It’s 1am and I’m on a beach with a stranger, getting drunk for the first time in a while. Too drunk. I feel sick. There’s a thunderstorm out at sea and when the lightning flashes I try to catch glimpses of the girl whose face, until now, I’ve only seen on the flat screen of my smartphone. As we talk she is lying on her back and I’m sitting because I feel sick. She is French and when she says, “death is beaut-i-ful” I can hear the shape of her lips in her accent. I can’t tell if the things she says are profound, or if they only sound profound because she is French.
I ask her if she has work in the morning and she says, “No. I have some time off because I had an abortion this morning.”
After a while I stand up, walk down to the shoreline and vomit into the water. I ask myself, not for the first time after impulsively swiping right on Tinder, how did I end up here?
I’ve been using dating apps on-and-off for a few years now, and during that time it’s given me a couple of serious relationships, and many of my best anecdotes. So I owe it a lot. But it has also made me miserable in ways that I would never have guessed.
A bit of googling confirms that I’m not alone. Countless studies like this one by psychologists Jessica Strubel and Trent Petrie claim that people who use dating apps regularly are more inclined towards low self-esteem, body image issues, and general feelings of shame and unhappiness.
So why is this? Well firstly, Tinder (and all the other apps that claim to be different but are essentially the same) turns dating into an online game with real life prizes. Specifically it’s a numbers game. The more matches you get, the more dates you go on, and if you’re competitive you’ll start to learn how to play the game well enough to feel like you’re winning, but you might forget about why you were on it in the first place.
One problem is that in the cold light of day (or the soft light of some trendy Shoreditch bar) nobody, no matter how honest they think they’re being, is the same person as their carefully curated online profile suggests. This means that you inevitably meet people who in some way fail to live up the idea of them you had in your head. And of course it works both ways. You will also meet people who are in some small way disappointed by the reality of you.
Like, for example, the girl I met who at the end of the night told me matter-of-factly that she’d had a nice time, that I’m funny and attractive enough, but that I’m shorter than her so that’s a point against me.
If you’re like me, at this point you have a small crisis, and start to obsess about every tiny detail of your personality and looks. Basically you begin to feel like shit. And then of course you look for reassurance by accumulating more matches, seeking validation from more strangers online.
I’m ashamed to say I do all of this while at the same time judging people with the tiniest physical flaws. At one point I became convinced that I could tell everything I needed to know about a girl by her eyebrows.
And so I found myself, again, and again, on dates with girls with perfect eyebrows, sometimes having a good time but more often not, and wondering why the hell I put myself through it. Part of the reason, I know, is simply because the sneaky algorithms of these apps have hijacked my brain and given me what can only be described as a mild addiction.
Like a drug habit, Tindering is time-consuming and leads you to strange places at odd hours in the night. And even when all you’re looking for is a quick fix, things are never straightforward.
I've met a whole spate of girls who casually throw a piece of devastating information at me mid-date like a detonated hand-grenade. “I had an abortion this morning,” or, “I was a victim of abuse” or even on one occasion, “I have cancer”.
I don’t want to sound cold-hearted, but I’m ill-equipped to deal with confessions like this. Not just because it’s a lot to drop on someone you’ve known for 20 minutes, but also because online dating (maybe all dating) is more selfish than we like to think. It’s premise is built on convenience and low responsibility so when I find myself in these situations the worst part of me feels like saying, “Hey, that’s not fair! I’ve got my own pain, and I came here to avoid it.”
I’m aware that it’s possible to use online dating in a very healthy way. But I wonder how many of us end up using dating apps the way I was eventually using them, as nothing more than a distraction? A quick ego boost on the morning commute; flicking through endless beautiful faces without much desire to even meet any of them in the flesh; telling ourselves we’re looking for something real but settling for the same false connections that plague other online spaces like social media, porn, and gaming.
What have I learned? Not very much. If I had to give some advice I’d say approach online dating like Mission Impossible- Tom Cruise cable-dropping into a vault - get in, find what you’re looking for, and get the fuck out before you get murdered.
Or maybe I’m overreacting. I don’t know. All I know is that, for now at least, I’m happier offline.