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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Personally, as someone with a natural tendency for obsessive compulsiveness, I find app-based dating about as stressful as clothes shopping.
My visits to the mall usually begin with a single aspiration: buying a pair of jeans. I’ll usually give myself just an hour to make a decision. But this attempt at self-discipline rarely is a good idea.
What begins as a low-pressure routine trip quickly ends up becoming a race to find the best deal. Wandering from store to store, I’ll compare fit, color, and price, and how each option ranks alongside those I find online.
Before I know it, the internal timer will hit the hour mark and I’ll be forced to settle on a candidate.
Head spinning, I’ll collapse into the nearest seat, overwhelmed by the possibility that for all my research, I may very well end up making the wrong choice.
This “analysis paralysis” usually results in me returning to my car, driving home, and spending the next two hours browsing online until I’ve found an even better deal.
The tyranny of choice in app-based dating
Picking a pair of jeans is not a life-or-death type of situation, but for me, it certainly feels like one. Whatever savings I may make along the way are almost always negated by the stress I accrue as a result of my exhaustive (and exhausting) search.
Worse still, when the jeans I ultimately select arrive in the mail, I’ll often discover they’re a bad fit…meaning an even longer wait for a replacement pair.
It’s a development I could almost certainly avoid if I just settled for an in-store option. So what exactly is stopping me? A little something economists refer to as “loss aversion”.
No one resents the freedom to choose, or the benefits, conveniences, and privileges it affords in today’s world. But there are instances—like the one above—where choice can tyrannize, rather than liberate.
The downside of living in a consumerist society is that it often leads to a mindset governed by what author David Brooks calls a “utilitarian calculus”.
That is, we look at everything in terms of personal utility or gain. Not even interpersonal relationships are immune to such cynical assessments.
People who have fallen prey to “utilitarian calculus” are what The Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz calls maximizers. When confronted by a purchase decision, maximizers almost always pursue the “best” possible option.
Maximizers are consumed by the need to be conscious and deliberate about every choice. They are extremely averse to losses but also regret. For that reason, they are more often than not hamstrung by their pursuit of perfection.
As in my case, shopping for the “best deal” when confronted by an endless array of choices can lead to mental overload. It can also deprive us of valuable time and energy.
As Schwartz writes:
“Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet.”
The perils of ‘maximizing’
Consider this quote in light of gay app-based dating. A maximizing mindset seems baked into website and app design, with features that make screening, excluding, and selecting effortless.
We are able to set filters to identify people who fall within a narrow set of idealized parameters. We swipe to dispose of undesirables, and “favorite” to build a list of prospective lovers.
But as Schwartz points out, dating app maximizers sooner or later run up against the following conundrum: “How can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible?”
The fact is, we never really can, a fact that continues to haunt maximizers well past the point of having made a decision.
This may explain why many app users avoid meeting; who ghost and flake on a whim. Barring obvious reasons—such as being on the app purely out of procrastination or a desire for validation—these individuals may feel confronted by your request for them to make a decision.
While meeting for a coffee is not exactly a marriage proposal, it does require some investment of time and energy. It is by no means a commitment, but it is a choice all the same.
That choice comes inevitably at the cost of other choices. For instance, spending facetime with one person for example means possibly missing out on facetime with someone else who happens to be available and interested at the same time.
Not a significant loss by most measures, but ask a maximizer who lives with background anxiety of loss and regret aversion and they may disagree.
This anxiety and agonizing about supposed trade-offs however can ultimately thwart the maximizer’s search.
Ignoring those of us who use app-based dating for the thrill of instant messaging and sexting, the remainder we can safely assume are looking for some form of in-person interaction.
Monitoring our usage of these services reveals that we spend a lot of time information gathering for the “best option”—swiping, starring, filtering, blocking, chatting—time that is rarely proportional to any tangible outcome.
Sooner or later, we hit a point of diminishing returns. The “fun” offered by the often gamified app-based dating services diminishes, and we log off. (And unless we delete our account, it’s likely we’ll find ourselves hopping back on again for a quick attentional fix when boredom or desire strikes.)
Consider the ever-shifting availability of possible partners. Attention from these individuals will oscillate, peaking at certain hours, falling during others, even dying off suddenly and inexplicably.
Consider also the fact other users harbor a variety of motives. Even supposing they happen to share ours, there’s often a difference between stated motives and true motives.
A chat partner may say they are looking to date, but that may simply be a front aimed at sustaining the interaction. Or it may also be one of many conflicting and competing motives.
What this means is that in many cases one user’s stated desire to date could be abandoned the instant they are presented with an offer of immediate sexual gratification. (To quote the Nelly Furtado song “Promiscuous”: “Chivalry is dead / But you’re still kinda cute”)
Finally, while it may seem that you have total freedom to choose a romantic partner, that freedom is not exclusive to you. The other person has the right to their own choice, which will not necessarily align with yours.
Assuming your maximizing instincts don’t first paralyze you, there’s always the possibility your decision might be thwarted when the other person fails to reciprocate your interest.
Confusion, commitment phobia, and ‘gaming’
The opposite of a maximizer is the satisficer. Like the maximizer, the satisficer will be discriminating when it comes to selecting a romantic partner. They are also capable of being satisfied with excellence, as opposed to some impossible ideal of perfection.
Where maximizers are picky about finding “the best”, satisficers carefully weigh the options before accepting “good enough”.
Schwartz says the distinction is essentially a philosophical one:
“A chooser is someone who thinks actively about the possibilities before making a decision. A chooser reflects on what’s important to him or her in life, what’s important about this particular decision, and what the short-and long-range consequences of the decision may be. A chooser makes decisions in a way that reflects awareness of what a given choice means about him or her as a person. Finally, a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, and that if he or she wants the right alternative, he or she may have to create it.”
When juggling options on Grindr, Scruff, or Tinder, we exercise our rights as romantic and sexual “consumers”. But what we don’t do is reflect on what’s motivating our behavior.
Yet effective dating arguably can only happen once we have a clear and consistent understanding of what we’re seeking, and why.
What type of interaction are we interested in (hookups, dating, relationship etc.)?
When do we want this interaction to take place?
Why this interaction in particular? (To put it another way, how will this interaction contribute to our long-term goal?)
How do we intend to establish that interaction? (What methods will we use?)
Sounds obvious. And yet more often than not, our focus is confused. There are simply too many options that maximizers are forced to treat app-based dating as a game of elimination.
Our focus in this game is less on identifying a suitable partner than it is removing options from the dating service pool, often for the most arbitrary reasons (“I don’t like his hairstyle”, “He seems too needy”, “He lives on the other side of town”).
Gamified app designs, such as the swipe mechanic used by Tinder, encourage users to continually “prune” options, often to the point of distraction.
Another factor is that we as a culture are commitment-phobes. More often than not when dating, we become locked in a maximizing mindset, hellbent on securing an option that ticks off an often superficial, if not an impossible shopping list of personal traits.
Forever scanning our grid or swipe stack, we “trade up” prospective candidates like indecisive children in the candy aisle, stricken by the possibility that the one candy we select comes at the exclusion of other, possibly better selections.
Maximizing also can lead to “gaming”. Caught up in maximizing rewards, our initial goal (“meeting someone with whom I share chemistry and/or compatibility”) becomes something more vague and insatiable (“getting as much validation as possible”).
To put it another way, we go from treating romantic attention as the means by which we achieve some kind of relationship, to attention exclusively becoming the ends.
Caught up in the fun game of projecting desirability and provoking engagement, we spend our time manipulating the attention-based economy of dating services in order to get our attention fix.
‘Shoulda, coulda, woulda’
When our focus is confused, when we shy from committing to a choice, and when we’re caught up in gaming app-based dating, we treat self-awareness as an obstacle to our purpose.
Yet so long as we’re driven by blind instinct rather than introspection, that purpose risks becoming more and more unclear.
More effective and productive use of our time would involve choosing with purpose, rather than selecting on a whim. Namely, satisfying, rather than maximizing.
If we give in to maximizing, we may find ourselves prone to bad decisions, anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, and even depression, Schwartz warns.
To maximize means to be driven by a fear of loss and regret, to succumb to “shoulda, coulda, woulda”-style doubts.
Regardless of what our moment-to-moment motives on app-based dating services are, what we are all seeking as human beings, ultimately, are meaningful connections.
But where such connections are concerned, one can only maximize so far. People are by nature imperfect, so pursuing “the best” is a quest that – let’s be honest – is doomed from the outset.
Recognize that “maximizing” is driven by loss aversion.
Throughout my twenties, I stumbled from one unsuccessful gay relationship to another, thwarted by the fact my partners and I were often operating at cross-purposes.
The first time this happened, I had just confessed to my then-boyfriend Kohei* that I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to have kids of my own.
Having a vague awareness of my own dysfunction, and fearing I might unintentionally inflict it upon my children, it seemed the sensible thing to say.
I was also barely out of my teens, and in no way ready to even contemplate the possibility of parenthood.
“Gonna be honest, that really has me worried,” Kohei replied. I shook my head.
“It’s just not my thing.”
“… So you’re not even going to consider it?” Kohei said.
“Sorry,” I said. Kohei’s gaze fell to the floor.
“Well, I can’t see myself dating someone who doesn’t share my long-term goals.”
Feeling cornered, I grabbed my backpack from his couch and stood up.
“Fine,” I said. “Don’t date me.”
Stepping out onto Kohei’s front porch, I called out a polite farewell, hopped on my bike, and pedaled home.
When a gay relationship just doesn’t “work”
My reaction was, in hindsight, unfair. But truth be told, Kohei’s ultimatum had given me the escape hatch I had long been looking for.
My boyfriend’s puppy-like devotion had arrived at my door, premature and unqualified – like a Christmas gift in July. It had left me with deep-seated suspicion.
Was Kohei really interested in me, or was he just afraid – as we all are, on some fundamental level – of being alone?
Up until this point, I had been seeding our conversations with prickly challenges, less out of a desire to antagonize Kohei than a wish to test whether he would stand his ground, or rollover. And time and time again, Kohei had done the latter.
When the morning after our confrontation, Kohei attempted to patch things up with me, I insisted that he was in fact right: we were not compatible.
The “don’t date me” comment was, I knew, the culmination of many attempts to test him. Kohei’s willingness to overlook my take-it-or-leave-it attitude seemed to me proof enough that the two of us were, in some inexplicable way, out of alignment.
Too needy, or too neglected?
Where I had kept Kohei at arm’s length, come the next relationship, I found myself cast in the opposite role.
Remo* was accommodating, but not in the way Kohei had been. Unlike Kohei, asserted himself where he needed to, and I respected him all the more for it.
Here was a person capable of withstanding me at my bossiest and gently putting me on notice. We were, I wanted to believe, a good match.
The day I called to reveal I had just been made redundant, I got my first hint of the growing distance between us.
“So…I’m out of a job,” I said, my voice breaking with emotion.
“Well, you know what you have to do,” Remo replied.
“What do you mean?” I replied, stung by his lack of sympathy.
“Look,” Remo said. “I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll text you later.”
Feeling kind of put out, I grew first apprehensive, then adversarial.
“You know, you could be a little more empathetic,” I said during a later conversation.
“I think you mean empathic,” Remo sniped back.
Sensing his withdrawal, I pressed him for emotional support. But the bullishness Remo had once excused had suddenly become a problem. He ended it not long later, claiming he no longer “had the time” to hang out.
In fighting for my boyfriend’s validation, it seemed I had unwittingly driven him away. Heartbreak and an unexplained sense of shame followed.
What is attachment?
When gauging a gay relationship for compatibility, there is perhaps one factor that trumps all, and yet is often overlooked: attachment style.
Attachment styles in short are about how we form attachments to other people. Our styles are largely the result of our first relationships with our caregivers.
When however our caregivers inflict trauma such as sexual abuse or emotional neglect or fail to properly “attune” with us, our attachment is ruptured, and we develop an insecure attachment style.
Those suffering from insecure attachments not only struggle to maintain consistent self-worth – they are also more likely to struggle where it comes to forming healthy relationships.
Levine and Heller identify two insecure attachment styles as the most common: “anxious” and “avoidant”.
Those with anxious attachment styles typically seek closeness and intimacy in their relationships. They fear abandonment and may engage in “protest behaviors”, which include excessive attempts to reestablish contact, withdrawing, hostility, and manipulation.
Avoidants on the other hand like to keep their distance when in a relationship. They do this by engaging in “deactivating strategies”: refusing to verbally commit or say “I love you”, dodging physical or emotional closeness, nitpicking their partners, flirting with others, and longing after a “phantom ex”.
Levine and Heller believe about 50 percent of the adult population have a secure attachment style, while roughly 25 percent are anxious, and the remaining 25 percent are avoidant.
Notably, relational trauma can also shift securely attached people towards insecurity. The fact that “betrayal, abandonment, abuse, and chaos” is a gay relationship rite of passage for many, according to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs, makes us even likely as a population to suffer from attachment issues.
Which attachment styles are compatible?
Secure + secure OR secure + anxious/avoidant: Those with secure attachment styles can form strong relationships with each other and with the insecurely attached (anxious and avoidant). “Secures” are generally able to provide a “safe base” for their insecure partners, sometimes even help “heal” their attachment problems. But not always.
Anxious + anxious OR avoidant + avoidant: Anxious-anxious and avoidant-avoidant partnerships are less likely to work by virtue of their mutual difficulty forming healthy attachments.
Anxious people seeking reassurance from other anxious people are naturally a difficult proposition. Likewise, avoidants are not likely to date avoidants because of their mutual desire for distance and independence inevitably forces them apart.
Anxious + avoidant: Avoidants’ tendency towards distance and independence is likely to unsettle their anxious partners, who thrive in an affirming, supportive environment.
When avoidants withhold intimacy from their anxious partner, the partner may confuse the resulting turmoil for passion. Attempting to re-establish relational equilibrium, the anxious partner may double down in their demands, only for the avoidant to withhold affirmation even more.
The pair thus will find themselves caught up in a spiraling push-pull dynamic that is sometimes confused for romance.
Kohei’s constant need for affirmation and intimacy might have been a non-issue for a securely attached partner. But for me, it was overwhelming, and I coped in the only way I knew how: by challenging and thereby trying to create distance.
Kohei’s anxiety about the relationship understandably grew, until at least he issued a challenge of his own: either change my future parenthood plans or kiss him goodbye.
Remo on the other hand was most certainly avoidant. I was never permitted to get too close, and the more I sought reassurance, the more he withheld. My attempts to re-establish contact were met with veiled contempt.
Until I discovered attachment theory, the mechanics of a successful gay relationship eluded me, and gauging romantic compatibility was hit-and-miss.
Levine and Heller thankfully provide detailed strategies for coping with avoidant or anxious attachment styles. Their key advice is to seek out a more balanced pairing: secure + secure, secure + anxious, or secure + avoidant.
To determine the other person’s attachment style, Levine and Heller suggest following these steps:
Determine whether your partner seeks intimacy and closeness.
Assess how preoccupied s/he is with the relationship and how sensitive s/he is to rejection.
Don’t rely on one “symptom” – look for various signs.
Use effective communication: express your needs, thoughts, and feelings. Then assess your partner’s reaction.
Listen and look for what he is not saying or doing. Trust your gut feeling.
A final word of caution to secures: helping someone with an insecure attachment shift towards more secure attachment patterns isn’t always possible. Sometimes your partner may insist on clinging to their old ways.
The question therefore is, are anxious or avoidant behaviors something you are ultimately willing to overlook in your bid to forge a gay relationship? Can you learn to be satisfied with your partner’s status quo?
For those with anxious attachment styles, remember that you’re more likely to experience an avoidant out in the wild than any other attachment style.
Avoidants after all spend more time dating than in actual relationships, on account of their struggles forming healthy attachments.
Secures are also a lot harder to come by. Why? The ease with which they form healthy attachments means they’re more likely to remain in relationships and are less likely to ever appear in the dating pool.
Identify your attachment style: secure, anxious or avoidant.
Use the five steps to determine your partner’s style.
Seek compatible partnerships.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.