Exploring the digitisation and datafication of dating platforms through the case study of the Aphrodite Project
This paper explores the digitisation and datafication of intimacy by analysing the case study of the Aphrodite Project, a noncommercial matchmaking platform created by students, for students. Using participant observation in the Project from August to September 2021, coupled with netnography and qualitative content analysis of eight relevant Reddit posts and 179 comments from 2019–2021, three themes emerged. Firstly, (1) algorithms can help ease the labour of relationship building and enable users to enact some degree of bounded agency through platform affordances. Yet at the same time, (2) users nonetheless recognise the algorithmic partialities, limitations and biases of the technology, which may ironically result in additional burdens, leading individuals to develop and enact tactics to manage their relationships. Lastly, (3) while the Project may afford greater trust and transparency, users can (and should) still exercise caution and critical thinking in questioning its trustworthiness, regardless of its commercial orientation. The paper concludes by discussing the significance and implications for responsibility, accessibility, trust, transparency, and accountability surrounding dating platforms in the age of digitised, datafied intimacy.
Online dating services are a huge business, garnering an estimated 259 million users and over U.S. $8 billion in revenue worldwide in 2022.1 Yet, these profits are not always generated in the most ethical of ways, as a 2020 report by the Norwegian Consumer Council exposed that many popular dating apps like Grindr, Tinder, and OkCupid were illegally sharing and selling user data to at least 135 third-party advertisers without consent.2 These two statistics reveal the two contrasting sides of dating platforms, on one hand possessing wide-reaching impact, yet on the other hand, fraught with risks and limitations, especially given the sensitive, intimate nature of the personal data such platforms have access to.
Undoubtedly, matchmaking apps and sites have fundamentally altered the landscape of dating, love, and intimacy, transforming the modern search for love and the process of finding romantic partners.3 Ironically, there seems to be a love-hate relationship for such dating technologies: while some scholars propose that the digitisation and datafication of intimacy offer greater agency and capability to build romantic relationships, others question the accuracy and authenticity of relationships mediated by digital technologies and ‘predicted’ by data, as well as the institutional control and dataveillance behind these platforms. The first section of this paper thus reviews the literature to examine concepts of liquid love in the digital age, the datafication of intimacy, datafication, dataism and dataveillance of dating apps.
To explore the dual possibilities and vulnerabilities presented by dating platforms, the second section of the paper situates the research within the case study of the Aphrodite Project, a matchmaking platform that harnesses the combined powers of technology, psychology, economics, data science, and analytics to help individuals find their “ideal date” using its proprietary Nobel Prize-winning algorithm.4 Created by National University of Singapore (NUS) students Aiden Low and Dana Lo in 20195 as a matchmaking site by students, for students, the Aphrodite Project serves as a successor to first and second-generation dating sites and apps like Match.com, OkCupid, and Tinder. In what seems like stark, direct contrast to the aforementioned commercial dating platforms, the Aphrodite Project firmly vouches to users that their data would “never be sold.”6 Its unique status thus makes it a significant and interesting case study to examine how a non-commercial dating platform may differ from conventional profit-oriented dating apps and sites, articulating a potential model and vision for the future of dating technologies, in which there is room for individuals to exercise bounded agency within platform structures.
The third section of the paper explicates the methods used to analyse the Aphrodite Project and synthesises the results. Through participant observation, netnography, and qualitative content analysis of Reddit threads on the Aphrodite Project, three key themes were observed: firstly, (1) algorithms can help ease the labour of relationship building and enable users to enact some degree of bounded agency through platform affordances. Yet at the same time, (2) users nonetheless recognise the algorithmic partialities, limitations and biases of the technology, which may ironically result in additional burdens, leading individuals to develop and enact tactics to manage their relationships. Furthermore, (3) while the Project may afford greater trust and transparency, users can (and should) still exercise caution and critical thinking in questioning its trustworthiness, regardless of its commercial orientation. Lastly, the final section of the paper concludes by discussing the significance and implications this has for trust, responsibility, accessibility, transparency, and accountability of dating platforms in the age of digitised and datafied intimacy. For a roadmap of the entire paper, please refer to figure 1.
As something so intrinsic to the human condition, love and intimacy have been widely explored and examined by multiple scholars. Bauman argued that intimacy had become commodified in the ‘liquid modern era’, with long-term committed relationships dissolving and 'liquefied' and replaced by fleeting, short-term connections, which were “more frequent and more shallow, more intense and more brief”7, as a result of the inception of online dating websites such as Kiss.com, Match.com, and eHarmony at the turn of the century. “Unlike old-fashioned relationships,” Bauman lamented, “not to mention 'committed' relationships, let alone long-term commitments,” relationships made over the Internet seemed to be “come and go with ever greater speed and in never thinning crowds.”8
While Bauman’s fears and concerns are no doubt valid, he seems to pessimistically, deterministically, and fatalistically condemn modern relationships to a bleak future of doom and gloom, consigning individuals to a fate of ruined relationships and absolute loss of agency. It is in fact rather ironic that Bauman, a scholar of postmodernity, would be so entrenched in and enamoured by the romanticisation of the past, rather than embracing the potentials of new, modern technologies. By contrasting modern “liquid love” to so-called “old-fashioned relationships,” Bauman seems to assume that traditional relationships created in a physical, offline context are superior to digital connections, which is a potentially problematic dichotomy.
Indeed, other scholars have challenged Bauman’s critique, proposing that the internet has democratised interpersonal interaction, offering unprecedented and convenient access to a wide network of potential partners.9 Countering Bauman, Hobbs et al. propose that the “networked intimacy”10 of modern dating apps like Tinder and OkCupid offer greater agency and freedom over relationships. Rather than “liquefying” ideals like romantic love, monogamy, or long-term commitment, people continue to value such ideals, merely using technology as a means to “exercise control over their life-chances within a broadened social network.”11 While I appreciate their alternative perspective to Bauman’s overly pessimistic and fatalistic stance, they in turn commit the fallacy of over-optimism and idealism, effusively extolling the virtues of “new freedoms, opportunities and pleasures,”12 while glossing over the negative side of the digitisation of intimacy. In reality, it is often not so clear-cut as a black and white delineation between whether technologies are good or bad, as Hobbs et al. and Bauman suggested, and it is insufficient to merely stop at a superficial level of debating the benefits and problems of dating technologies without understanding the underlying structures of power of the corporations behind these apps and algorithms. As algorithms of dating apps become increasingly sophisticated and displace the role of traditional matchmakers, "more research is needed into the role played by algorithms as romantic intermediaries,"13 especially amidst the shift we are witnessing from mere digitisation of intimacy to the datafication of intimacy.
De Ridder defines the datafication of intimacy as a mathematical mindset to dating “which promises to make the process of building close human connections more predictable, controllable, [and] convenient.”14 Presenting a perspective that straddles a middle ground between two extremes, he is neither as grimly pessimistic as Bauman who condemns internet dating as the liquefaction of love, resulting in an utter loss of agency for individuals, nor as quixotically optimistic as Hobbs et al,. who hail mobile dating apps as the liberation of individuals, granting them freedom and autonomy. Instead, he conceded that while dating apps resulted in greater dependencies, this does not necessarily “destroy autonomy.”15 Rather, “the datafication of intimacy is a continuous negotiation of technological promises.”16 However, De Ridder fails to adequately address critical issues of the datafication of intimacy and dating apps' algorithms, which "refer to key institutions of intimacy—love, romance, desire, sex, and sexuality—that organise intimacy in conventional ways for the sake of algorithmic organisation and the rationalization of the dating process."17Such key institutions of intimacy, like love and romance, are complex, amorphous and ambiguous concepts that cannot be easily defined, much less packaged into neat boxes, quantified, and predicted by technologies.
Mathematical models and algorithms, no matter how sophisticated, have their biases and limitations, as technologies are encoded with incomplete and flawed assumptions of human intimacy18. Technologies that claim to help us track and manage relationships offer a tantalising promise to ease our “intensive intimacy”, yet when the work of intimacy becomes increasingly laborious and requires the development of new social and technical skills,19 they all too often fail to deliver on that promise. This is because such technologies are only partial and limited, due to their encoded (and often flawed) assumptions of intimacy and their inability to accurately capture the “excess” of intimate meaning, aspects of intimacy that evade tracking and cannot be exhausted by sensing, quantifying, ranking, and other techniques.20
One final problem of the digitisation and datafication of intimacy is that most scholars tend to solely focus on users of dating apps, but overlook the structural power of the institutions behind such technologies. As most dating platforms are run by profit-oriented corporations, they are fundamentally built on the business of tracking, collecting, and making use of user data, which inevitably brings up ethical concerns of data surveillance and privacy. This is especially pertinent due to the nature of the data being collected, which are personal, private, and intimate information concerning people’s (love) lives and relationships. As “the contemporary story of intimacy is similarly entangled with [...] technologies of self-surveillance,”21 privacy and ethics are inseparable from dating apps and sites, and no discussion of the digitisation/datafication of intimacy can be complete without it. Thus, it is imperative for us to zoom out from a granular view of users of dating platforms to a more synoptic view to see how the datafication of intimacy fits within the broader scope of dataism and dataveillance.22
van Dijck posits that datafication, “the transformation of social action into online quantified data [...] allowing for real-time tracking and predictive analysis” has become the new socio-scientific paradigm.23 This has perpetuated dataism, “a widespread belief in the objective quantification and potential tracking of all kinds of human behavior and sociality through online media technologies,'' giving rise to dataveillance as a normalised form of social monitoring.24 This is potentially problematic, since datafication, dataism and dataveillance are built upon social trust that people “naively or unwittingly” put into institutions,25 resulting in a pressing need for us to critically question the credibility and interests of institutions collecting and surveilling our data. We poetically circle back to Bauman, who wrote, "In today’s liquid modern world...Surveillance spreads in hitherto unimaginable ways, responding to and reproducing the slippery nature of modern life, seeping into areas where it once had only marginal sway.”26 Indeed, with the proliferation and popularisation of dating platforms, “many aspects of social life were coded that had never been quantified before”27 including love, intimacy and relationships.
Nonetheless, while it is important for people to not "naively [...] trust their personal information to corporate platforms"28 and underestimate the power of the institutions behind dating apps, individuals are not so wholly ignorant or helpless as they appear to be. The modern-day dating app user is cognizant of the risks involved, and have developed skills, techniques, and tactics to negotiate and navigate such technologies.29 Furthermore, in recent years, following pressure from citizens, consumer groups, and governments calling for greater transparency and privacy protection for dating platforms,30 corporations have taken steps to improve their data privacy and protection policies. For instance, Match Group, which owns Tinder, Match.com, and OkCupid, publishes annual Impact Reports and Transparency Reports, vouching, “We do not track your digital behaviour,” “You keep control over the personal information we process about you,” and “We have and continue to strongly support privacy laws that protect consumers and generate trust.”31 While we cannot know for sure how much of it is just corporate tokenism and marketing spin versus truth, it at least tells us that perhaps there is still some hope against van Dijck’s bleak pronouncement that “platforms offered little transparency.”32
Where does this leave us then? Are we doomed, as Bauman and van Dijck seem to suggest, powerless against the algorithms, structures and institutions? Or do individuals have the ability to wrest back control from platforms to determine their own relationships, as Hobbs et al. claim? Or, perhaps, is there a middle path, where users can negotiate and navigate platform affordances and exercise some partial degree of agency within the structures of dating platforms? I am of the view that there is room for transformation and change—though the question is, how? This leads to the central questions that this study hopes to answer:
How do dating platforms, algorithms, and technologies contribute to the structuring of individuals' intimate relationships and dating experiences?
How do individuals enact agency and autonomy within the structures of dating platforms?
While these are complex questions with no easy answers, I posit that this is where we can look to the Aphrodite Project as a case study of how we could bring together institutions, users, and technologies to create a hybrid dating platform where structure and agency coexist.
The Aphrodite Project is a matchmaking site “built on psychology [and] an economics nobel prize algorithm” to help one find their ideal date.33 Launched in 2019 by students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Aiden Low and Dana Lo,34 the Project began as (and still continues to be run as) a platform by students, for students, making it a significant and interesting case study to examine. As a non-commercial dating platform unlike conventional commercial dating apps and sites like Tinder, which are operated on a profit-oriented basis and controlled by corporations, it thus occupies a unique position and succeeds the first and second-generation dating sites and apps in the marketplace, such as Match.com, OkCupid, and Tinder, potentially serving as a prototype and model for the future of dating technologies, in which there is room for individuals to exercise bounded agency within platform structures.
Since its inception, the Project has expanded globally to 13 universities worldwide in the United States of America, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore.35 Nonetheless, for the scope of this study, the paper only focused on Singapore, which makes sense as it not only helps to avoid potential cross-cultural differences in dating habits and preferences which may vary across countries, but also represents the geographical origin of the Project where it is most widely known and used, with a presence in four Singaporean universities: National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Yale-NUS, and Singapore Management University (SMU). To analyse the case study of the Aphrodite Project, netnography, participant observation, and qualitative content analysis were utilised, which are explicated in greater detail in the section below.
Guided by a netnographic approach, the research employed two forms of netnography: (1) active netnography in the form of participant observation, and (2) a more passive form of netnography via qualitative content analysis of Reddit threads.36 A “speciali[s]ed form of ethnography adapted to the unique computer-mediated contingencies of today’s social worlds,"37 netnography was chosen due to the appropriateness for the study of the digitisation and datafication of intimacy. Particularly, as the paper hopes to study online dating platforms like the Aphrodite Project, as well as the online discourses of users on community forums such as Reddit, netnography will allow for the study and interpretation of such human communications in situ, under realistic, native conditions of virtual interaction.
Firstly, the researcher participated in the Aphrodite Project from August to September 2021, exploring firsthand the platform affordances of the website and user experience of filling in the questionnaire, receiving match results, and interacting with matches, while observing and documenting field notes throughout the process. Particularly, due to the personal and intimate nature of relationship-building, a lived experience from participation observation in the Project served to enrich the researcher’s own phenomenological and perceptual situatedness in studying and analysing the topic at hand. Additionally, by immersing oneself and participating actively in the community, the researcher was able to go beyond mere passivity38 to gain a better understanding of the Aphrodite Project from an emic (i.e., insider/internal) perspective.
Subsequently, to complement the researcher’s own personal participant observation, qualitative content analysis was also conducted on Reddit. As Reddit was commonly used by users to post and share about their experiences taking part in the Aphrodite Project, the analysis of relevant Reddit posts and comments yielded richer insights into individuals’ thoughts and feelings about their participation in the Project. Though dating is usually seen as a private and personal matter, participants share their thoughts, feelings and beliefs more openly and freely online, thanks to the pseudonymity afforded by online communities like Reddit, as well as a shared sense of camaraderie and solidarity (e.g., commiserating over mutual experiences of being "ghosted" by matches).
To filter and identify relevant posts for content analysis, the Reddit internal search and Google Search engine were used to search for the keywords “Aphrodite Project” and “Project Aphrodite” under the subreddits for the four universities that the Aphrodite Project was open to (r/NUS, r/NTU, r/YaleNUS, and r/SMU). However, as there were no posts about the Project on both the r/YaleNUS and r/SMU_Singapore subreddits, the study only focused on the two largest universities, NUS and NTU, and their respective subreddits (r/NUS and r/NTU). All posts relevant to the Project within the two aforementioned subreddits were included in the content analysis, yielding a total of eight posts and 179 comments from 2019–2021. All Reddit discussion threads, posts, and comments analysed were publicly available and accessible.
Data from field notes and content analysis were analysed through a two-phase coding process, with Google Sheets being used to record and code the data. First, open coding was utilised by extracting verbatim quotes and noting emergent keywords and themes. Initial codes were grouped based on similarities and patterns. Constant comparison method was used to analyse and organise the data into categories. Based on recurring keywords and patterns drawn from the data, and guided by theoretical concepts from the literature review, three key themes were derived and synthesised: “Algorithms, affordances and agency,” “Partiality, Limitations and Tactics,” and “Trust, Transparency and Critical Thinking.”
As the researcher was working alone, it would not be possible to compute an intercoder reliability score. Furthermore, and more critically, due to the qualitative nature of this study, which recognises and seeks to explore the multiple, diverse perspectives of individuals, rather than to impose a universal, objective "fact" from a positivist, quantitative standpoint, there is less of a need for intercoder reliability, which could potentially contradict the very interpretative agenda of qualitative research.39 Nonetheless, recognising the subjectivity of qualitative research, transparent reporting coupled with thick descriptions can help to support and lend greater credence to the analysis and interpretations.40
To ensure greater credibility and prevent personal, subjective biases of the researcher from clouding interpretation, as well as maintain the values of traditional ethnography upon which it is based, netnography should aim to provide a “Geertzian” sense of “thick description,”41 which describes a rendering of "a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another."42 In other words, it entails providing detailed descriptions of events and actions situated within their sociocultural context to guide observation and interpretation. Therefore, as much as possible, and where relevant, direct quotes from participants, accompanied by explanations of contextual information were included in the data analysis in the below section, in order to allow the voices of individuals to speak for themselves through first-hand accounts, complementing the researcher’s own hermeneutical interpretations. Nonetheless, for ethical and confidentiality purposes, example quotes were slightly altered to omit personal identifiers (e.g., usernames, personal pronouns, direct links) to safeguard the identity and privacy of users.
From the analysis, three key themes emerged: (1) algorithms can help ease the labour of relationship building and enable users to enact some degree of bounded agency through platform affordances. Yet at the same time, (2) users nonetheless recognise the algorithmic partialities, limitations and biases of the technology, which may ironically result in additional burdens, leading individuals to develop and enact tactics to manage their relationships. Lastly, (3) while the Project may afford greater trust and transparency, users can (and should) still exercise caution and critical thinking in questioning its trustworthiness, regardless of its commercial orientation. Each of the themes will be explicated in greater detail in the sections below.
Firstly, the Aphrodite Project’s algorithmic capabilities present digitisation and datafication of intimacy as a solution to help ease the labour of relationship building, wherein users can exercise some degree of agency through platform affordances. Through its Nobel Prize-winning algorithm that harnesses the combined power of computer science, psychology and economics, it promises to find users their ideal, “final match” in just “20 minutes”, as it proudly boasts on its website’s landing page, as seen in figure 2 below.
One of the Project’s biggest draws is its ease and simplicity, baked into the structure of their platform and website. Confident declarations like "Sit back and relax while our algorithm finds your ideal date"43 (as seen from figure 3 below), their user-friendly interface and user experience, and simple click-and-choose questionnaire (similar to a fun, casual personality quiz) promise to simplify the tedious effort of manually creating a profile and searching for matches as the algorithm does all the work for you.
As one user described on Reddit, “it's quite effortless. Just ans[wer] 60 questions. No need to spend time crafting an attractive dating profile on apps, like CMB [Coffee Meets Bagel] or Tinder.” Even the name of the Aphrodite Project itself calls to mind a sense of magic by invoking the Greek goddess of love, which conjures associations of omniscience and power, seemingly promising users that “they will finally meet someone with the help of algorithmic magic.”44
Nonetheless, that is not to say that users simply place blind faith in the algorithm and have no agency or control over the process at all. In fact, the platform itself was, by design, created to help students have greater autonomy and freedom in managing their love life. As opposed to conventional dating apps, where people face intensive labour arising from the paradox of choice45, or are presented with a seemingly endless buffet of choices to “shop” for potential partners46, the Project deliberately limits the number of matches to only 1–2 matches per person. In fact, by intentionally structuring the Project to operate only once a year with a maximum of two matches, limitations paradoxically benefit users by counteracting the critiques made of modern dating apps and technologies that ‘liquify’ love to fast, numerous, and fleeting relationships, commodified to serve the commercial agendas of the profit-oriented platforms that run them.47
Additionally, to counteract the problems of superficiality,48 discrimination, and sexism49 common to other dating apps like Tinder, Project Aphrodite’s questionnaire also intentionally excludes questions on physical appearances. Instead, it includes diverse questions that allow users to indicate preferences with regards to ethnicity, religion and sexuality,50 catering to different groups such as the LGBTQ+ community. The fact that the Project affords users some form of choice and takes into account individual preferences could be seen as a form of bounded agency. Even though these are structural limitations imposed by the platform, I propose that rather than being restraints that restrict user freedom, these are beneficial constraints that arguably help serve the users.
However, while the Aphrodite Project promises to ease the intensive labours of relationship-building with its technological prowess and algorithms, ultimately it still is encoded with partialities, limitations and biases, which can ironically lead to additional burdens for its users. Touting their sophisticated Nobel Prize-winning psychology and economics algorithm (see figure 2 above), the Aphrodite Project promises to grant users a “match made in
heaven science,”51 as reflected in figure 4.
Here, we see how the “science of matchmaking”52 converges with psychology53 to lend an air of gravitas and credibility to its technology. The “mathematical mind-set”54 described by De Ridder is also employed to reinforce this sense of credibility. The website offers impressive-sounding statistics like "59,277 matched since 2019" (as seen in figure 4 above), and users can even view personalised Data Reports replete with graphs and bar charts (figure 5).
After receiving their match results, individuals can also see their Match Rank scores (see figure 6 below), which are probabilities handily computed by the website’s algorithm showing users how “compatible” they are with their partner.55 Such statistics and percentages remind us of the dataist mindset described by van Dijck, evoking the illusion that “large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.”56
Nonetheless, in spite of its advantages and affordances, the Aphrodite Project is still partial and limited in its abilities. It would perhaps be overly reductivist and simplistic to assume that a few questions on one’s hobbies, likes, and dislikes can accurately predict relationships and reduce something as complex as love, compatibility, and intimacy to a numerical score. No matter how sophisticated the algorithm (even a Nobel Prize–winning one), there are still encoded assumptions and biases, and “intimate excesses” that cannot be easily quantified.57 As one user remarked:
[My match score] is 10 of 5000+ but half an h[ou]r into the convo I know this thing is a dead end. There’s only 1 hobby that matched and [it’s] not a significant one [...it’s that] we are both [from the same academic year]. Everything else was very different….
This suggests that in spite of the Aphrodite Project’s algorithmic capabilities and affordances, there are still limitations that cannot be accounted for, be it values and beliefs, or simply whether people can ‘click’ and connect with one another.
Other users, too, questioned the “mathematical mind-set”, pointing out the potential biases that could be present in its data, statistics and predictions:
My friends and I tried last year and this year. Despite their highly SUS[picious] stats of "2 in 5 participants started a relationship, were considering one, or started a new meaningful friendship", all 6 of us had a lacklustre experience...So I don't know what stats they are using to support their Nobel prized algorithm, but the results are akin to normal dating apps, you may score, you may not. Definitely not some ground-breaking experience, unlike repeatedly advertised...Alas, my friend who is in an AI-related field explained to me that the algorithm is still a work in progress and that we are all just training data. Maybe a few years down the road, after collecting more of our data and us spending another 20 minutes on the questionnaire, will it generate better matches. I think the stats is skewed cause probably those who have a positive experience are more likely to reply the survey.
Another user likewise also critiqued:
The post-match stats are probably only based on those who did the survey in the first place, leading to survivorship bias. Also, if they use this same survey data to evaluate and train their model, the model will likely learn to maximise the ranking of each match at the expense of the overall average ranking across all matches. Put simply, the model will result in a few very good matches and mostly mediocre ones, as it matches the best pairs first before working its way down. This is all guesswork based on my CS [Computer Science] knowledge, but it does make sense since this will generate those miracle matches who can come back and talk about their success story, which goes onto their website and advertising. Again, an example of survivorship bias.
Their comments, which highlight “skewed” statistical models and “survivorship bias,” show how users are aware of the ways in which statistics could potentially be massaged and manipulated to present the Project’s efficacy in a positive light. Their ability to reflexively engage in self-reflection and critically question the veracity of the statistics and claims thus demonstrates how users are conscious and cognisant of the limitations of the technology, rather than naively subscribing to the dataist belief of foolproof objectivity and accuracy.
Furthermore, contrary to the Aphrodite Project’s claims to reduce the intensive labours of matchmaking for users, it may ironically increase it, adding to the burden of managing and maintaining relationships. For instance, after being matched, rather than connecting with their partners and experiencing the supposed fulfilment and joy of forming new relationships, many participants instead faced the frustrating struggle of unresponsive partners. Such instances illustrate the phenomenon of ghosting, a contemporary relationship dissolution strategy where one ends the relationship by ceasing communication or disappearing.58 One user groused:
I think my match isn’t interested so [they’re] likely ghosting me sigh :( feelsbadman...Why sign up if they’re going to ghost others zzz it’s so rude and wastes their time filling the questionnaire and our time trying to get a decent convo :(
Others echoed similar sentiments, complaining of the “backpain from carrying the convo”. Besides the time and effort wasted, and how physically and mentally tiring it can be to maintain conversations, intensive labour could also manifest as emotional burdens, such as feelings of rejection and disappointment, since ghosting can result in emotional uncertainty, hurt and distress for both parties.59
While the Project can engineer serendipity and propinquity by offering users the chance to find and start a conversation with new potential partners, it unfortunately still cannot help individuals establish long-term connections and relationships. Hence, I posit that while the Aphrodite Project can help us meet potential matches thanks to the ‘networked intimacy’ of a large pool of users, this is ultimately a form of ‘thin intimacy’ that has breadth, but lacks depth. To borrow Bauman’s metaphor of liquidity, intimacy could be likened to a pool of ‘liquid’—the wider it is, the thinner and more superficial. Based on my observations, most successful matches were the ones that went from virtual messaging to physical meetups to take the relationship to the next level and truly forge a deep connection, supporting literature that ‘thick intimacy’ requires a physical presence of “being together.”60
Nevertheless, to cope with their struggles, I observed that users developed a variety of tactics to manage their relationships. For instance, one user employed the tactic of “asking open ended question[s]...to keep the convo going,” while another advised a fellow student on Reddit to "tailor your submission as much as possible [since] there's no point in getting a match when you cast your net so wide you have almost nothing in common with the other person". Even the act of going onto online social media forums like Reddit to exchange tips and tricks with other participants could be considered a tactical strategy in and of itself, allowing users to help one another navigate the matchmaking platform and experience. In a sense, sharing their experiences with fellow participants on Reddit functioned as a form of coping mechanism, as venting, ranting, and commiserating with other users on their mutual struggles enabled individuals to unburden themselves emotionally. Additionally, when they encountered unresponsive partners, some users conversely also employed ghosting as a retaliatory strategy to end relationships that did not work out, rather than investing more time and labour. Therefore, even within the structural limitations of the Aphrodite Project, it can be seen that users were able to exercise some degree of agency and enact tactical strategies of their own to navigate and negotiate within the limitations of dating platforms.
Lastly, in spite of its partialities and problems, individuals nonetheless showed awareness of the platform limitations, and were capable of exercising caution and critical thinking to question the platform’s trustworthiness and transparency in safeguarding their privacy and data. Such notions of trust and transparency are particularly pertinent for two reasons.
First, due to the inherent intimate, personal nature of romantic relationships, dating platforms like the Aphrodite Project have unfettered access to highly personal, private data about our selves, relationships and lives, as seen from the questionnaire, which includes questions that probe into one’s sexual orientation, sexual promiscuity, openness to sex before marriage, and even opinions on topics such as drug use.
Second, as a bottom-up, grassroots student-run project, the Aphrodite Project has built its image and reputation upon tenets of trust and transparency, which has been one of the key value propositions marketed by the Aphrodite Project to distinguish itself from other commercial dating platforms. For example, in marketing messages and publicity emails, they always depict themselves as a “student-run project” (see figure 7). Now, why is this significant? Whether it is deliberate or not, by positioning themselves as a student-based initiative and using the word “project” to describe the platform (inhered within the name “Aphrodite Project” itself), the Project imbues itself with the positive association and goodwill of an innocent, harmless undergraduate project.
Unlike Big Tech firms’ lofty-sounding corporate mantras such as “Do no evil” (Google) and “Making the world transparent and connected” (Facebook),"62 or Match Group’s sketchy promises on its Privacy page which seem to ring hollow and come across as disingenuous,63 users are more likely to trust that the Project’s organisers—who, being or having been students themselves—are sincere and genuinely have their interests at heart. This is further reinforced by the fact that the Aphrodite Project is a non-commercial platform. In contrast to other dating sites like Tinder, OkCupid and Match.com that are owned by large corporations like Match Group whose interests are served by generating profits for investors and shareholders, the Project itself is run by students and funded by the NUS Innovation and Entrepreneurship Practicum Award.64 This has a three-fold effect: firstly, it solidifies user trust in the Project as they believe it to have no commercial ties. Secondly, it creates a halo effect associated with the credibility of NUS as a reputable academic institution. And thirdly, it projects the image of the platform as a student-run project for research and innovation, which makes it appear more honest and benevolent, compared to profit-driven platforms.
Yet, as van Dijck reminds us, in the modern era of datafication, dataism and dataveillance, we cannot be completely naive or trusting, and must still critically interrogate the credibility of institutions, no matter whether it is a business or an academically-linked organisation.65 As a participant-observer myself in the Project, I found myself feeling simultaneously assured yet apprehensive, on one hand comforted by the images and messages of trust, while on the other hand, cautious and sceptical. The constant reassurances and effusive promises of privacy, for instance, ironically made me wary, “as though they were trying to hide or overcompensate for something,” as I wrote in my notes. Their superlative claims to “never sell your data,” too, seemed “almost too good to be true”—if the Project was not out to earn profits or commercialise our data, I found myself pondering, then what were its true motivations? Why would the organisers and developers be so charitable to give it all away for free? Or was I merely being overly paranoid, having been trained to be on guard against technological platforms and dataveillance? Although my suspicions and speculations were perhaps a tad overblown, I was certainly not the only person to question the motives of the Project.
On Reddit, one user sarcastically remarked that the project was really “a way to farm personal data of desperate young students,” an amusing albeit astute comment that revealed the potential hidden “costs” underlying this free service. In this age of datafication and surveillance capitalism, where “metadata and data have become a regular currency for citizens to pay for...services,”66 in the case of the Aphrodite Project, the price paid was our personal data, given in exchange for the free matchmaking services rendered, a form of datafied, digital labour67 used to train the machine learning algorithm for free. Additionally, while the Project may not sell our data to commercial third-parties, it is not entirely true that there are zero commercial ties. After being matched, participants received emails containing discounts and promotions for restaurants, movie tickets, and spin classes (framed as activities that we could do with our matches), as illustrated in figures 9 and 10 below.
With today’s increasingly blurred lines between enterprise and social intelligence, this serves as a poignant reminder that we can both be sold products and sold as products ourselves. Thus, even while the Aphrodite Project (as well as other dating platforms like Tinder and Match.com) claims to afford greater trust and transparency, it is still imperative for us as users to exercise caution and critical thinking when navigating dating platforms, regardless of their commercial orientation.
Whether you love it or loathe it, the digitisation and datafication of intimacy have irrefutably and irrevocably transformed not just people's relationships with each other, but also their relationships with dating technologies. In this paper, I explored the debate on whether dating apps and sites have entirely controlled our personal love lives or whether they have liberated and democratised relationships. Rather than a binary answer, I contend that there is, in fact, a middle way in which there is room for individuals to exercise limited agency within the structures of platforms. Analysing the case study of the Aphrodite Project, I present it as a potential prototype and model for the future of dating technologies, whereby algorithms can help ease the labour of relationship building and enable users to enact bounded agency through platform affordances. At the same time, it is important to recognise that technologies also possess inherent partialities, limitations and biases, and in spite of their claims of easing the intensive intimacy of relationships, dating technologies can also result in additional burdens, leading users to employ tactical strategies to manage relationships. Even as platforms like the Aphrodite Project afford greater trust and transparency, users can (and should) still exercise caution and critical thinking to question the trustworthiness of platforms, no matter their commercial orientation.
The study offers several significant implications to individuals, platforms, and governments. First, as users of dating platforms themselves, individuals ultimately bear the greatest responsibility in safeguarding their own personal privacy.69 When navigating such platforms, individuals should educate themselves to be conscious of the risks and limitations, such as the potential assumptions encoded within dating algorithms, and exercise critical thinking to scrutinise claims and predictions made. Nonetheless, it is acknowledged that there could be different levels of agency, ability, and access among users. Though participants of the Project were able to negotiate and navigate platform affordances, we cannot assume that this is always the case for everyone. The technicity of intimacy involves the technê, or “skilled practices of particular technical groups,”70 which not everybody may possess. In the case of the Aphrodite Project, perhaps participants were more capable of critical thinking, given their background as highly-educated university students who are thus likely to possess greater technological literacy and awareness than the typical user-citizen. Particularly, those who were able to reflexively question the credibility of the algorithm or statistics tended to be students studying Computer Science or those who had friends in AI-related fields. Thus, for dating platforms in general, we must still consider diverse users such as the older generation, the less privileged, or the less educated, who may not be as technologically savvy or who lack access to the necessary expertise or knowledge, baking adequate safeguards into dating platforms and providing public education so as to create truly inclusive, accessible technologies for all.
Second, just like in human interpersonal relationships, there must be mutual trust and transparency between dating platforms and users. As Giddens wrote, “Both accountability and authority...are deeply bound up with trust. Trust without accountability is likely to become one-sided [...while] accountability without trust is impossible.”71 While dating platforms demand for users to trust them and give (up) their personal data, platforms should reciprocally extend the same trust and transparency to users. Beyond empty promises and hollow marketing spiel, commercial dating platforms like Tinder and Match.com could learn from the Aphrodite Project to be more transparent and ethical, more honest in their communications and disclosures, and to be responsive to user feedback and build privacy, security, and safety into the design of platforms. More concrete action can also be taken to solidify their credibility and trustworthiness; for instance, they can mandate external privacy audits with public results,72 establish independent third-party committees within the organisation to oversee and ensure accountability, and work with external groups like nonprofits and consumer rights groups to safeguard the well-being and privacy of users.
Last but not least, within the complex, interconnected web of networked intimacy, we cannot merely push the onus on corporations or users of dating platforms alone. Governments, legislators, and policymakers establish and uphold the legal regulations and standards in the court of law, while citizens play a key role in shaping the court of public opinion for greater platform accountability and transparency. Already, with greater calls for and concerns over data security by governments and publics, such as the implementation of legislation like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) in Singapore, dating platforms have started to step up their privacy protection and ensure they are operating in accordance with legal regulations. In 2021, for instance, following the legal complaint filed by the Norwegian Consumer Council and nonprofit organisation NOYB (the European Center for Digital Rights) against Grindr for violating GDPR by illegally sharing data with its commercial partners, the Data Protection Authority upheld the law and issued a 100 million NOK (€9,600,000) fine to the dating app,73 marking a historic win which set a standard for not just Grindr, but also the entire industry of dating apps and platforms as a whole. This example highlights the pivotal role that stakeholders such as governments, policy makers, civil rights groups, consumer groups, and nonprofits can play in keeping dating platforms accountable and safe. Within the ecosystem of connective media, governments, businesses, individuals, citizen groups, nonprofits, and more all have to be involved for society to truly reap the benefits of networked intimacy.
The futurist Marina Gorbis envisions a future of a “socialstructured” world whereby the commercial is intertwined with the communal, transitioning into a new, networked economy based upon social connection and human relationships.74 Perhaps, then, the Aphrodite Project limns this vision as a new form of dating platform, a socialstructure that bridges the communal and the commercial, achieving a twinned balance of agency and control, of platforms and users, of networks and individuals, serving as a model for other dating platforms of the future. While it may not be realistically possible for us to achieve a truly “safe” and “ethical” dating platform and liberate ourselves from dataveillance and datafication entirely, it is without a question that dating apps and sites can and should be redesigned to grant greater agency, respect, and protection with regards to our personal, intimate lives.
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