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Game, Set, Match: Dating App Company Sued for Playing With Your Head

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Reviewed by Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

If you’re a millennial who’s been single in the past decade, you’ve probably been on one of various dating apps. If not the hook-up culture progenitor, Tinder, perhaps its more commitment-focused sibling, Hinge, or their snooty cousin, The League. Regardless of which flavor of dating app you’ve used, you probably assumed all of these were competitors. They’re actually all owned by the same parent company, Match Group, along with plenty of other longer-running dating sites you’ll recognize: OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, and the classic namesake,

If you’ve ever used one of the relatively newer phone-based apps that have come out in the past ten years, you may agree that they can have the feel of a game. The sounds, buttons, and even gestures mimic video games. Like with any game, there are winners and losers. And like with most video games, the apps can have an addicting effect that lures you back in for more.

Is this potentially addicting effect by design? If the apps are designed to be like a game, it’s certainly not marketed to users that way. Rather, they’re often advertised as having the goal of getting users into relationships and thus off the app. Hinge, for example, markets itself as an app that’s “Designed to be Deleted.”

You might realize that this seems to be at odds with an app’s business model; isn’t it against their own interest to get users off the app? Wouldn’t it serve the company better to keep them on? Therein lies the potential inherent problem with the design – a problem that a group of dating app users honed in on. Now, they're suing Match Group.

'Playing' the Field

“Harnessing powerful technologies and hidden algorithms, Match intentionally designs the Platforms with addictive, game-like design features, which lock users into a perpetual pay-to-play loop that prioritizes corporate profits over its marketing promises and customers’ relationship goals.” That’s one of the claims written into a legal complaint brought by a group of users of Tinder, Hinge, and The League in a lawsuit against Match Group.

The plaintiffs claim that Match uses features that are known to mess with our dopamine-reward systems the same way that slot machines are, “to transform users into gamblers locked in a search for psychological rewards that Match makes elusive on purpose.”

The lawsuit claims that Match rewards users for more engagement with their apps, while penalizing them for disengaging. For example, it points to a feature of Tinder called “Top Picks.” Certain users who’ve been on Tinder more regularly (every 24 hours) will remain eligible to receive a “boost” in the algorithm, presenting them to other users as a “Top Pick.”

On the other hand, when users have been inactive, it will send them messages like the following: “You haven't swiped in awhile [sic]. Your profile will be hidden starting tomorrow. Swipe now to stay visible,” followed by a (passive-aggressive?) smiley face. The plaintiffs may have been upset at sentences like these for being grammatically incorrect, but it’s more likely that they were bothered by the threat underlying the message that made them feel trapped in the app.

Mind Games

The complaint accuses Match of employing “powerful psychological triggers,” largely in the form of push notifications. The notifications are designed to be delivered when users become less active on the platform. A consulting firm used by the plaintiffs' attorneys found that using push notifications generated 3.5 times more revenue. A consulting and software-as-a-service firm which works with mobile apps counts push notifications as the primary force generating this extra revenue. Plaintiffs point out that Match invests in copywriters for creating notifications, framing them to get more users to open the app. Defendant invests in push notification copy, framing their notifications to maximize the chance that users open the app.

Plaintiffs also accuse Match of playing mind games with their users to keep them engaged. One form is false flattery. Plaintiffs point to messages like the following, found on Tinder: “It's a crime to deprive the world of that beautiful face.....” (and those five ellipsis points really do heighten the drama, don’t they?) Another form is fearmongering (really, FOMOngering). For example, when a user on Hinge turns off push notifications, the app sends them the following message: “Are you sure? By disabling notifications, you'll miss new likes, matches and messages from other Members.” And that’s not just upsetting because it doesn’t use an Oxford comma.

Subscription Models

The complaint points out that Match uses its subscription model to garner more profits. Tinder, Hinge, and The League offer premium subscriptions that make “winning” easier. A subscription might allow a user to “boost” their profile so it will be favored by the algorithm, or to unlock unlimited “likes.” Plaintiffs also claim that the company injects artificial barriers to use. For example, the lawsuit argues that Tinder gives more free likes to women than to men. This artificial like limit can always be overcome by purchasing a subscription.

Duty to Disclose?

Finally, the plaintiffs call out the company for continuing to use their various platforms without disclosing the “harmful addictive use” and “attendant health risks” that come with them. The major legal question now presented to courts will be based on this. Is Match in violation of consumer protection laws by failing to warn users of these qualities? Will the company have to make such disclosures in the future?

The lawsuit against the dating app giant is just the latest in a series of lawsuits against social media companies for the psychological harm they cause. Not too long ago, a similar lawsuit was filed by almost all states against Meta (parent of Facebook and Instagram) for the harmful effects their platforms allegedly have on young people’s mental health.

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