The Times of Tinder: Perceptions of Intimacy in a Fast-Paced Dating Environment
23 January 2022
Relating online at a fast speed via apps has gained relevance in recent years, especially during pandemic-induced lockdowns. What is more, it seems that the ways in which people use dating apps such as Tinder has changed with the pandemic’s limitations of movement. Tinder’s data from mid-2021 suggests that the average number of messages sent per day had increased by 19% compared to before – and conversations were 32% longer. Video-chat dates and other virtual activities were increasingly taking place, especially among users in their 20s. This development indicates that locally specific, in-depth research such as my ethnography on the use of Tinder in Cape Town (South Africa) is important in documenting changes of how intimacy is experienced.
Tinder exists since 2012 and has become a household name for contemporary dating. It is the most widely used dating app on the market and used across numerous countries – now more than ever. Characteristic of Tinder is its ‘match-making’ between people through typically quick swiping motions on a touchscreen. When two users decide to ‘like’ one another, a match has been made and the chat function can be used to ensure it is viable before potentially meeting in a non-digital environment. The information these decisions are based on are mostly visual. Large images fill out touchscreens with, if one chooses, a short biography underneath of maximal 250 words (or emoticons). There are plenty of these profiles to swipe on: right or left (yes or no). Decisions have to be made immediately – there are no ‘maybes’. What are offered as ‘options’ are algorithmically pre-sorted by an algorithm that Tinder remains secretive about but that certainly uses data points (also from connected Facebook accounts) to determine who users see and when. Users themselves can narrow down the list of ‘options’ by age, gender (reduced to male and female) as well as distance. As a geospatial app, Tinder also requires making one’s location known.
The ‘swipe logic’ that forms part of the process of using Tinder has been described as volatile and quick and ethereal, although it carries ambiguous meanings. Speed, repetition and a binary rationale (yes or no) are bound to influence attitudes of relating and seeking intimacies of various kinds in some ways. To figure out how, I followed the dating journeys of 25 research participants for two years, using semi-structured interviews and participant observation. The interviews took place in person but I recruited most participants through a research profile explaining my intentions on the app itself. Along the way, I came to realise that Tinder experiences, albeit characterised in distinguished ways, were anything but invariable and riddled with ambiguous feelings. While Tinder was appreciated for providing some sense of agency, there was something specific attributed to Tinder encounters that were considered different from other ways of meeting. Tinder-initiated encounters were seen as lacking authenticity or realness. In theory, Tinder makes new experiences accessible; one can potentially meet new people fast. This carries an appealing sense of possibility, regardless of narratives of disillusionment and time spent swiping on profiles that were described by participants as arousing little excitement. ‘Options’ are a mere swipe away and selves could be extended at any moment beyond geographic limits in order to reach them. Equally abrupt can be the termination of relationships by blocking a person or fading out contact (there is an entirely new vocabulary describing this). People on Tinder seem available or at least searching for something, relatively near and yet not easily reachable. Even though swiping for a ‘match’ was ethereal and light in some ways and changing patterns of looking for different kinds of intimacy were described as rather strategic, there was also a lot of uncertainty, ambiguity and hurt outlined in the narratives of research participants. Indeed, most would, at one point or another, laughingly comment that they had no clue as to how Tinder is really supposed to work.
Considering accelerated, formatted ways of relating via Tinder as (initially) liminal was one way of navigating the uncertainties that were part and parcel of forming connections. Abstracted and removed from ‘normal’ life, they offered an opportunity for exploration without having to commit to anything specific and being too concerned about potential futures. This created the impression of a space in which actions have few consequences and memories weigh less than in other scenarios of meeting. Yet, ‘Tinder rejection’ hurts too. Moreover, various desires produced tensions: for something ‘real’ and something imagined along certain ideals (crossing paths coincidentally and having an instant ‘romantic’ moment), wanting something viable and emotionally mature but also a ‘test phase’ offering an easy escape and return to the swiping interface. Notional tensions meant that users frequently deleted – and later re-downloaded the app using different approaches.
The lack of authenticity and realness attributed to encounters themselves also corresponds with a public discourse framing the use of digital technologies to find intimacy as a damning symptom of the contemporary zeitgeist, and perhaps even as foreshadowing a new post-human era. One that has its own logic of being and relating, of time and space. At the same time, Tinder is marketed as liberating and empowering, especially for young women, and embraced as such. In advertisements, young women can be seen as roaming cities, making active and instant choices, free of constraints such as societal expectations or algorithmic presumptions. Whether sceptically or optimistically interpreted, condensing ‘Tinder intimacy’ to a particular kind of ‘dating’ and eroticised encounter may be consequential for how fast-paced ways of relationality are met and experienced. This is significant because it appears as though this mode of relating will remain commonly used for the time being. The insights gleaned from my study fill existing gaps regarding qualitative work on dating apps and nuanced accounts on intimacy in African contexts in which research tends to focus on disease, violence and being developmentally left behind.
23 January 2022
Leah Davina Junck is a social anthropologist with a PhD from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, for which she conducted research on the dating application Tinder. Currently, she holds a position as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HUMA. Leah has previously worked as a journalist and at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division of the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, where she conducted policy-oriented health research. Her interests include the social impacts of digital technologies, the ethics of Artificial Intelligence, identity and migration as well as gender and minority rights. Furthermore, Leah is actively involved in the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, the Network for Digital Humanities in Africa, and writes for the South African Young Academy of Science.
Contributed as part of Symposium: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society
 Argued by David, G. and Cambre, C., 2016. Screened intimacies: Tinder and the swipe logic. Social Media + Society, 2(2).