my existence. In the real world, you could meet and talk to a woman and know that she has at least received the aural signals composed by your speech organs. Your witty message on a dating app could be lost in a sea of desperate voices, or consigned to the lowest tier of existence because of your refusal to pay for ‘premium’ services. It is an ugly game and a numbers game. Putting trust in strangers on the other side of the a mobile phone; training your own heart to beat faster when you receive a match or a like.
On a simple cost-benefit analysis, even for someone who succeeds with these kinds of apps (which seems a minority), they must think about how much they invested into it; whether that time was better spent actually going outside of the house as they used to do in the Dark Ages. I earnestly believe that it is an utter waste of time for the vast majority, particularly the invisible men and women deemed unattractive by the swiping masses. To those who attach their self-esteem to this digital image, all the worse. Its not necessarily you being ‘rejected’. This game is played with loaded dice.
The greater our means to communicate, the further we separate
I do not truly believe that all digital connection is futile and watered down. Even when I was living in a community, I still had occasion to go onto the shallow realms of social media. Online social spaces can be used for good purposes, if one has the energy to push against their algorithms of distraction and disatisfaction. They can be seem like a decent use of time when confronted with boredom and faced with a hyper-charged digitally-shaped brain.
Likewise with the dating apps – there is a perverse pleasure in the convenience of being able to log in with a tap and be whisked into a realm where you can find your knightess in shining armour. When things did not go to plan initially, I changed my profile, researched opening lines, took better pictures. All phantasmic gestures of control to keep the illusion going. It did feel nice for a few days to be lied to and it did feel exciting to have that sense of power and choice.
But as you can probably guess from the tone of this article, it was all a load of shite.