On Dating Apps, We’re All Each Others’ Ghostwriters

Photographed by Serena Brown.
Dating can be a lonely business — but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve known this since the 7th grade, when I fell in puppy love with my first real boyfriend. He wore Hurley shirts and had a Justin Bieber-style bowl haircut. I still vividly remember the way he’d jerk his neck to the side to flip his hair back into place, just like Zac Efron in High School Musical
Even once we became an official “item,” I was so nervous to be alone with him. But I had a buffer — my junior high bestie was dating his friend, and we all did everything together. That mostly meant watching movies in a basement and “walking around,” the activity du jour in my small Iowa town. But my friend and I were personally invested in each other’s budding romances, probably to an unhealthy degree. I’d sometimes ask her what to say in my messages to the Bieber Wannabe when I wanted to flirt. Or to start a fight. (Bickering was honey in the tea of our young love — it made it sweeter... and oodles more exciting!) I’d type up a message and my trusted bestie would take my Motorola Razor phone, making edits and clacking out wittier comments than I could come up over predictive text. 
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Eventually, my friend and I both got dumped — on the same summer weekend. I’ll admit, it was less of a blow since I wasn’t alone in the breakup. As I remember it, I got the text while sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner watching Snakes On A Plane, with my friend in the chair over, who’d recently receive a similar message. I guess the boys had been vetting each other’s missives too.
More than 10 years later, amid a pandemic, I started to notice that not so much has changed about my dating habits. My roommate and I sometimes sit on the couch and help edit each others’ messages to potential partners on dating apps. I’ll suggest she send shorter texts, and she’ll remind me to ask questions to keep conversations going. When I found myself in a frustrating courtship with a Hinge date earlier this year, I’d burst out of my room to read her the latest egregious message I’d received and she’d help me craft a response — often toning down my impulse to ping back with a sassy retort. If my roommate isn’t home, I can screenshot a dating app message to my group chat, and someone will inevitably come through. And we aren’t alone. Ghostwriting is “modern communication’s big open secret,” The Atlantic recently wrote
Katie Jacobs, 27, who is single and lives in New York City, has also handed her dating life over “to the group”— and she’s done so for years. When she lived in Boston with three roommates, she sometimes projected her phone screen onto the TV using Chromecast, so all her housemates could help her swipe and DM on a dating app. “We’d get wine and it was like a game we’d play,” Jacobs says. “They’d be harsher in some ways than I would normally be. One would say, ‘We’re saying no to this person.’ And I’d say, ‘But what about —’ And he’d say, ‘Nope!’” she recalls. Other times, they’d encourage her to give someone she dismissed over something small — them listing golf as a hobby, for instance — a shot. 
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When Jacobs moved to New York, she and her roommate, a close friend, would sometimes switch phones and swipe and DM partners for each other. “The nice thing is we have pretty similar personalities, though we don’t always have similar taste in partners,” she says. “You really do have to do this with someone you trust.”
After matching with someone, though, Jacobs tried to avoid getting too much input from friends. She'd only seek out advice from friends on what to say if she was really into someone — or if she matched with a woman. “I’m bisexual, and I find I want to be more careful with what I say to women than to men. Because I assume that they’re analyzing messages more in the same way I am,” she explains. “We have another friend who’s gay, so I’ll ask her frequently for advice if I’m having a hard time figuring out what to send.” 
Even then, this strategy has some risks. Jessica, 27, of Nashville, TN (who asked us not to use her full name for professional reasons) was swiping on behalf of a friend and began chatting with a match like she had many times. But then she began to feel a spark. After clearing it with her friend, Jessica came clean that she’d been the person behind the profile. “He didn't respond for about a day or so,” Jessica remembers. “He actually requested to call my friend and Snap[chat] to verify the entire thing was not a catfishing scheme.” Even then, he was skeptical — but the two kept talking, and they’re still seeing each other (long distance) a year later. “It’s a modern-day romance, that’s for sure,” Jessica laughs.
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“Generally speaking, people don’t care,” when they find out that they’ve been reading ghostwritten texts, especially if they really like person they’re talking to, says Scott Valdez. He would know: He’s the founder of the dating service Vida Select, which will help you find a match and ghostwrite messages on your behalf to get the ball rolling in a relationship —  for a mere $695 (£500) a month. “The only reason someone would find out is if you tell them, and of our clients who’ve chosen to disclose, we’ve found that if someone really likes you, they’re not going to care about much of anything you did before they met you [in person],” he says. 
The occasional edit or assist is welcome, but there may be some downsides to asking for too much input in your messages, says Damona Hoffman, a dating coach and host of The Dates & Mates Podcast. Some people may want a ghostwriter because they’re insecure about their likeability, or they want a safety net if they get rejected — so it’s not all on them if someone doesn’t reply to a message. But if someone is doing all of your messaging, whether it’s a friend or a professional, your match may not get as authentic of a read on you, Hoffman says. That could lead to a disconnect down the road, when you meet in person. That said, this can happen anytime you message someone for too long before meeting them — which many of us are doing, a consequence of the pandemic. “Sometimes people don’t seem as clever or quippy in person as they did when they had time to write a message, whether someone was helping them or not,” Hoffman says. “Ultimately, messaging is not a real guage of compatibility.”  
Friends may also be more comfortable suggesting (or typing up) risky messages when they’re dating vicariously through you than when they’re on the apps as themselves. So take their edits with a grain of salt, Hoffman adds, and never send anything you wouldn’t be comfortable reading in front of a courtroom — or having posted to a popular Twitter account
All things considered, it’s no real surprise that many of us are over-thinking our messages right now. During a pandemic, we’ve more time to sit and dwell on… everything.  With so many people feeling as though they’ve “lost a year of dating,” they may feel more pressure to get their dating app messages in particular “right.” And while there are some downsides (your match may not be getting to know the real you; your friends encourage you to use emojis more freely than you’re comfortable with; it’s giving you junior high flashbacks) having friends ghostwrite your dating app messages is a largely victimless crime, and so widespread as to be expected. One thing we all have in common, says Valdez, is that “we could all use a little help sometimes.” And isn’t that the truth?

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