Law in the Internet Society

The Online Dating Conflict: Connection vs. Capital

-- By AparnaSundaram - 07 Jan 2021

I. Introduction

In its infancy, online dating offered the same promise as the internet itself—connection. If you felt constrained by your small town, through the internet you might meet someone from across the country. If you were afraid of approaching a stranger in person, through the internet you could do so from the comfort of your home. This promise proved alluring, and online dating services proliferated. The most popular dating applications now have millions of users worldwide. Although online dating services promise connection, that promise is removed from the profit structure of these services. Facing a conflict between their stated purpose and their means to revenue, online dating services have chosen the latter, to the detriment of users.

II. The Promise

Dating applications and websites aim to connect you with potential romantic partners. As the industry has matured, companies no longer abide by your stated preferences in presenting you with potential matches. Rather, they “attempt to identify and exploit the dissonance between what you say you want and what you really appear to want, through the choices you make online.” Sometimes, this means providing you potential matches of your own race even when you have indicated that you would indicated you would be willing to date outside it. Perhaps this sort of filtering helps maximize the number of “connections” you get, but it also provides dating applications with an excellent system for collecting data on users. As one writer put it, “in no other milieu do so many people, from such a broad demographic swath, willingly answer so many intimate questions.” Online dating services claim that this information helps them refine their algorithms so that they can better connect you with matches you want to meet. But dating is a far more complex market than the market for goods, and it is much harder to accurately predict a person’s preferences in human connection than it is to predict their desire for a new exercise device or a toaster. It is not evident that all this data has markedly improved the quality of online dating services. Despite this lack of evidence, more and more people are signing up for such services and sharing intimate information in the process.

III. The Profit

Online dating providers do not directly profit from the data they collect on you or from you meeting up with a potential partner. Instead, they earn money from subscription packages, add-on purchases, and advertising revenue. The first model for collecting revenue, subscriptions, has become less popular with the advent of dating applications. When there are a plethora of “free” options, people are less willing to sign up for a website that requires a monthly fee. The second, add-on purchases, is common. For instance, the application or website might allow you to pay for more time to speak with someone through its service where it would normally limit the window of interaction. Most commonly, add-on purchases consist of people paying for access to more profiles or for visibility into the people who have indicated interest in their profile. Advertising is the final route to revenue. Online dating services make money through third parties who pay for advertising space or insight. Third parties might pay for the online dating service to display advertisements to its users. They might also pay to solicit data from online dating services in order to better market their products to consumers.

IV. The Outcomes

Online dating services promise connection if users both create a profile, sharing personal information that they want potential partners to see, and state their private preferences, disclosing even more personal information to the service. Through this promise, online dating services manage to lure users into disclosing all sorts of sensitive information. These services also advertise themselves as non-exclusive. Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge, for example, all advertise themselves in slightly different ways, promising to scratch a slightly different itch. People are encouraged to share, not with one platform, but with several, their most private information.

These services do not make money from using this data to successfully connect you with a romantic connection. Instead, they make most of their money either by convincing you that you are more likely to find a connection if you pay for better services or by disclosing your private information to companies that use it to sell you unrelated products. Dating services have well-developed tools to convince you that more meaningful connection is just a small payment away. For instance, Bumble might see that you have been swiping on profiles unsuccessfully and suggest you sign up for a service which automatically connects you with people who have already liked your profile. This is one example of what Shoshana Zuboff described as surveillance capitalists “intervening in the state of play in order to nudge, coax, tune, and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes.”(1) Worse yet, online dating services make money by sharing sensitive information with third parties without users being fully aware that this is happening.

V. Conclusion

As Shoshana Zuboff articulated, “digital connection is now a means to others’ commercial ends."(2) This should be particularly troubling for users of online dating services. These services collect the most intimate information about people—their sexuality and sexual history, drug use, and racial preferences, among other things. This information has not yet radically improved the ability of such services to foster meaningful connections, but it does serve as valuable fodder for advertising revenue. The discrepancy between the stated purpose of dating applications and their potential avenues for profit leaves users in the lurch—paying for perks and products that benefit the service, not the user.

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1 , 2 : Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Introduction


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r3 - 07 Jan 2021 - 20:16:21 - AparnaSundaram
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