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This Factor Behind Ghosting Makes Sense

New research on dating apps reveals what drives the disappearing act.

Key points

  • Ghosting is becoming increasingly more common, leading to distress, confusion, and disenchantment.
  • Ghosting is common with online dating apps, often for unclear reasons, leading to fatigue, further strain, and hopelessness.
  • People half give up and half keep plugging away, making online dating inherently unpleasant.

By Grant H Brenner

Per a 2020 PEW Research report, of U.S. residents asked how they felt about online dating, 22% reported “mostly positive,” 50% were in the middle, and 26% “mostly negative." On the optimistic side, folks said it made it easier and expanded options; nay-sayers said it facilitated dishonesty. Nearly 50% said online dating was “not at all safe” or “not too safe”; only 3% said it was “very safe,” and half “somewhat safe."

Room for Growth

We know online dating leaves a lot to be desired, despite the efforts of our best tech minds and algorithm-designing algorithms. Even if we know what they want from dating apps, they don’t seem to deliver. There is irritation at wasting so much time… but finding a compatible partner has never been a piece of cake.

Understanding the factors which impede online dating from the “user” side is especially important. Research published in The Communication Review (Narr & Luong, 2022) further excavates the user experience. Study authors highlight the phenomenon of “ghosting”—we all know what it means, but it’s when someone you thought was engaged in the relationship stops responding, for no apparent reason. Ghosting is more and more common, a way of life for many, and we need to figure it out.

Researching the Totality of the Online Dating Experience

Through the lens of what they call the “dating app assemblage”—“the amalgam of behaviors, perceptions, interface protocols, material hardware, algorithms, moods, and emotions that dating apps bring together… [including the complex living relationship with] “non-human entities–moving interfaces, dynamic algorithmic sorting, mobile hardware, real-time feedback, etc.”—they probed deeper aspects of the online dating experience1.

The Heart of Ghostness

The theme of boredom emerged consistently. People reported using dating apps to assuage boredom. Although they felt “exhausted” going through so many matches, when bored they went on apps to distract themselves. In the doldrums, they were more likely to send generic or “random” messages, with the often explicit understanding that it was even more boring and pointless.

Why would someone looking for a connection, or even a hook-up, do that? Authors note, “Even though the main object of our respondents was to find a serious, long-term partner, their boredom also acted as a major factor in initiating their activities, such as texting.”

 Jep Gambardella/Pexels
Source: Jep Gambardella/Pexels

Boredom not only was a motivator for lackluster messaging, but also a hidden factor behind the decision to ghost. The messaging presumably became a proxy for what an actual date would be like... yawn. It would have been better to have stayed home and done something else.

One respondent, “Jenny,” stated:

"Wow, OK, there’s about 50 different messages there back and forth. –Yeah, and then I decided he was boring…” By the time he finally made a move, Jenny was already done: “...but then it’s almost too late.” She never replied.

Other respondents made the point that, even while inconsiderate, they still ghosted. This was related to feeling that the connection wasn’t strong enough to feel real, especially when it wasn’t going anywhere anyway.

Users also said that they ghosted because of times in the past when people had gotten angry and hostile when told directly there was no interest in meeting up or talking further—presumably at least some of the time from feelings of rejection. This kind of harassment, anti-ghosting, added an element of fear to the boredom.

A Mood of Boredom

There was a “mood of boredom” suffusing the experience. Texts were generally uninteresting and disengaged, vague, and generic. Texts might be unoriginal, for example, repetitive overtly sexual come-ons and requests (e.g., for nude photos, hook-ups, or fantasy-sharing). Even if at first amusing or upsetting, respondents ultimately reported that these texts, too, became boring.

Sadly, even when texts initially were original, users felt there ultimately was no point as they expected things to sour and stall out, aka "learned helplessness." Bored, stuck between apps, with an impoverished IRL social life, and hopeless—exacerbated by a cycle of frustration and disappointment. Grim2.

Meeting dozens of people may be fatiguing for all but perhaps the most extroverted. Virtual boredom translated into real life. Participants said they often “flaked,” skipping out on the date both because they didn't expect much, and because they didn't feel like the connection was authentic: “Like you’re not a real person until you get into it a little bit more. The three guys I’m seeing right now all have nicknames, they are not real people."

 Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

They also didn't buy announcements from app makers about how great their algorithms were. On Reddit, people were cynical and skeptical, suspicious that the algorithms didn’t work, or were false statements of how matching took place, perhaps covering up a profit motive3.

Analyzing blogs revealed similar sentiments—people shared that it didn’t seem fair, favoring some while pushing others to the bottom and out of the running. Announcements intended to allay suspicion and reassure users backfired, fueling ongoing mistrust.

The Exciting Thing About Boredom

Boredom was revealed to be the hub of a wheel, driving a blandly vicious cycle of ghosting, frustration, disappointment, cynicism, skepticism, and despondency. Boredom also drove people to hop on the app and start half-heartedly messaging away in a kind of laconic trance, not unlike doom scrolling. Virtual ghosting begets actual ghosting, leading to flaking out on the whole uninspired ghostogenic enterprise. We become increasingly skeptical about online dating.

Some take-home points are suggested from this research. First, don’t engage in bored texting. Don’t get on the app because you are bored, whether you are browsing, messaging, or both. Recognize when you are bored, and work out ways to use your time in more stimulating ways.

Be intentional when using dating apps. Watch how you invest time to steer clear of states of boredom, frustration, or helplessness. Do something independently rewarding if it's a longer date, preferably non-boring for both parties. Consider openly keeping it short and be upfront and tactful to keep it simple. Beware of love-bombing, initially seductive and exciting, particularly against the backdrop of ennui.

 Sebastian Voortman/Pexels
Source: Sebastian Voortman/Pexels

A Boring Silver Lining?

We live in a time when boredom has become an existential presence, even as the world becomes way too exciting in all the wrong ways. If we weren't bored in the first place, what would dating be like? Could we be consciously seeking intimacy while also unwittingly avoiding it, perhaps out of anxiety?

Dating apps, and dating, can't fix underlying problems. Trying to use them that way often leads to addictive or compulsive behaviors that don't work, detracting from self-reflection and development—especially in one’s relationship with oneself. Having a well-designed dating app, however, could help rather than hinder personal growth initiatives.

Be curious about boredom, rather than acting out of it. More than ever, we are on phones, social media or otherwise, entertaining ourselves with binge-worthy shows—many of us never learn to deal with boredom creatively to drive generativity. Boredom may be the unanticipated key to the lock, if we stay with it and see where it leads us.

References

1. Using “grounded theory,” an intensive subjective narrative approach coupled with methodical analysis to derive consistent, reliable themes, the authors conducted 48 in-depth interviews and looked at source material including Reddit and personal blogs. They made sure to interview users who were open to it while they were actually on app, aptly called “media go-along.” Finally, they used a “walkthrough method,” tracking the actual in-app experience to capture the rich assemblage of what users see when they are browsing. They focused on Tinder and Bumble, two popular services.

2. Spending a lot of time only to have it go nowhere made it even harder to get stoked, further suffocating the remaining smoldering embers of interest. Being excited about meeting someone essentially an unknown quantity is too risky; being jaded and keeping expectations low is a rational response.

3. Users were skeptical that dating app leadership really wanted them to meet someone long-term–after all, wouldn’t that render the app obsolete? Keeping people dating indefinitely would make more money. In spite of efforts to enhance the experience, it may be that online dating is at a crossroads. Maybe people will shift back to conventional in-person ways of meeting, or return to IRL dating-app-like experiences including speed dating or singles events. Post-pandemic, at least for a time, meeting in-person may be more appealing, especially if it’s interesting regardless of whether the intent is a love connection.

Gregory Narr & Anh Luong (2022): Bored ghosts in the dating app assemblage: How dating app algorithms couple ghosting behaviors with a mood of boredom, ThevCommunication Review, DOI: 10.1080/10714421.2022.2129949

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