Do dating apps disappoint? When Treena Orchard, author and associate professor at Western University in London, Ontario started using online dating apps in her 40s, she noticed something very peculiar.
Her experiences – the endless back and forth messaging, persistent sexual harassment, pushy requests for nudes and routine ghosting – were all eerily similar to the things she’d heard her 20-something students kvetch about ad nauseum.
When she shared her insights with her students, she was floored to learn that what she was experiencing was simply par for the course.
“You could be me,” a student told her.
“But that’s messed up. My dating life shouldn’t be the same as yours,” Orchard replied.
Orchard told the Toronto Sun columnist Simone Paget this story while catching up over the phone last week. They recently met through social media and quickly bonded over their shared interest (and frequent dismay) in the current state of dating. Like Simone, Orchard remembers what dating was like before the proliferation of online dating apps.
Orchard, who is currently working on a memoir about her dating app experiences, says, “[dating is] always going to be kind of a mess, but it shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t be this offensive. It shouldn’t be this dangerous.”
Dating also shouldn’t be this boring. Part of the reason Simone struggles to use online dating apps is that whenever she logs on (even if she hasn't been active for months) she says that it feels like she’s in the dating version of Groundhog Day, only without Bill Murray to provide comic relief when she receives an onslaught of one word messages (“hey wyd?”), requests for photos (“more pics plz”) and unsolicited phallic photography.
As Orchard points out, one of the many problems with online dating apps is that they’ve become “copy and paste,” flattening the experience for users by creating “remarkably similar user experiences, most of which make dating hard and less enjoyable.”
During her research, Orchard has found that there’s a common marked delay between matching and meeting in-person. “IRL [in real life] is seen as ‘next level’ because we’re so reliant on digital communication and are poorly socialized with in-person intimacy,” she says. The result is endless texting (which frequently includes requests for nudes or sexting) with zero plans to meet up. “Some folks don’t want to meet in the flesh, but for those of us who do, this delay reduces our success rates,” she says.
In addition, the gamification of dating apps means that dating is just one thing we use these platforms for, explains Orchard. Instead, many people readily use dating apps as a time-waster. Orchard says, “matches are mere pixels to be treated rudely or sexualized for their own gains, which sucks if you’re trying to find something fun or meaningful. I’ve heard guys say ‘I don’t take online dating seriously’ which seems to be code for ‘I don’t take you seriously’ either.” All of which means dating apps disappoint.
However, “unflattening” the dating app experience is easier said than done. As Nancy Jo Sales thoroughly documents in her book, Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in The Dating App Inferno, bro-culture and misogyny are bred into the algorithm design of dating apps. “Lack of safety protocols enables violence, assaults, and offensive behaviours by men to go unchecked, which is enhanced by the fact that all the major platforms have similar algorithms,” says Orchard.
While dating apps disappoint and this whole scenario paints a grim picture of modern romance, all hope is not lost. Orchard says, “happily, there are different apps being developed (mainly in large U.S. cities) that are more fem-forward, gender diverse, and [have] safety-oriented algorithms that produce more unique, fun, and rewarding dating experiences.”
This includes Sapio, an app which is designed with intellectual attraction in mind; HER, an app for lesbian, queer, bisexual and straight women and non-binary people and LEX, a text-first app inspired by 1980s personal ads, which provides a space for queer, trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and two-spirited individuals to find friends and lovers (their motto is “text first, selfies second”).
It’s also OK to abstain from dating apps altogether if they don’t work for you. As the inspirational quote on Simone Paget's coffee mug says, “Don’t be afraid of being different. Be afraid of being the same as everyone else.”