OkEthics – A Look at Social Experience Design Through Dating Apps

For anyone who’s followed me on social media, it’s no secret that I’m often sifting through dating websites and bemoaning how weirdly necessary yet awful their existance seems to be. Like many people, I have a hard time finding people who strike me as interesting that message back, and have seen sites like OkCupid try many strange experiments to try and get people to actually get together. I remember seeing my most recent long-term partner on there before we dated and for one reason or another, maybe I didn’t like his camera angle or I used too many exclamation marks in my self-summary, we passed each other by. Yet when we met in person, we went on for 2 years! How does something like that happen? Along with the much more recent Tinder, I was very methodical, sent messages to everyone I found attractive that was based on our mutual interests or interesting bits, yet in all the time I was on there, I met very few people.

After reading some research OkCupid did that found users were ultimately superficial and based >90% of their decision to interact on looks alone, I decided to do my own experiment. I started up two profiles at once, one that had my pictures and another that had picture of a white- and cis-passing woman with identical text. To say the least, my ego was in check that month. While the fake profile got a lot more attention, I realized that because I left them there to be interacted with and didn’t reach out to anyone, these profiles mostly attracted people I didn’t really find attractive or didn’t put effort into their profiles and messages.

Along the same time of this, I started to notice a trend on how many heterosexual men (at least, probably other people of other identities do this too) went through matches on Tinder. I would notice matches of mine unmatching before we even got to talk, which most likely means they went through and matched with everyone, and sorted out their matches from there. At the same time, I noticed that guys were more likely to message me if I swiped right (indicating interest) first, basically being notified of our match right as he swipes right. Both OkCupid and Tinder pause the swiping process and it usually gives more incentive to message right then, is my guess.

That’s when it started to dawn on me: the design of matching in these dating apps is like some weird fucked up Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Think of it this way: the bargaining chip here is vulnerability and effort. If everyone acted the way the designers and humanity would hope, it would mean that people would generally not game the system, and put equal effort in approaching each other. But there’s both the fear of rejection and the window-shopping mentality that these apps unintentionally (or not?) encourage, where people will try to optimize their experience to have the least effort wasted for the greatest gain. The options are:

*Initiate contact with a high chance of being ignored or having an unsuccessful experience

*Wait for someone to approach you with a low chance of receiving anything interesting

*Use a low-effort way to encourage someone to initiate contact with mixed results.

As you can see, the stereotypical option is the third one, because it makes sense; it only puts in an amount of effort that your ego can take if it is ignored. Its optimization also banks on people being the first kind of user while also managing to attract some of the second kind. If everyone used the third strategy, it wouldn’t work. Much like (non-iterative) prisoner’s dilemma, the best result for you is by exploiting the other player. This isn’t necessarily saying humans are awful, rather that the technology encourages this behavior. As the OkCupid research shows, when profile pictures turned off, many people stopped using it, but the users who did interacted and enjoyed each other a lot more on dates than with pictures on. I’m guessing they didn’t go through with it because they realized their users are so superficial they’d lose out on money, even if they actually got people to do what the site was meant to do.

Still feeling burned from my last experiment, I decided to put this into practice. With the advent of Tinder, OkCupid changed their quickmatch to be exactly the same. So, I restarted my profiles and just starting swiping right on every guy. At first I would look, but eventually I relegated this activity for when I went to the bathroom, not even really seeing who I was matching with, just swiping right as fast as I could. These apps were definitely not meant to be used this way; Tinder consistently froze and shut down, especially if I received a lot of matches before I booted it up, and both apps would have the pictures of profiles stick to random parts of the screen. I’m pretty sure I’ve swiped right on people who know me and I’ll never realize it, and the process does make me feel slightly scummy, but not too much. Every day now I hit a blank screen on available guys.

Results? A lot more interesting messages and dates. I’ve been on more dates in the time I’ve used this method than the years and years I’ve used OkCupid. Now, this is probably still a remarkably low number seeing I don’t fit into traditional beauty standards, and I imagine there’s something gendered at work. The strongest factor is the most obvious, that I canvassed through a large amount of people, regardless of any factor besides that they identified as a man who likes women and were within 5 miles of my position at one point or another, and this gave more people a chance to interact with me. The folly or things like OkCupid is that they don’t really have a strong enough system down to link together people who will most likely date. For instance, let’s say the people who came up first in your quickmatch were the most likely to respond back to you, or actually go out on a date, or be someone you like, then it would make more sense to spend more effort on those profiles. Instead, if you go through every profile that comes across your plate, there are many ones much more suited for you that are waiting randomly in the queue. Neither OkCupid or Tinder have a good way of signalling where to spend your energy, so you go by the only thing that’s as close to an assurance that you can get: looks. Of course, there’s the messaging aspect of things, but that’s covered more on dating advice columns and are rather variant (hint: don’t just say ‘hi’), and this doesn’t necessarily mean I have a higher rate of successful dates. In order to figure that out though, I have to have a sizable amount of them first. Just try not to mention that you do this, I had a date who asked me directly about how I used OkCupid, and he didn’t like how the sausage was made despite our fun date.

I find this interesting because systems like these are all over in our lives, manipulating subtly how we interact with one another. I think about conferences with advocacy/women’s tracks and how there are rarely ever any white men attending them. Or how showcases or exhibits don’t have many works by people of marginalized identities. Or how we never really hear much about actual effects of serious games or games for social impact. Or any social aspect of any mainstream video game with regards to abuse. Or the ultimate feeling of disconnection on social media. Mostly because these systems are designed in a manner to bring out the Machiavellian in everyone. Experience designers are mega-focused on quantified systems to bring about abstract experiences, and while technically that does happen, it’s turned social interaction into a bunch of trending metrics instead of human connection.

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