The affordances of desire: on dating apps

I don’t turn off what turns me on
St Vincent, ‘Masseduction’


It is a truth universally acknowledged that all single people are on dating apps. Of course, as with Jane Austen’s memorable line, the experiences different people have on such apps are highly variable, and the politics governing their design and use are almost as regressive and restrictive as the sexual economy of the early nineteenth century. But it is proof of the eagerness with which we try and find intimacy that neither a global pandemic, nor a lockdown has stopped dating.

Reliably awful, The Economist has reported that the number of messages sent on dating apps had increased by twenty-seven per cent, so that Rob-not-his-real-name, ‘classically handsome, with a job on Wall Street’, could no longer get the sex he thought owing to him.

The geography of dating apps, like online pornography, is a distorted map of desire. It is blighted by all our prejudice, embarrassment and shame, and stoked by all our affirmation and (need of) love. The regulated topography of online desire is, as Giuliana Bruno writes of film in Atlas of Emotion (2002), ‘a mobile map – a map of differences, a production of socio-sexual fragments and cross-cultural travel.’ What this map tells us is that dating apps have a stultifying effect on the emancipation of desire from the propertarian, heteronormative rituals that to dominate our relationships of intimacy, love and sex.

Apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, OkCupid, Grindr, Scruff and Brenda – to name only a few mainstream examples – offer affordances that are built into the way they are designed. These affordances import all the assumptions and norms of both those who make them, and adapt primarily to what sells: they turn daters into consumers of each other, and unwitting producers of data for the monopolistic behemoths of the digital world. Dating apps are actively involved in reproducing the traits of contemporary capitalism, transforming our very desires in ways that reshape and homogeneise how we love each other.

In its application from geography to technology, an affordance can ‘incline users to adopt different behaviours and pursue different paths of development,’ which are not always noticed because they operate ‘structurally in the background and in a manner that tends to be overlooked and taken for granted by those situated within the environment.’ As Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger write in Re-Engineering Humanity (2019), ‘our perception and understanding of reality adjusts gradually as we become accustomed to the presence, power and utility of tools.’ Despite the narrative of progressive development as dating app creators respond to bugs and flaws in previous version, it is dating apps that shape us, not consumers that shape dating apps.

Dating apps fit into the same corporate geography as the mass social networking sites and hegemonic platforms like Facebook and Google. As Shoshana Zuboff reminds us in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), everything we do on the internet creates data, which is a product we give freely to platforms that they sell to advertisers. It is not simply a matter of customising our online experience; internet giants (and governments) have larger goals, namely predicting and altering our behaviour. Their algorithms work structurally in the background, subtly predicting what we ‘want’ and so shaping and narrowing it in advance. Eerily similar to online shopping, what dating apps want is for us to stay on the site, keep feeding data to them, and satisfy distorted versions of preferences we select ahead of time, as though we knew beforehand what ‘type’ of person we could love.

Dating apps offer a false solution to the desiccated public sphere and the disenchanted anonymity of modern environments. They are designed to solve the problem of loneliness (and boredom) but their architecture channels users into ritualistic forms of sociality that exacerbate them. The boredom of scrolling, and the loneliness induced by the way profiles seem to suggest that everyone else is happier and shinier that we are. They make us imagine that everyone else is cheerily mingling, while simultaneously enhancing the privacy of our experience and ‘outsourcing’ the terrifying prospect of approaching strangers. They ‘gamify’ social life. Like Rameet Chawla, who set up an app to automatically like all his friends’ photos, online ‘solutions’ do not solve a problem but avoid it, and at the same time, turn that avoidance to the advantage of big tech companies. By minimising its scope, dating apps transmute our desire into data.

Dating apps encourage us to fit our desires into pre-determined boxes, not intended to expand our imagination of who we might love, but to reduce it to predictable characteristics, which often simply track the worst forms of prejudice and discrimination.  Moreover, they encourage us to treat our desires as units of information defined by superficial and fixed characteristics. This does a disservice to the malleability and breadth of human desire and companionship, but it is itself in service of producing profit-maximising behaviour, making us more predictable and more easily manipulated. As Frischmann and Selinger write, in the territory of apps, ‘personal relationships are treated like a system that should be optimized to mininise inefficiency and waste through strict cost-benefit planning.’

As Amia Srinivasan writes in her blistering essay ‘Does anyone have a right to sex?’, ‘There are of course real risks associated with subjecting our sexual preferences to political scrutiny … There is nothing else so riven with politics and yet so inviolably personal.’ But for Srinivasan, avoiding these issues disastrously conflates prudishness, the ill-grounded assumption of liberal freedom, with genuine attempts at feminist and queer critique. Against the attempt to ‘exorcise the radical feminist ambition to develop a political critique of sex,’ Srinivasan argues that we need to learn ‘how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.’

Laura Kipnis proposed just such an ambivalent critique in her polemic Against Love (2003). She lamented that ‘so exiled have even basic questions of freedom become from the political vocabulary that they sound musty and ridiculous, and vulnerable to the ultimate badge of shame.’ Yet, for Kipnis, as modern humans we are ‘constituted as beings yearning to be filled, craving connection, needing to adore and be adored, because love is vital plasma and everything else in the world just tap water.’ We can neither simply avoid speaking about love, no matter what our relationships status, nor avoid the fact that, as the Endnotes collective write in ‘We Unhappy Few’, ‘Capitalism is not our there, it traverses us, it is us.’ All our interactions with platform and surveillance capitalism are discreetly reshaping who we are, and foreclosing questions of who we want to be and who we want to be with.


Dating apps and parlour chats

One way of thinking about how reactionary dating apps are is by comparing their affordances with Victorian rituals of courtship. Qualifying the criticism that dating has been commercialised and that love has become economic is the historical perspective that love has always had economic aspects. For example, Jane Austen’s novels are full of delicate negotiations and economic calculations about the suitability of particular matches, governed by the constant reminder that no one should marry above (or below) their station.

Katherine Sharpe compares the dating site to the ‘Victorian drawing room where women communicate through the angle of their fans.’ Conversations, like profiles, have a dull consistency that ossifies into types so that we can flick right or left with half a second of consideration. They have an eye-bleedingly formulaic quality, as though the app interrupted our ability to think and speak:

Not much.
How are you?
Fine …

As Austen writes in Emma, this formulaic style of conversation is designed to conceal the vulnerability of expressing desire: ‘their straightforward emotions left no room for the little zigzags of embarrassment.’ In most chats, Austen, in Sense and Sensibility, captures the disheartening quality of conversation such that ‘she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.’ Austen is scornful, even contemptuous of those who seek to better themselves by a superior match, such as Lucy whose ‘unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.’ The lofty assumption is that our sympathetic heroines – who adhere to class conventions – are beyond the dirty economic calculation of aspiration, or somehow exceptional.

Yet Austen does capture the boredom and monotony of chatter, like Marianne’s refusal to express herself since she ‘could find no language to describe [her feelings] in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.’ In uncannily similar terms, Lauren Oyler jokes, ‘the internet’s contribution to language has been to give us more ways to communicate without saying anything at all :(’

Although it lets some people into the dating world, the style of communication on dating sites – according to Eva Illouz’s seminal analysis in Cold Intimacies (2007) – is characterised by ‘uniformity, standardisation, and reification’ of our desires and identities.

Dating app profiles and the affordances of the algorithms and platforms produce rigid sexualities and, some argue, tend to reinforce gender binaries. Rena Bivens and Anna Shah Hoque compare the putatively ‘feminist’ dating app Bumble to ‘the ballrooms of the nineteenth century Regency era, [in which] women are deeply tied to a particular performance of femininity while men are offered an opportunity to be gentlemanly.’ This stands in contrast to the conservative moral panic that feared the emancipation of sexuality in the context of new online possibilities. Nancy Jo Sales famously prophesied the ‘dating apocalypse’ with the advent of Tinder. However what sociologists have discovered is that dating apps have not so much led to a proliferation of promiscuity than to a rise in unsafe sex with the same partners.

We’re not more open or experimental, simply lazier in the way we conduct our flings. We have outsourced our self-presentation and self-worth to social media and dating app profiles. The effort of expressing our desires is distorted into simplified questionnaires, that, as Rob Horning points out, claim to know more about us than we do ourselves. As Whitney Erin Boesel puts it, ‘what’s unique about online dating is not the actual dating, but how one came to be on a date with that particular stranger in the first place.’ Or, more bluntly, Ana Cecilia Alvarez: ‘Platforms calibrate how daters reach their target audience.’

Alvarez points out that it is not simply the ways in which we find dates, but the very possibilities and passages of desire that are being re-routed by dating apps. ‘Desirability and desire are reduced to a data set of ‘taste’, with all of its classist and racist trappings, and in this myopic echo chamber we often match with others whose taste remind us of our own.’ For example, Bronwyn Carlson has highlighted the prevalence of ‘sexual racism’ against Indigenous Australians. As apps become more specialized in response to the market growth in loneliness and persistent pressure to pair up, they intensify these features.

For instance: in market-savvy response to the ‘dating apocalypse’, a Harvard Business School graduate set up a new service called Hinge ‘that would facilitate committed relationships.’ The consumer feedback demanded a ‘clean, well-lighted space’ that was explicit about being not explicit. The feedback loop reported by Sales herself is telling for two reasons. Firstly, the apps are advertised for a particular type of relationship, specifically a straight and narrow one. As Emily Witt identified in Future Sex (2016), dating apps offer ‘a clear, sense-making corridor from being single to being in a couple with no detours into other possibilities.’ And, secondly, it is and always was a business. No, wait: you are the business. Witt confirms, ‘the “marketplace” of Internet dating made consumer products of humans and overwhelmed them with choices.’

This is not to say that dating apps started out as well-designed or safe online environments for women, people of colour, sexual minorities and gender diverse folk. It is hard not to sympathise with the dilemma facing eager but respectable singles, faced with the prospect of endless dick pics, leering men or simply boredom and disappointment. One woman replied to Sales’ initial 2015 article with a call to ‘Bring back retro dating.’ This does seem to be a prevalent sentiment, not just among users but among ‘theorists’ of love as well.

In Distillations (2018), Mari Ruti laments that it is typical of ‘our pragmatic, levelheaded society to reject the unsettling aspects of love,’ a tendency

crystallised in the streamlined attempts of dating services to match partners based on desireable characteristics and shared interests – and (eventually) matrimonial harmony. Such instrumentalisation of love serves as a force of biopolitical conditioning that extracts out of love everything that renders it inspiring, making it instead serve the needs of cultural stability, political expediency, and the market economy.

Although Ruti is right in diagnosing some of the problems with online dating, nevertheless she pits it against a romantic, idealised conception of love, which economic calculation sunders. Similarly, pre-eminent philosopher Alain Badiou, sounding far too much like Alain de Botton, denounces online dating for eroding the factor of chance from love. Not exactly hard-hitting, nor exactly true.

Against the creep of a nostalgic vision of lost romantic love, Julia Carter argues that while ‘the very start of relationships might be different – meeting online might give those first few dates a different flavour – when those relationships start to become established, then the way we do things hasn’t really changed.’ If anything, online dating expands the range of possible matches beyond our restrictive social circles, yet our actual relationships remain steadfastly conventional, which is to say systematically unequal.

Jenny van Hooff’s survey of dating app users in Western Australia found that

while evidence to support the commercialization of intimate life was limited, findings suggest that the use of dating apps may reinforce conventionally gendered hierarchies, as participants’ interactions and experiences continue to be framed by heteronormative scripts.

In their playful ‘Dating in the Expanded Field’, Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern trace courting rituals from the Victorian era, in which men entered women’s private space and were supervised, to the modern post-war era, when men picked women up from home and took them out into the public world. Modern daters, they write, ‘publicly traded time, company and money’ and made ‘dating’s site’ not the ‘home but the marketplace.’ The publicity of the courtship has arguably been reversed by dating apps, which have re-privatised many of the rituals associated with dating. But it has not necessarily increased or decreased the commercialisation of intimate life, as van Hooff argues. Although Arlie Hochschild suggests that commercialisation has increased, and led to terms like ‘economy of gratitude’ or ‘care deficit’, Viviana Zelizer counters that ‘intimacy and economics have never been so separate in the first place. If dating (whether online or conventional) is like shopping, we should not feign surprise.’


Dating capital

Criticisms of dating apps that target the way they commercialise romance only show how short our historical memories (and critical visions) are. Like conservative reactionaries, they confuse the imbalanced effects and debasement of the ideals of the sexual revolution with its original promise. This historical short-sightedness means we are susceptible to perceive change where none has occurred simply because we lack the critical framework to understand the situation. Rather than a loss, the effect of dating apps on sexuality may be a regression to privatised spaces characteristic of Victorian courtship. On the other hand, if we are going to identify genuine changes, we will have to engage not only in a closer analysis of the way the dating apps are business platforms like any other social media, and the way their design offers a particularly restrictive set of affordances. We will also have to risk what Srinivasan calls a ‘political critique of desire.’

To engage in such a critique, we must be willing to de-naturalise and politicise both our desire and our identities so that we can see how power works through both. In doing so, we may after all find that dating apps do increase the commercialisation of sex and love, not necessarily by commodifying our relationships as older models of alienation by labour might have it, but by intensifying the extent to which we perceive ourselves as human capital. As John Lanchester argued of platform capitalists: ‘You are the product!’ In other words, rather than pretend that dating apps are unique inducing us to ‘sell ourselves’, we can attend to the way they encourage us to enhance the product, and invest in it, and speculate on it.

In his analysis of the concept of human capital in The Birth of Biopolitics (2008), Michel Foucault wrote:

Homo œconomicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself … The man of consumption is not one of the terms of exchange. The man of consumption, insofar as he consumes, is a producer. What does he produce? Well, quite simply, he produces his own satisfaction.

Foucault’s insight is also true to the peculiar narcissism of these platforms, which encourage as much self-curation as they do self-promotion. As human capital, we both respond to and create markets. This has enormous implications for our desires. By selecting categories and cultivating ever more specific personality types, we play into the conventional models offered to us by the apps and platforms. We undergo the necessary standardisation, and, paradoxically, nichification, so that we are both measureable and quantifiable to the technology, and visible and stand out to our prospective partners.

Desire itself has become a kind of labour, catechised by the slogan of couples therapy that ‘relationships take work’, as Kipnis writes. We are governed by the imperative to ‘stay together’ as the mark of maturity and, to service this imperative, the therapeutically enforced work ethic has infiltrated the most intimate parts of our lives. Economic calculus takes place under the pressures of a market order characterized by ‘scarcity, threat and internalised prohibitions, held in place by those incessant assurances that there are “no viable alternatives”’. As Silvia Federici wrote in 1975, sexuality under capitalist patriarchy is work and ‘little spontaneity is possible when the timing, conditions and the amount of energy available for love, are out of our control.’ This leads to a ‘behavioural uniformity’, Kipnis argues, that in the world of dating apps is ideal for data collection and behaviour prediction. Moreover, as neoliberals long hoped, the family form of relationships preserves the market order for efficient expropriation and guarantees the ‘orderly transmission of property via inheritance.’

Although the economic rationality that governed dating in Austen’s time and our networked, satellite and location-tracking enabled version share a set of ‘social rules governing mate selection [that] are as finicky and precise as they were in Jane Austen’s time. The difference is that it’s now taboo to acknowledge them, which may amount to less freedom rather than more.’ The promise of sexual liberation, and the possibility of a radical transformation in the labour of reproduction and way in which people in society care for one another, have been deserted by the hypertrophic privacy and restricted range of options delivered to us by dating apps.

The geography of dating apps is a bleak desert populated by standarised, calculating avatars of our bored, isolated and lonely selves. But in the midst of this, people do talk and adapt platforms to their own ends. Moreover, examples abound of attempts to express new forms of desire, and imagine new modes of intimacy and relationship. Writers like Samuel Delany in Heavenly Breakfast and Gillian Rose in Love’s Work, as well as those I have quoted demonstrate these possibilities and, as Sophie Lewis recently reminded us, it takes a lot of propaganda to maintain the conceit of heterosexuality. These are winkles in the dismal similitude of desire, like each hopeful dater reaching out to their matches.


Note: I thank all my friends who shared their experiences and ideas about dating apps with me.

Image: Giorgio De Chirico, The Archaeologists (1927)

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique.

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