Dating App Armageddon

I’m in bed on Hinge. I scroll through a couple of photos on a profile and then hit the cross in the bottom left corner. My thumb is so accustomed to this that I don’t even have to look down to find it—just scroll and tap. Scroll and tap. Profiles blur together, faces become unrecognisable. I shudder: is this normal? Or is this doing irreparable damage to my brain? Probably both.


I’m in bed on Hinge. I scroll through a couple of photos on a profile and then hit the cross in the bottom left corner. My thumb is so accustomed to this that I don’t even have to look down to find it—just scroll and tap. Scroll and tap. Profiles blur together, faces become unrecognisable. I shudder: is this normal? Or is this doing irreparable damage to my brain? Probably both.

Tinder revolutionised the dating landscape when it was launched in 2012, allowing users to swipe and match with potential partners on their mobile phones. Since then, apps like Bumble and Hinge have diversified the dating landscape, each promising slightly different features to ensure users are satisfied. Bumble, for example, only allows women to message first in heterosexual matches, attempting to curb the frequency of harassment. Alternatively, Hinge proposes to offer a focus on ‘relationships’ rather than casual meetups, a sentiment captured in its marketing tagline, “the dating app designed to be deleted”.

The appearance of a diverse dating app market, however, is illusory. Being the parent company to almost all dating platforms aside from Bumble, Match Group owns a suite of dating apps—including OkCupid, Tinder, Hinge and more. Producing billions of dollars in revenue each year, Match Group is the invisible observer of every failed attempt to create a profile, every shitty date, and every un-messaged match.

How do we feel about all our personal profile data and conversations being held by one parent company? I discuss this with a friend, 23, who uses Hinge. He comments, “my biggest problem is that an innately human thing is corporatized”. He raises an important point: what do we make of the profit motive which lies behind these apps, and behind Match Group more broadly?

When each app is ultimately vying for our data and money, the space for the genuine human connection integral to dating shrinks. Dating apps offer particularly sinister promises in order to generate revenue. Memberships, ‘boosts’ and ‘Super Likes’ are touted as silver bullets in the game of love. Approximately 400,000 of Hinge’s 6 million users, for instance, have paid for these premium services. In fact, a Hinge membership comes with a promise of two times more dates—something which, to me, seems more tiring than rewarding.

In 2019, Tinder was sued for $17.3 million after it was revealed that fees for membership plans were as much as double for older users in California—something which was found to amount to age discrimination. Australia’s consumer advocacy group Choice filed a complaint after Tinder Plus membership subscriptions were found to range between $6.99 and $34 per month. The reason for the significant variation was unknown, but the different pricing seemed to be based on a combination of factors, including a user’s age, gender, location and sexuality.

One thing is clear: dating apps are profitable at the expense of their users’ desire to connect with others. So, why would anyone use them at all? In short, they are somewhat addictive. Through providing an ego boost and a dopamine hit, gamified dating becomes a way to build self-esteem, especially in the aftermath of a breakup. These apps must strike a balance: providing users with just enough success and reward to ensure they keep swiping and scrolling, but not so much that they end up with a partner, a dog and a weatherboard house, thus ditching the app altogether.

This is not to undermine the genius behind dating app algorithms, which are largely kept hidden from public knowledge. Hinge, for example, draws on the Nobel Prize-winning Gale-Shapley algorithm, developed in 1962. The Gale-Shapley theory establishes that stable marriages can be created through a series of proposals and rejections, where the best match possible is created for each participant. This is where each individual is matched to their highest preference who reciprocates their attraction.

Tinder’s algorithm is seemingly based on Elo scores, where each profile is ranked according to perceived attractiveness. Being ‘liked’ by other users boosts an individual’s score, and being liked by a user with many likes themselves results in a higher boost. However, with more users and thus more data, Tinder claims to have refined its algorithm to facilitate more matches. On the other hand, OkCupid calculates a match percentage between each user based on more detailed profiles.

I think one of the most confronting aspects of dating within these algorithms is how ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are conjured into measureable categories. The apps keep count of likes, matches and unopened conversations. And, as flattering as receiving virtual compliments can be, rejection stings whether it occurs in person or via a phone app.

Rather unsurprisingly, research by Holtzhausen et al. found that dating app use is correlated with higher reports of depression and anxiety amongst Australians. Those who used dating apps daily were four times more likely to report distress compared those who didn’t at all. Although it’s possible that those who are more prone to these mental health concerns simply happen to use dating apps at a higher rate, it’s not unreasonable to believe that these apps have a negative impact on psychological outcomes.

Dating apps make dating more constant, weaving concerns about romance and rejection into our previously-private spaces. Taking a warm, relaxing shower? Your phone pings with a new like, and you check it instantly. Waking up in the morning? Time to see whether last night’s match has responded. A friend, aged 20, tells me, “I don’t think it’s Hinge that has affected my mental health or mood, but rather that it has illuminated the oscillations or vacillations in my mood that I wasn’t super switched into.”

So, what do we do with this information? Delete and hope for the renaissance of old-style courtship, where women are passed as objects from father to husband? Or try to chisel away more space for genuine connection within these existing platforms? I think an important first step is becoming aware of how these algorithms operate and the mental health risks we are potentially exposing ourselves to. Perhaps we should be glad that the problems of online dating are a development on the strict, patriarchal systems of the past, allowing for more freedom than ever before. It seems inevitable that dating apps will continue to play a central role in meeting new people well into the future—and that the profitable business of online dating will continue to expand too. What’s most significant is how little we, as users of these applications, can really do to change this.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

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