Apps turned dating into a video game 🥀
On West Elm Caleb and the age of minimal viable romance.
My first reaction to West Elm Caleb: I know this dude.
Ok, not really, but sorta. He’s some midwestern pretty boy who lives in Greenpoint, has an ironic mustache, wears a baseball cap tilted to the side, listens to Tame Impala, hangs out at Kinfolk, buys maca powder, skate/snowboards, went to art school, etc. I can’t walk into a bar in Brooklyn without bumping into this kind of dude.
It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of young women are furious at Caleb. Some background for those unfamiliar: He’s a West Elm furniture designer/f*ckboi who used dating apps to sleep around. A TikToker made a video about him and then every mid-20s NYC woman on TikTok was like “Wait, he sent me the same text! And he made me the same playlist! And then he ghosted me too!” Much clowning and dunking ensued because BAD ACTOR + MOB MENTALITY = GIRL POWER!
That he was considered a catch in the first place begs a few questions, but I’m more interested in the big picture here. This whole saga feels like the inevitable result of swipe culture.
Warning: Gender-based assumptions ahead! Bail if you’re easily offended by stereotypes! That’s right, I’m the kind of monster who believes that (typically) young men are dumb, just want to get laid, are visually oriented, and play games (video and otherwise) while young women have greater emotional intelligence, are better at conversations, favor attraction based on personality rather than appearance, and tilt toward meaningful relationships rather than casual sex. I know, I’m a real dinosaur! Next I’ll be arguing crazy sh*t like men are stronger than women. Before you come at me: Yes, I know there are exceptions. You’re a young dude who wants a serious commitment. You’re a gal who loves video games. I get it. I’m speaking in generalities here and I’m assuming you can handle it. OK, back to our regularly scheduled ranting…
I’ve never understood why so many women have agreed to participate in online dating, a framework which turns romance and seduction into a video game that favors male tendencies. Swiping based on photos isn't feminist progress, it's the patriarchy's wet dream. It aligns much more with traditional male desire (i.e. attraction based on photos leading to casual sex followed by ghosting) than female. Remember Mark Zuckerberg creating Facemash in order to compare the hotness of female students at Harvard? Good luck using any app based on that approach as a launching pad for love and affection. I get why these women are angry at Caleb and his ilk, but I’m confused by it too: You signed up for a video game and now you’re surprised a gamer played you!?
When Grindr, the first mainstream dating app, came out, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is great for gay men but will never work for straights because there's no way women will ever go along with this.” Yet here we are. It still kinda blows me away, actually.
“Okay, old timer.” It’s true, I’m old. I spent my 20s without a smartphone. How dating worked back then now seems archaic: You were vetted by a mutual contact or you connected with someone at work, church, etc. With those approaches, there was some semblance of accountability. We had random connections too. Typically, that meant a guy had to be confident enough to approach a woman and talk to her in person. And then get her number. And then call her and talk to her again. And then ask her out. (Crazy, right?) All that pre-date conversation was great for screening. By the time you eventually met up, you had some real intel on the person. Plus, there was an upfront chemistry check! Remember chemistry? I’m not talking about swapping memes, I’m talking about sniffing pheromones. Sometimes, the nose just knows when it’s a no.
While this old-school process was inefficient compared to swiping, it was a better path for those who enjoy actual (not text-based) conversations. You know how those Sex and the City ladies eat brunch and gab? Well, most straight dudes don't communicate like that unless we’re comparing fantasy football lineups. Removing conversation from the initial stages of the dating process was a big win for men who grunt.
Jeff Allen explains how this all shifted in ”Why SOD (swipe/online dating) doesn’t work for most people”:
If it makes you a little sick to think how shallow people are when it comes to the dating market, understand that these platforms put shallowness on steroids. People are exposed to far more human beings on these apps in a month than they could realistically meet in several years. And in that sense we’re all cheaper. Less valuable. More like a commodity to be consumed than a human being whose worth more than their physical appearance.
IRL, all of this goes out the window.
To begin with, because we aren’t exposed to hundreds and hundreds of faces, we become less picky and we come to appreciate things about people that don’t have to do directly with their looks. Additionally, someone who’s not on the apps is going to be far less likely to flake on a date or break up with someone for capricious reasons, because they can’t afford to throw people away so quickly.
So unless you’re having great success on SOD and meeting people you’re genuinely attracted to and interested in — and who are genuinely attracted to and interested in you — get out of there.
Much of society is now mating gaming. Tinder is just Angry Birds but with people. Hinge is just Minecraft with the chance of getting laid. And y'know who loves video games? Dorky dudes! They’re all about cheat codes and other hacks. Swipe life took away women’s home field advantage when it comes to romance. It traded in actual conversations for a world of swipes, emojis, copy/pastes, and "what did he mean by that?" texts. Somehow, women bought into making foreplay more "efficient" – and nothing could be more like a man than that.
So when I hear stories about some dude who sent the same curated playlist to multiple women, all I can think is OF COURSE HE DID. This is the game that’s been set up for him and he's playing it effectively. To do this decades ago, you had to put in at least a little bit of effort to create a mixtape or burn a CD. Now it’s merely a couple of keystrokes. We’ve entered the age of minimal viable romance.
Still, plenty of ladies seem to enjoy online dating. My advice that no one asked for: If it's working for you, then keep it up. But if it's broken and causing pain, you don’t have to accept it.
And same thing with the rest of online life. Every article about the declining mental health of Gen Z makes me want to prescribe the same medicine: Get off your phone, make eye contact, go for a walk, talk to people, be a human being, and live a real life.
And while I’m on the subject of dating, we also need to talk about red flag inflation. Not EVERYTHING is a red flag. "He didn't text you back in three hours? RED FLAG!” “He talked about his mom on the first date? RED FLAG!” Oh, calm down.
Love is about compromise. Ask any married person how they make it work. The answer: WHITE flags. You constantly surrender in a sustainable long-term commitment. You get used to not getting what you want half the time. The more someone talks about red flags, the more I assume they’re an egomaniac.
If someone’s a diva who constantly flies off the handle about “red flags,” there's a good chance their addiction to ground rules and unwavering attachment to how things SHOULD be are why THEY are an undesirable potential partner.
I shared all the above views in a Twitter thread and reviews were, ahem, mixed. Turns out social media isn’t the best place for a nuanced conversation about gender roles, love, and technology. Whodathunkit? Anyway, here’s some of the blowback:
“Why are you blaming women for Tinder which was literally created by men?”
Oh, I totally blame men for all this. I just can't believe women went along with it. Many straight men would like to have random, anonymous sauna sex in bathrooms at the gym, but women have decided not to go along with that. Women can refuse to acquiesce to every dumb idea that men have about dating and sex. In fact, it’s imperative.
“You’re attacking women.”
I’m not attacking anyone. Like I said, if it’s working for you then keep it up. This defender of mine gets it:
He is making an astute and detailed critique of culture as a whole, not attacking women. Online dating has turned dating into a mean, dehumanizing experience for all sexes and genders. Swiping apps depend on objectification and lure narcissists and cowards to a buffet. If you'd listen closer, he is stating a very real problem with converting humans into avatars. It leads to meanness, superficiality, and wanton compulsive gratification.
Right on. Love the buffet line too.
Also, it’s worth point out online dating sucks for most men too. A few Calebs are cleaning up, but other dudes are having a tough go at it, as Allen explains in that piece on swiping/online dating:
[Online,] the top 78% of women are competing for that top 20% of men — and that means you’re probably either matching with a guy who has TONS of women after him and competing for his attention OR who rarely matches and is the super thirsty type who’s going to text you 12 times a day and be so needy that you’ll eventually get tired of him and ditch out. At least IRL, you have some sort of other connection, whether you met the guy through a work event or on vacation or at the coffee shop or even out at a restaurant, bar, or club…Dating IRL is way better in the long run, but not because it’s easy.
“Work on your massive amount of internalized misogyny.”
I’ve now written a thread and an entire newsletter explaining exactly what I think about all this. That seems pretty externalized to me. And don’t worry, my therapist and I have discussed gender issues and dating plenty.
“You’re acting like men and women are distinct monolithic alien cultures at war with one another.”
I don’t think anyone’s an alien. But online f*ckbois and the women who bitch about them on TikTok do seem in conflict.
“We are still in a pandemic. It's not nearly as easy to ‘go out’ and ‘socialize’ as it used to be.”
That’s fair. But dating apps were thriving pre-pandemic too. And I doubt any of this will change once lockdowns are in the rearview mirror. Like Covid, online dating’s gonna be endemic.
“Women are becoming more comfortable having standards and maintaining boundaries. I'm sorry that seems hard for you.”
It’s not hard for me. I want women to have standards and maintain boundaries. Boundary it up!
I’m not an incel. (Shocker: I have a girlfriend. And fyi, we met in real life. Like I said, I never got online dating.) The online dynamic where every woman is a “queen” and every man who dares to disagree with ‘em is an “incel” is so hacky and childish.
“I’m a woman and I like video games!”
OK, then I think you’re a loser too. Happy? Maybe you love comic books and pro wrestling too. If so, congrats on dork equality.
I’m actually Gen X, but I realize it’s all the same to people under 30.
Yes, I'm a man. And yes, I’m explaining something. Now what? It’s not like any man who explains something is automatically wrong. Newton mansplained gravity, doesn’t mean it ain’t true.
OK, no one said that, but I just think the way this term gets thrown around constantly is bonkers. Are they gaslighting you or do they just disagree with you? This word was barely even uttered a decade ago so it’s mind-boggling to me that it’s now somehow happening incessantly.
Look, you can’t cry “cringe” every time you encounter a viewpoint not enthusiastically endorsed by your online tribe. Develop some critical thinking faculties and absorb what you want/ignore what you don’t. When you talk like this, you just sound like the whiny daughter in White Lotus.
“That’s love bombing!”
Another term that didn’t exist a few years ago. It’s, um, foreplay on steroids?
Love bombing happens when an individual is subjected to an excessive amount of grand gestures, signs of affection, and various acts which are supposed to convey appreciation and gratitude.
Grand gestures used to be desirable (remember rom coms?). Now they’re a manipulative grift. Strange. Someone showering you with affection and then backing off isn’t some kinda trauma. It’s just how life and dating go sometimes. Don’t be shocked to find that gambling is going on in the casino.
“Stop victim blaming!”
Sorry, but I don’t really think there are legit victims in this story. Some dude was dating multiple women, that’s it. It’s not like these gals are Syrian refugees who–
Wait a minute. I’ll be damned. I’m playing a video game now too; it’s just this one is “Argue With People You Don’t Know On Social Media.” Here I am buying into a framework that is leaving me dissatisfied and is the opposite of genuine human connection. Anger-inducing things are being tossed my way because the algorithm knows it’s the best way to keep me engaged. I’ve fallen into the same trap I’ve spent all this time lamenting. Man, these tech companies are GOOD at what they do. It’s all super cringe.
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