I once had a long-distance relationship that was 100% online. I was about fourteen, so for the most part of 2003 and 2004. Our relationship was limited to holding video calls and chatting on MSN messenger. Our relationship first started when we “matched” through a social platform based on a common interest which was our music preferences. We would talk for hours about music, shows, and our in-person social lives. We ended up going our separate ways after a year, and I actually ended up never meeting her in person. Of course, had I been old enough to drive, I would have most definitely met her. But I remember that back then, regardless if our relationship was online, we were genuine with one another.
In the early 2000s, online dating was quite taboo, even more so was an online relationship. To me, it was pretty natural since most of my teenage social life happened online: from online video games to randomized chat rooms. I also remember when people who said “we met online” were often greeted with suspicious looks. Fast forward to today, and oh, how things have changed! Nowadays, rarely do I hear “we met at a social event through friends.” It seems to have become the norm to meet your partner online, including from dating apps. Unfortunately, out of all my friends who meet others on Dating Apps, rarely are those who end up in long-term relationships. This observation made me think of one particular question: what is the difference between social platforms, like dating websites and dating apps?
After looking into dating app usage, it seems that there is a difference in match qualities between online dating websites and mobile dating apps. The success rate ‒in terms of lasting relationships‒ of the former seems to outweigh the success rate of the latter. As a theorist, I automatically have an urge to come up with a model – first in my head and then on paper – in order to describe dating apps and their failure to provide appreciable match qualities. From what I have observed, the typical source of disappointment in dating apps is from people who lie about who they are. Of course, if you match with someone who says they like long walks on the beach at sunset, then it would be normal for you to be disappointed if they turned out to be a grade-A couch potato.
Most articles out there talk about the editor’s, or at least the writer’s, experiences from using dating apps. I, personally, have never used a dating app, but most ‒if not all‒ of my friends have. They have all admitted to using dating apps primarily for setting up one-night “playdates” with no particular interest in forming lasting relationships. And honestly, they are pretty successful! How do they do it? They lie to their matches about who they truly are and their intentions. Why? Because it is easy and unverified. So allow me to dissect the problem and let us see if you can find a solution.
Imagine that the dating app is a narrow cobble-stoned street, in the oldest part of a city, with shops on each side (Here, I am envisioning somewhere in the old port of Montréal). On that street, there is a shopper, which is you, and there are also shop owners, which are all the other users. The shop owners display their profiles in their shop’s windows, like a restaurant menu outside for all to see. The way it works is that the shop owner is inside the shop sitting at a table. They cannot see you, and you cannot see them. If you like the profile displayed at the entrance, you may decide to enter the shop; but if you do, there is no going back out. Now, we may choose to reverse the roles. You may play the owner inside the shop with your profile shown in the window. It would then be your turn to remain oblivious to what is happening outside.
Indeed, reversing the roles is a necessary part of model building. Why? Because you need to make sure that you cover each “side” of the market’s incentives: why would the person on the street choose one shop over the other, and how many customers – or even which customer – would the person in the shop prefer?
Take a step back from the problem and pretend you are in the third-person view. You can fly through walls, you can press pause or play, and you can add or delete buildings. Basically, you are in a “creator” mode. Your new role is known as the “designer.” Since we are talking about a market filled with people shopping for others, the title of “market designer” becomes quite fitting.
Each person inside a shop is allowed to lie, as most dating apps have it. The person walking in the street cannot see the lie because they only see the profiles displayed. Now, every dating app will tell you that they use optimal algorithms to match users together. But how valid is an optimal algorithm if you are allowed to lie in the first place?
Ok, so now we are ready to look at why people get disappointed. Actually, if we dig deeper, our question should, in fact, be: why do people lie in the first place? This is because we can logically infer that lying causes users to be disappointed. Is it really as simple as I’ve said: “because it is easy and unverified”?
I, personally, think that users have some sort of belief of what other users seek. If users were interested in a long-term relationship, then their belief would include their future partner eventually finding out who they really are. Therefore, based on their beliefs, their expected benefit from being truthful would outweigh their expected benefit from lying. They would then choose to be truthful from the start. Unfortunately, this is a simplified view. In reality, many factors weigh in on whether a long-term, relationship-seeking user is truthful or not. It may be that such a user is worried about the probability of matching and realizes that their only chance to match is by lying, as the user may think everyone is doing. It is thus sensible to propose that being truthful is not always a dominant strategy.
On the other hand, I think that users lie because their expected benefit from lying outweighs their expected benefit from being truthful. How so? Because the cost of lying on dating apps is practically null. The absence of a cost, combined with the belief that lying increases the probability of matching, would then make lying a dominant strategy. We can further conjecture, within reasons, that lying is an incentive which persists through time.
Combining both sides of the coin, we can argue that there is a clear incentive to lie and that in general, lying may seem to be a safer bet. This incentive then applies to the person walking down the street and the people in the shops.
Think about the most famous dating app out there: Tinder. You can easily observe a mix of both types of people. You have some who are genuinely looking for a serious relationship and those looking for an overnight relationship. So, given the incentive I’ve mentioned (lying in one’s profile), overnight relationship seekers may very well pretend to be serious relationship seekers. Moreover, Tinder does not verify if a user is lying. Most dating apps do seek and destroy fake profiles, but detecting a lie is an entirely different beast. Then, the explanation for why people lie on dating apps really seems to be “because it is easy and unverified.”
Going back to our model, we know that the people in the shops are most likely lying and that the profiles we see in the displays are probably either fake or possibly exaggerated. We can assume that the person walking down the street knows this as well. We also know that the dating app only cares about its revenues – or profits if you prefer – either from in-app purchases (e.g. boosts) or ads. Now, remember that your goal is to make dating apps better in terms of matching quality. So let me define what a matching quality is in order to simplify the problem. Whenever two people match and go on their first date, their out-of-the-app experience is what I define as matching quality. That means that if someone lied on their profile and you are disappointed, then you would rate your matching quality fairly low. On the other hand, if you match with someone who is even better than expected, then you would not be disappointed, so you would rate your match quality as high.
Now tell me, how would you fix dating apps, i.e. how could you maximize matching quality? From which point of view would you approach this problem? Would you imagine being the owner of the street and shops (the dating app), or would you be the people participating in the market (the users)?
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