Online dating isn’t a game. It’s literally changing humanity

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The swipe is about as casual a gesture as it gets.

On Tinder, Bumble and every copycat dating app, choices are made in the blink of an eye. You’re not making definitive decisions about this stream full of faces; it’s more a question “could this person be hot if we match, if they have something interesting to say, if they’re not a creep and we’re a few drinks in?”

You feel so far removed from the process of dating at this stage, let alone a relationship, that swiping is simply a game. (Indeed, the makers of the mobile medieval royalty RPG Reigns intended its simple left-right controls as a Tinder homage.) You’re like Matthew Broderick at the start of the 1983 movie War Games — enamored with technology’s possibilities, gleefully playing around.

And like Broderick, who discovers that “Global Thermonuclear War” isn’t just a fun version of Risk, you couldn’t be more wrong. With each choice, you are helping to set uncontrollable forces in motion. When you swipe, the future of the human race is quite literally at your fingertips.

Luckily, you may be accidentally saving it rather than accidentally destroying it. Mostly.

For millennia, humans were most likely to marry and/or raise kids with (which, then as now, wasn’t always the same thing) members of their own tribe. That changed a little when we started to sail and settle around the world, but ideas about religion and race and class still governed our dating decisions — in the rare cases when those decisions were fully ours to make.

In pre-World War II America, we were most likely to meet our significant others through family. In the 1950s came the rise of meeting “friends of friends,” and that method stayed dominant through the rest of the century.

Even as we declared in the 1960s and 1970s that love was all that mattered, meet-cute was mostly for the movies. Nearly half of all marriages were drawn from the same old pre-vetted, limited pool, blind-date setups.

Online dating started to make a dent in the question of how we find our partners as soon as the internet arrived in the 1990s; it wasn’t not just porn we’re looking for. By 2000, according to surveys, 10 percent of opposite-sex couples and 20 percent of same-sex couples met via the internet, overtaking family introductions.

By 2010 — two years before the launch of Tinder — those numbers had reached around 20 percent and 70 percent respectively. “Friends of friends” setups had dropped by 20 percent in both cases, so that limited-pool and online-pool setups were about equal.

Surprise, surprise: the Tinder era has supercharged this trend. A fresh-as-of-January Stanford study looked at data in relationship surveys that goes up to 2017, and found that 29 percent of heterosexual and 65 percent of gay couples had now met online.

In 2014, Tinder was processing a billion swipes a day; that is now closer to 2 billion. Tinder says that 36 percent of all people on Facebook have created an account; that would translate to 800 million people. More total Tinder matches have been made than there are people on the planet, by a factor of 3.

It’s such an addiction that Bumble’s in-house sociologist, who formerly worked for Tinder, has to advise us to do no more than half an hour of swiping a day for maximum results. The rest of the world is just as addicted. The 370 million users of Badoo, the most used dating app internationally, are on the app for 90 minutes a day on average.

Smug internet marrieds
And it’s not like we’re just spending this time mindlessly matching and never meeting. There are an estimated one million Tinder dates every week around the world. Nor are we just dating and never getting serious; given prior trend lines, a 2015 study found that the wide adoption of internet dating had probably increased the total number of marriages by 33 percent compared to a hypothetical internet-free world.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, Tinder may well have helped save marriage as an institution, simply by bringing us more of them. Not to mention faster. Again contrary to conventional wisdom, researchers say online meeting-based marriages happen more quickly after the first date. The jury is still out on whether online-based marriages are more or less likely to end in divorce; there are studies that point in both directions. Call it a wash.

Either way, this is our new romantic landscape. At least one third of all marriages in the U.S. are now between partners who met online. That’s more than 600,000 couples every year who would, in any other era, have remained total strangers.

The influence of these internet-minted couples on the dating world isn’t over when they marry; it is just getting started. Internet marrieds get to play yentas. They can set up friends on dates with each other — still a thing, even in this day and age.

Who knows how far out the ripple effects go, how many people who would never dream of being on Tinder and Bumble have the course of their lives changed by swipes and matches regardless.

If you’ve ever noticed on your commute that a bunch of other drivers are taking the same odd Google Maps or Waze-led routes as you, creating entirely new traffic patterns, you get what we’re talking about: sudden chaotic unplanned real-world results based on vast digital adoption. Listen closely to your dating app, and you might just hear the roar of a vast human tide of unbridled connection and love, a great wave that is already changing the world, and shows no sign of slowing.

Race and class
First off, there’s clear evidence that online dating is creating mixed-race couples at a faster rate than our increasingly diverse society would. This topic is low-hanging fruit, research-wise, because there’s a lot of data already associated with it.

Since it was officially OKed in all states by the Supreme Court in 1967, we’ve seen a slow but steady rise in the percentage of all new U.S. marriages that are interracial — from 3 percent to about 9 percent in 1995. Progress was slow, but it was progress.

The second study adds that you’re more likely to date someone from a different race if you’re dating online, by a factor of about 7 percent. That doesn’t seem a huge difference, but it adds up over time as online dating becomes exponentially more popular.

Bottom line: Millennials and Generation Z are doing more for society-wide racial integration than many leaders of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s — and even the 1990s — ever dreamed possible.

But online dating isn’t all good news for those of us who want a fair and just society. Because of course, race isn’t the only dividing line that developed countries like America struggle with today. There’s also class.

Here the data gets impossibly murky, because people don’t exactly divulge their financial status in the Vows section. But there’s another proxy for class, and that’s the troubling trend towards exclusive, private membership-based dating apps.

There’s the League, which has 300,000 members and a 500,000-strong waitlist. There’s Luxy, which boasts that half its members are worth half a million or more. But the poster child for this brave new balkanized world is Raya, the LA-based online dating service that only accepts 8 percent of applicants and is currently 10,000 strong across a dozen countries.

Some of the more desperate have been known to offer as much as $10,000 for a membership, according to this New York Times profile. No dice: to get one you’re judged on factors like your Instagram following and how many people you know who are already in the club.

On Raya, the well-heeled and well-connected swipe without having to see a single face from the hoi polloi. The founder had utopian visions of a global dinner party, a “digital Davos” for dating. But as with many utopian visions of the past, this has its own unintended consequences.

If Raya is the kind of thing we all secretly aspire to be on, then the future may be one of multiple tiers. Dating apps would become the new rungs of the social ladder. And all the gains made on the interracial front would be lost as people only meet others at their same income or Instagram-follower level.

That effect could last for longer than one generation, if history is any guide. If you and your partner met on Raya, you may look askance at your kids if they want to hang out on tattered old Tinder. We’re talking about dating apps creating a new aristocracy.

Which in turn means that we might want to look at apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Badoo in a new light.

By using these widest possible pools of potential dates, rather than aspiring to something more exclusive, we’re keeping ourselves open to more random love connections that cut across lines of race and class and everything else that divides us. We’re doing our part to keep society more open, more diverse, less stratified.

Even if we come to the popular apps with certain racial or class preferences, we can still allow ourselves to be surprised by an unusual match, to think outside our normal boxes, at least for the length of one date. We have nothing to lose but our preconceptions.

We still haven’t determined the name of this vast global game we’re playing, or what the final boss level will be. But let’s hope it’s less of a snobby, royalty-based medieval Reigns game, and more of a vast, experimental, hot melting pot. Call it Global Thermonuclear Love.

 

 

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