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True Love. Is There a Hack for That?

If you play Call of Duty, you may be aware of an online ecosystem rich with “cheats” — shortcuts that players circulate to capitalize on the game’s glitches and thwart some of its toughest obstacles.

Something similar exists among those swiping for love on dating apps. In the past year, Ali Jackson, a 36-year-old dating coach in Brooklyn, has been struck by how many people have come to her asking about “hacks” they have seen online, which they believe will help them overcome barriers between their profiles and true love.

These are not really tips for dating but for outmaneuvering dating apps. On TikTok and Reddit, users recommend deactivating and reactivating your account, rejecting a string of attractive profiles or temporarily switching your location to a different city. Each of these moves, proponents say, could scramble the app’s algorithm into offering the user better options.

“It’s like trying to give your dating life a colonic,” said Lakshmi Rengarajan, a former director at Match Group and the host of “The Later Dater Today” podcast. “Like, how do I clean this out?”

Trying to find shortcuts to romantic bliss is a time-honored tradition, but the emergence of dating apps just over a decade ago brought new promise — and new grievances. Dating app founders pitched their products as wingmen capable of winnowing suitors down based on compatibility with the help of powerful algorithms (a claim that was met with plenty of skepticism at the time).

Many of us have only gotten less friendly toward algorithms in the decade since. As algorithmic recommendations have filtered into almost every facet of our digital lives, some dating app users have grown increasingly suspicious of the hidden mechanisms that influence their dating lives. Burned out from swiping, they are eyeing the platforms that have kept some users engaged for as long as most fifth graders have been alive.

“The first reaction to that burnout was, ‘What can I do better with my profile or my messages to connect with people?’” Ms. Jackson said. She sees less of that preoccupation these days, and has observed a new attitude taking hold among disenchanted daters: “They’re like, I’m doing everything right now; it must be the app’s fault,” she said. “So how can I game this?”

Some users now view the apps not as wingmen but as gatekeepers obstructing their romantic prospects. Katie Nguyen, 33, a recruiter in Los Angeles, said she had diminishing confidence that Bumble, Hinge or Raya were actually trying to connect her with a long-term partner. She wonders whether her feed appears bleak because there are truly no eligible options, or because the apps have a vested interest in keeping her swiping.

The people she is most interested in dating are often stuck behind paywalls, she said. She sometimes swipes past people she has already seen on the apps, only to notice that they have “new member” badges, she added.

She is not alone in her irritation. Hinge users have railed against a feature that identifies “people most your type,” in the app’s words, and limits users who do not pay for a subscription to contacting only one of them per week with a digital “rose.” TikTok users have rechristened the feature “rose jail” and theorized methods for bailing out potential dates.

Users are absorbing a frustrating message: “The right person is here, I just don’t have access to them,” Ms. Rengarajan said.

Dating apps, known for being cagey about the proprietary algorithms behind their services, insist that is not the case. A spokeswoman for Hinge wrote that each of its features was designed to “get daters off the app and out on great dates.” A spokesman for Tinder said that its algorithm had one goal: “to get members into meaningful conversations that ultimately lead to meeting up in real life.”

But the shift in users’ mind-set represents a growing awareness that dating apps, which usually have free and paid tiers, are businesses that may rope off some of their features to entice paying users. A report published by Morgan Stanley last year estimated that the share of paying users on dating apps had doubled over the previous eight years, to around 26 percent.

Khaled Alshawi, 32, has used Hinge and Grindr on and off for about five years. He remembers a time when he could reach out to as many people as he wanted per day, he said, but that number has been capped on both apps. He ended up buying subscriptions and then leaving the apps altogether and meeting a partner in real life. Several of his friends remain on free versions of the apps, he said, convinced that they will hit on some trick that will allow them to circumvent the paywall.

That may be because paywalls and algorithms are a more satisfying target for one’s ire than general romantic ennui, said Carolina Bandinelli, an associate professor of media and creative industries at the University of Warwick who has conducted ethnographic research on dating app users.

Dating apps suggest to users that they will be able to use algorithms to “reduce the mess of love,” Dr. Bandinelli said. When that inevitably doesn’t happen — love is messy by nature! — users can become angry and try to gain the upper hand.

“The ‘hacking’ is a way in which we engage with the algorithm — we try to reveal its secrets or take advantage,” she said.

Although a handful of social media posts claim to have succeeded, Ms. Jackson said most of the hacks she had heard about online fell short of getting her more, or better, matches when she tried them out.

These tricks may give users a sense of agency, but dating app users should not count on them to improve their chances in the long term, Ms. Rengarajan said. Dating apps are constantly tweaking their algorithms, she said, so a maneuver that may boost a user’s profile one day may fail to do so the next.

The biggest problem with trying to “hack” a dating app may be that you can’t win at cultivating a romantic connection the same way you can a video game. Ms. Rengarajan suggested that serious daters redirect their energy into cultivating better connections with the people they do meet.

“Everyone’s trying to hack the app,” she said, “and not hack the date.”

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