Romance 2.0: How Tinder Became the McDonalds of Love

It’s 9.08am. You’re sat on the toilet. You receive a notification on your phone. Tinder announces you matched with the girl you’d judged in two seconds, based on her cute fringe and ample bosom. Your bowels fully empty themselves of their contents and you put the phone down to wipe your backside.

Welcome to Romance 2.0.

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Tinder and associated technologies have changed the way people meet. This post doesn’t intend to knock technology and the way it shapes human interaction and society per se, for this has been the trend since men and women began fiddling with bits of flint to create fire.

And yet. Dating and hook up apps are re-shaping human romantic interaction with an emphasis on quantity, rather than quality. They ‘plugin’ to a social preference for choice over commitment and instant, over deferred gratification.

New technologies have a tendency to shrink time and space. Often, there’s very little which is novel taking place, just the same old things achieved more quickly and efficiently.

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Tinder — An assembly line for human psychological and libidinal desires?

A good example of a company which has changed the entire process in which humans go about doing something very basic to our nature is the way McDonalds changed how millions of people eat everyday.

McDonalds has never offered its anything substantially new, other than the ability to feed more people the same low quality food, faster than anyone else. This relies on the scientific management of the food production process, drawing upon the development of the assembly line in the car industry;

Richard and Maurice McDonald…wanted to make food faster, sell it cheaper and spend less time worrying about replacing cooks and car hops. The brothers closed the [original] restaurant and redesigned its food-preparation area to work less like a restaurant and more like an automobile assembly line.

Their old drive-in had already made them rich, but the new restaurant — which became McDonald’s — made the brothers famous. Restaurateurs traveled from all over the country to copy their system of fast food preparation, which they called the Speedee Service System. Without cars, Carl and Maurice would not have had a drive-in restaurant to tinker with. Without assembly lines, they would not have had a basis for their method of preparing food. — How Stuff Works

Anyone who has ever eaten in a McDonalds knows faster and more efficient does not mean better. Even regular customers expect a McDonald’s burger to be small, fairly tasteless and devoid of nutrition compared to a more lovingly produced burger. It is not only the quality of the constituent parts which makes a McDonald’s burger inferior, but the process involved — everything is about speed. Ironically for a business selling food, sating hunger isn’t a priority for McDonalds.

Likewise, Tinder and other dating apps have taken a novel approach to something very basic to human nature — the search for sexual and romantic satisfaction. As with McDonalds and its effect on food consumption, the fine-tuned process of using Tinder in most cases degrades the quality of interaction between those using it.

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When you use a dating app such as Tinder, you are part of the product. You as an individual may be as ‘good’ a product as a slow cooked burger using the finest organic meat, or you may be a quarter pounder with cheese. For Tinder, this is unimportant.

Tinder is not offering users quality of experience or outcomes. They are, like McDonalds, offering speed and convenience. The application they provide is an assembly line of romantic production.

Instead of days, weeks and months of dating, often with people we meet purely by chance, Tinder offers the illusion that meeting, understanding and bonding with another human being can and should be more ‘easy’. The process unfolds in the following way:

  • People sign-up via their social media account. This has the advantage of providing Tinder with the user’s social contacts, which can quickly be shared with all other Tinder users, even if anonymously. Instead of your friends meeting a matches’ friends over several months and years of dating, everyone on Tinder has the capacity to see ‘shared connections’ within seconds.
  • Personal information and interests are uploaded. The interests have already been drawn from your Facebook account, the pictures are now on the app’s database and able to be viewed by anyone. The user doesn’t even need take five minutes to fill out a profile, as on traditional dating sites. Not a single word need be typed into the app, beyond the user’s Facebook login details.
  • Like McDonalds, Tinder is able to do things quickly by offering users a very limited range of choice. In Tinder’s case searches are limited to pictures, age and location. The app doesn’t even pretend you’re searching for people via shared interests. Just as McDonalds want to sell you food and get you out of the restaurant as quickly as possible, Tinder wants you making matches quickly. This ultimately translates into placing all emphasis on a potential match’s physical appearance.
  • Once a match is made, both users are allowed to message one another. At this point, beyond sending notifications, Tinder has no more input, or more importantly, interest. When you next open the app, Tinder won’t open the messaging section by default, it will immediately take you to new profiles matching your criteria. The person you opened a dialogue with two days ago may already be getting ‘stale’ and the search for novelty (the thing which hooks the user long term) continues. Tinder is more than happy to oblige the user in their short term drive for a dopamine burst.

So Tinder has revolutionised the speed and efficiency at which we can ‘connect’ with new people. However, just as a McDonalds meal leaves you hungry after an hour, using Tinder often leaves one feeling addicted to the process, but more than a little emotionally and spiritually empty.

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My Own experience of Tinder replicated the vapid, conveyor built style experience outlined above. Having used the app during bouts of singledom in recent years, I always experienced mixed feelings of annoyance, frustration and boredom. I enjoyed dates and sex with people I met via the Tinder, but ninety percent of my interaction with the app was exactly that; interaction with an app rather than Real People. Hours (broken up throughout the day and night) were taken up swiping through an endless stream of profiles, judging others on the flimsiest of criteria (almost always physical in nature).

Most users complain of ‘ghosting’ — the phenomena of building up a long list of matches, with little or no interaction with the majority. After the short, sharp dopamine hit provided by a match, most users are back to seeking yet another, rather than focusing on the person they matched with an hour ago. Like a McDonalds, you won’t be sated and as the company hope, you’ll be back for more soon enough.

In the highly unlikely event you meet the man or woman of your dreams via Tinder, this is a problem for the company. You would no longer be an active daily user. If the majority of the company’s users found one or more regular, committed romantic partners, Tinder’s stats would drop and in time, the company’s (Match Group Inc) valuation. An exchange of dirty messages, or a few fucks (and I use that word purposefully) is all the company can afford you if it is to retain its user-base.

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In an age of ever increasing work hours, leisure time has become a highly valuable commodity. British and American workers have some of the longest working hours in the OECD, impacting peoples’ ability to form and nurture meaningful, long-term relationships.

People no longer have the patience or inclination to leave love to chance. Whilst many Millennials may sniff at the previous generations’ proclivity for fast food, many want romance and sex ‘to order’, with a total inability to defer gratification.

In the past the transaction of money in an emotional relationship would have been limited to certain instants — between prostitutes and their clients, therapists and their patients and spouses in a relationship for the financial benefits.

Today we have the logical conclusion of a tech obsessed population in search of instant gratification — the total commodification of dating. Enter Ohlala, the app where each date is financially and temporally budgeted and female users reimbursed for their time.

Ohlala works by allowing male users to create profiles and fill out paid date requests, which include duration (30 minutes, an hour, etc.) and budget. The person must be looking for a date within four hours of placing the request. All active female users see the request, and they have 21 minutes to respond. It’s only after a woman chooses to respond that the requester can see their profile and chat with the woman. Where…the two can finalize the terms of the, er, date. —

Ohlala may strike us as an unpleasant development, but it is a development which meets a demand. The app puts a price on a person’s time (or emotional labour) and allows he or she to be explicitly ‘purchased’ as a commodity.

The French website Adopte Un Mec doesn’t shy away from comparisons to ‘shopping’ for and purchasing a partner, it’s promotional material and logo featuring a woman pushing a man in a shopping trolley. The website sees women place men they like in a ‘basket’, as they would any other form of commodity on Amazon.

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On Facebook, Tinder and other forms of social media, we turn ourselves into a product, but one whose value is lost in the vastness of each company’s multi-billion Dollar valuations. With Ohlala, not only do we transform ourselves into a commodity, but a transaction takes place in which the value for our personal time, unique conversation, mental and physical attributes is fully ‘realised’. A near-transparent market mechanism for emotional and romantic labour is created. Forget the murky line between overtly prostituting oneself and merely accepting multiple dinners and trinkets before opting to have sex, as in more traditional forms of dating. Here a price mechanism determines ones’ value, meaning a product (the user) can be ‘purchased’. Everyone knows the costs involved and the the ‘buyer’ will recompense the ‘purchased’, often to the tune of hundreds of Dollars.

Apart from making sex (and each aspect of it) an explicit part of the purchase, the only way Ohlala could perfect the commodification of romantic life would be to introduce an Amazon style rating system in which the pricing mechanism more truly reflects the value of the ‘goods’ purchased.

It’s more than a little disturbing to imagine a future in which, short of time and commitment to genuine human emotional and spiritual connection, users login to an app and purchase the highest level of conversational skills, sense of humour, sexual prowess and general intelligence their budget will allow. Furthermore, price comparison websites could grant users the ability to search across multiple sites and apps for the best match they can attain for their budget. As a great conversationalist, Bethany could be the perfect woman to take on holiday with friends or family, only to purchase 24 hours of Emma for a weekend locked away having exceptionally kinky sex on return.

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Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning…

…Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now. — George Monbiot

It’s not only new forms of interaction via novel technologies which are degrading romance in the twenty-first century. The combined social, political and economic shifts of the past three decades have witnessed a concomitant psychological and attitudinal sea-change in how we approach all relationships, romantic or otherwise.

The current vogue for Polyamory, or simply the constant striving for new lovers is the wrong answer to the right question — how or why should anyone spend an entire lifetime with one other person in a monogamous relationship?

In the past, men and women (outside of a few historical eras, it was always men and women) were matched up for marriage through familial and social ties. Prior to the eighteenth century, ‘big R’ Romantic concept of love had little or no role to play. Instead, social cohesion and the rearing of future generations were of paramount importance.

With female contraception came a epochal shift and a break with 40,000 years of male dominance over the female reproductive system. Women could, for the first time in human history, maintain control over their own fertility. This allowed for greater freedom when choosing a partner and the ability to enter the workforce, garnering a wage and with it, increased social freedom.

In recent decades, there has been a greater understanding, acceptance and upswing in the number of people enjoying polyamorous and casual relationships. Monogamy is coming to be regarded old hat and a vestige of an age in which both men and women were often imprisoned in loveless marriages which spanning entire lifetimes.

This shift toward short-term and multi-partner relationships has developed in direct correlation with not only female control of their reproductive systems, but exponential rates of technological change and the dominance of neoliberalism as a social, political and economic force. All three developments have disrupted untold aspects of human life. In the case of female contraception, the disruption of traditional social patterns has been unquestionably for the better. In the case of neoliberalism, undoubtedly for the worse.

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The breakdown of traditional community ties and cohesion, long term occupations, long term investment in the future (at both the governmental and individual levels), pension provision and the welfare state in the neoliberal era has been met by a concurrent breakdown in committed, romantic relationships. Instead, of ‘investing’ in a relationship long-term, people are more likely to flit between partners (and the attributes lacking in their current partner) more than ever before.

These developments reflect concurrent changes in the work-place; companies hiring and firing people at will, workers being placed on temporary contracts, no interest in investing in staff members’ long-term personal and professional development. Similarly, as soon as a romantic relationship faces a little difficulty, or the spark goes out of the sex, one hapless lover is ‘let go’ in favour of another willing taker (as in the precarious workforce, there is always a willing replacement). Apps like Tinder step in to speed up the process of seeking out a replacement or avoid a character building period of being single.

Not that monogamy was anywhere near perfect. The point is that, with a society-wide psychological shift away from a long-term outlook, polyamory, or more specifically, the move away from monogamy, jettisons the importance of sacrificing oneself to another, often for no tangible ‘return’. It also puts into question the ability to stick by someone through difficult periods, during bouts of illness for example, when this may limit one partners’ ability to enjoy their social, sexual and general romantic lives.

Tinder and technological and wider technological change haven’t caused this shift in outlook and behaviour, but they are helping to disrupt previous patterns in romantic life, including those which are psychologically and socially necessary (the long term commitment required for raising a child being a prime example).

The individualist, throw away culture which has developed throughout the neoliberal era has been the perfect breeding ground for the fetishisation of the novel (technology) and cheapened relationships. Friendships and relationships are fast becoming utilised as means through which to extract our desired ends — sexual pleasure, entertainment, novelty, without the concomitant sacrifices required of truly spiritual forms love.

Like our car insurance or broadband provider, if a partner doesn’t fulfil our needs, at the lowest possible ‘cost’ to us, we are inclined to move on for new and or ‘easy’.

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This state of affairs will only change from inside each and every one of us. We today all too easily regard ourselves as consumers, as opposed to colleagues, passengers, patients, students, neighbours and dedicated romantic partners. We have internalised neoliberalism’s narrative that there is, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, ‘no such thing as society’. We expect ‘choice’, whether it be a thousand brands of black tea in the supermarket, or dozens of sexual partners met via Tinder. Not only do we want to be able to choose anything (or anyone), we want it all right now, this minute.

Instead of treating people like a brand of washing powder, we need to hold onto what is innately human and unique about each and every one of us. People are too complex to understand over the course of a year, let alone in a single conversation via an app or a couple of paid-for dates. Anything worthwhile will never be convenient. You’ll never be fully successful fitting your romantic and sex lives conveniently around your work life, hobbies and raising children.

An endless string of new lovers is never going to offer a truly spiritual connection, which can only come with the shared experiences, highs and lows of a committed, long-term relationship. This isn’t to say having four lovers at once cannot involve deep, spiritual connections, as long as all sides are committed and don’t cynically move between one another for the most convenient experience (spending more time with one partner whilst another experiences a long-term illness, for example).

Technology is neutral. We can use nuclear power to heat homes and power the planet in a carbon neutral way, or we can use it to create weapons of unimaginable destruction. As long as we are mindful of the social forces at work and confident in ourselves, we can throw a spanner in the psychological assembly line developed by companies such as Tinder to enrich themselves off the back of our emotional needs.

Like McDonalds before it, I believe apps like Tinder and their novel means of appropriating, packaging, selling and in turn, debasing a core human need (love in Tinder’s case), will be held in disregard by most people in the future. Yet, as McDonalds proves, the derision of middle-class young people won’t be enough to undermine the tech corporations’ cynical exploitation of social breakdown for the enrichment of their creators and owners. Only a society-wide shift away from our short term, individualistic approach to the life can free us from shallow and debased relationships.

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A meaningless, strutting cadaver-in-waiting. Thoughts on life, politics, economics, pop culture and more.

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