Friday, November 25 2022

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EEvery week I get emails from people wanting to tell me their dating app horror stories. Sometimes it’s just one hell of a night; and sometimes it’s about a relationship that started on a dating app and ended in a hellish place — often because their significant other was still, secretly, on dating apps. Betrayal is a common theme, unsurprisingly, in an age when these apps have made the range of options for potential partners seem endless and the ability to access them virtually immediately.

I’ve been a critic of the dating app industry almost since its inception, a role I never expected to take on. When Tinder launched its mobile app ten years ago this year, I had just started making a story for Vanity Fair about teenage girls and how social media affected their lives. I was at the Grove, a mall in Los Angeles, talking to a 16-year-old girl when she told me about a new app, Tinder. She showed me how she was, meeting and talking with men in their 20s and 30s, and how some of them had been sending her sex messages and nude pictures.

The dating app culture that has evolved over the ensuing decade can be very challenging, as anyone who’s been there (including myself) can tell you. The most outrageous and offensive type of behavior has been normalized. We talk about everything from nude requests to sex requests; rude comments about someone’s appearance or communication style; and, of course, ghosting. Nothing I say here is new, although I was one of the first people to write about it, in Vanity Fair in 2015, in a story called Tinder and the Dawn of the Apocalypse. dating – a piece that drove Tinder so crazy it notoriously tweeted at me more than 30 times in one night.

And yet, despite the pushback this story has received, its revelations have now become commonplace, part of our general understanding of the disruption caused by dating apps. After making this story, I continued to investigate the ways dating apps are plagued by sexism, racism, and transphobia, as have many other journalists. And yet the use of dating apps has only increased over the past 10 years, especially during the pandemicwhich has seen an increase in the number of users and hours spent on these platforms.

Some of the people who contact me say they do so because they feel like they can’t tell anyone else – including the dating app companies themselves, which are notoriously slow. to respond to complaints from their users (if they ever do so), even complaints involving, distressingly, sexual assault. There hasn’t been much movement toward reforming these apps, and depictions in pop culture are often sunny and romanticized.

My first impression of the dating apps in this Los Angeles mall was that they were something dangerous for kids and teens – which, clearly, they still are. Tinder doesn’t officially allow underage users to communicate with adults, but kids have since it launched and still do. Kids are on Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge and many other dating platforms – it’s easy to create a fake profile and get connected, and there’s still no effective age check, despite the appeals addressed to them from various quarters. Even a dating app designed specifically for teens aged 13 to 17, Yubo – which has millions of users worldwide – has been called out for inappropriate content and harassment.

Why do people keep using these apps, if they’ve made dating so hellish? (Even more hellish, I’d say, than it always has been.) There are several reasons for this, I think: the first is that the dating app industry has overwhelmed the dating landscape to the point where many people think there is no other way to meet someone. They did this by making their apps simple, promising love in just a few swipes. They did this by eliminating the need to show up in person.

Another reason is that dating app users harbor the same hopes as millions of gamblers who walk into casinos every day, knowing full well that the odds are stacked against them and the house always wins. And the same goes with dating apps, which, although they promise to find lasting connections for their users, offer no data to back it up — in fact, data from outside sources suggests that most of dating app users are not finding lasting relationships or weddings via these platforms.

But people keep swiping, scrolling, swiping, sometimes for hours a day, like they can’t stop – and many really can’t. These apps are designed to be addictive. “It’s kind of like a slot machine,” Jonathan Badeen, co-founder of Tinder and inventor of the swipe, told me in my HBO documentary, Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.

Turning love into a casino game has never been a very romantic idea, but it has proven to be very lucrative for dating app companies – although perhaps at our expense.

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