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Call Me By Your Name, Film still (2017)

Did dating apps kill crushes?

Apps like Tinder and Hinge have sapped much of the romance, mystery and excitement out of dating

André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name centres around 17-year-old Elio Perlman, as he develops a crush on Oliver, the 24-year-old doctoral student lodging with his family in the summer of 1983. Romantic and sexual tension thrum through the novel: Elio spends hours lying on his bed, his “entire body on fire”, as he prays for Oliver to knock on his door; he’s “spellbound” when Oliver lightly squeezes his shoulder; he imagines kissing “every toe” on Oliver’s foot while the pair loll by a swimming pool.

The story is essentially an ode to having a crush, in its unflinching portrayal of the many, many ways heady infatuation can drive you mad with desire (on one occasion Elio presses his face into Oliver’s swimming trunks, puts them on, then masturbates in Oliver’s bed). Today, though, this type of intense, slow-burn romance seems more out of reach than ever – largely thanks to dating apps.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to have a crush on someone you met online, and many people do still meet ‘organically’. But the indomitable rise of dating apps is undoubtedly changing the way we fall in love. In her 2021 book The New Laws of Love, sociologist Dr Marie Bergström argues that dating apps have turned dating into a compartmentalised, private activity, a phenomenon which she terms “the privatisation of intimacy”. 

“In the Western world, courtship has always been tied up and very closely associated with ordinary social activities, like leisure, work, school or parties. There has never been a specifically dedicated place for dating,” Dr Bergström writes. Today, however, an overwhelming number of modern couples meet via apps, a trend which she describes as “a really radical historical break” from tradition. “We went from this situation where it was considered to be weird, stigmatised and taboo, to being a very normal way to meet people.”

Dating apps have had myriad positive effects; they’ve undeniably made dating more flexible than ever and have massively expanded our dating pools. But equally, apps have sapped much of the romance out of dating. Within such a ruthlessly efficient system, there’s no room for yearning: once you match with someone, you know that they find you at least reasonably attractive. There’s no ‘thrill of the chase’, no sense of the jeopardy or mystery that characterises the most intense, headfucking crushes. It’s difficult to imagine Leo Tolstoy writing a 860-page yarn about the hot-and-cold affair between Anna Karenina and Count Vronksy if they had met on Hinge instead of sharing a few, brief, sexually-charged pleasantries on a train.

Luke Burgis, author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, met his wife by chance while on holiday in Rome. Speaking to Dazed, he suggests that he might never have fallen in love with her had they not met in person. “Given how different we are, I don’t think we ever would have been able to get to know one another if we’d used a dating app because we never would have shown up as matches for each other,” he says. “I think about that often.”

On dating apps, people are expected to possess and act upon an unrealistic level of self-knowledge. Users are able to filter out profiles based on a whole range of factors such as gender, age, distance, ethnicity, family plans, religion, height, politics, drink and drug use, and zodiac sign. We’re forced to make judgements based on profiles which reveal vanishingly little about the people behind them and can often swipe left for the most innocuous and arbitrary reasons. But in reality, love can take you by surprise. The beauty of crushes arguably lies in the fact that often, they don’t make sense: as Emily Dickinson wrote in 1862, “the heart wants what it wants”.

We’re all liable to make idealistic, totalising claims about the type of person we want to date, only for these claims to be rubbished the second we meet someone different who piques our interest. But dating apps make it too easy to write people off. “On apps, you don’t feel the gravity of another person online the way you do in real life, and switching costs are a lot lower,” Burgis says. “Attraction can’t develop and deepen in the absence of those ‘mysterious’ things that attract us to someone in the real world — like the inarticulate knowledge we have about the look in their eyes, which communicates something to us that we can’t put into words.”

But dating apps can’t foot all the blame. Dr Rachel Katz is a sociologist who has researched the impact of technology on our lives, and she believes that the dearth of romance in modern life can be traced back to a lack of social opportunities outside of work. She points to research which shows that people are increasingly meeting partners online, as opposed to through in-person communities such as religious organisations and friendship networks. “Things are privatised, and we live more atomised lives,” she says. “There aren’t social expectations and social structures in place the way there used to be that were direct routes to marriage at an earlier age. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it hard to meet partners.”

In sociology, ‘the third place’ is a term used to describe an environment separate from home (‘the first place’) and the workplace (‘the second place’). Many have decried the ‘death of the third place’ in recent years, and while some of these claims are overblown – third places like cafés, bars, and parks obviously still exist – it is true that access to these sorts of spaces is becoming restricted. It seems there are vanishingly few free third places anymore, while increasingly secular young people are less likely to go to a third place like a church. This is especially true in the UK, where there are few pedestrianised public squares and green spaces within cities (especially outside of London) and there are harsh laws against ‘loitering’. With this in mind, it tracks that the majority of people meet online.

That said, it’s still fair to say that apps have significantly eroded social norms to a point where it’s difficult to find romantic connections within our remaining third places, even as people cry out for ‘real-life’ romance. “A problem that plagued dating apps pre-swipe era was that in heterosexual situations, women would be bombarded with interested men who were not always polite in their opening chats, to say the least,” Dr Katz explains. “Now, there are not always clear in-person parallels where there is a consent to approach someone romantically offline.” These apps are increasingly regarded as the only space where flirting or romantic pursuit is acceptable, to a point where it’s even becoming common for people who feel a spark face-to-face to subsequently seek out each other on dating apps. For example: a friend of mine technically met her new boyfriend in the gym, but it was only after they matched on Hinge that they actually spoke properly to one another and acknowledged their mutual attraction.

Clearly, many of us feel unable to experience true romance due to circumstances that are largely out of our control. But nothing can stop you from yearning for the kind-eyed barista who gave you a free flat white, or the handsome neighbour who asked to borrow your tin opener, or the total stranger you kissed one night then never saw again. It’s still eminently possible to have the sort of intense, all-consuming, borderline delusional crush that Elio harboured for Oliver. You just need to open yourself up to the possibility.

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