This Halloween, ghosts aren’t welcome. Two dating apps have announced plans to use the season to crack down on the rudest of social media villains, the ghoster: the person who enthusiastically replies to your messages, starts a friendly chat and then, one day, just … stops.
Earlier this week, Bumble, the woman-friendly dating service, announced it had created the post of “ghosting specialist”, bringing the journalist and author Kate Leaver in to hear confessions, dispense advice and be a shoulder to cry on for those whose attempts to find love ended with messages echoing in the void.
Another dating service, Badoo, has gone one step further, announcing plans to prompt would-be ghosts to reply to their ghostees, with a series of suggested responses, such as: “Hey, sorry for the late reply. When are you free to meet?” or “Hey, I think you’re great, but I don’t see us as a match. Take care!”
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Read moreThey may be seasonally appropriate, but it’s hard not to view the proposals with an air of cynicism. After all, the last thing a dating app wants is its users giving up on dating – or, God forbid, continuing to date, but without using dating apps.
Leaver insists such suspicions are misplaced. Her role, building on the expertise she developed writing her book The Friendship Cure, is firmly focused on pushing for “a revival of kindness and respect”, she says. “There are a lot of broken hearts and confused people these days. People are ghosting everyone all over the place.
“I think people are too frightened, or too lazy, or too cowardly to have the difficult conversations that need to be had,” Leaver adds. “There has been some pretty extreme psychological damage for people who are living without any explanation as to why they’ve been ghosted because we tend to fill in the silence with our own insecurity.”
Kate Leaver, AKA your ghosting specialist. Photograph: Matthew ThomasonBadoo emphasises the positives of its app’s feature: “Badoo has 60 million monthly active users. The feature itself simply intercepts the ‘ghosting’ process by encouraging users to reply. It also prompts those who are actually interested in their match to get the ball rolling and meet in real life.”
Cynical or not, dating apps are only the latest companies to nudge users to participate more, under the guise of helping them “connect” with each other. Google, for instance, recently updated Gmail to introduce a feature called “nudges”. The service, which is on by default, prompts users to reply to emails that they “might have forgotten to respond to” and to “follow up” on emails they sent that never received a reply.
While it can occasionally be useful (who among us hasn’t closed a message intending to reply to it in five minutes, only to leave it for five days?), the feature is attempting to fight a symptom of information overload by simply adding more information to the pile. It’s not enough to ignore an email. We now have to ignore it twice. In the meantime, the message is there in your inbox, in bright orange, reminding you that it was “received five days ago. Reply?”
Then, when you do click to reply, there are yet more nudges, from Google’s “smart compose” and “smart reply” features. The company is so eager to get users to communicate that it is now more than capable of hosting a conversation with neither person participating at all – just an endless stream of algorithmically composed “Thanks!”, “OK then!”, “See you later!” and “Ha ha, yes!” going back and forth, until one or both crack and resort to actually typing.
Could nudging ghosters in the dating world simply add to the overload of the modern era? After all, as the psychologist Maya Borgueta has written in HuffPost, “ghosting is avoidance and often stems from fear of conflict. Which means that, at its heart, ghosting is about wanting to avoid confrontation, avoid difficult conversations and avoid hurting someone’s feelings.”
If that is the case, Badoo’s pushy attempts to restart conversations could have the opposite effect to that intended: if you ghost because of a fear of confrontation, then it’s not much help when your dating app begins confronting you.
Badoo … if you ghost because of a fear of confrontation, then it’s not much help when your dating app begins confronting you. Photograph: AlamyLeaver agrees that it is important to “operate with empathy to both ghosters and ghostees”, but she says that, regardless of their motivation, people who ghost need to realise that their actions “can be extremely hurtful and painful. I do stand by [using the words] ‘cruel’ and ‘cowardly’, but that’s not said without empathy or compassion,” She adds. “I think it’s important for us to understand why it’s happening, in order to encourage it to stop.”
At least Google’s nudges can be legitimately defended as productivity tools and Badoo’s as helping get the ball rolling on real dates – presumably the goal of everyone using a dating app. For the really thirsty nudges, you simply need to look at the largest social network of them all: Facebook.
For a company with almost 2 billion users, an advertising platform that prints money, and no natural predator in sight, Facebook operates with an almost pathological paranoia. The company is constantly panicking about potential threats to its lead, switching wildly between various priorities for its apps, algorithms and users. First, video was the future, then live video, then groups and now “meaningful connections”.
What that leads to in practice is bizarre inventions such as “Friends Day”, the anniversary of Facebook’s founding in February 2004, when the company tries to encourage users to post messages to each other. This year, that involved encouraging people to give each other “friend awards”, such as “my favourite weirdo” or “always has my back”.
In the industry, these nudges have a name: “growth hacking”, sending little notifications to persuade users to open the app, boosting figures such as DAU (daily active users) just in time for the quarterly earnings calls. And they owe the intellectual framework to the behavioural economics school of nudge theory, which argues that mild changes in information presentation can have large effects on individual behaviour.
But there is a growing movement against such mild nudges. In theory, they allow governments and companies to shape behaviour for the better, while still preserving the freedom to opt out if the individual so desires; in practice, some argue, they are a far deeper attack on agency than simply forcing people to comply, as people who don’t know they’re being coerced are denied the freedom to object.
Steven Ledbetter is the CEO of Habitry, which, yes, teaches companies how to apply “motivation science” to “make their products more engaging”. But, he argues, far too many people fail to treat users like human beings. “We think these bullshit behaviour-change technologies almost always have the feature of thinking human beings would just ‘be happier’ if we were more predictable. Had less autonomy. Were more like robots. Were easier to nudge.”
By all means, take heed of Bumble’s campaign against ghosting and do your friends and lovers the courtesy of telling them when you are breaking up with them, even if you don’t have the courage to explain why. But next time you are about to sit down and write a message just because an app told you to, perhaps pause and wonder if being more like a robot is really how you want to live your life.