Dating Apps: Digital Heroin for Sex Love and Loneliness

Imagine you are approached by an evil genius. The evil genius says: help me build the perfect prison for the human mind – in return I will make your wildest dreams come true. Not merely a regular prison, where inmates are held against their will. No no… something more insidious. In this prison, the inmates must want to be there. In fact many would actually pay to be there.

How would you devise something so sneaky?

Let’s start with bait. What really motivates humans? Let’s see. Craving for sex, craving for love, fear of loneliness. Fantastic. Now, how do people satisfy those cravings? With other people, of course. Another person can offer sex, and/or love, and/or help avoid loneliness.

Alright – so – all we just need then, is to attract all the people who crave sex or love or company, invite them to an app to interact with each other on the internet… brilliant. We have captured their minds – our prison is complete.

But wait! You say… If we simply bring people together to match, won’t they find another person and leave?

Ah. Well. Don’t worry – here are the dirty secrets that keep the prison running.

1) Meeting Someone in Real Life vs Online

In the real world, meeting someone new in the context of work, community, social circles, or school… there is some established trust about who the person is. Of course they are a stranger, but, at least you have implicit comfort through the friend who introduced you, or the social group you mutually belong to. You might see this person regularly, naturally, as a part of belonging to these shared circles, and learn about them organically through repeated, innocent encounters. Without deliberately trying to – you glean their true colors by observing their words and behaviors in small bits over time. Then maybe, through a gradual sequence of bonding and social cues, the relationship evolves into more than mere acquaintances.

When you meet someone on the internet, you have no fucking clue who they are. Sure – they claim to be this person, this age, and show a few cherry-picked photos of the best times in their life… but who are they, really? What is their agenda? You just don’t know. And so you treat them and the conversation accordingly, cautiously – with a 10 foot pole. A stranger on the internet is a leper until proven otherwise. And if, two people are lucky enough to move beyond this phase of aggressive scrutiny – the stink and stain of meeting online is something that lingers. The relationship rests upon the fragility of a casual right swipe. Humans love a great “how we met” story – flicking on someone’s face is a miserable one. Even though the unmatch button no longer works after meeting someone in real life, the concept of unmatch remains healthy in the minds of dating app users- and bears no resemblance to the emotionally mature, old-fashioned way to share feelings. No sit down coffee and conversation here. All it takes is some masterful ghosting and some plausible excuses. The other person will eventually feel defeated and retreat. And back to the dating pool. (If you even left the pool!).

2) Unlimited Options and Mental Cookies

A curious thing happens when to the human mind when it’s presented with seemingly unlimited options. Analysis paralysis. A person is perpetually lured by an idea that the greatest ever match may still be a few swipes away. If you choose one person to talk to, are you actually hurting your chances to meet someone even better, given it will only take 10 seconds to see 10 more faces? Given this dilemma, it seems a “safe” strategy is talking to as many people as possible – so as not to miss the best opportunity. Sadly, this necessarily dilutes the quality of all conversations. A person simply cannot have many sincere conversations in parallel. No matter how convinced a person is they are a mastermind – quality attention is a limited resource. Shitty conversations are obvious! On top of that, a vicious form of apathy kicks in. “How are you?”, despite being one of the most sincere questions a human can ask another human, begins to sound like nails on a chalkboard. Pleasantries become repetitive and annoying. Conversations trail off. Ghosting happens. More swipes… More conversations that start strong and quickly dissipate. The quick fix for one disappointing interaction is merely seconds away in a brand new one.

Boy oh boy, though, the human mind does a happy little jig when it feels socially validated. Although it may be fleeting, every new match is a hit of dopamine. A mental cookie. Suddenly the goalposts have moved. Rather than using the app trying to find someone, your lizard brain is seriously enjoying, maybe even expecting, these mental cookies when a new stranger gives you attention.

3) Foxes and Bots in the Henhouse

Foxes in the henhouse. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Where there’s chum (aka vulnerable people) in water, the sharks will swim. Scammers. People trying to catch their cheating partner. People selling photos in exchange for money. People trying to sell you a service. People pretending to be who they are not – aka catfish. When you swim in the app dating pool, all of this junk is in the water. All the more reason to reinforce the skepticism of meeting people here – adding to the resistance of transitioning to a real life meeting.

Now, you might think, this junk is no good for our prison. People are going to be irritated with all this. But – plot twist – it works in our favor. It creates the appearance of more options! And a mental cookie is a mental cookie, junk or not! Sure people will be annoyed. Some may give up. But for many – it will only encourage them to try harder. To keep digging obsessively through the world of seemingly endless options to find the ultimate match.

In Summary – Welcome to the Hotel California!

Let’s bail on the the prison metaphor. Even if it was slightly hyperbolic, it accurately depicts the circumstances, subjective experience, and mental calculus of using almost any dating app. The initial lure of these apps is the promise to find someone – whether you seek sex, love, a friend, or some combination of all. But once you start exploring, the game quickly morphs…

The reality is you are one member in an ocean of people, who are swiping like absolute zombies, engaging in half-hearted conversations, and addicted to seeing face after face after face – the cheapest and laziest version of people-watching in human history, and intermittently delighted by some fleeting interactions with strangers. This in itself, although lightyears away from the original intention of using the app, is psychologically validating and addicting. Just enough of a tiny drip of happiness and hope to keep you plugged in. And it goes on infinitely – there is no off ramp.

Yes – of COURSE there are stories of success, of people meeting and falling in love. Or finding the greatest sensual experiences of all time. But these are absurdly misrepresentative of the experiences of the average person. The exception – not the norm.

Parting Advice

Delete your dating apps?

Let’s go deeper – just for a moment. What the fuck do you think is lacking in life that you need to find in another person? Don’t you have passions and interests that will light-up your mind until the day you die? If not, maybe go looking for some? And by the way, while you were out there in this dating app hellscape, have you become addicted to mental cookies? Good god, man, snap out of it…

OK – fine – the desire for connection is deeply human, and meeting people via the internet is never going away. Our species is inextricably linked to the internet, and our relationship with it will only become more bizarre and involved over time. Ignoring this way to meet others may be too hard. If you must endure, keep in mind:

1) Be resilient. Don’t feel so bad that these platforms can wildly distort your self worth and how much you are valued by real people in the real world.

2) De-normalize being an asshole – don’t contribute to the mess. Attempt one or two good conversations vs. 100 shitty ones. Hopefully someone does the same for you. If not, be patient.

3) Never forget – these platforms profit from users being on the app. This SITS IN DIRECT CONTENTION WITH USERS FINDING SOMEONE AND LEAVING. It’s not to suggest they are necessarily evil, but, it’s important to keep this irrefutable conflict of interest in mind. The most popular dating app on the planet, for example, has “entertainment” and advertisements built in. Hmm.

4) Ah fuck it. Just delete your dating apps 🙂 At the very least, acknowledge them for exactly what they are, covert addiction machines that occasionally foster sincere connections. Use them minimally and cautiously. Your time is precious. These apps (like so many social apps) can easily become a black hole if not used thoughtfully.

5) Just delete the fucking dating apps… 🙂

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