Given their popularity, there has been relatively little discussion about the ethical issues raised by internet dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr and Bumble. I want to discuss some of the most important of these issues. My purpose is not to suggest the apps are on balance bad for society. I don’t think they are. As someone who remembers dating back in the bad old days of bars and blind dates, I actually think they’re pretty great, all things considered. But it is worth being aware of their downsides, and we should think about whether they can be addressed – and if so, how.
Dating apps have a number of benefits. They have made dating a lot easier for a lot of people – that’s why so many people use them. And they allow us to meet people we never would in real life. One survey found that two thirds of respondents report that online dating services have made it easier to meet potential partners of a different race or ethnicity.[i] This benefits us as individuals by increasing the size of our dating pool. It also produces social benefits, by promoting connections between members of different social groups. Dating apps also allow people with specific sexual interests and members of sexual minorities to find like-minded people more easily, which in turn decreases their isolation and marginalisation. It is no accident that gays and lesbians have been early and enthusiastic adopters of on-line dating. And there are now a number of specialized dating services, such as FarmersOnly, LDS Singles, and Star Trek Dating.
Internet dating apps also raise several concerns that are worth considering, however. First of all, they are owned by a small number of companies, and the way they operate is mostly kept secret. As a result, we have essentially surrendered control of our romantic lives to corporations that are neither fully transparent nor directly accountable to their users. Concerns about privacy and security are widespread in the tech industry, but they are particularly acute when it comes to internet dating, since the apps require us to surrender a considerable amount of very personal data. This includes aspects of ourselves, such as our sexual orientation, that could potentially make us vulnerable to discrimination or even, in some jurisdictions, criminal prosecution.
Given our dependence on dating apps to meet people, it becomes an important question who has access to them and who does not. The apps have the power to exclude people from their platforms on any basis, however arbitrary. This means whole categories of persons can be shut out. Eharmony, for instance, does not allow gays and lesbians to use the site to find same-sex partners. Dating apps also ban individual users based on criteria that are far from transparent. Tinder, for instance, has banned many trans users, probably because transphobic users report their profiles.[ii] Sex workers have also been kicked off dating apps, even when they are only using them for personal dating.[iii]
Apart from excluding people outright, the apps are often designed in ways that make it harder for certain people to find partners. For instance, “some apps seem to forget that bisexuality and pansexuality exist at all,” Elizabeth Varley, Founder and CEO of TechHub, told Kitty Knowles at Forbes. “The biggest mistakes are having a binary choice of people or ‘matches’.” Holly Brockwell, the editor of women’s tech publication Gadgette, told Knowles: “Pansexual people are often excluded from even the more progressive apps, or forced to sign up as bisexual which isn’t the same. There are also issues for transsexual, asexual and intersex people, and who they’re shown to. Ideally all apps should ask about your own sexuality and gender identity, AND the sexuality and gender identities of the people you’d like to meet.”[iv]
As on-line dating apps have become our predominant means to meet partners, they lead us to focus more than we ever have on superficial criteria such as physical appearance. Mia Levitan says that “swiping turns us all into teenagers making snap judgments solely on the basis of looks.” She cites a study of the words that, when men include them in their dating profiles, lead to the greatest number of matches. It found that claiming to be “physically fit” ups the response rate by 96%. It also found that the most advantageous word to use was “6ft”.[v]
The apps operate in a way that compounds existing inequalities in the dating market. The most popular users, measured by the total number of swipes they receive, are shown to the greatest number of potential partners.[vi] This ensures that the most attractive users receiving a disproportionate amount of matches and messages.[vii] In addition to giving an advantage to users who are physically attractive, this feature of the apps also promotes the lowest common denominator when it comes to attractiveness. Since users are given a binary choice, to simply like or dislike prospective partners, with no way to express intensity (other than through expensive and somewhat awkward “super likes”), the people with the most matches will be those who are considered at least modestly attractive by large numbers of people, over those who produce a more intense but more polarized reaction both positive and negative. This is despite the evidence that suggests that, given the opportunity, people will more often choose to message the users who produce the polarized responses.[viii] Since it usually requires a large number of matches in order to actually form an in-person relationship with someone, the apps give us an incentive to present ourselves in a way that is safely attractive to large numbers of people, rather than focusing on those aspect of ourselves that might attract a partner who shares our more obscure interests.
While dating apps can help people meet partners of different racial or cultural backgrounds, they can also become forums for discrimination. Christian Rudder, one of the founders of the dating app OKCupid, has found, based on his extensive access to data on how people use the site in the United States, that white men receive more messages, and more replies to their messages, than members of any other group. Black women receive the least attention.[ix] A study in Europe showed that, on European dating sites, people of African and Middle Eastern descent receive fewer messages and replies than do white people.[x] Members of visible minorities report that those messages they do receive are often filled with racial slurs.[xi] While such racist attitudes reflect those prevalent in the off-line world, the anonymity of the on-line environment seems in many cases to exacerbate them. Some apps, such as Grindr, tolerate racist and derogatory language in people’s public profiles, and it is common to see profiles with declarations such as “no Asians,” “no fatties,” and “no trannies”. This is obviously problematic. Says Chris Stokel-Walker: “We don’t accept ‘No blacks, no Irish’ signs in real life any more, so why do we on platforms that are a major part of our dating lives . . .?”[xii]
Intimate discrimination, whether through such openly derogatory language or through the uneven number of matches and messages people receive, causes real harm. People who are disfavoured because of their race suffer damage to their self-esteem, and face on-going demands on their emotional labour. What sociologists call “assortative mating” also has a measurable impact on economic inequality. When people more frequently date others like themselves – that is, people of the same class and race – there is less social mobility, and as a result more economic inequality, within the society overall.[xiii]
We should not imagine that the apps must inevitably re-enforce our biases. On the contrary, there have been numerous proposals to re-design them in ways that can mitigate them. The apps can be set to match people based on personal interests and other characteristics that have nothing to do with race, ethnicity or other demographic characteristics. An interesting and unconventional example of a matching algorithm that uses something other than demographics is the Japanese gay dating app 9Monsters. It groups users into one of nine categories of fictional “monster” according to a process that includes both the user’s own type preference and the community’s perception of them.[xiv]
Because now the people we meet often fall outside our immediate social networks, it is easier to behave badly towards those we meet or are involved with. Besides racist behavior, we can also look for instance at the prevalence of ghosting – breaking off all communication with someone suddenly and with no explanation. Around a fifth of young people report having been ghosted by a romantic partner.[xv] The number would be much higher if we were to count people who have been ghosted by someone with whom they have connected on-line but not yet met in person. We can hypothesize that people feel more free to behave in insensitive ways when they are with someone who has no contact with anyone else they know.
While technology allows for the creation of on-line communities, it can also have a damaging effect on real-life ones. Michael Hobbes has chronicled what he calls the epidemic of gay loneliness, which he attributes in part to the decline of gay bars and other social spaces that is the result of technology use. He quotes a man named Adam who says:
It’s so much easier to meet someone for a hookup on Grindr than it is to go to a bar by yourself. Especially if you’ve just moved to a new city, it’s so easy to let the dating apps become your social life. It’s harder to look for social situations where you might have to make more of an effort.[xvi]
Statistics show there has been a notable decline in the number of gay bars, which have long served as a linchpin of the LGBTQ community. One study found that the number of gay bars in the United States has declined by 37% since 2007.[xvii] The author of that study told the New York Times that the number of lesbian bars has dropped by over half since 2007, and by over 90% since 1986.[xviii] The decline is not entirely due to technology, but we can hypothesise that it plays a major role. Gays and lesbians have been early adopters of dating technology – but the straight world may not be far behind. We can see the impact of technology on in-person social networks when we see, for instance, the decline in the amount of time young people spend attending social gatherings.[xix]
There is also a puzzle about our current technological landscape: for all that it facilitates connections in various ways, the net effect seems to be that people are having less sex overall. Numerous explanations have been proposed for the so-called “sex recession”.[xx] Some have suggested that people are dissatisfied with existing technology, even as we have become more dependent on it. Others have argued that our dependence on technology simply offers us too much choice, and this in itself leads to unhappiness. Barry Schwartz has identified what he calls “the paradox of choice”: that the more options we have, the less we are satisfied with the choices we make. This has been applied to the world of modern dating to help explain the decline in sexual activity.[xxi] Clearly, there are multiple factors at work, but this could certainly be playing a role.
Internet dating is here to stay. I am certainly not suggesting that we try to stop people from using the apps, even if this were possible. But we can, perhaps, try to be mindful of how we use them, and be aware of their impacts on ourselves and on society. And we can as consumers pressure the companies to ensure that they design their apps in the most socially responsible way.
[i] Philipp Hergovich and Josue Ortega, “The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating,” (2017) https://arxiv.org/pdf/1709.10478.pdf
[ii] Allison Tierney, “Why Are Trans People Being Banned from Tinder?” VICE, 14 December 2017. https://www.vice.com/en/article/xwvaaz/why-are-trans-people-being-banned-from-tinder
[iii] Hannah Al-Othman, “Sex Workers Say Tinder Is Shutting Down Their Personal Dating Profiles,” BuzzFeed, 4 November 2018 https://www.buzzfeed.com/hannahalothman/sex-workers-tinder
[iv] Kitty Knowles, “The bisexual problem: When dating apps aren’t for you,” Forbes 16 February 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kittyknowles/2016/02/16/bisexual-dating-apps-transgender-lgbt-dating-apps/?sh=53c01469305d
[v] Mia Levitan, The Future of Seduction (London: Unbound [ebook], 2020); Lindsay Dodgson, “Using these words in your dating profile will get you the most matches, according to dating app Badoo,” Insider (30 August 2018), www.insider.com/words-to-put-in-your-dating-profile-to-get-most-matches-2018-8
[vi] Austin Carr, “I Found Out My Secret Internal Tinder Rating and Now I Wish I Hadn’t,” Fast Company, 11 February 2016. https://www.fastcompany.com/3054871/whats-your-tinder-score-inside-the-apps-internal-ranking-system
[vii] Dan Kopf, “These statistics show why it’s so hard to be an average man on dating apps,” Quartz, 15 August 2017.
[viii] Christian Rudder, The Mathematics of Beauty, OK Trends, 10 January 2011. https://www.gwern.net/docs/psychology/okcupid/themathematicsofbeauty.html
[ix] See Christian Rudder, Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity – What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves, New York: Broadway Books, 2014, pp. 101-109.
[x] Gina Potârcă and Melinda Mills, “Racial preferences in online dating across European countries,” European Sociological Review 31, 2015, pp. 326-341, at p. 332.
[xi] Curtis M. Wong, “Watch What Happened When These Two Men Swapped Grindr Profiles,” Huffington Post (17 September 2017). https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/grindr-profile-swap-what-the-flip_n_59bd352de4b0edff971c810c?ri18n=true
[xii] Chris Stokel-Walker, “Why is it OK for online daters to block whole ethnic groups?” The Observer, 29 September 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/sep/29/wltm-colour-blind-dating-app-racial-discrimination-grindr-tinder-algorithm-racism
[xiii] Branko Milanovic, “Rich Like Me: How Assortative Mating Is Driving Income Inequality,” Quillette, 18 October 2019. https://quillette.com/2019/10/18/rich-like-me-how-assortative-mating-is-driving-income-inequality/
[xiv] Mike Miksche, “Meet 9MONSTERS, the gay app where Grindr meets Tamagotchi, Slate, 19 May 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2017/05/19/meet_9monsters_the_gay_hook_up_app_where_grindr_meet_tamagotchi.html
Hutson, J.A., Taft, J. G., Barocas, S. and Levy, K. (2018). “Debiasing Desire: Addressing Bias & Discrimination on Intimate Platforms” Proceedings of the ACM On Human-Computer Interaction (CSCW) 2: 1–18.
[xv] YouGov, “Poll Results: Ghosting,” (28 October 2014), https://today.yougov.com/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2014/10/28/poll-results-ghosting; Raúl Navarro, Elisa Larrañaga , Santiago Yubero and Beatriz Víllora, “Psychological Correlates of Ghosting and Breadcrumbing Experiences: A Preliminary Study among Adults,”
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (2020), 1-13.
[xvi] Michael Hobbes, “Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” Huffington Post (2 March 2017) https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/gay-loneliness/
[xvii] Greggor Mattson, “Are Gay Bars Closing? Using Business Listings to Infer Rates of Gay Bar Closure in the United States, 1977–2019,” Socius 5 (2019), 1-2.
[xviii] Lena Wilson, “Where Did All the Lesbian Bars Go? Increasingly, They’re on TV,” New York Times (7 May 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/07/arts/television/lesbian-bars-vida-l-word-batwoman.html
[xix] Teddy Wayne, “The Death of the Party,” New York Times (16 September 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/17/fashion/death-of-the-party.html
[xx] Kate Julian, “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?”, The Atlantic (December 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/the-sex-recession/573949/
[xxi] Elizabeth Svoboda, “The Problem with Modern Romance Is Too Much Choice,” Nautilus (6 October 2016), http://nautil.us/issue/41/selection/the-problem-with-modern-romance-is-too-much-choice