There is something fundamentally unromantic about the algorithm of dating apps. How does it work, this mysterious line of coding that increasingly controls my life and future happiness? Where do all the matches come from, this constant stream of faces and names on my phone screen?
The packaging of my microwave meal lies discarded on the coffee table. An episode of the TV show I’ve been binge-watching is playing in the background. I’m not really watching it; I’m in another downward spiral of swiping. This is how I remedy my disappointment when my inbox lies dormant. I have a rule, though. Swipe until I match with someone, and then that’s it for the night. That’s about the limit to my self-discipline around this process. Never mind social media; I have dating apps to blame for my device addiction.
They tell me people have the best match rates in the first week or two of using a new dating app. I’ve been on three of them on and off for over a year now, so maybe I’m past my dating app prime. These nightly sessions are a largely fruitless cycle of swiping and matching. Matches might spark initial interest, but I know disappointment is inevitable. Still, night after night, I subject myself to being tempted by endless possibilities. You would think this limitless stream of choice would be a positive, but it’s a frustrating process of sifting through dozens and dozens of profiles. Rather than giving me the information I need, I’m filtering through criteria I don’t even care that much about. I haven’t yet felt a spark with someone by knowing their height or level of education. The theory is that the more I use the apps, the more detail they have on me. This is supposed to make them work better, so I remain vigilant and committed to my nightly swiping sessions. This is the algorithm of love.
They say fortune favours the brave, and I am brave. After three years of singledom, I let my fragile heart out of its bony cage and into the wild world of online dating. I allowed the apps to micromanage my love life, and my dream of finding romance was filtered into such options as pro-choice, sexual orientation, age, and gender. In return for my vulnerability, the apps took my data and spat out recommendations for potential matches based on my preferences. Endless possible matches, but really, it’s just more and more of the same kind of person.
I swipe right, and instantly a large yellow tick pops onto my screen. I matched with Michael. Looks fit. Into windsurfing. This is comforting; it means he has already shown interest in me from the other side. I have twenty-four hours to start the conversation. I have to message first, because the women-message-first feature is supposed to be empowering.
I used to wait a little while before I made contact. Now I do it straight away, because delay between a match and a message can be annoying to the person waiting on the other end of the match. I send the dreaded ‘Hey, how are you?’
Now I wait.
I used to go to more effort to look at their profile and pick something from their photos or prompts as a conversation-starter. For example, ‘Where is that mountain you’re standing on?’ or ‘Agreed, a night in over a night out anytime!’. But now I keep my initial greeting simple because the likelihood of hearing anything back from The Match is low. I might sound pessimistic, but I think I’m a realist. My cynicism is born from experience. Once I know The Match is interested, then I’ll make a bit more effort.
Machines can only work with what you give them, and I have given this machine my heart. My search is for love, but the machine’s search is for patterns. My heart has been captured by a series of percentages and calculations determined by AI. The same way video hosting services select content for me to view, and e-commerce giants nudge me toward purchases. Why would recommendation systems do such a good job of streamlining every other area of my life, but fail to give me butterflies? Despite psychometric testing and hundreds of questions, still they haven’t found the right input to predict genuine connection between me and another human being.
I read somewhere that the original digital matchmaking programme that modern dating apps are based on came out of Harvard in 1965. A maths student used an IBM processor, that weighed the same as a small elephant, to process the answers to a dating quiz he’d distributed among his classmates. The technology behind this app is based on a rating system originally designed to rank chess players. A Nobel Peace Prize-winning algorithm created to find optimal pairs in trades, like organ donations. This stuff really makes my heart flutter.
The algorithm is supposed to help the process of finding love by working out how I resemble other users to make predictions about who I am going to like. The math student and his successors have tried to engineer the difficulty out of something that was never meant to be that simple. After all, love is a wild and untamed experience, and cannot be contained by an app on a phone.
Some things are predictable, and some are not. So far, preferences that make statistical sense haven’t led me to serendipity. Compatibility is one thing, desirability is another, and this sort of paring away of desire is the opposite of how attraction works. I don’t always know what I like until it’s in front of me, in random matching conditions like a bar or at the dog park. Places and situations with very little data to narrow the field, and where serendipity can flourish as the universe intended.
A new episode of the TV show has started, and I’ve watched the whole thing. My phone is lying on the coffee table. The screen lights up. A message! I open it.
‘Good thanks, and you?’
I miss much of the next episode, but not because I’m mindlessly swiping. I’m chatting. Michael seems interesting. And responsive. We’re going for a drink on Friday night. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the match that will lead to something.
And so it begins again. This is the ‘rithm of love.