The ‘dark patterns’ that keep us hooked on gay geosocial apps

Essy Knopf dark patterns gay geosocial apps Grindr
Reading time: 8 minutes

To what does the gay geosocial app Grindr owe its success? Is it the fact that it was one of the first, or that its design employs highly manipulative “dark patterns”?

To understand Grindr’s extraordinary success—one that allowed it to achieve ubiquity in the gay community, and to become a fixture of popular culture—we have to go back to its launch.

On March 25, 2009, Grindr was officially founded by San Vicente Acquisition LLC. The app’s arrival came less than a year after Apple launched its App Store.

Certainly, the absence of direct competition boosted Grindr’s popularity. That said, the app didn’t represent a reinvention of the online dating wheel, so much as a refinement.

The app’s designers implemented existing features already present in existing web-based services, such as Gaydar and Manhunt, combining these with the ability to see other users based on proximity.

The geosocial aspect didn’t just endow all interactions with an exciting sense of immediacy—it accelerated them.

No longer tethered to web-based services only accessible via computer, gay men were suddenly able to respond and arrange meetups on the go.

The excitement, speed, and convenience enabled by Grindr were so attractive that a raft of other dating apps soon emerged to challenge its dominance.

The enduring popularity of dark patterns

Tinder, OkCupid, Scruff, Hornet, Hinge, Bumble—all of these apps represent iterations of a winning formula. New look, same great taste.

The more successful apps such as Scruff simply lifted features wholesale from Grindr, while others like Tinder introduced new mechanics, such as the ability to swipe to like or decline users’ profiles.

Not all geosocial dating apps flourished or even survived the mobile app development boom, one which, of course, was closely tied to the rise of smartphones.

Those that did however hadn’t so much caught the wave of a trend or were simply meeting an unmet need. They endured because they used manipulative tactics user experience specialist Harry Brignull calls “dark patterns”.

Dark patterns in action in gay geosocial apps

On Brignull’s “Dark Patterns” website (now referred to as “Deceptive Design”, he lists a number of strategies typically used by websites to control user behaviors.

Brignull offers creative analogies (e.g. “roach motel”) and compound words of his own invention (“confirmshaming”), detailing the extent to which website designers are willing to go in the name of profit.

In a 2020 interview with Wired, he summarized one of the major outcomes of dark pattern strategies: maximized retention of the user base.

“Lots of companies will make it hard for people to leave,” Brignull noted. “They are going to get around to it eventually, but if they might stay for an extra 10 percent of the time, or 20 percent, the accounts might live just a little bit longer.”

“And if you’re doing that en masse for hundreds of thousands of people, that translates to enormous amounts of money.”

Many of these dark patterns Brignull describes don’t pertain to geosocial dating apps, but those outlined on a sister website do.

Dark Pattern Games runs a registry that names and shames video games it says use dark pattern strategies. (Note: The site does not appear to be directly associated with Brignull, and its provenance is unclear.)

These strategies I would argue are present in many gay dating and hookup apps, given most of them incorporate gamification in their designs. 

While Grindr is hardly an exception to the norm, it receives credit for being the first gay geosocial app to succeed in mainstreaming dark patterns. 

For this reason, I will use this particular app as a case study, exploring the presence of temporal and psychological dark patterns and their impact on the user experience.

Temporal dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Daily rewards: Logging into Grindr usually provides users an opportunity to collect messages sent from chat partners following their previous login.

User profiles appear in Grindr’s grid-based layout based on both proximity and how recently they have logged into the app.

Logging in therefore increases the chances of one’s profile being seen by those currently browsing the app.

This may thus trigger an influx of fresh messages, increasing the daily reward output and thus incentivizing users to return.

Grinding: Not to be confused with the popular verb for using Grindr, “grindring” (though the similarity here is ironic), this term refers to when apps force users to perform repetitive busywork to achieve a sense of advancement. 

In the case of Grindr, this involves screening countless profiles to see if they meet certain attractiveness and compatibility criteria.

This involves fielding cascades of unsolicited messages and photos, as well as chatting with an endless procession of old and new users.

Advertisements: Grindr forces users to watch ads before they can read or respond to messages from other users.

Besides buying a subscription membership, there is no way to bypass these ads. 

Infinite Treadmill: This term refers to when an app renders success or completion of a task impossible. 

Grindr’s old motto was “get on to get off”, with the app presenting itself as a kind of matchmaker between two people (or more) who were presumably seeking an in-person interaction. 

But meeting someone, whether it be for friendship or a sexual and/or romantic liaison, Grindr renders this almost impossible due to its gamified design.

To explain: in order to secure maximum responses, users have to continually engage with the app. For example, by logging in frequently, and tailoring profiles, messages, and photos to solicit responses from as many other users as possible.

When one receives such responses, which represent attention and validation, they positively reinforce our continued use. 

These responses also motivate us to continue tailoring our profiles, messages, and photos to maintain or increase these responses, rather than in service of a physical goal, like meeting another user.

The effect is an experience that can be likened to an endless cycle…or an Infinite Treadmill.

Can’t Pause or Save: Exchanging messages on Grindr is inherently fun and rewarding, and so we may find ourselves keeping at it well beyond what we might have initially planned.

Even after we close the app, we continue to receive push notifications from other users when they message us. These notifications serve to summon us back to the app to continue our conversations. 

But given other users also don’t linger on the app indefinitely, with many logging off—often without notice—this creates an impression that all exchanges are fleeting.

The possibility of missing out on said exchanges (and the possibility of a friendship, sexual, or romantic encounter) creates tension within the user. 

Fear of missing out (“FOMO”) thus drives many to routinely log back into the app and respond to any outstanding messages.

Due to the proximity/recency factor I mentioned above, logging back in pushes our profile back into prominence, drawing attention from still more users. 

This inability to “pause” means our Grindr interactions continue indefinitely, intruding into our daily life.

Psychological dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Illusion of Control: When scanning the Grindr user profile grid, new or unfamiliar profiles are more likely to stick out and inspire curiosity. 

Human beings are inherent novelty-seekers, a fact Grindr’s creators capitalize upon by spotlighting new profiles/profile photos. 

The app does this by refreshing display grids periodically, revealing users who have recently arrived in one’s area, or who have updated their profile.

By doing so, the app directs the flow of attentional traffic towards these individuals, which can trigger a virtual “love bombing” by multiple users. 

To the recipient, being love-bombed may lead them to believe they are a highly desirable commodity.

To the sender, being able to love bomb comes with the expectation that one will receive a response. Both recipient and sender are led to entertain an illusion of control.

Variable Rewards: Messages (read: rewards) are received entirely at random on Grindr, and even when one is not on the platform through push notifications.

The lack of a predictable schedule by which rewards arrive is a form of intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement is commonly used by the gambling industry to manipulate clients into continually “playing the game”, even when doing so might spell financial ruin.

This has been demonstrated using Skinner boxes, an experimental device that uses intermittent reinforcement to create addiction even among pigeons and rats.

Intermittent reinforcement is successful because it does not encourage scrutiny or self-reflection. In the case of Grindr, it promotes a kind of minimalist, reflexive communication style that characterizes social media: swiping, liking, and commenting. 

Grindr users thus respond to the existence of others in the same casual, noncommittal fashion they would a social media post, knowing this is all that is required to obtain a response and therefore validation.

Aesthetic Manipulations: Grindr’s gamified design promotes interaction as a free-for-all, rather than a deliberate and purposeful pursuit of individuals for a concrete, in-person outcome.

The design doesn’t nudge users towards meeting in person, something that could easily be achieved by imposing limitations such as capping the total number of messages exchanged between two users.

To do so, of course, would result in a drop in the user base, and total time spent on the app, thereby reducing opportunities to monetize users’ continued use.

App makers, as discussed in a previous blog post, do this not only through advertisements and subscription services but the sale of user behavioral data.

One way in which Grindr is able to keep people on the platform is the spotlight effect that funnels collective attention towards specific users based on their salience and novelty. 

Being spotlit can leave one with a conviction in one’s own appeal, even if this effect ultimately is temporary and likely to be withdrawn after the app ceases to spotlight one’s profile.

The one-way flow of messages may be replaced by complete silence—often within hours of an initial login or photo update. The validation feast offered by Grindr thus leads to virtual famine.

The app promises the fulfillment of our subconscious desire to be seen as attractive, desirable, and worthy, before withdrawing it rather suddenly, and dangling it again when one receives attention again subsequently.

You see, famine on Grindr is rarely total. Because the app has a large user base, and because users frequently change their locations, one’s profile is routinely discovered by a new batch of users. 

This intermittent reinforcement leads us to interpret these crumbs as evidence of a forthcoming meal. So we optimistically make do with what we can get, holding out for the possibility of future successes.

We tell ourselves that just over the horizon, our next lover or partner is waiting and that the only way to secure their affection is by continuing to login into the app and play the “game”.

Optimism and Frequency Biases: Being love-bombed on Grindr is inherently memorable, given there are few instances outside of using the app where this will happen.

The experience may cause us to lean into blind optimism. After all, if one enjoys such success at first blush, surely one will never struggle to garner interest from others? 

And so we come to believe that our prospects on the app are not a product of its design, but rather us having a fixed amount of desirability.

Yet when one considers the hundreds of conversations they have had with other users, one realizes that only a tiny fraction of those conversations lead to in-person meetings. 

Such meetings are, at least in my estimation, a far more concrete reflection of one’s prospects. 

The app however coaches us to focus instead on what is referred to in social media as “vanity metrics”. 

This jargon refers to metrics that make us feel good but don’t translate to any meaningful results, such as the total amount of messages received, especially during the love-bombing phase.

Wrap up

Gay geosocial app makers have the advantage: they know our weaknesses and are willing to exploit them using all manner of clandestine dark patterns.

These apps may provide what we consider to be an essential service often for free, but they come with a hidden price tag.

Monitoring our behavior on their platforms from behind a one-way mirror, app makers continually tweak and finetune these patterns so as to further entrap us. 

All of this is done in service of profit, per a widespread form of profiteering I have referred to as “distraction capitalism”.

We users accept these manipulations because they wear the fun guise of gamification, and cultivate satisfaction through intermittent reinforcement.

But constant exposure to this kind of reinforcement can lead many of us to develop process addictions. 

Much in the same way we log in to social media to check for “likes”, we may find ourselves compulsively logging into gay geosocial apps like Grindr to collect messages and a quick hit of dopamine.

If you happen to recognize the role dark patterns take in your regular app interactions and are alarmed, know that there are far healthier alternative methods available for meeting other gay men

‘Breadcrumbing’: the gay dating app practice that destroys connection

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 6 minutes

If you’ve ever used a gay dating app before, you’ve likely experienced “flash in the pan” conversations that start and end abruptly, usually without explanation.

Turns out that the sudden appearance, followed by the sudden disappearance, of chat partners is often part of an intentional strategy known as “breadcrumbing”.

Prior to learning this term, I liked to refer to my experiences using a phrase of my own invention, the “sushi train effect”. 

If you’ve ever attended a sushi train restaurant, you can probably already see the comparison I’m making. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to explain.

The sushi train effect explained

At sushi train restaurants, fresh-made dishes are presented on small plates delivered using a circular conveyor belt, or the back of a toy train that follows a loop. 

Many usual favorites can be obtained via this method—everything from tempura to nigiri and uramaki rolls, dumplings, and more. 

Diners choose the dishes they want to eat then remove them from the belt/train. As they do, sushi chefs prepare new dishes to replenish the train’s stock with.

The effect is like sitting before a buffet—or rather, a never-ending supply of snack-sized meals.

When one logs onto a gay dating app, one’s profile is immediately presented for review by other users, much like a new dish appearing on a sushi train.

On apps like Grindr or Scruff, that image appears in a grid of other profile images, organized according to current proximity.

If it’s your first time using the app, or simply your first time using that particular image, your profile will exude an aura of novelty. A feeding frenzy will ensue, with other users flooding your account with messages.

These users may express keen interest in, and admiration for, your person, replying to you with an urgency that demands immediate engagement. 

‘Boom and bust’ on the gay dating app

If you reply, many of these interactions may end then and there, with the other user mysteriously withdrawing the instant they’ve obtained your attention. 

But if you delay your reply, you can often expect the other user—who has subsequently logged off—to reappear sometime later, offering what usually amounts to a lukewarm response.

Their interest, as it turns out, was only temporary, even opportunistic. A brief window opened, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a world of possibility, then swiftly closed.

One is thus given the impression that others’ availability is time-limited, and even then when you do manage to catch them on the app, there is often no tangible outcome.

Recipients of this sudden influx of attention may be left wondering if what they have experienced is not admiration, but a Pavlovian response—like the salivating of dogs at the sound of the bell. 

This is the first part of the “sushi train effect”: idolization by total strangers. The second part is devaluation.

As the aura of novelty fades, what begins as a flood will inevitably slow to a trickle. This can happen over the course of a day, or even a few hours.

Before one was treated as “hot property”, but now one is regarded as a bottom-of-the-barrel fixer-upper. One’s face or torso, once distinguishable from countless others, becomes just another brick in the wall. 

Like any dish glimpsed by diners circling the sushi train one too many times, one’s profile loses appeal through sheer familiarity. 

This meteoric rise, followed by a precipitous decline, creates an impression of “boom and bust” that can leave most app users feeling rather disoriented.

One moment, one feels seen and valued, and the next, it’s as if one has been discarded; reduced to yet another piece of flotsam floating in the modern dating and hookup sea.

‘The sushi train effect’ as a form of ‘breadcrumbing’

The third part of the sushi train effect is delayed revaluation. 

Take for example the user who declares their interest in you and agrees to meet in person, but who—when pressed for specifics—fails to follow through.

Sometimes, they turn on a dime, it feels like you’re chatting with a completely different person, one who now believes you are completely unworthy of the effort.

Other times, they may agree, only to cancel the meetup, citing some unforeseen event or complication. They may also indefinitely “bench” it, but without proposing a suitable date or time. Or they may block your account outright.

Then, days, weeks, months, or even years later, this individual will reach out again—prompted, it seems, by your convenient reappearance in their dating or hookup app grid.

They may offer an explanation for their disappearance, maybe even an apology for having flaked on you. Or they may simply pretend it never happened. 

What’s most confusing is when this person expresses the same level of interest they did on the first occasion. 

If you remember their sending mixed messages, you may feel tempted to address this directly. The alternative after all is silence, and merely contenting yourself with this sudden attention. 

Should you do this, you may become caught up in an amnesiac dance, make-believing it was circumstance and not a conscious choice that prevented your meeting the first time around.

The hardened skeptics among us however will throw the stranger’s sincerity into doubt, concluding that they’re messaging again out of pure boredom. 

And a lot of the time, we are justified in this belief. Many app users are merely hunting for attention, like an addict hunting for their next fix. Their interest has less to do with us as people and more with the renewed novelty we represent. 

To return to the sushi train analogy: dishes once declared ho-hum are often reappraised by diners after a long absence, and may thus regain some of their former appeal.

Turns out this behavior isn’t exclusive to gay dating and hookup apps but is rampant in the wider dating world.

‘Breadcrumbing’ explained

“Breadcrumbing” is when a dater uses small amounts of attention or validation to keep you interested in them. Basically, what it usually boils down to is fishing for attention.

Daters typically leave “breadcrumbs” when they aren’t seriously interested in meeting. What does “breadcrumbing” commonly look like on a gay dating app? 

Microcommunication is a common example: users who repeatedly check in (“Hey”/”How are you?”/”What you up to?”), exchange brief pleasantries, but make no serious effort to sustain a mutual conversation.

Sudden disappearances, followed by sudden reappearances—much in the same fashion I’ve described above.

Small talk that goes nowhere. Breadcrumbers use small talk to sustain the interaction, even when they have no intention to take that interaction offline. 

Refusing to schedule dates. Breadcrumbers are usually reluctant to make any kind of commitment, as their main purpose in messaging is to secure attention or validation. 

Trying to set up a date is the quickest way to suss out a breadcrumber’s intention, as they will usually evade, make an excuse, or bail beforehand.

Refusing to follow through with plans. As noted, breadcrumbers refuse to meet in person, preferring instead the minimal effort involved in a text exchange.

In short, breadcrumbers like to talk a big game but will always balk, for various reasons. 

Some may feel lonely, bored, and/or insecure and are seeking a quick boost to their self-esteem. In such instances, breadcrumbers receive your responses as proof of their attractiveness or worth.

Alternatively, the breadcrumber may want contact with other gay men, but see face-to-face meetings as carrying risks or responsibilities they aren’t prepared to deal with. 

There are also breadcrumbers who are driven by a narcissistic desire they know they can meet by sustaining text banter with multiple suitors, often at the same time.

Whatever their motives, know that unless you yourself are using dating and hookup apps to breadcrumb, you’re likely to find these kinds of interactions to be unsatisfying and, ultimately, a waste of time.

Breadcrumbers are enabled by gay dating app design

Breadcrumbing is enabled by app design that reinforces this behavior while failing to hold those accountable responsible.

App makers are profit-driven, and in order to increase their profit, they need users to remain on their platforms as long as possible. Previously, I’ve referred to this phenomenon as “distraction capitalism”.

It follows therefore that these makers are willing to use all manner of tactics to guarantee this outcome. This includes refusing to set specific parameters for accessing and using the app. 

The problem with parameters—in the eyes of app makers’, anyways—is that they automatically screen out a significant segment of the user base. Monitoring problematic user behavior also requires hiring dedicated staff and thus comes with undesirable overhead. 

So like many other apps or web-based services, the designers opt instead for a more hands-off, almost-anything-goes kind of approach.

Another tactic used by app makers is gamification. I’ve talked about it before, but I’ll provide a quick recap here.

Gamification involves using positive reinforcement to reinforce users’ continued use, for example, through instant notifications, chimes, and flashy animations.

All of these stimuli are carefully calibrated to trigger neurochemical activity associated with success.

Gay dating app gamification thus doesn’t just trivialize human interactions—it frames interactions as opportunities to maximize the number of responses they receive, and therefore validation gained from others.

Taken to the extreme, this results in some users treating their fellows like human PEZ dispensers, whose only purpose is to disgorge attention upon demand.

Thus, when app makers prioritize the bottom line, they are willfully facilitating this kind of attentional exploitation. They are enabling breadcrumbing.

Users may thus find themselves caught in a perpetual loop of short-lived banter that never deepens into a lasting connection. 

Interactions come to resemble busywork, leaving those seeking something more substantive out in the cold.

Until app makers start using design to create a culture that promotes healthy interactions, those of us pursuing meaningful interactions would be better off spending our time elsewhere.

If you’re seeking some tips on how you can step away from gay dating apps, I’ve got you covered.

The ugly truth about Grindr and exclusion-based dating

Essy Knopf Grindr exclusion-based dating
Reading time: 3 minutes

Exclusion-based dating has long been a widely embraced norm for apps and services like Grindr, Scruff, and Tinder. 

Filters enable daters to screen candidates based on factors like race. This has inevitably fed into an existing hierarchy of desirability.

As many a gay man can attest, the sexual economy of dating apps and services is one in which “White” is usually coded as most desirable. Those with intersectional identities are usually granted a lower rank.

Dating thus is not a level playing field. Rather, it mirrors the inequalities of broader society. In this case, it has been divided along the lines of attentional “haves” and “have-nots”. 

“Preferences” as a result have become a mere byword for prejudice, with countless daters openly rejected on the basis of their race or some other—often superficial—trait. 

Given the history of gay men being condemned for their identity, it is tragic that we now perpetuate this shaming cycle through the exclusion of our fellows.

The end of exclusion-based dating?

The killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a groundswell of support for the antiracism movement.

As #BlackLivesMatter protests rocked the globe, dating services that had formerly endorsed racial exclusion-based dating appeared to change their tunes.

Some announced they would be removing ethnic and race filter options. Others declined, citing the longstanding motivation for preference filters: maximizing user choice. (Choice which I’ve argued is largely an illusion.)

Such changes could be taken as a mark of progress. They may have also just been virtue signaling

When the powers-that-be make a concession to the oppressed, more often than not it is less a concession than a convergence of interests. The timing of this decision suggests as much. 

Arguably, little has since changed in the wake of the racial filter rollback. Identity-based pecking orders remain as entrenched as ever.

The Thoughtful Gay Grindr exclusion-based dating

How dating apps encourage exclusion

The popularity of dating apps and services depends upon their promise of greater ease and convenience, but also the pleasures offered by gamification. Exclusion-based dating exists because app design reinforces this pattern. 

To explain: sorting through the sheer number of prospects on dating services requires a process of elimination. Filters present themselves as the logical conclusion.

And so users are funneled into a preset selection of behaviors, responding to each candidate on a binary yes/no basis. 

Sorting through an ocean of romantic/sexual options demands significant mental energy. Our brain quickly learns to conserve that energy by autonomizing the process. 

A careful profile survey is refined into a reflexive swipe. Preferences shift into hard “no”s. Full sentences degrade into monosyllables.

The apps positively reinforce our continued engagement with this pattern through instant notifications. Flashy animations and sounds signal success, assuring us that whatever we are doing must be right.

We in turn interpret our behaviors as winning strategies, leaving us less prone to questioning our own biases.

Overcoming exclusion-based dating

Studies show that unconscious bias is almost universal. Biases often reflecs those held by wider society; racism on dating apps are often a product of widespread systemic racism.

Left unchallenged, biases color our perception of the world. They fledge into prejudice, promoting “isms” such as ableism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism.

The first step to overcoming biases is awareness. If you suspect you are prone to a particular bias, consider taking a free implicit bias test.

The second step is introducing information that directly conflicts with our automatic patterns of thinking about a particular group.1

Consider writing a letter to yourself, exploring the reasoning behind a specific bias or prejudice. Describe the experiences that may have given rise to it. Find possible flaws or contradictions in your biased belief system.

Weigh your dating preferences against your values. Do the two align, and if not, what then are you willing to do to address it?

Revising any attitude, belief, and response involves some mental effort. Dating apps on the other hand encourage us to suspend “intention, attention, and effort”2 for the sake of convenience and efficiency—then reward us for doing so.

Giving into automaticity results in us falling back on old habits. Like a car following grooves and ruts in the road, we will very quickly “tramline” our way back into bias.

Without self-reflection, we are at the mercy of our worst instincts. Only by developing awareness about our own thinking can we escape the toxic hold of exclusion-based dating.

How magical thinking destroys gay men’s chances of living authentically

Essy Knopf magical thinking
Reading time: 6 minutes

Are you sitting down, dear reader? There’s something I need to tell you: almost everything we’ve been doing up to this point in the pursuit of happiness may very well have been undermining it.

Many aspects of the gay monoculture—the party lifestyle, substance abuse, hookups, out-of-control sexual habits, love addiction, our obsession with personal image, status, and achievement—are in some way tied up with magical thinking.

“If I get this, do this, be this, then I’ll be OK.” Wish-fulfillment keeps us walking the hedonic treadmill, riding an endless carousel of self-gratification.

Even supposing we achieve our goal, we may find the bar only continues to rise. So we clutch in vain for the brass ring of materialism, personal transformation, acceptance, recognition, and adoration.

Maybe all of this isn’t exactly news to you, and you have long since grown out of chasing elusive thrills. Or you may have simply upped the dosage and drowned out the hurt and disappointment.

The trauma of being gay

The first step on the way to surrendering the magical thinking that keeps us trapped in this cycle lies in identifying the causes.

As gay men, we can arrive at chronic suffering in a variety of ways. We may have also experienced misattunement with our caregivers, who may not have had the capacity to fully meet our emotional needs.

Or our caregivers may have invalidated us on the basis of our sexuality—an all-too-common experience for gay boys

We may have experienced some form of childhood adversity. Some of us are even survivors of trauma

Trauma includes abuse and neglect, but also any experience that places “an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system”, to quote International Trauma Center President Dr. Robert D. Macy. 

You may for example have been traumatized by individual acts of homophobia, or from the minority stress that results from its many systemic manifestations. Rejection, exclusion, marginalization, or physical harm for many can take a great toll. 

If we are already lacking social support, such as the unconditional love and acceptance of family members or friends, the damage is only magnified.

For men, this is a fact of our existence. We are socialized from an early age to believe that in order to qualify for gender membership, we must strive for an impossible masculine ideal of self-reliance.  

We do this by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, from the support of our mothers, and from our communities, a tragic development outlined in Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It.

We suffer even further from the absence of father figures and a lack of parental involvement. According to the Pew Research Center, one-in-four US fathers live apart from their children

Twenty-nine percent of those same fathers see their children at least once a month, while 21% visit several times a year, and 27% don’t visit at all. 

And according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, this absence carries a very real impact on children’s wellbeing.

Healthy, mutual relationships with primary caregivers are how we learn how to form nurturing attachments with others, maintain personal boundaries, regulate our emotions, and soothe ourselves in times of distress. 

In this sense, our first relationships are the most defining, setting the stage for how we adapt—or maladapt—to our future circumstances.

When we are deprived of these crucial supports, we can develop an insecure attachment style, and struggle to develop the resilience so necessary to weathering life’s many storms. 

A final but crucial source of trauma emerges from the relationships we engage in as adults. For those of us with difficult histories, we may turn to our partners for comfort and healing, only to find ourselves re-enacting toxic attachment patterns.

We may even lash out, inflicting the abandonment, abuse, or betrayal we ourselves have suffered. This only serves to compound our existing pain, driving us with increasing desperation towards escape and reprieve.

magical thinking the thoughtful gay

Becoming ‘masters of survival’

When we feel threatened, the system charged with ensuring our survival—the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—kicks into gear.

This “personal surveillance system”, Polyvagal Theory practitioner Deb Dana moves us many times daily between states of social engagement and connection (safety) to mobilization (scared), and immobilization (shut down).

These state changes are adaptive survival responses, driven by special powers of danger perception Polyvagal Theory author Stephen Porges calls “neuroception”. 

Trauma survivors or those with insecure attachment styles may find their neuroception runs in overdrive, leaving them wary and hypervigilant. As a result, they may spend long periods stuck on the lower “scared” and “shut down” rungs of the “autonomic ladder”. 

Our autonomic responses eventually become patterned not around the need for connection, but self-protection

An out-of-whack autonomic response thus makes a state of safety next to impossible. With the ANS no longer able to adequately self-regulate, we suffer ongoing stress, physical illness, relationship strain, and changes in our mental functions.

While the ANS is activated, we are unable to socially engage, causing us to miss out in turn on the benefits of co-regulation—what Dana calls the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states”.

This co-regulation occurs when we connect and attune to others in healthy, mutual relationships. It is a key requisite to shifting from a state of danger, back into a state of safety.

“Supported by co-regulating relationships, we become resilient,” Dana writes. 

“In relationships awash in experiences of misattunement, we become masters of survival.”

Given the collective trauma within the gay community, however, finding such co-regulation within may prove difficult. 

In its absence, we will pursue less savory means of regulation such as objectification, exploitation, invalidation, and exclusion, which have reached new lows on gay dating services and hookup apps.

essy knopf authenticity

Deception, magical thinking, and self-medication

We survive through adaptation. When things go wrong early in life, however, we stand a great chance of maladapting instead.

Experiencing homophobia and resulting shame leads many of us into a life of emotional inauthenticity. Denied the ability to explore our own identities and to embark upon relationships during our formative years, we don a cloak of secrecy and self-deception as a matter of survival.

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade,” writes The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs.

Outwardly, we may proclaim self-acceptance. Inwardly, however, we are still carrying around unworthiness and internalized homophobia.

Its poisonous whisperings may lead us to reject other gay men arbitrarily, just as we ourselves were once rejected. Prejudices within the gay dating scene—be it racial, age or weight-based—are just a few expressions of this.

The deep, unexpressed pain we carry as trauma survivors, if left addressed, may eventually bubble back to the surface in the form of deep-seated anger.

That anger may be directed either at ourselves in the form of self-harming behaviors, or at the individuals or systems that we believe have failed, betrayed, and harmed us.

Without the knowledge or means to move forward, we ignore our wounds, numb the pain, and chase distraction.

We may find it in fantasies of personal transformation or romantic fulfillment. For those of us weaned on Disney—a company that built an empire on the power of dream—it’s all too easy to indulge in the idea of Cinderella-style transformations.

One day, we tell ourselves, we’ll shed our sooty smocks and don the glass slipper. Some dashing Prince Charming will appear and bestow upon us the fortunes of unconditional love and acceptance.

Our pursuit of such an embodiment of perfection of course is doomed from the outset. And yet we continue to plunge headlong into romantic liaison after liaison, without pausing to consider the whys and hows.

Denied co-regulation, we may also turn to self-medication in the form of process (behavioral) addictions, such as compulsively working out for hours on end so we can achieve some idealized physique.

Or it may take the form of substance addictions, which are present among gay men at significantly higher rates than the general population.

When we indulge in magical thinking, we try in vain to paper over the void at our core, believing that someway, somehow, our injuries will be healed and all wrongs righted.

But so long as we spend our energy cultivating distraction rather than introspection, our damage will go ignored and our very human need for healthy attachment and co-regulation unrecognized. 

essy knopf magical thinking co-regulation

Letting go of the false solutions of magical thinking

Each of us understands on some level that magical thinking is an act of deception. We recognize that the forms of satiety we seek run counter to self-care. 

And yet it is all too easy to get caught in the rut of trying to appease, ignore, or blunt our autonomic responses.

Try though we might to escape our dysregulation, all we are ultimately doing is deferring peace of mind.

Polyvagal Theory teaches us that in order to course-correct from scared and shutdown back to safety requires healthy relationships.

It is only through co-regulation that we can ever hope to loosen the hold misattunement and trauma have on our bodies, minds, and spirits. 

If your autonomic state makes finding co-regulations difficult, or if you’ve been burned by past interactions, a relationship with a mental health professional can prove an effective substitute

Through the support of a therapeutic alliance, open wounds both past and present may eventually start to close. Through a therapist’s supporting presence, autonomic regulation may suddenly become possible. 

In recognizing and addressing your autonomic needs, you are taking the first step towards a life of authenticity. To quote Brené Brown:

cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.

By choosing authenticity, we surrender the false solutions of magical thinking. By choosing authenticity, we give up temporary rewards and commit ourselves to some much-needed repair. 

Dating apps are surveillance capitalism at its most cynical

Essy Knopf surveillance capitalism
Reading time: 6 minutes

Collecting our behavioral data for private profit is a now-standard business practice first pioneered by tech giants like Google and Facebook.

On this surface, this may seem to be a mutual exchange: products and services, in return for personal information and what The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus” data.

From this surplus, these companies are able to construct profiles that are then sold as a commodity to other businesses. 

These profiles can also be used to “nudge, coax, tune, and herd [our] behavior” in a way that serves the interest of top bidders, such as through targeted advertising.

The people guiding this process—a mysterious, corporate-run “data priesthood”—operate from behind a one-way mirror. They might know everything about us, but we know next to nothing about them.

This priesthood’s practice of collecting, selling, and exploiting our behavioral data has since been adopted by the likes of dating and hookup app operators, at great cost to our privacy—and wellbeing.

The normalization of surveillance capitalism

Zuboff argues that every time we give in to these companies and sign their obscure, incomprehensible terms-of-service agreements, we are handing over exploitable information about ourselves.

We comply with these agreements only because by now they appear bog-standard, and because they are a necessary hurdle to accessing services upon which we depend. 

Fashioning an image of themselves as heroic entrepreneurs or authorities, data collectors buy our trust by promising “social connection, access to information, time-saving convenience, and, too often, the illusion of support”.

Yet their true goal as Zuboff points out is to extract human experience as a raw material for profit.

But succumbing to the new form of power represented by these organizations shouldn’t seem so inevitable. We still have the power to opt out. 

Here’s why it’s crucial we exercise that power.

essy knopf surveillance capitalism

Surveillance capitalism in gay apps 

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff explains how the social media platform Facebook uses “closed loops of obsession and compulsion” pioneered by the gaming industry to engage and captivate users. 

These loops rely upon “social pressure, social comparison, modeling, subliminal priming” to generate continued usage—and even addiction.

But Facebook is hardly the only surveillance capitalist organization to employ these techniques. Consider dating apps, which I’ve previously noted bear a chilling resemblance to Skinner boxes.

It’s public fact that dating apps mine and retain our private behavioral data, including text, photos, and videos

Some of us know that this data is being sold to advertisers or passed on to third parties, perhaps even foreign governments. This emerged as a major concern following the purchase of Grindr by Chinese gaming giant Beijing Kunlun.

What’s not often discussed however is how app creators use behavior data to shape app design and to enhance the “hand-and-glove relationship of technology addiction”, to use Zuboff’s phrase.

For example, a cursory glance at Tinder reveals the creators have tuned the app design to generate more rewarding feedback, and thus more user engagement. 

Consider the flashy animation and audio tone whenever you “match” with another user on Tinder—stimulation that’s likely to cause a release of the neurochemical dopamine, associated with the sensation of pleasure.

This is a form of positive reinforcement that ensures many of us keep on playing the swiping game, at least until we hit a paywall.

Paywalls in this case are used to create the illusion of scarcity. When free users swipe “no” on an interested candidate, the app will notify them they have missed a potential match, then suggest relieve the resulting fear of missing out (FOMO) by purchasing the right to chat with this other user.

Similarly, by offering a limited amount of free “likes”, the app levers loss aversion to coax users into buying a subscription.

App designers also nudge us to return to the app using push notifications. These notifications are also used to promote flash sale promotions or advertisements.

The examples provided here are blatant examples of the manipulation Zuboff describes. However, it’s the examples we don’t know about that I believe we should be most worried about.

The danger of manipulative app design

Zuboff cites studies that reveal the particular vulnerability of teenagers to social media addiction, owing to their development age.

Yet I would argue that people of all ages—gay men included—face a similar hazard in an always-online world, especially given the decline in public gay spaces in the wake of COVID-19.

As a result, we may find ourselves constructing and displaying our gay identity in alternate venues, such as dating and hookup apps.

Much like social media, these apps coerce us into continued usage through social comparison. 

Combined with the addictive design of these apps, our self-value and personhood may become tethered to the ongoing gaze and approval of others.

If we don’t practice mindfulness, we are at risk of being caught in a toxic cycle, wherein “ego gratification and ego injury drive the chase for more external cues”.

To explain: when we are ignored or rejected on these apps, gratification is denied, and our ego is injured. 

We may try to soothe that injury by pursuing still more gratification, returning over and over to the app for our fix. 

The shallow, mechanical, and objectifying exchanges that often ensue are a far cry from the acknowledgment and affirmation we are seeking.

As we hover over our phones “anxiously awaiting the appearance of the little notification box as a sign” of our self-worth, we suffer a slow extinction by a thousand snubs. 

For “Without the ‘others’,” Zuboff writes, “the lights go out.” 

How surveillance capitalism hurts us

Enter dating and hookup apps with their endless stacks and grids of attractive faces and torsos. 

In the case of gay men, this social comparison is taken to a new level: we aren’t just competing for the attention of other users, but also against them.

The competition for the best possible “match”, when combined with the illusion of scarcity, fuel FOMO regarding potential romantic or sexual interests.

Our interactions on these apps come to resemble some overwhelming game of chat whack-a-mole, in which we try desperately to catch, hold and hoard other’s attention.

It’s a game that often feels futile, as interest fluxes and users log on and off, often without explanation. Being shunned or ignored is commonplace, as is deception.

For instance, it’s not unusual to realize mid-chat that the person on the other end either isn’t who they claim to be—or is actually a chatbot.

Certainly, where dating is concerned, rejection is par for the course. But when identity and self-value come into question, as it so often does on these apps, the stakes often feel so much higher, as anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a flame war can attest.

Creating app-based addiction

To recap: surveillance capitalism allows creators to monitor users’ behavior and then use the resulting data to control us, for example through the gamification I’ve described above.

Like gamblers denying the odds, we keep coming back, even attempting to turn these odds in our favor by curating a profile we know will maximize user engagement, even to the point of trickery.

It is human nature to selectively present the best parts of ourselves, but these apps seem to actively encourage selective self-representation by providing profile fields that cater to one-dimensional hypersexuality.

Limiting as it is to be defined only by the minutia of one’s erotic interests, many users inevitably fall into line. Some do it in the name of efficiency or practicality, others in the name of achieving the success of a date, a hookup, or simply being messaged.

When taken to the extreme, users will adopt a completely different identity, knowing it will likely entice messages or photo exchanges.

Instant messaging is inherently rewarding, but add to this the ever-present possibility of sexual attraction or rejection, and users are pushed into heightened states of anxious arousal.

With enough exposure, we run the risk of developing an app-based process addiction.

Defying surveillance capitalism

Today’s tech-dependent world has arguably left us all pawns of surveillance capitalism.

Dating and hookup app creators aren’t in it just for paid subscriptions. They want control of our behaviors and habits, a reality that is by now an open secret.

Fuelling addiction enables these creators to expand their subscriber base. The larger the subscriber base, the greater the behavioral surplus they have at their disposal. 

The greater the behavior surplus, the more practical data they can harness in the name of fuelling addiction.

If your data isn’t resold, it is at the very least exploited by app designers to keep the “hand firmly in the glove”.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism provides perhaps the most chilling argument yet against dating and hooking apps. There are still many more.

Yet given how reliant some of us have become upon them, quitting may seem next to impossible.

If even a small part of this article has given you cause for alarm, perhaps now is as good a time as any to consider some of the more wholesome alternatives.