Digital dating has given us unprecedented power over romance. We must use it wisely.

An old-fashioned romantic, I’ve always thought there was a beauty in having six tequilas and bumping into another boiling, sweaty human jumping up and down to Mr Brightside in the confines of a small room. 

Okay…maybe it’s not Sleepless in Seattle, but it has a charm.

Yet I must admit that it makes a lot more sense to make decisions regarding a potential future partner through a dating app when you are (mostly) sober, rational and free of the shrieking voice in your head telling you that you must FIND LOVE NOW BECAUSE THE CLUB CLOSES IN FIFTEEN MINUTES. 

It also seems to work. One-third of marriages already start online, and a study by dating website ‘Plenty of Fish’ suggests that by 2031 more people will be meeting their partners online rather than offline.

Of course, it hasn’t all been joyous. Depending on whose data you believe, between 50% and 80% of millennials have admitted they have either ghosted or been ghosted by someone they have dated. Now, being totally ignored by someone you had potentially placed in the ‘could see me naked’ box isn’t a pleasant phenomenon, but it’s being driven by two technological factors. 

Firstly, as dating apps have increased the number of successful relationships, they have also increased the number of false starts. If you have to kiss a lot of frogs to get to the prince, that leaves a lot of frogs to politely ask to sod off. Since people aren’t big fans of confrontation, dealing with this quantity of ‘sorry it’s me not you’s’ is simply overwhelming, which is why many of us opt to disappear (whilst of course still acting outraged when people do it to us…). 

Secondly, technology has slowly transformed the process of finding a partner into something more akin to online shopping. It has introduced a level of depersonalisation which makes it far easier to start a conversation via an app than walking up to someone in a bar, but equally then makes it far more emotionally acceptable to dispose of them without a word. This doesn’t only apply to someone you might message but never meet. Consider the striking similarities between the user interface of an e-commerce website and a dating app, from the selection of ‘product’ shots to the short bios, through to a navigation system which makes moving from one person to the next as easy as comparing a blue shirt with a white shirt. It follows that the more we come to understand potential partners as products, the less emotional energy we invest when we decide we no longer need them. You don’t feel obliged to take your Nike shop assistant out for a meal and gently explain to them that you will now be buying Adidas trainers in the future, do you? 

If that sounds farfetched, let’s compare some intriguing stats. In a 2018 report for American mobile phone reseller Bank My Cell, 22.5% of respondents said they had ghosted someone based on the fact that they did not live up to their profile picture. That is strikingly similar to the average of 20% of people who report returning items that they have purchased online (Shopify Return Rates Report 2019). Could it be that in both cases, people are objecting to the discrepancy between what they were promised online, and the ‘product’ they’re presented with in real life? 

At first, I found that thought rather alarming. “Are we becoming too callous, too unemotional?” I thought. Are our love lives becoming dangerously robotic?

Yet behind this exists an enormous possibility for good. For the first time in history, the way humans interact romantically is uniformly condensed and controlled by half a dozen major websites and apps. If we accept that some of their structures might be impacting our thought process, if it can give rise to something like ghosting for example, then by tweaking the structures of just a dozen platforms we have the power to change the behaviour of hundreds of millions of users.

Let’s say that we want to keep the staggering statistical success of digital dating because evidently something that gives people a better chance of finding love is a good thing. But let’s also say we want these platforms to create more empathetic, kinder humans. 

Beforehand, whatever people did in the early stages of what I am going to call ‘courtship’ (because the 19th century is still alive and kicking in my veins), good or bad, was simply lost in the atmosphere. We had no way of knowing who the dickheads were or who deserved a big pat on the back. Now we do.

So imagine if Bumble rewarded you for having the courage to tell someone that it wasn’t going to work out? Imagine if Tinder offered free counselling to anyone who was flagged by other users as having sent offensive messages? 

Controversially, you could even start to manipulate the algorithms to favour users who demonstrate certain types of ‘positive’ behaviour outside of the romantic sphere, such as giving more exposure to the profiles of people who are verified blood donors.

Clearly there will always be a balance to strike between the ability of organisations to shape behaviour and the right of the individual to make their own decision as to right and wrong, but if we intend to allow technology to play cupid, what an amazing opportunity this is to spread the love. 

Text: Paris Penman Davies
Photo: Rikki Matsumoto
In exclusive for: The Flow House