The emergence of mobile dating applications in modern courtship
Swiping right: a tale of love.
In the past five years, mobile dating apps have quickly become the leading way that people connect online. A 2013 study showed that an estimated 5% of married or committed couples in the US met their partner online, and that 11% of the adult online population claims to have used a dating site, in some form, at least once in their lifetime (Ranzini 81). The increasingly popular preference for mobile dating applications over their dating website predecessors is indicative of their appealing functionality and mobility (Hobbs et al. 2). The ways in which people communicate on mobile dating applications (MDAs) are limited by the design of the platform and the type of information it requires the user to offer. Users responses to this kind of digital stimuli are important forms of self-representation (Nowak et al. 555) and visual rhetoric. I will examine to what extent toxic gender representations of masculinity and femininity might emerge from these cues of what it means to be desirable in a virtual space that might homogenize sexuality and desirability. What is at stake is the potential promotion of toxic and inauthentic behaviors from users that is triggered by how the platform is designed.
Whether through avatars, messages, or an autobiographical description, users of mobile dating apps are constantly constructing personas of themselves in order to influence the perception of their intended audience. What consequences does this create on the behaviors of users on these applications? How are these behaviors constrained or encouraged by the very nature of applications like Tindr, Grindr, and Bumble? I will examine these applications by their various common denominators: the avatar, the instant chat messenger discourse, and the “matching” function that allows a user to express interest in another user, notifying the user if that interest is consensual.
The avatar, in its various forms, is perhaps the single most ubiquitous tool of self-identification that exists on social media platforms. On mobile dating applications especially, the avatar is a crucial component to the evaluation of a user’s “social potential” (Nowak et al. 556). Nowak and his co-authors offer important insights into how users on dating applications use various metrics in avatars such as, appropriateness of dress, attractiveness, and realism to effectively determine another user’s credibility and trustworthiness. The implications of this study directly deal with issues of objectification, sexism, and the dehumanization of the user in an online space. Avatars, viewed as virtual representations of the self, are therefore no longer being treated as complements to the user, rather they are now being treated as their single most important identifier. The obvious concern with the primacy of the avatar is that it limits potential human interaction online to dangerous and sweeping judgments of the virtual other.
In most mobile dating applications, the user is permitted to send another user a message once they have consensually “matched” with each other. The types of speech acts that are born from these online encounters, in my research, are highly unique to MDAs and do not occur elsewhere online. Users are said to have developed a particular kind of “linguistic ideology” (Licoppe et al. 2540) that is distinctive and treats conversations with users as a form of interactional conquest and not as an ordinary social interaction. In Alex Hess and Carlos Flores’s essay, they expose the performances of toxic masculinity that ultimately define these interactions. The humorous Instagram page, Tinder Nightmares, encourages its audience to share and publicize these failed attempts at MDA courtship by screenshotting messenger conversations that use lewd or perverted pickup lines in order to compel their match into meeting with them in real life. Although clownish and funny, the page also exposes the problematic nature of Tinder as a platform that endorses toxic masculine hyperperformances, only further promoting the role of the woman or same sex partner as an object of sexual conquest.
Nowak et al. define “objectification” as the process by which sociocultural forces, such as chat message conversations on MDAs, “influence people to diminish or deny the personhood of women and instead treat women as things” (556). In other words, the big-picture process that MDAs set up between a pair of potential matches is one in which users are persuaded to perceive the virtual representation of their target user in terms of the object reward (sex, and social praise) that they can give them, and not in terms of their shared humanity. Without placing value judgements on these processes of objectification, the inevitable implication of them is a space that endorses rampant sexism and sex-as-reward. Nevertheless, Nowak et al. were careful to limit the implications of their study to users who were prone to sexism in their daily lives. In this way, preocderual rhetoric on MDAs does not necessarily require sexist behavior from its users; rather it exacerbates it in individuals who already are already conditioned to express it (565).
Gaby David and Carolina Cambre offer a rich discussion into how the reduction of desire in MDA’s simplifies users’ quest for love to a simple choice of swiping left or swiping right. This “black or white Good or Bad” (6) paradigm transforms the heartache of dating into one of a binary logic that places the user’s choice and agency at its center. A crucial component of this logic is the willingness of users to accept the high degree of uncertainty associated with matching with a potential romantic partner. In Elena Corriero’s and Stephanie Tom Tong’s unique study, they examine to what extent this factor of uncertainty actually limits user behavior. The factors of uncertainty could include: fear of transmitting an STD, concern for one’s physical safety, meeting a user who has lied about their appearance, being judged for participating in what could be called a promiscuous hookup culture, etc. (Corriero and Tong 133). What was revealed from their study is perhaps the most important feature of MDAs that the classic dating website does not offer. The geo-location data and the mixed media that users can include on their profile not only limits opportunity for misrepresentation, but ultimately makes real life contact inevitable once virtual contact has been established (“your match is 3 feet away…”) (Corriero and Tong 127). Overall, their study overwhelmingly concludes that uncertainty does not play a role in users’ willingness to be active participants in the MDA space. Surprisingly, a higher degree of uncertainty finds its source in user concern over how their intended audience perceives them, and not over the sincerity of their audience’s identity claims. MDAs truly create a new space that defies conventional responses to risk versus reward in human behavior.
Should it stop us?
These three integral components of MDAs, examined in isolation, have important and far-reaching implications. The performativity of gender, seen on a micro and macro scale (Hess and Flores 13), the objectification of women as captive audience to these behaviors, and the reduction of romantic courtship to a series of transactional gestures, should all be viewed as areas of concern if we are to eventually see MDAs displace real life dating as we traditionally have known it. Nevertheless, although the procedural rhetoric of MDAs might constrain user behavior to function a certain way, it does not necessarily dictate the outcomes of their interactions. My personal attachment to this comes from an encounter I had with a twenty-something military general in the US army who met his soon-to-be wife on a mobile dating application. Having had no personal experience with matchmaking platforms myself, this encounter made me totally reconceptualize my preconceived judgments of these applications. I reduced them all to a superficial way for young people to engage in the ‘hookup culture’ that is the norm on most Western college campuses. I never imagined that they could foster life-long, loving relationships. The military general, Josh, was on active duty when he matched with Emma on their dating application of choice. They made contact and instantly hit it off. They both lived in remote towns in Alaska, where meeting new people is difficult enough as it is, let alone with the added challenges of Josh’s non-stop military travels. Josh and Emma agree that it is safe to say they would never have met without the notification of their virtual match. Real life instances might disprove the problematic nature of MDAs macro rhetoric and might show how individual user agency and intent is much more important in bringing about these types of fairytale matches.
Josh calls Emma his “Tinderella”.
 Names have been changed for their privacy
Corriero, Elena Francesca, and Stephanie Tom Tong. “Managing Uncertainty in Mobile Dating Applications: Goals, Concerns of Use, and Information Seeking in Grindr.” Mobile Media & Communication, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 121–141.
David, Gaby, and Carolina Cambre. “Screened Intimacies: Tinder and the Swipe Logic.” Social Media Society, vol. 2, no. 2, July 2016, pp. 1–11.
Hess, Aaron, and Carlos Flores. “Simply More than Swiping Left: A Critical Analysis of Toxic Masculine Performances on Tinder Nightmares.” New Media & Society, Apr. 2016, p. 1–18.
Hobbs, M., et al. “Liquid Love? Dating Apps, Sex, Relationships and the Digital Transformation of Intimacy.” Journal of Sociology, May 2016, pp. 1–14.
Licoppe, C., et al. “Grindr Casual Hook-Ups as Interactional Achievements.” New Media & Society, Oct. 2015.
McCrum, Kirstie. “Tinder Users’ Unbelievable Reactions to Feminism Documented on Instagram Account.” Mirror. The Mirror, 25 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
Nowak, Kristine L., et al. “Inferences About Avatars: Sexism, Appropriateness, Anthropomorphism, and the Objectification of Female Virtual Representations.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 20, no. 5, Aug. 2015, pp. 554–569.
Ranzini, Giulia, and Christoph Lutz. “Love at First Swipe? Explaining Tinder Self-Presentation and Motives.” Mobile Media & Communication, vol. 5, no. 1, 2017, pp. 80–101.
“Unspirational (@tindernightmares) • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
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