Apps like Tinder, Bumble, Grindr and Hinge offer endless erotic possibilities. Like an unregulated free market of dating, they present profile after eligible profile and ask users to sort them using a simple hot-or-not binary (that’s not all that different from Zuckerberg’s 2003 Facebook precursor). The apps have optimized and expedited romance, opening access to a wide pool of otherwise-unknown singles — something that can be as unpleasant as it is thrilling. Sifting through these eligible (and not-so-eligible) singles can take time and energy, and all this drudgery of dating can make the experience vaguely distressing, like a chore. According to a 2020 Pew Research report, dating apps are widely disliked: “Americans who have used a dating site or app in the past year say the experience left them feeling more frustrated (45%) than hopeful (28%).”
Dating is a labor-intensive activity disguised as leisure, and much of the work happens before you find yourself drinking an overpriced cocktail across from a cute stranger — or even before you share a feigned virtual exchange about favorite colors or restaurants. Dating apps require you to squeeze your personhood into a few chaste prompts, choose a few hopefully flattering photos and then swipe until your fingers hurt, aiming to match with someone that meets a certain standard, whatever that means. Writer Emily Witt called the online dating landscape a “sexual supermarket,” a place where the options are endless and the choices are overwhelming. And if a profile doesn’t meet your niche specification (a friend of mine only swiped right on Jewish engineers with glasses, for example), you can dispose of them with a single swipe. It’s brutal out there!
It’s hard to find the best fish when the sea is so full. Even a mid-sized city like Ann Arbor has so many profiles that you can swipe for hours without seeing the same person twice. It’s like sprinting through speed-dating, slowing down just enough to see what someone looks like. The choice overload leads some swipers to rapid burnout. It’s not easy work to observe a handful of photos and evaluate whether or not some stranger can become your closest partner.
The paradox of choice, as described in a 2004 book by the same title written by psychologist Barry Schwartz, involves the idea that increased options decrease our overall satisfaction with our choice. Even when you make a wonderful selection, you can plague yourself with worries about missed opportunities.
Not everyone loves the technologized dating scene, but it’s a phenomenon that’s hard to escape. Over the course of the past two decades, dating apps have eclipsed traditional ways of meeting (such as through friends or family), making it difficult for a fed-up dater to ditch the apps in favor of an old-fashioned meet-cute like brushing shoulders at a bus stop.
What’s a techy, lovelorn young person to do?
Well, you can employ a human matchmaker or publish a Craigslist “dating assistant” job listing, but the MacGyver solution is to create a bot that automates the experience. A handful of swipe-fatigued singles are instructing software to behave like a right-swiping finger, reprieving them of their selection duties.
My friend, David Sasson, a 26-year-old data scientist in Brooklyn, wrote a few lines of Python code to swipe right on everyone he saw on Bumble. His script is only a little bit more complicated than a hot dog connected to a motor, but he has been pleased with it so far.
“This way, I don’t have to engage in any careful swiping,” he once told me over a video call. “I can look at my matches, see who sent me messages, and choose from a limited pool of people who are actually interested in me.”
In that moment, I asked him if the code actually saves him much time. After all, it took about an hour to set up and requires much dedication in sorting.
“Yeah, it saves time, but probably not much. I honestly just thought the process of creating it was fun,” he told me.
“What do you do with the time you save from not swiping?” I asked, to which he gave me a bewildered look and a slow answer: “Reading, working out, hanging out with my family, cooking.”
To him, almost anything is a better use of time than trawling dating apps.
David isn’t alone in his disdain for swiping. Twenty-one-year-old programmer named Zachary Johnson created a Tinder bot that sorted out qualities he found undesirable such as “has an empty bio,” “is a poly couple” or “is far away.” I found him on Reddit and asked, over chat, why he created the bot.
“My motivation was that it felt like a drain, an addiction almost, to just sit there brainlessly swiping through hundreds of people, looking at their sexy photos and trash profiles. Another part is that I enjoy reverse-engineering APIs, so I didn’t need much of an excuse.”
On YouTube, there are enough Tinder bot tutorials to constitute a small genre. One video titled “Automate TINDER with Python tutorial,” touting half a million views, uses Python’s Selenium package to click in the Tinder web browser (not the app). The video, created by programmer Aaron Jack, inspired a slew of copycats, including a French guy who ranked profiles’ attractiveness to 12 decimal places (12! What precision!). Jack decided to one-up himself by changing his bot to send automated messages to matches, and when the bot successfully engaged in conversations, the creator said he “felt like a proud dad watching his son at a baseball game.”
Most of the people who create dating app bots (or at least those who talk about it) are male, which reflects the gender differences in dating app usage: essentially, women are a lot more stingy with “likes.” According to Pew, men who had online dated in the past five years were more likely to feel as though they didn’t get enough messages than women (57% vs 24%). Based on data from swipestats.io, a service that visualizes Tinder data, women swipe right on just 5% of profiles compared to a 53% average for men. A 2014 New York Times article reports a smaller, but still pronounced, difference between men’s and women’s swipes (14% vs 46%). The takeaway is that men tend to cast a wide net while women remain choosy, a pattern that holds throughout the animal kingdom (sperm is cheap, evolutionary biologists say). Perhaps this explains why so many Tinder bots are made by heterosexual men — they waste a significant chunk of time swiping on women who won’t match with them.
Still, at least one woman-designed Tinder bot is out there. Engineer and Youtuber Bukola Ayodele created a Tinder bot project with an innovative conversation component. Using Google’s Dialogflow, the technology behind many chatbots, she designed her Tinder bot to engage in conversations that would sift out two types of profiles that she deemed unattractive: Trump supporters and those she referred to as “dusty types” (men interested in sex alone). Though some conversations seemed natural, others were awkward and stilted. With a chuckle and a cringe, Bukola shared the unusual messages her bot sent matches from her profile. In response to the question, “Do you live in Jersey?” her bot said “I can be trained to be more useful. My developer will keep training me.”
“Lol hacked?” responded the Tinder match, to which the bot replied “No I’ve not been hacked. I’m really into technology ;).”
Needless to say, conversation bots aren’t the most useful tool. An alternative may be a neural network AI tailored to your tastes, only swiping right on the best, most desirable profiles (perhaps love is an else if statement away). That said, many apps incorporate some element of algorithmic curation already. Hinge, the dating app starlet with a sophisticated, cosmopolitan feel (it has been touted as the most-mentioned app in The New York Times wedding announcements) proudly uses the Nobel Prize-winning Gale-Shapley algorithm. Tinder and Bumble are less open about how they determine the order of profiles you see, but ultimately, an algorithm might make some profiles more prominent than others. Whether you swipe right or left, though, is completely in your hands.
Ironically, human choice is what once set Tinder apart from old-school online dating.
The first generation of online dating services, like match.com, okcupid.com and others, took responses from extensive questionnaires and analyzed them to match compatible profiles — no swipes involved. But as the 2010s went on, users increasingly bucked computer-generated matches for apps that offered a hands-on approach.
Swipe fatigue is still a problem, though, so much that the platforms are working to reduce said choice. In November 2021, Match Inc (the company that owns Hinge and Tinder) announced a human matchmaking feature to aid users who feel overwhelmed and frustrated. For a $4.99/month fee, a trained (human!) dating coach will select two profiles a week, steering users away from choice overload. Most apps offer services that, for an added monthly fee, provide you with a list of profiles that swiped right on you, and human matchmakers have seen increased demand in recent years.
Ultimately, the buffet of potential partners has proved exhausting enough to inspire rogue programmers to code their way out of swiping — a hilariously high-effort way to save a little bit of time and energy. But hey, if you’re the type of person who reverse engineers APIs for fun, why not?
Statement Correspondent Annie Rauwerda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.