Home Estate Planning Vicars, pigeons, Hinge and Tinder: How matchmaking lost its way

Vicars, pigeons, Hinge and Tinder: How matchmaking lost its way

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Dating apps are in the firing line as users disillusioned with their offerings abandon them in droves. But the history of matchmaking is complicated, writes Anna Moloney

Dating apps have fallen out of favour – with lovers and investors. The former are sick of swiping and the latter wish they were still hooked, with major dating app companies struggling as younger users ditch the algorithms in search of “authenticity”. And while this may be a boon for Gen Z’s mental health, the top brass at Bumble and Tinder are sweating. 

Indeed, Bumble, whose share price has lost 85 per cent of its value over the last three years, laid off almost a third of its staff last week after a disappointing update, while Tinder and Hinge owner Match Group has taken a similar beating since its 2020 listing. For both, the number of paying customers has declined as romance-seekers become increasingly disillusioned with their offerings. 

A lawsuit filed against Match Group last month doubled down on this, with a group of disenchanted users (on Valentine’s Day no less) proposing a class action lawsuit against the dating giant on the grounds its apps use “dopamine-manipulating product features” to gamify dating and fuel compulsive use, essentially turning sad lonely hearts into even sadder gambling addicts. 

Match, who has called the case “ridiculous”, appears unfazed by the lawsuit, which is unlikely to do any material damage to the company. And yet the case’s argument does resonate, as it comes down on the central contradiction of dating sites: profiting off your continued usage, they have no incentive to find you love.

Naturally, dating apps deny this, and their arguments can appear reasonable. After all, unlike other social media, they rely on subscription fees, not advertising or clicks, to make money. This means that there is no direct correlation between swiping time and revenues. Moreover, as those with a stake in the industry are keen to emphasise, there is no better marketing tool for them than those seductive success stories. 

But let’s be honest, you only need a few success stories to feed the hopes of desperate romantics. And, as much as Hinge’s tagline (“designed to be deleted”) may protest it, it cannot be denied that dating apps have more of a stake in retaining users  than in finding you a lifelong partner. Even Tinder’s founder admitted this, explaining that he based the app’s swiping mechanism on an experiment by psychologist B F Skinner, who showed that pigeons could be conditioned to continually peck as long as they believed they would keep receiving food. 

But, while this may not be all that surprising, it is a fundamental change in the economics of matchmaking.

Back in the good old days, the 1600s to be precise, if a young woman was in want of a boyfriend, she knew where to go: church. Not only might there be a dashing, God-fearing man in the congregation, but she could also enlist with one of the local matchmaking agencies, run by the parish vicars. Crucially, these vicars were there to make sure old maids (over-21s) were quickly married off to suitable, class-compatible matches, thus ensuring social cohesion. In Ireland, motivation for parochial matchmakers was even more abundant, with these Celtic Cupids in for a cut of the dowry for any matches that progressed to marriage. In other words, for 17th-century matchmakers, there was a clear motive for forging good and long-lasting matches. 

But fast forward to today, with the decline of religion and the rise of women’s rights, alas, incentives for our modern matchmaking algorithms are less clearly aligned with their users’ goals, though we mustn’t forget that the churn rate for dating has also been turned on its head: while a 17th-century match was likely to take those candidates off a matchmaker’s clientele roster for good, shorter relationships and the rise of polyamory give modern matchmakers the advantage of repeat, or even concurrent, service. Hinge may therefore genuinely be designed to be deleted, but it’s also designed to quickly be reinstalled a few months later.

The specific problem for dating apps is that while we may know other companies are vying for our time with similar tactics, like everything, it hurts more when it comes to love, meaning the likes of Hinge and Bumble are victims to an especially targeted vitriol. And while dating apps are far from angelic, they didn’t create the demand that fuels them, or the caddish boys that plague them. Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.

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