Dating apps forced me to attempt self-love. Hinge, Tinder, and Grindr (the term “dating app” is used very loosely here) once lived on my phone, two swipes away from the home screen (because of course, discretion was paramount), in a folder labeled “idiot”. The name of this folder was apt, and if anything, incredibly self-aware. My use of these apps could in some ways be likened to a form of self-sabotage; I knew the act didn’t provide me any benefit, but what it made me feel in the moment overpowered any form of logic. With each match, like, tap, and message, I would get a dopamine rush that somehow erased the discomfort of sending pictures I wasn’t comfortable taking or the random dates with men who weren’t particularly interested in anything other than certain parts of my body.

Through my very in-depth research of watching a TikTok, I’ve accepted that our monkey brains were not built for the interfacing that we do through the Internet and platforms like dating apps and Instagram. If we were to go back a few hundred years ago, some of us (me) would never have been able to flirt with guys in Toronto while living in Hawaii. We would all be in our own communities — our social circles much smaller, and our dating prospects much, much lower. God forbid that we’d actually have to attempt conversation with the handsome mustachioed stranger at the bar. Nature never intended for us to be able to communicate and interface with the 28 million people that use Hinge or the 75 million that are on Tinder. The normalization of this level of access, as well as the sense of entitlement to other people that we’ve been provided through these platforms has consumed us all in an attention economy. This, dear reader, if you couldn’t tell from my previous paragraph, is where the problem lies.

With such easy access to people who are made up of a select few images and captions, we've ultimately gamified social interaction. Dating apps have erased seriousness out of the equation. Not responding, curt and crass messages, and dick pics are the name of the game, because whoever is on the receiving end clearly doesn’t have feelings since they aren’t actually real. From having literal physical distance between people to the time spent waiting after leaving a like to the digital space created by needing to match with someone, most dating apps have created enough degrees of separation to mitigate the consequences of our own actions. They’ve also reduced our already reductive profiles into caricatures of ourselves. At this point, we’re avatars in the game — we’re the fishes that were proudly caught, and we’ll only fall for you if you trip us.

There’s this saying that you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. When you get played with for so long, you in turn learn how to play the game. We ghost, cancel plans, and backtrack when things get too serious, all in the name of “the plot”. In my case, playing the game was an easy trade-off if it meant suppressing just how lost and alone I truly felt. Coming hot off a three-month pseudo-relationship courtesy of my many swipes on Tinder and being unemployed in a recession-driven job market, I needed to feel seen. I needed attention. So, I turned to the places I knew I could get it. Like an addict, my boredom and discomfort from conversations with questionable men turned into a giddy excitement that I craved — the asks for photos meant they liked what they saw, and the forceful nature of their messages meant they were invested in the idea of me. And that was enough. Even if it was circumstantial, it filled the empty parts of myself that felt unwanted.

However, as with most games, at a certain point you get tired of playing. In my case, the wasted nights and emotional energy caught up to me. As much as I told myself that being treated like an object had left me jaded and as such, protected, just like Icarus, I fucked around and found out. The consequences of my actions were swift and harsh — there’s nothing quite like irreversible damage to put things into perspective. I was forced to take a hard look at what I had done to myself. As seen in my hindsight from writing this, I was clearly using Hinge and Grindr to facilitate my personal escapist fantasy (for what it’s worth, between the euphoria felt from a man running his hands through your hair and having to accept the fact that you’ve failed to accomplish any of the goals that you had dreamed of achieving, there really is no competition). I was running from my problems, and it was time to face the music. I’m happy to report that I had somewhat of a happy ending, and I did everything that one would expect me to — I deleted my profiles (not just putting them on pause), I cried, surrounded myself with my friends and community, had an emotional breakdown alone in an empty field on my birthday, and lived vicariously through the dating lives of others. Since then, I have attempted a return to Hinge with a new set of eyes and a fresh perspective. With my new photos and captions at the ready, I recently went on my first date in over a year, and shocker, it didn’t pan out.

Perhaps this is my way to cope, but I’ve accepted that at the time, my actions served my needs, and I can’t make myself guilty for that. I did what felt right for myself and I have now learned that it wasn’t. I can only use what I’ve learned to grow and move forward. However, I can’t help but wonder if all of this was actually avoidable, or simply inevitable. In a society that has normalized this type of short-term interaction, you’re expected to use dating apps. In the eyes of my peers, if you don’t have one downloaded, you’re clearly not trying hard enough to find someone. The idea of meeting someone in real life is simply a dream to be jealous of. Now, don’t get me wrong. Dating apps can be great for some people. I have many friends who have found happy relationships with people they would have never met outside of Hinge or Tinder. My cautionary tales and reflections simply serve to question the function and success (both personal and objective) of these apps because at the end of the day, they really are a business. There’s a reason that “rose jail” exists and that you only get to like a few people before having to subscribe to a membership. It’s important to note that Hinge and Tinder are owned by the same parent company, Match Group — they also own Match, OkCupid, and The League, as well as seven other dating platforms. It was only a matter of time until social interaction was monetized, and they’ve monopolized dating. Through this lens, it makes sense as to why dating has been gamified. It was never about success and finding a partner. It’s like gambling — the game is addictive, and the odds are never in your favor so that they can keep you spending. The longer people stay on the platforms means that there are more people that they can throw at you, which allows them to make more money. Genuine connection is just a scarce byproduct.

In this attention economy, to be a lover is to be a consumer, and I not only consumed these apps, but I also consumed myself. I lost sight of who I was so that I could make room for what I wanted others to see. As they say, to be loved is to be seen, and boy, did I want to be seen. Like with most things, dating apps can be successful when used in the right hands and with the right intentions, but until I’ve invested thousands in a single therapy session, I think I’m going to have to settle for the actual games on my phone.