Combatting Commoditized Love: An Introspection on Dating Apps

“There is no shortage of love. Although approaches to finding it and aspects of it have become commoditized, the feeling itself is free. It can be rare, but no one owns the rights to it. No one ever will.”

Why do we choose to torture ourselves?

I could be talking about many things, but I’m referring to downloading dating apps that make us feel like shit. The Sisyphean struggle of leaving and returning to these apps after having solely depressing experiences can feel, for some of us, like opting in to having water dropped on our heads for days at a time. The act produces a mental itch that never gets scratched. Platforms like Bumble, Hinge and Feeld are considered a necessary evil these days for finding any connection. All melodrama aside, I think apps are neutral tools before we project our feelings onto them. However, when used with unintentionality or by a human like me who is super intentional yet prone to hyper-fixation, usage of these tools can impede our chances for deep connection and replace secure intimacy with passive bids for affection. I don’t have any statistics to prove that dating apps aren’t great and won’t be proving anything in this piece. I only have personal experiences from recent digital dating that filled me with cold nihilism…at first. By the time I left the app and reflected, though, I was shocked to find optimism growing amongst my dread. I hope this optimism is contagious. I’m discovering that the kind of connections I dreamed of were never dead, just buried under a culture of convenience that we can choose to resist in our love lives. 

Let me explain what I mean when I use “commoditization” in the context of this piece. I don’t mean that people on dating apps are literally being turned into items/resources that can be bought, sold, or have a quantity of value placed on them. Humans can be treated as literal commodities, certainly; roughly 10,000,000 African people were sold as slaves in North America between 1619 and 1865. Many other cultures employed slavery and serfdom in the past, and for-profit prisons, forced prostitution, and child labor are current examples of autonomous individuals being reduced to the service they’re forced to provide. An anti-capitalist says this reduction is also occurring in its socially accepted form when the majority of people spend their lives doing labor for someone else in order to meet their basic needs. In a philosophical essay I found on “commodifying everything”, the author said something that struck me. He said, “The commodification of everything’ might mean, first, that however the world is divided up into kinds of ‘thing’, at least some instances of each are for sale. Even if it is highly unusual for prison cell upgrades and sperm to be bought and sold, the fact that some instances occur means that these kinds of things are commodified. A ‘thing’ would count as ‘what money can’t buy’ only if no individual instance of it were for sale” (Hall, Derek. “‘Commodification of Everything’ Arguments in the Social Sciences: Variants, Specification, Evaluation, Critique”. Sage Journals, 2022). Apparently there’s a rowdy debate going on about if we live in a totally commoditized society. Whether or not we do, I’m certainly not saying that going on dating apps is akin to being forcibly commoditized. I was feeling ambitious and wanted to set the stage anthropologically for my point. When I say we need to combat commoditized love, I mean that we have to see people beyond their traits or possessions that have been marketed as valuable in the culture we have. This means also not treating people as disposable if they lack these things. If we are taught that virtually everything can be bought and sold, it’s understandable that we might internalize capitalistic ideas towards each other. “Manosphere” vloggers will say that a “high value man” is one who is physically fit, successful at his job, and able to attract many women. I won’t get into their definition of a “high value woman”. We’re also seeing a rise in “Tik Tok relationships”, where it is common for two content creators to date for the money they make off of creating videos of themselves in relationship. If  it’s not a lucrative one, they’ll break up and date another creator for the same reason (listen to podcast episode 161 of “We’re Having Gay Sex” if you don’t believe this is common). Many other relationship dynamics exist upon a presupposition of being transactional. But for those of us with deeper desires who have nonetheless spent hours passively scrolling on these apps, I suggest something else. That something is being aware of the constructs of desirability and checking in with ourselves about our needs, desires, and approaches when it comes to dating.

 Two weeks ago, inspired by Issa and Molly’s lively escapades on the show “Insecure”, I fatefully downloaded Hinge. Someone told me that Hinge was better than Bumble because there were more ways to personalize your profile and it was easier to tell what people were looking for there. After being initially confused by Hinge’s setup, I discovered that you can either fully reject a profile or like/comment on one part of a profile. This seemed to create a lot of  likes with zero real interest behind them. It’s just a free-for-all platform like Instagram that supposedly uses your Facebook account to find more compatible matches. Considering Hinge thought I would hit it off with Christian cowboys despite my regular blasphemy towards organized religion and nations, I don’t think they’ve polished this feature. It seemed to me that even people who stated they were “looking for a relationship” were just using the app to pass time. Whenever I chose to “like” something, the action simultaneously felt too casual and too serious. It was like I’d put a generic valentine in my crush’s cubby at elementary school and was waiting to see if they’d return the favor.

Side note: I was homeschooled until I was twelve and have inferred from TV that the valentine-cubby thing was a big deal in American public schools. This sounds stressful and like some cis-hetero brainwashing. Please sound off on your experiences with school-enforced valentines below.

Whenever I crawl back to the social experiment of online dating, I justify it to myself a few of ways. One reason is that I successfully found two former partners on Bumble. I use “successful” to say that the app helped me get into relationships, not that either can be described as very successful. I did over-idealize one of those partners until very recently, which we’ll talk about later. Another reason I re-enter commodification station is that I’ve always been fascinated by people, what they’re interested in and how they speak about themselves. When I’m in a good mental state, I enjoy the social experimentation. There’s nothing wrong with having dating apps as a way to keep your options open while also meeting people IRL. I, however, only intended to check on my little experiment every couple of days and ended up going on multiple times a day for a week. Each time I found profiles exponentially worse than my last scroll. It became apparent that my nervous system felt threatened, not curious. Before deleting Hinge, I managed to take notes on bios that had me laughing and threatening to throw my phone in a dumpster. For your reading pleasure:

“dating me is like a cherry filled with roses”

“I’ve seen 42 Dave Mathews Band concerts.”

“Together, we could get married right away. wait no sorry, that was my military instincts. Lets go relax in a hot tub instead.”

“My mantra is, its a dawgs life”

“I’m convinced that Old Faithful is no longer active and is currently a fake geyser built by the gov #oldfakeful”

“Unusual skills: hypnotizing chickens.”

“do YOU know the TRUTH about vaccines??”

“Let’s chat about the negative effects of the condemnation of traditional masculinity.” 

I will admit that I derive satisfaction from having a unique profile. My content consisted of the pictures I’ve inserted here, a video of my street dancing with BAD, and a voice clip. The clip is me responding to a prompt saying that my best friend, Jim, “thinks you should date me” because I “have more effervescence in my little finger than most people have in their entire being, even when I am depressed.” I wrote in my bio about being a relationship anarchist who prefers polyamory. Relationship anarchy is a term credited to Swedish feminist and researcher Andie Nordgren in 2006, who defined it a relationship style which “proposes that how we construct, conduct and prioritize our relationships should be a creative endeavor. The philosophy is not one in which ‘anything goes’, as is often wrongly inferred from ‘anarchy’, but one that advocates for bespoke commitments: collaborative relationships built around the people involved, as opposed to ‘common sense’ approaches and hierarchies” (Lewis, “Radical Intimacy”, 74). When we non-introspectively assume these approaches, namely internalized monogamy which has often turned people’s most suitable traits for marriage and child rearing into commodities, we limit ourselves right off the bat. But, I digress. As if the mention of “collaborative relationships” isn’t enough to make most Bozeman guys, gals and theys run for Hyalite, I also had an anti-cop sentiment. In response to the “do you agree or disagree that ___” prompt, I wrote something to the effect of, “We should empower people in neighborhoods to mediate disputes themselves or with the help of independent social workers and individuals who want to help rather than calling the police.” A bit of a soft take, but I felt it conveyed what I wanted it to. Apparently it didn’t, because I got a comment from a man saying, “I totally agree, and it’s because a kind police officer helped me as a child that I decided to become a cop and do the same.” I edited my answer by writing in parentheses: “I support abolishing the police.” Between this statement and an anti-work declaration I added for flare, my engagement plummeted. A couple conservative-looking, fish-holding men still gave me likes because they were also unwilling to read. My one match with a trans woman fizzled out after five messages. The only other self-proclaimed anarchist I saw seemed to have a preoccupation with knives and eating rodents. 

Please know, dear reader, that the purpose of this piece is not merely to bag on the people I saw on Hinge. Although, I’ve had a fantastic time doing so. Of course everyone referenced above has intrinsic value that is not changed by my one-dimensional view of them. That’s a main point here — the design of dating apps discourages depth and curiosity in favor of convenience and instant attraction. I could have fallen in love with the anarchist had they posted pictures sans rodent, or the trans woman if we hadn’t fallen into the trope of queer women not knowing what to say to each other after initial compliments.

I started writing this to deconstruct my increasingly nihilistic feelings on the possibility of ecstatic love. Let’s return to the idealization of the former partner. On the last day I had Hinge, an urge to text an ex came over me. This man was a gorgeous firefighter who Jim likened to white Jesus and that we joked could do literally anything, like twirl my pitbull Echo on his finger. Things were mostly blissful with this man — we’ll call him G — when he was around, but he had a general practice of being gone. When G wasn’t off saving the world or analyzing bamboo for fun (I have a thing for plant nerds even though I don’t particularly love plants), he could have a hard time expressing his feelings and occasionally made me feel bad for my mental health challenges. The main problem was that he loved being a drifter. At the time, he said it was okay to be gone for several months because I “should” be able to fill the relational void with someone else, due to my polyamory. I don’t want to collaboratively create a relationship in which I must find other people to fill the emotional holes in said relationship. What’s the point in leaving behind traditional models (i.e. unexamined monogamy) just to recreate the issues inherent to that model in a slightly more progressive form? I was offended at his assumption of what polyamory meant to me. I know what it feels like to love more than one person deeply at a time, whether they be friends, family members, or partners. I’m never thinking, “This person doesn’t have a quality I’m looking for, so I’d better ignore this problem and also go find someone who does have that quality to add them to the people collection.” Wouldn’t that be my own definition of commoditizing love? Treating nuanced human beings as transactional coins in a slot for happiness is the last thing I’m trying to do. Each relationship I engage in has to be able to stand on its own. 

I think my desire to text G stemmed from a manufactured lack of hope for something better. The more I fiddled around on Hinge, the more I subtly started to think there was no one out there for me. As a 26-year-old woman who’s only been single for three months, this was a ridiculous line of thinking. But what does capitalism create other than a sense of lack, whether or not we are actually lacking something? I talk all the time about the idea that the type of love I deserve must exist because I exist. I forget who said that, but someone did and you can Google it. I’m looking for people who are able to hold emotional space; care enough to communicate accurately and repair rupture; have a rich inner world that informs their lived passions as well as ideals; not only will dance with me everywhere but have their own art forms and social movements; desire to build mutualistic community; are just a total fucking freak. Who do I know that checks these boxes? My small yet glorious group of comrades. I went on Hinge to feel wanted because I thought I needed something more glamorous than the love I have. I feel fully loved, also, when I hold my animals in my arms or linger with the sun on my back. There is no shortage of love. Although approaches to finding it and aspects of it have become commoditized, the feeling itself is free. It can be rare, but no one owns the rights to it. No one ever will. Unless the human race is slowly replaced by AI humans who can be programmed to feel love and are otherwise indistinguishable from biological humans… well, we’ll cross that bridge if we get there. 

When I told my therapist I was writing this, I let it slip that I thought my standards for dating were too high. I told her a list of the qualities above plus a few more that are specific to dating, like being non-monogamous and not wanting to have children. She told me in a total deadpan that all of these are normal standards. It is highly possible to find people who meet these needs and bring exciting things I didn’t know I needed to the table. She stressed that if we know how we want to feel in relationships — not just how the other person should look, what kind of job they have, how many Dave Mathews Band concerts they’ve been to — then we’ve built an intuition that can guide us. I am not looking for perfect humans. I’m looking for humans with which I feel an unmistakable sense of home. There are probably thousands of people I could feel this way with tomorrow if our paths crossed. For me, our paths won’t be crossing on dating apps, but that’s because I’m too neurotic for them. You do you. And even if I somehow never meet a partner who makes me feel the way I proclaim I must, my life will not be lacking in love. My life will be one I’m proud of if I spend it exemplifying these standards. Human beings have created art and social revolutions that are based in love for thousands of years. The core need to be seen and heard is still within us. If you have found yourself wondering if there’s no one for you so why not settle, know that I am out here too, endearingly combatting commoditized love however I can.


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