Match Games

Dating apps force us to balance the desire for intimacy with the desire for publicity

Full-text audio version of this essay.

I am strangely proud of my dating app profiles. As with any app, there’s a craft to creating an enticing narrative, combining images with copy to sell yourself to the highest bidder. It’s advertising logic, with all the editorializing of your personality that that entails. I feel like a deepfake, a person with all the edges blurred. On Tinder, playing out a certain fantasy I have of myself as a Los Angeles transplant, I recently changed my bio to “looking for someone to teach me how to surf.” It’s like speaking out into a void trying to manifest my desires. As opposed to simply driving to the beach.

Dating is a game, and it’s one you can be good at. Though some profiles assert otherwise, no one is on the apps to make friends. “Matching” isn’t always the point; the game is about ego, which can just as easily be a balm for loneliness. More so than even one’s ever-growing collection of matches, these non-encounters, the left swipes, serve to reassert one’s built self. On Hinge, a dating app that claims it’s “designed to be deleted,” a guy responds to the prompt I won’t shut up about… with “the deep stuff. Let’s talk about what really matters to us.” You sigh, you feel a brief moment of repulsion, perhaps pity, and you swipe left.

On an app so wrought with sincerity, one that seeks to know what you want better than you do yourself, there may be no such thing as irony

Hinge claims to use the Gale-Shapley algorithm, which was developed in 1962 to solve what’s known in mathematics as the “stable marriage problem”: Match an equal number of men and women (who have all ranked each other) in such a way that there are no two individuals who would both prefer each other more than who they have been matched with. On Hinge, users don’t rank each other directly; instead its algorithms form an impression of you based on your profile, as well as your likes and dislikes, and then uses this to rank a set of potential partners for you. The app begins gathering data about your preferences from the moment you start to build your profile, a procedure that is supposed to work to our advantage — it offers a virtual guiding hand. Yet those who do the best on Hinge, algorithmically speaking, tend to know what they want and design their profiles accordingly. There is always a better version of yourself, waiting to be copywritten.

On Hinge, the most important metric for its algorithm derives from the answers one gives to the app’s prompts: We’re the same type of weird if… A life goal of mine… Which is more important to you … With such information, Hinge calculates your “most compatible,” who appears at the top of your stack of matches each day, making them impossible to miss. The failure to make a lasting connection is yours alone.

The app implemented its algorithmic model in 2018, when it was acquired by the Match Group, which also owns Match.com. Hinge updates the marriage-focused principles of Match for a new generation of users who came of age in the 2010s using Tinder and other apps to experiment and hook up. Its “Designed to be deleted” campaign was launched in 2019, along with a total rebranding that positioned the app as the “anti-Tinder.” Tinder, however, is also owned by the Match Group. When users want to graduate from youthful experimentation to adult stability, Match has a ready-made space to sate this desire.

The different layouts of the apps engender differing modes of “connecting.” On Tinder, you can swipe into oblivion based mainly on a gut reaction to photos. On Hinge, as on Bumble, Tinder’s most personal competitor, you must scroll through each profile. As opposed to the endless slideshow of selfies, you are compelled to see the whole package. Everyone gets a chance to present their elevator pitch deck, along with data about their height, drug habits, politics, and alma mater.

Hinge is trying to sell an old-fashioned form of romance. It promises that users can transcend the advertorial presentation of the self through an intensified embrace of it. In this sense, the app uncannily resembles a matchmaking ritual described by Lik Sam Chan in The Politics of Dating Apps: Every weekend at Tianhe Park in Beijing, parents of unmarried adult children “advertise” their sons and daughters to other parents, hanging paperwork in the trees that documents “height, weight, education level, property ownership, household register, income, nature of occupation, and spousal selection criteria.” In 2018, Hinge claimed it was the most mentioned app in the New York Times wedding section. Beyond being the app for those who have outgrown Tinder, it seems to see itself as a prestige app — Raya for the ascendant professional-managerial class.

In March, Hinge offered users a guide to making the most of its service; it scrolled onscreen just like anyone else’s profile. It offered paternalistic advice on how to present yourself (“mixing humor and sincerity makes you more approachable,” “one word answers don’t say much about you”); how to text with matches (“fuel the convo the day you match,” “keep things fresh by switching the topic”); and how to get to the next level (“most people are comfortable moving off the app within 5 days of chatting”). On an app so wrought with sincerity, one that seeks to know what you want better than you do yourself, there may be no such thing as irony. I recently matched with someone who answered the prompt I’m looking for… with “what the algorithm tells me.”

It can be helpful to conceive of dating apps as a party. Chan theorizes dating apps as “third spaces,” drawing on Ramon Oldenburg and Dennis Brissett’s 1980s coinage for those places, neither work nor home, “where people gather primarily to enjoy each other’s company.” They offer a place to talk to strangers, one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you can picture Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge as massive rooms with various clusters of people, hiding behind whichever small-talk facade they’ve chosen to employ to get laid or get attention, the apps start to seem more manageable.

Different apps have slightly different cultural lexicons, and facilitate different presentations of the self. They also attract different user bases. Hinge, in my personal experience in Los Angeles, has more East Coast transplants, while Tinder attracts more tourists and college students. Bumble has the most outdoorsy types, and the most hustlers seeking to expand their Instagram following. Lex, the app for queer women, harkens back to the personal ad, an earlier form of networked dating. On a lonely evening, you can virtually bar-hop between the various options. Sometimes you’ll even run into a familiar face, from life or from another app.

Chan defines the infrastructure of dating apps in terms of a seeming oxymoron, “networked intimacy”: the “web of dyadic connections that create and sustain intimacy.” But he also points out the “built-in ambivalence” that results from this. The self one builds for algorithmic performance clashes with the self one might hope to eventually present (or be) in a more intimate encounter, be it over messages or in person. As opposed to a physical space such as a party, the networked infrastructure of online dating precludes established forms of etiquette and allows for different forms of intimacy. One can be sexually open, even lewd, in a way you would never be in real life but still expect nothing in particular in return because any “match” is inherently disposable. It’s a party where you can simply walk away from an encounter at the first glimpse of boredom or something better.

The self one builds for algorithmic performance clashes with the self one might hope to be in a more intimate encounter, over messages or in person

For young people who were holed up at home for much of the past year, dating apps offered a cheat day every once in a while, a space to play out otherwise dormant desires and to experiment with the sexual permissiveness that we’re supposed to be experiencing. Some people write a laundry list of their sexual proclivities on their profile, others signal their naked desperation by confessing their loneliness from the get-go. On Lex, a user writes: “I just took pictures of my boobs the other day, and I’d really like one of you to kiss them.” This is their sixth ad in this confessional strain. A few ads down is an apartment for rent.

Third spaces are supposed to be comforting, they’re built with the populist intention of allowing social capital to flow freely. You can’t walk through an app, but you can traverse its flattened infrastructure, perusing the various options it presents you with and presenting yourself in kind. The attraction of the cleanly sensual millennial aesthetic cannot be overstated in this regard, making the bitter pill of networking, not to mention “networked intimacy,” sweeter to swallow. Though intimacy on the apps is generally unearned, this disposability can be chalked up to the nature of experimentation. One markets the sexual self primarily to reify one’s own desires, hazy as they may be. The proliferation of the question “what are you looking for on here?” is indicative of its answer: most people don’t really know. At least on the apps, there’s the possibility of finding out. It’s not the failure to match that keeps users on the hook; it’s the abundance of matches, brimming with untold possibilities. The algorithm itself seduces you, even as the matches begin to feel like random occurrences.

In Natasha Stagg’s essay collection Sleeveless, she writes about a period of her life when she was on Tinder regularly after a bad breakup. She goes out with a brand consultant, an intern, a graphic designer, “a married woman who has no job.” Though most of these encounters were one-offs, she “didn’t quite feel rejected by them,” but she couldn’t help but feel detached from them, depersonalized. “I kept doing this [thing] for some reason,” she says, “comparing everyone I’d just met to everyone else I’d just met, aloud, to their faces.” A friend of mine sends people she’s interested in screenshots of her other matches, her own little game.

It’s hard not to feel like a pervert on dating apps, where everything is on display. The game of it all can feel like an elaborate version of truth or dare, rarely arousing but sometimes fun, and abstractly sexy. Tinder may not be the best party, but its manic speed feels like a conversation with a stranger in a smoking area. You can almost forget that you are not quite yourself on it, that you’re performing for an algorithm. It can be like going on vacation, or going on TV, or both. You’re a perpetual tourist.

It’s hard not to feel like a pervert on dating apps. You can almost forget that you are not quite yourself on it

The reality show Love Island uses what is essentially the same matching algorithm as Hinge: an equal number of men and women couple up in the first episode based on their first impressions of each other. When a guy shows up, the girls step forward if they approve, and he picks his favorite from among them. From there, additional prospects are introduced to destabilize these couples. Sticking by your chosen “match” is essentially how you win. But as with Netflix’s reality show Too Hot to Handle, where contestants couple up but are forbidden from touching by a surveilling robot, it’s nearly impossible to resist temptation. Contestants’ lack of libidinal control is what earns them screen time (and Instagram followers). They’re chosen for their proclivity to fail, which is to say their propensity to be voyeuristically interesting.

On a show like The Bachelor, on the other hand, repression rules. There is no bed-hopping, and women are depicted as being brought to tears by the idea that their competitors might not be on the show “for the right reasons”: the shiny ring at the end of the long road to “the one.” When lovers on the show enter the “fantasy suite” in the lead-up to the finale, no cameras are there to show what happens. It’s the fantasy of complete privacy, similar to the fantasy of “getting off dating apps” — when you will no longer be performing and finally your life can start.

Reality dating shows are a closed system, less like the endless churn of an app like Tinder and more like the closed-off social circles in an age of “pods” and ever-shrinking public space. But like the apps, and like Tianhe Park’s marriage market, they present a restructuring of dating rituals for the networked age. We tune in to see our romantic and sexual lives not necessarily reflected but refracted back toward us.

In a world that is increasingly structured algorithmically, dating apps show us where and how we fit. Paradoxically, they can even offer a taste of freedom, when one gets off them. A drive out to the desert with a stranger or even the glimpse of a foreign apartment can then elicit a frisson of excitement for the unknown, for the “adventures” that so many profiles purport to desire. They can appear as experiences that have not been algorithmically anticipated, that are not simply a result of how you’ve been processed. Going back on the apps after a failed tryst or a dry spell is an embrace of potential, though it can also feel like giving up. Once again everyone else is a profile. Once again you feel the draw of being voyeuristically interesting.

Intimacy and the divine goal of being known are already inherently fraught concepts when one is marketing one’s “self” on any kind of platform. Dating apps further complicate these romantic aspirations. To make one’s intimate self visible to the countless stream of others is to revoke the ideal of privacy upon which romance rests. I am proud of my profile because it proves that I exist in the social world. In my pictorialized state, optimized for algorithms, I am being seen by somebody, by everybody.

Christina Ungermann is a writer from California currently living in Los Angeles.