Should dating apps be socialised? A response to Jacobin

Being a socialist these days mostly means randomly pointing at things, and shouting “Nationalise this!” or “Socialise that!”. Typical headlines in Jacobin Magazine, one of the flagship publications of the trendy Millennial Socialism movement, read: “Socialize the Grid”, “Socialize Big Pharma”, “COVID-19 Shows Why We Must Socialize the Food System”, “How We Can Socialize Big Tech”, “Socialize the Internet”, “How to Socialize Love”, “Socialize Lab Meat”, “Socialize General Motors”, “Socialize the Animal Shelters”, “We Must Socialize the Hospitals”, “Renationalize Canada’s Airlines”, and so on.

How socialists have managed to convince Millennials and Zoomers that this is somehow hip and cool will forever be beyond me, but Jacobin have over three million readers, so they must be doing something right.

The other day, they published a very on-brand article by their assistant editor Nick French, entitled “Tinder Wants Money. We Want Love. The Solution: Socialize Dating Apps”, which argues:

“We could consciously uncouple our dating lives from the tyranny of the profit motive […] with publicly owned apps that will democratize how we meet people online. […] [W]e should work toward socializing the dating apps: bringing them under collective, democratic ownership.”

It would be tempting to dismiss the article by saying that it reads like a school essay by a 15-year-old in a Che Guevara shirt, who is trying too hard to be “edgy”. That would not even be unjustified, because that is indeed exactly what it reads like – but the article is nonetheless worth a closer look, because it is, in several respects, representative of the whole Millennial Socialism genre.

Firstly, even though the article is over 2,000 words long, it never quite becomes clear what problem the author is trying to solve. What exactly is wrong with the market for dating apps? What exactly would The People’s Dating App do differently? French cannot tell us any of that (with one exception – more on which in a minute). He merely keeps repeating phrases such as “what matters to the app owners is not getting their users good dates. What matters is that they can make money off of us […] We want love, they want money.”

This is, of course, in a trivial sense correct. As Adam Smith famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the dating app provider that we expect our dates, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” But why is that automatically a problem? There was a time when socialists at least felt the need to claim that Smith’s “Invisible Hand” was a propaganda trick of the capitalist ruing class, that it had been “comprehensively debunked”, or that it only worked under unrealistic assumptions. Modern socialists no longer feel the need to do even that. Apparently, the profit motive is now seen as so obviously and self-evidently A Bad Thing that merely pointing out its existence counts as an “argument” for nationalisation.

French complains about the “the vast power [the rise of dating apps and websites] has given unaccountable, for-profit companies to manage how we meet potential romantic or sexual partners”. But ironically, the only specific complaint he can muster is that dating apps give users too much freedom of choice, and that they are using it in ways he disapproves of:

“Some dating apps let users filter whose profiles they see or might be matched with by race or ethnicity. Understandably, some have argued that this feature exacerbates or promotes racial bias, so apps should remove this function. […] [I]ndividual preferences make designing socially just dating algorithms tricky.”

French is, however, not per se opposed to dating preferences that discriminate against specific groups. He also complains about how dating apps sometimes try to pair him with people with unfashionable opinions:

“I do have to wonder why I, as a democratic socialist […], am regularly shown profiles of venture capitalists and Wall Street types.”

So presumably, The People’s Dating App would keep people with “problematic” opinions out of your sight, while also trying to reeducate you towards “socially just” dating preferences. I can’t see what could possibly go wrong.

So far, it all sounds a bit like a window into an alternate reality where the Soviet Union still exists, and where the latest Five-Year Plan aims for a 375% increase in the number of dating matches, all overseen by the People’s Commissar for Love and Romance. But as modern socialists are fond of doing, French also assures us that it would be nothing like that. Instead:

“Through online discussion forums or in-person meetings, app users could discuss the potential harms and benefits of allowing certain preference filters, or how algorithms should respond to users disproportionately swiping or liking members of certain minority groups. They could then come to a consensus or vote on the best way to proceed. […]

We could democratize dating through the creation of online dating co-ops, in which users and workers would collectively own and control their platforms. […]

That would include important choices about what sort of information users provide in their profiles, for instance, and how the algorithm deals with ethically fraught preferences. Users could collectively deliberate about the possible impacts of different choices, from the perspectives of social justice as well as users’ individual well-being.”

This sounds more like the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia than the Soviet Union: a form of “market socialism” with competing cooperatives rather than a state-owned monopoly. Cooperatives – whether worker-owned, consumer-owned, or a mix of the two – are, of course, a perfectly legitimate business model. It is also a model which you could already set up today, if you wanted to. I know the kids love the “Smash the system!” rhetoric of socialism, but the fact remains that if you want to set up a co-op, you do not need to smash the entire industry first. You do not need to smash anything. You could just – you know – set up a co-op.

The fact that nobody has set up a dating coop yet could mean that there is a gap in the market. But there is also the possibility that nobody has done it, because the idea is about as promising as Ali G’s “ice cream glove”.

I’ll go out on a limb here, and say it’s the latter. I’m sure that there are lots of people who have strongly held opinions on dating apps, but that does not mean that they have any interest in the day-to-day running of a dating app company.

But let’s be super-generous to French for a moment. Let’s pretend that there really is a huge demand for dating apps run as worker-consumer-coops, and that the only reason why nobody has set one up yet is that “the capitalist ruling class” of the typical Jacobin reader’s imagination somehow suppresses their formation. Let’s suppose a progressive government expropriated the current owners of all dating app companies, and handed over the assets to their employees and/or users. Let’s suppose they manage to sort out all the legal and technical details, and make it all work. Let’s also make the even more heroic assumption that French’s “online discussion forums or in-person meetings”, where business decisions are now taken democratically, do not immediately get taken over by trainspotters and troublemakers.

Even so, this would not mean that “we”, “the people”, would now collectively run “our” dating apps. Rather, if dating apps become worker coops, each dating app would now be run by the employees who happen to work there at the time of the revolution. If dating apps become consumer coops, each dating app would now be run by the people who happen to use them at the time of the revolution. If they become a combination of both, they would be run by a combination of both.

If those cooperatives are truly autonomous, their new owners could restrict access for new members, or refuse to give newcomers any voting rights. The new owners could democratically decide to focus on profit-maximisation, just like a capitalist would, because, well – they would be capitalists of sorts. Dating apps would not have been “socialised”, in the sense of being owned by “society as a whole”. They would just have been handed over to a new group of owners.

French might then have his own “Chávez moment”. In the early years of the “Bolivarian Revolution”, Hugo Chávez had still eschewed outright nationalisations, since they smacked too much the old-fashioned socialism he was trying to get away from. The whole point of his “Socialism of the 21st Century” project was that it was supposed to be incomparably different from all historical predecessors (which Chávez dismissed as “perversions” of the socialist ideal).

So rather than simply expanding state control, Chávez promoted all kinds of cooperative ownership models, hoping to discover a new form of democratic socialism in this way. But after a few years, he realised that most coops acted just like capitalist enterprises, and that they were never going to scale up to anything resembling socialism.

At this point, he lost interest in them, and reverted to the conventional socialist policies he was initially trying to get away from. The new and shiny “Socialism of the 21st Century” began to look suspiciously like the old-fashioned, unglamorous socialism of the 20th century again. Not for the first time, a socialist project which had started with a strong this-time-is-different rhetoric turned out to be not that different after all.

If socialists were not so curiously uninterested in the history of their own ideas, they would not have to rediscover these things anew every generation. But of course, the moment socialists developed the ability to learn from their own history, socialism would cease to be a thing.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *