Exploring the Role of Technology and AI in the Loneliness Epidemic.
How can we increase our life expectancy? This is a question that has haunted humanity for centuries. We thought we had it partially figured out with exercise and a healthy diet, but research shows that the soft drivers of life, like love, empathy, and kindness, can be just as important. Indeed, according to several studies, having a robust support network can reduce the risk of mortality by a whopping 45%. Who would have thought?
Social but not social
The advent of the internet and new technologies was supposed to bring people closer together. In the end, has it rather contributed to their distancing? This question has become increasingly critical as the unexpected effects of the technological revolution permeate our interpersonal relationships, further fragmenting our society every day. Just look at the graph below to see that since 2011 - the year smartphones became widely available and social media took off - mental health issues have exploded. This trend is observed all over the world, among both women and men, and particularly among young people, a topic of great concern that I have already addressed in this article.
As TikTok is currently at the center of a war between the West and China, amid accusations of spying and misusing data, this example tends to illustrate the gradual loss of trust in social networks that are already criticized for their ability to supplement face-to-face relationships. The same observation applies to messaging apps, which make us more passive and less assertive in our interactions with others.
Furthermore, the use of "dark patterns" - which the European Data Protection Committee is trying to regulate - and features such as last seen or the message read time have created a culture of immediacy. As a result, waiting for a response from someone can be a source of anxiety or frustration. "What's worse in your opinion, a message unread while the person has been online, or a message read but left unanswered?" asked me a friend recently, highlighting the dilemma in our modern modes of communication.
The dating world has been flooded with Tinder-related anecdotes that have led to endless commercial exploitation. Documentaries, books, and Instagram accounts all highlight the almost parody-like, and at times grotesque, nature of dating apps. Terms like ghosting, benching, breadcrumbing, serendipidating, and stashing are now commonplace, punctuating stories that reveal a certain toxic nonchalance in these relationships that have become commodified by technology. It's abundantly clear that without intention or reflection, dating apps can easily become dopamine machines, solely focused on self-validation. As a result, it's not surprising that 80% of users report dissatisfaction with the offerings on the market.
And the worst is probably yet to come. While the explosion of generative AI is expected to support new forms of individual expression - see my definition of Selfpressionism - the phenomenon could also have darker consequences. During the last Valentine's Day, many people reported using AI to declare their love. Are we on the way to a world where emotional connections will be replaced by algorithms, where our true feelings will be diluted in an ocean of automated messages? Romance is out the window.
Rethinking the paradigms of dating apps
Furthermore, dating apps face a paradox: while their main value lies in asynchronous communication, the increasing use of artificial intelligence risks making these exchanges less authentic. As a result, users will place more and more value on live formats that promote real-time, more authentic interaction.
In China, the Yidu app is a prime example of this trend to re-humanize dating through the use of professional matchmakers and a live video feature. Matchmakers act as intermediaries to facilitate conversation and build relationships, while the live video function allows users to participate in chat rooms under the supervision of a matchmaker, effectively reducing the number of fake profiles and bots on the platform.
Could the East inspire the West? Scheduled for mid-2023, Tawkify’s updated app also promises a matchmaking service, with additional features related to “relational well-being”, "multimedia functionalities," and "exclusive and shareable content," according to founder Adam Cohen-Aslatei in an interview with TechCrunch. Working on a similar principle but with a twist, the app Wingr allows users to act as matchmakers through the creation of "wingperson" profiles, which enables them to suggest potential matches to their single friends registered on the platform. With this concept, the founders hope to foster more meaningful connections, far beyond the simple algorithmic match.
Choco and Feels, on their part, also emphasize the use of live video to create the most immersive and authentic dating experience possible. Feels goes even further with the recent launch of TV show-like experiences where users can connect with people around them. As co-founder Daniel Cheaib explained to me, "With the mechanization and standardization of approaches in online dating (a trend that will be accentuated with the development of AI tools), Gen Z users are looking for more spontaneous, instant dating experiences that are less conducive to automated messages."
Dating agencies could also turn out to be the low-tech solution to modern dating woes. In France, the number of agencies decreased from 1,100 in the 1990s to around 400 in 2015, but the sector is experiencing a resurgence of interest. Startups like Abricot, Les Alchimistes, and Bonjour Begin have breathed new life into the genre. "Today, singles are tired of spending hours on dating apps, engaging in flat and similar conversations," explained to me Florent Hernandez, founder of Bonjour Begin, a new generation matrimonial bureau based in Aix-en-Provence. "Algorithms are no longer hidden, and users are aware of them. Authenticity, active listening, and even customized support are becoming essential for singles looking for meaningful relationships. This is where Begin comes in. Our clients are delighted to speak with real people and to meet potential partners who meet their expectations and whose profiles have been verified by us."
As social apps continue to develop at a breakneck pace, it's essential to ask a fundamental question: what is our relationship… with technology? While AI can offer unprecedented solutions for connecting with others, at what cost? It has never been more necessary to approach technology with a critical consciousness and a clear vision of our own humanity. For as convenient as digital exchanges may be, relationships require time and genuine presence to flourish.
MD, with the precious contribution of Thomas Owadenko.
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When I read about apps like these all I can think is, there but for the grace of god go I! Interesting piece.