From the moment our social lives shrunk down to live in our pockets roughly ten years ago, we’ve been hooked. Our most basic desires, our sense of community, connection, well-being, self-worth, and capacity for empathy are influenced by the continual stream of dopamine hits that we get from the rectangular glow of our phones.
It would be pointless to mourn the countless hours we’ve spent scrolling and swiping through our phones held centimeters from our nose. In our collective quest to create digital social identities and form relationships with others, until very recently, we’ve avoided asking the hard questions about how these networks impact the health of individuals and the well being of societies.
Now more than ever, it’s time to take a step back and seriously consider the ways social media is impacting our culture, our social lives, and the way we think about others. Psychologists and wellness gurus often stress how 15 minutes of quiet time each day can improve our mental health. If 15 minutes of quiet can dramatically improve our quality of life, we need to have an honest discussion about how several hours a day of social media and screen time might be affecting our collective mental health and social well being, especially among kids and teenagers.
What’s become both qualitatively and quantitatively obvious is that the social and behavioral we’ve norms learned on social media does not stay confined to the digital social spaces that we inhabit. They bleed out into the real world, creating behavioral feedback loops that millions of people internalize and subconsciously act upon, in ways both subtle and obvious.
How many of us know people who go to places just to show they’ve been there on Instagram? Or have friends whose worldview has darkened as the result of a Twitter addiction? How many single people have spent countless nights impulsively swiping on hundreds of people on Tinder while failing to make the effort to have a meaningful conversation with any of them?
Paradoxically, we’re more connected to one another than ever before, yet many of our peers are left feeling alone, more often feeling disconnected and alienated from one another than not. There’s a growing sense of loneliness and nihilism that’s manifested itself in people, especially young people. And while social media is not the cause of all these problems, it has certainly exacerbated and amplified them.
So how do we fix this?
There’s no easy answer, but we have a few ideas to help get the conversation started.
Unless people decide to unplug completely from these networks, entrepreneurs, thinkers, and engineers are going to have to figure out how to design and create social networks with better, healthier behavioral feedback loops. Empathy has to be designed for. Nuance has to be rewarded. And helping people connect and understand one another has to be something company’s take seriously – not just a verbal sleight of hand used conveniently in marketing slogans.
Growing up, parents are generally concerned about who their kids are hanging around with. Why? Because kids – and all of us – are heavily influenced by the people and social environments that surround us. The leading predictor of academic success in young people is their group of friends. Social networks, like great friends, implicitly help us grow and become better people.
Technology is constantly racing to give us more while asking us to do less. But the same ethos Amazon uses to ship us cheap products extremely fast is toxic and negative when applied to social products and communities, because human socialization is not a commodity product. We need to slow down and be a little bit more thoughtful about how we build and structure our online communities, and at an individual level try to be more thoughtful about how we interact with and treat others.
To that end, we recently made a big decision at Sweet Pea: we’re killing right swipes and likes. Not because it’s “superficial.” Not because it makes people feel disposable. Because it makes us feel insatiable. Insatiable, distracted, and, dare we say, deeply unfun. We are not creating a healthy society when we’re telling millions of young people that the key to happy relationships is photo worthy of an impulsive right swipe.
When we initially designed Sweet Pea, we tried to pay attention to the little things that could improve the community’s social dynamic. For example, rather than hiding icebreakers in chats, we decided to put them front and center on each person’s photo. As you’re looking through people, we the icebreakers force you to slow down, read, and pay *slightly* more attention to the person you’re swiping on. It also reminds you that the person on the other side of the screen is a person with something to say, a story to tell, and like you – someone looking for someone they can talk with and relate to.
We originally thought giving people the option to either passively like / right swipe on someone or answer an icebreaker directly (thereby sending both a like and a message) would lead to more people opting out of the swipe dynamic Tinder and Bumble made famous. And while this was proven true – it wasn’t overwhelmingly true. This got our team had been thinking more and more about how and why “likes” were introduced into social media in the first place – and what real value (or lack thereof) they give people. What became obvious was that likes, served as an intentionally addictive feature rather than a real source of utility.
Other social networks (save Reddit) hadn’t really explored what a community might look like with different engagement mechanics – or perhaps no dopamine inducing engagement mechanics at all. Given the lack of experimentation, and the increased wariness people have about their own social media habits, there’s an opening for entrepreneurs and engineers to experiment and try to create newer, more productive feedback loops for the next generation of social media apps – though at the moment it’s unclear what that’s going to be or how its going to look. So in the spirit of innovation and counter intuitive thinking, we decided to turn Sweet Pea into the first dating app with no likes.
We’re also allowing people to tag icebreakers and search for matches through conversation topics via a “Discover” view. More often than not, we meet new people in real life through some combination of attraction and connection. The formula would be something like this: attraction + “X” = meaningful connection. This “X” could be a person – like a mutual friend. Or an activity – like meeting a fellow traveler on a hike. There’s usually some connective tissue in addition to that initial attraction that helps push the initial connection forward (unless you’re at a nightclub, which is most analogous to a right swipe – left swipe digital social dynamic). On Sweet Pea, we want topics of conversation to be that point of connection – with discover opening up a world of possibilities for who you can connect to and what kinds of conversations you can connect through.
Lastly, we’ve decided to take a quality over quantity approach and limit outbound messages to people you haven’t already been talking with to seven per day (don’t worry – this does not limit messaging once you’re in a conversation). The research is pretty clear – too much choice makes people unhappy. This holds true whether it’s deciding which kind of bread to buy at the supermarket or who to swipe right on on a dating app. Dating apps, in a way that human psychologically has been wholly unprepared for, structurally incentivize users to try and “connect” by swiping through hundreds of people in a single setting. It dilutes the quality of connections in a myriad of different ways, and really doesn’t reflect the human social experience, which we think tech should start mimicking more of, not less of.
So why is this format better than Tinder’s double blind opt i.e. swipe to match then chat? The answer lies in the data.
If likes were wealth, data shows that “the Tinder economy has a higher Gini (inequality) coefficient between men and women than 95.1% of the countries in the world. According to this analysis a man of average attractiveness can only expect to be liked by slightly less than 1% of females (0.87%).” This equates to 1 “like” for every 115 swipes. While there’s always going to be some inequality between the sexes in this regard, the level of “inequality” on Tinder is much, much worse than in real life. Why? The “choosiness,” for lack of a better word, in the real world, becomes more like a chasm due to Tinder’s structure. The format encourages men to swipe right more often, or try to game the system by only swiping right, thereby causing women to swipe less more often to try and maintain a homeostasis. The more men swipe, the less picky they get. The more women swipe, the more picky they get. And so the chasm grows – making time spent on the app disproportionately heavy on the swiping and light on the actual conversation. In this regard the gamification the app is premised on cannibalizes itself. Given that almost every other dating app has modeled itself after Tinder – its not unreasonable to assume similar social dynamics take on other platforms there as well.
While it’s not clear what percentage of matches turn into actual conversations on most dating apps – the anecdotal evidence online isn’t promising. The Elite Daily article linked below article gives a good look into this – https://www.elitedaily.com/p/how-many-tinder-matches-is-normal-to-have-at-once-women-got-real-about-their-numbers-3012930. Even for very attractive people, its clear that dating apps are a lot better at helping people accumulate likes, and not great at turning those likes into meaningful conversations or connections. This shouldn’t be all that surprising. The structures of dating apps are highly gamified, encourage impulsiveness, and overwhelm us with a level of choice that human beings are not cognitively designed to process. It’s no wonder dating apps as a product category have extremely low customer loyalty rates.
While we don’t have all the answers, we think a good place to start would be attempting to humanize the technology by creating a social experience that mimics real world human behavior. The ideal dating app would not overwhelm people with choice (message limiting), focus on quality of conversation instead of swipes, connect you with people you’d be likely to meet and date in real life (i.e. an algorithm based on real world probabilities instead of limiting it to in app behavior), help people express themselves in authentic ways, and structurally encourage people to put their best foot forward as a socially engaged member of the community rather than swiping into infinity.