Online dating in 2021 – is it time to swipe left?

The world of dating is changing. Gone are the days of love letters, courting and throwing your handkerchief on the ground in the hopes that a handsome soldier will return it to you á-la Pride and Prejudice. All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players – except no one’s really sure of the rules anymore. From the lawless landscapes of Tinder to the more subdued Christian Mingle, dating apps have fast become the primary way to meet romantic partners nowadays. It’s no longer socially acceptable to approach a woman in a café and ask her on a date – she’s busy, pervert! While pubs, bars and clubs still hold one last dying spark for in-person romantic meetings, the popularity and ease of dating apps are undeniable. No more so than during the Coronavirus pandemic, when dating apps were the only option for many. The number of users surged as all of us lonely, bored folks turned our attention online in the hopes of a distraction from all the chaos. Tinder reported its highest number of swipes during the March 2020 lockdown, with 3 billion swipes in one day, and on Bumble, video calls increased by 70%.

The moth-to-a-flame attraction to dating apps is easy to understand. With dating apps, you have access to hundreds, if not thousands, of available suitors at the swipe of a thumb, and you can easily whittle down people who may not meet your personal criteria. There are also apps likes Grindr and Her, which provide safe, inclusive spaces for people of the LGBTQ community to meet. Not to mention that dating apps can be a god-send for people who suffer from mental health issues and may prefer to get to know someone from the comfort of their own home, or for people with autism, who may find it easy to navigate social queues in an explicitly romantic environment with a more rigid etiquette. Online dating apps also open us up to a wider range of dating options, with the possibility of falling for someone further afield and embarking in a long-distance relationship. A plethora of amorous options and opportunities can become available simply by downloading one little app.

However, exploring these sites can be like navigating a minefield for the uninitiated and their shortcomings must not be overlooked. If we turn to Tinder as the most notorious example, we see that the lack of face-to-face communication can lead to the dehumanizing of matches and the sense that consequences are not as ‘real’ as for in-person rejections. This can result in an on-slaught of behaviour which is overly forward at best and sexual harassment at worst. Sexual objectification in an opening message is incredibly common, and unsolicited nudes are not far behind. Though many turn to Tinder for a good time, sexual consent between both parties is still of the essence.

The impersonal nature of dating apps can enable the normalisation of certain behaviours which would never previously have been acceptable in an in-person environment. We see this in the rise of phenomena such as ‘ghosting’ (the act of suddenly ending communication with a person with no reason given) and ‘breadcrumbing’ (the act of leading someone on by giving them just a breadcrumb of attention every so often). These are new terms that never really existed or were widely utilised before – in fact, in 2017, ‘ghosting’ was added to the official Oxford Dictionary.  An unlimited choice of suitors can perpetuate this behaviour, as such a fast-moving environment does not allow us time to reflect on our behaviour – and besides, you just got five new matches. On to the next!

Most worryingly of all, dating apps have been linked with fostering racist attitudes, by allowing users to filter potential partners by race and ethnicity. Although this feature can be used for individuals of a certain ethnicity to make a love connection within their own culture with shared interests and experiences, it can also be used to push the narrative of racial supremacy or to target specific ethnicities to fetishize and objectify. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, several dating apps like Grindr and Scruff removed these filters as a show of solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement and to demonstrate commitment to undoing systematic racism. It is unclear as of yet whether this will help or hinder the cause, as it will not make users who are uninterested in dating people of colour more interested and it could expose people of colour who were previously hidden to those who may racially abuse them.

Above all else, the rise in dating apps has promoted the concept of the gamification of dating. What are dating apps if not mobile games for adults? We spend hours swiping left or right in the strangest form of window shopping ever created, with small hits of adrenaline with every match or message. It’s not about a marriage or a fairy-tale, it’s a laugh in the Uber home with your mates. It’s a thrilling opening that might turn into a date – or, more likely, a dry conversation about your favourite colour or number of siblings which fizzles out in less than a month, only to be repeated in a cycle with the next. The popularity of reality TV shows like Love Island and The Bachelor only serve to solidify this idea of gamification, as contestants scramble to find ‘love’ (*cough* money *cough*) in a sexy, drama-filled game televised to millions of people. With so many options available on this fun new ‘game’, it can be hard for young people to find relationships, for fear of missing out on an even better option. In such an instantaneous world of supply and demand, our attention spans are shorter than ever, constantly searching to be stimulated. One thing is for sure though – now the change has been made, there’s no going back.

So, peruse on dating apps to your heart’s content – but remember, with great power comes great responsibility! And though more options can mean more disappointments, there’s someone out there for everyone for those who are brave enough to look.

 Image Header Credit: Pixabay