This is the second in a three-part series on modern dating. Part one is here.

There’s no denying the simple fact that 40 million Americans use dating apps because, basically, they work. Or so say, at least, the successful pair-bonds produced by the Coupling Industrial Complex (Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid, etc.) who can be seen cheerily proclaiming in display ads and blog posts, “It worked for us!”

I also know they’ve worked for me, at least, and that I once met someone online and even co-habitated before we eventually broke up in a messy way, just like humans who meet in real-life meatspace and break up in messy, real-life meatspace ways, too.

So, yes, of course dating apps can be fun, and useful, and how you meet the love of your life. The users of the most popular app, Tinder, swipe 1.4 billion times per day. Mostly, say researchers, they’re swiping during their commutes. (So even if they’re not getting anywhere quickly, they are!)

And so it’s because dating apps are a super-popular kind of thing that, at this very moment, I’m in San Francisco at the corner of California and Kearney, sitting with some folks who are building a new dating app. This is inside a WeWork.

For the uninitiated, WeWork rents workspaces on a monthly basis.

Each workspace exists on a floor filled with other workspaces of varying sizes, like a storage unit complex.

Each workspace is separated by glass partitions. Often you can see through the other workspaces straight across the floor.

The effect is not unlike peering above the walls of a maze, or touring the offices of Westworld. In between the workspaces are communal kitchens offering free coffee and beer and ping pong. Everyone is aggressively young. As far as offices go, it is not an unpleasant place to be.

One pretty super advantage of not working every day in a WeWork, but instead visiting people who work in a WeWork, is that you can, at certain work-a-day interludes (getting coffee, bathroom breaks, etc.), distract yourself by noticing these offices are less a place in which to do work and more a stage on which to enact a play about working.

It’s a very produced kind of place. Every pattern, color, and texture is considered. Every mid-century modern hutch and Weißenhof knockoff is carefully considered. Every copy of Fantastic Man and Monocle is high-watt glossy and there for the casual thumbing. Things not normally considered to be aspirational, say the water cooler, perform here, for you, in dressage. The Weeknd and The Breeders and Modest Mouse play on the office speakers. There are neon signs on the walls with slogans like “Embrace the Hustle” and “Get S#!t Done.” It’s like visiting the inside of an Instagram.

It begins to seems particularly grim when you realize that the service workers cleaning beer mugs off the ping pong table are wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the WeWork slogan, “Love What You Do”.

It occurs to me that WeWork is a dating profile for “work.” Most everybody has a trim and athletic build, wears the latest fashions, and really just looks primo *chef kiss*. I am constantly reminded of this because we (the dating app folks and I) happen to be sitting in a glass-walled conference room (West Elm hutch, stippled wallpaper, art-like tchotkes) where attractive employees of adjoining companies walk by and, unfailingly, glance through the glass partition to see what we’re conferencing about. This is perhaps the primary avocation inside a WeWork: taking a break from your work to look at other people working.

Amending a previous statement: WeWork is a dating profile for work. That profile is on FetLife.

Later I will message this observation to the dating app’s social media editor, Gemma (not her real name), a highly young twentysomething with a Lili Taylor thing going on, and she will reply “zomg! yes!” This makes me, a middle-aged man, feel at once proudly observant and absolutely pandered to.

But right now, we’re huddling in the conference room (showroom?) focusing on her team’s dating app, which hasn’t been released. The app looks super cool. The icon is a pixelated heart. The load screen is an undulating ocean. The rest of the interface is all blacks and pinks and de-rezzed photos. The designer tells me this style is “kinda vaporwave.” It’s worth noting that this aesthetic is a notable departure from your Tinders and your Bumbles, whose designs are most readily compared to shopping malls (maybe that’s the point?).

For now, the app works like this. You make a profile. That profile has one photo. You write a question under your photo, like “Would you like to be famous?” and “How close are you to your family?” Users swipe. When two users match, they can then exchange brief, asynchronous video messages (typically, answering each other’s questions). The videos are pixelated. You have the option of removing the pixelation but the option to chat with pixels, as it’s explained to me, lets you chat with someone without their looks being of continued concern.

“Also it lets you send messages even when you look like shit that day,” says the designer who is wearing a black leather jacket and does not look like shit that day.

The whole idea, I’m told, is to minimize the self-curating aspects of online dating and instead privilege deeper kinds of getting-to-know-you conversations. To incentivize people to spend time with their new connections. To remove the ability to cut-and-paste pickup lines.

I offer: “To help people talk?”

Gemma says: “To help people be real.”

It’s definitely 100% worth noting that “being real” is a phrase and concept that is mentioned in this conference room (display case?) over and over. Everyone is concerned to get this idea across. It’s totemic.

The general around-the-table feeling is that most dating apps make it super easy to not be real. The obvious examples are mentioned: men swiping right on everybody. Men cutting and pasting pickup lines. Women (and men) ignoring messages. There is another general around-the-table feeling that because dating apps make it super easy to not be real, most of those apps are chock-a-block with jerks and, further, that the only seemingly positive thing about using those apps is how good it feels when you match. But after that? Not much value.

It’s hard to escape the idea that the problem they’re trying to solve isn’t dating online, per se, but the problem of interacting with people who are, in the technical parlance, “assholes”. Nobody in the room disagrees. But then, it’s argued, dating apps are full of assholes because dating apps work at such volume and at such a semi-anonymous remove from people’s actual lives that the very existence of the apps make it easier to be an asshole. That is exactly the problem the app’s creators want to solve.

“I mean, c’mon,” the social media editor says, “Tinder is less about finding someone you actually like, than it is about seeing how quickly you can dislike them.”

She begins to finger count a variety of momma-didn’t-teach-you-that behaviors she’s encountered herself: negging, ghosting, dtf-ing, dick pics.

So many dick pics.

Also: just straight-up insults.

Opening the app she helped to build, she leans across the table and presses play on a video she received.

“Hey,” the guy in the video says. “I just wanted to tell you that you’re fucking ugly.”

Gemma rolls her eyes.

I mean, whatever, I think, is her actual quote.

It’s not like she’s alone!

Men (and women) acting badly on dating apps is the new bicycle face. The only difference is that the shaming behavior doesn’t happen in serif-titled newspapers and journals, and it doesn’t have the veneer of scientific rationale, as bicycle face often did. Instead, the shaming and the harassment happens out of the public eye and inside millions of private in-app texts.

This is a known thing. It is especially a known thing among women. But, I mean, see for yourself, plug in a search term. Solid affirmations of Gemma’s attitude  —  world-weary, but ironically removed  —  are on the very first SERP:

  • 18 Of The Most Savage Responses Women Had For Fuckboys In 2016.
  • Even More Awful Tinder and OkCupid Messages: ‘Let Me Fuk That Asshole’.
  • 6 Women Join Forces to Get Even With Dude Who Scheduled Individual Dates With All of Them in a Single Night

Or take, for example, that Vanity Fair article, Dating Apocalypse, whose descriptions are so sadly lurid it’s, well, I mean, here:

“Agh, look at this,” says Kelly, 26, who’s sitting at a table with friends, holding up a message she received from a guy on OkCupid. “I want to have you on all fours,” it says, going on to propose a graphic sexual scene. “I’ve never met this person,” says Kelly.

And this:

“They start out with ‘Send me nudes,’” says Reese. “Or they say something like, ‘I’m looking for something quick within the next 10 or 20 minutes — are you available?’ ‘O.K., you’re a mile away, tell me your location.’ It’s straight efficiency.”

And also:

“There is no dating. There’s no relationships,” says Amanda, the tall elegant one. “They’re rare. You can have a fling that could last like seven, eight months and you could never actually call someone your ‘boyfriend.’ [Hooking up] is a lot easier. No one gets hurt  —  well, not on the surface.”

And, I mean, for Pete’s sake:

They say they think their own anxiety about intimacy comes from having “grown up on social media,” so “we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face.” “You form your first impression based off Facebook rather than forming a connection with someone, so you’re, like, forming your connection with their profile,” says Stephanie, smiling grimly at the absurdity of it.

Reading this, I’m tempted to take the part of Paul Giamatti in Private Parts, asking, good lord why, if people hate Howard Stern, do they spend so much time, in fact, listening to Howard Stern? Answer most commonly given: “I want to see what he’ll say next.”

If you think that’s not true, consider a Joe- or Jill- or Jool-Wanna-Date who is disinclined to online dating, or who works in an industry (your hospitals, your factories, your schools) that doesn’t come pre-populated, as some industries do (your startups, your online magazines, your financial houses) with attractive and available, same-age-ish potential mates. But Joe or Jill or Jool W.D. has Facebook and Instagram, and every day sees friends who do work in those industries, and those friends are busily meeting attractive counterparts, and having lots of roll-in-the-hay fun, and getting engaged and generally moving on with their lives. What is Joe or Jill or Jool-Wanna-Date to do? They’re drawn, inexorably, to Tinder, to Bumble, etc., because, well, there’s that simple formula: more x, less y, method z.

[continued in Part 3: You are the you-seeming you — the awkward, 1–900 origins of online dating]

This post is one of a three-part series that explores the hi’s, hello’s, and what the actual fucks of modern dating. Each post explores a different aspect of how the technology of online dating affects how humans organize themselves in culture and society — for better, for worse, and whether we realize it or not.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Bicycle Face
Part 1: The bicycle was the first dating app, and what that means for slut shaming

Will WeWork for love
Part 2: One company’s journey to build a dating app in the land of casual misogyny

You are the you-seeming you
Part 3: The awkward origins of online dating, and how the social consequences of online dating are the result of the entirely new scale the technology itself introduces