top of page

Cupid trades arrows for algorithms: dissecting our modern dating scene

In an age where swipes replace first glances and fate may be merely algorithmic, the modern dating culture has changed dramatically. Recent research showed that by 2017, 39% of new heterosexual couples and 65% of same-sex couples met online, making it the most prevalent and growing medium for meeting new partners in this generation. This trend is said to originate from the widespread availability of smartphones and the emergence of dating apps.

Source: Rosenfeld et al., 2019

There is some irony in this whole scene. Love: a romanticized concept of being swept off your feet when you least expect it, being controlled by calculated data points and mathematical models, adapted, and refined the more you click, and the more you swipe. With this in mind, does that mean that dating apps will remain (and grow) to be the main catalyst of relationships? How effective are dating app algorithms at matchmaking and how do they integrate with changing societal norms?

The development of the love algorithm

Today’s established dating apps, such as Tinder, Hinge, or Bumble, couldn’t exist without their simplistic predecessors. Understanding the integration of dating apps into people’s love lives starts with recognizing how these platforms progressively incorporated more facets of our daily experiences into their algorithms.

It started off simple,  Plenty of Fish (POF), a dating website founded in 2003, featured a simplistic yet revolutionary basic matching algorithm. POF users were connected based on geographical proximity, demographic information, and basic preferences provided in profiles. Being a direct and straightforward approach to matching is what popularized this website. Its 3 million active users and pool of digitally active singles is what prompted Match Group, the subsidiary of Tinder and OkCupid, to acquire it in 2015. Which brings us to the next algorithm: the recommender system.

The powerhouse of dating algorithms: the recommender system represents the core of today’s dating apps. It acts as a machine learning algorithm that uses Big Data to recommend additional users. In dating apps, two types of recommender systems are employed to matchmake: content filtering and collaborative filtering.

“We swiped on the same people and we’re similar, so I might like the people you matched with too!”, That’s the centerpiece behind collaborative filtering, used by dating apps like Tinder and Hinge. It is assumed that users with similar preferences will have similar patterns of behaviour on the app, so the algorithm leverages choices of similar users to make recommendations to other users. Essentially, it recommends users who people similar to you matched with, and is the recommender system most commonly used in today’s apps.

“You’ve matched with people who like hiking, so I’ll show you more profiles of people who like hiking!”. Content based filtering analyses attributes and keywords associated in a database, tailoring the recommendations by focusing on those individual preferences (such as hiking) and aligning options accordingly. It has been less widely used nowadays but is employed in and OkCupid.

Looking at this scenario mathematically, the goal of dating app algorithms can be framed as maximizing the likelihood of successful matches based on predefined criteria and preferences, and optimizing the likelihood by leveraging recommendations from similar users. This involves minimizing the discrepancy between users' stated preferences and the characteristics of their matches, ultimately aiming to increase the probability of mutual interest and compatibility between individuals. However, if the final goal is a relationship, mutual interest doesn’t guarantee longevity, as much as initial chemistry which may be prolonged. “Get people clicking and they’ll take it from there” seems to be the slogan behind the dating apps. But is the quick “swiping” led by superficial factors enough to guarantee that spark?

Why do we flock to dating apps?

Apart from the obvious impact of widespread technology, which has led to a more digitized social experience, there are generational shifts (and gaps) between age groups and evolving social norms that explain why online dating is increasingly popular, yet slightly problematic.

User behavior

Regardless of its medium, social validation remains sought after. When joining dating platforms, the desire to be validated increases exponentially. A study shows that dating app users are said to be grouped into four groups which prompt different user behavior: The Relationship Readies, the Swipeaholics, the Faithless, and Eligible Optimists. I would like to focus on the Swipeaholics.

The Swipeaholics use dating apps for entertainment, to pass time and to see who’s there. This behavior is mainly featured in 16–25-year-olds and is most common for Gen-Z (our generation). This excessive swiping may lead to psychological consequences. The prolonged swiping results in eventual matches, which end up being perceived as rewards of mutual acceptances. As a youth, it can be difficult to self-regulate and disengage from these rewards. Therefore, the average user will access Tinder 11 times a day! The algorithm also effectively encourages Swipeaholics, as non-communicative sources perfectly suit Gen-Z, who already swipe through social media profiles… this was just taking it to the next level. Safe to say, these bunch aren’t necessarily looking for commitment as of now, but this behavior may affect them when they do.

The swiping can foster cynicism in users. On dating apps, one can be sure of minimal attraction as two people wouldn’t match otherwise, it results in comfort and risk-free dating. This causes dating app users to be overly cautious when approaching someone in real-life, authentically. Suddenly it’s not risk-free, and there’s a possibility you may look “stupid” off the screen. That can result in being so out of touch from real-life social interactions that any development in friendships or relationships is dramatic and anxiety-inducing. Stepping away and “ghosting” or blocking instead of dealing with matters at hand. After all, we have the privilege to do so with a digitized presence.

This risk-averse behavior extends to forming relationships. One may attempt to label for comfort: talking stage, situationship, exclusivity. This also results in over-sensitivity in dating lives, especially with dating apps making meeting people as accessible as can be. A small “ick” over text may burn a potential connection, generational pickiness due to statistical chances of finding more.

Profile creation and self-idealization

To survive the priorly mentioned generational pickiness, users tend to over-glamorize their identities. However, this self-idealization isn’t just a product of dating apps, but of a pervasive online presence ingrained from a young age, something unheard of for generations before us. This prolonged exposure has instilled in us a habit of constantly defining and categorizing ourselves. It goes beyond just basic demographics; we also meticulously curate our online presence, showcasing our fashion sense, musical tastes, and overall artificial “vibe” to anyone who stumbles upon our profiles.

On one hand, that is exactly why dating apps are increasingly popular in our generation, we translate our social media presence from one platform to another. The constant self-presentation has become second nature and may occur more naturally on dating apps than many would care to admit. However, the problem is that we're not one-dimensional beings, and social media profiles nurture a misleading self-idealization. We're complex individuals with layers that can't all be neatly packaged into an online profile. A survey conducted in 2019 showcased that a growing number of over 50% of online daters lie about factors of all sorts, from body figures to jobs. So, when online personas clash with real-life identities, it may set up offline encounters for failure.

Will we be swiping for an eternity?

Regardless of any judgement, one may have about the way dating apps impact society, they successfully fit into our norms as a generation. A lot of people wonder, do they “work”, without considering that the success criteria differs per person. Some want higher self-esteem, some want to casually date, some want casual sex, and some want a relationship. Different apps may attain all of those goals in different frequencies that differ per person. However, when discussing matchmaking, couples, and relationships, statistics enlighten.

Source: Medium, 2021


42% of U.S. adults believe online dating facilitates the search for a long-term partner, even though it is estimated that about 10% of people in committed relationships met their partner on dating apps. Therefore, dating apps remain the preferred method to find dates (as 45% declare), which is followed by friend connections (33%). So are they here to stay? Most probably. Especially as the reliance on social media for socialization persists. Do they work? Not as much as for casual relationships.

I believe as a generation, that our dating experiences are shaped more by our mindset than by finding the perfect person due to the previously discussed risk-averse nature. It's only when we feel emotionally stable and ready for a relationship that we allow ourselves to pursue one, which may mean that dating apps become more effective as we get older and confident in our identities. However, if we resonate with the mindset of never feeling completely ready, it shouldn’t mean we're undeserving of love along the way. Taking risks and embracing vulnerability can lead to beautiful connections, even if there's a chance of getting hurt. Ultimately, we have the freedom to choose how we navigate our love lives, and dating apps may offer a powerful tool for doing so. As long as Cupid’s aim is sharpened, who cares about how he does so?


bottom of page