Does Tinder Transform Dating Culture?

For some media theorists, the mass proliferation of social media technologies has negatively altered communication habits. In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff argues that humans live in a “distracted present” as a result of a constant access to content via smart phones and portable tablets. Sherry Turkle echoes Rushkoff in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, as she suggests that humans have come to expect more from technology and less from one another due to social media’s immediate and constant presence.

Rushkoff and Turkle raise some thought-provoking claims, but let’s not get carried away. There is no doubt that social media has impacted communication practices, and an investigation of this impact is paramount if we are to comprehend human interaction in contemporary culture and society. However, scholars must be careful not to make general speculations that are situated outside of historical context.

It is fair to suggest, as Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green have done in Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, that social media technologies have allowed content to circulate more consistently, which ruptures traditionally conceived spaces in which information is shared. It is also appropriate to assume that the majority of people now communicate via social media. A recent eMarker report shows that one in four people worldwide will have used social media networks in 2013, which accounts for approximately 1.73 billion people. (“Social Networking Reaches Nearly One in Four Around the World”, 18 June 2013)

The statistics are eye-opening, and they explain why scholars have begun to theorize social media. However, theorists thus far have problematically assumed that social media’s novelty automatically radicalizes human interaction, and this assumption isn’t rooted in the reality of everyday living. The emergence of social dating apps and the ways individuals interact on them challenge preconceived conceptions of social media, as they identify social media as a new technological tool through which people can communicate, as opposed to a new form of communication all together.

That is, social media technologies allow people to interact more easily and conveniently with each other, but the intention behind the interaction is more or less the same: to form a connection with another person. Moreover, the nature of the dating apps imply that a “virtual” or “digital” connection with another individual is not sufficient, and instead use the latest technologies as a tool to seek real-life connections with people they otherwise wouldn’t encounter.

For the purposes of this article, I use Tinder as a case study to show that social media doesn’t change the way people date, but instead reinforces the established social practices of dating that have been in place long before the advent of dating apps. Tinder certainly gives users more dating options, but the intention behind the interaction mirrors older forms of dating, despite being converted into a digital form.

According to The New York Times, Tinder is downloaded more than 20,000 times a day, and it has made over 20 million matches through the service. (“Tinder, a Dating App with a Difference”, by Jenna Wortham, 26 February 2013) The article is wise to point out that these matches don’t necessarily lead to a real-life encounter or long-lasting relationship, as the dating service doesn’t follow up with users after they are digitally paired. Still, Tinder’s popularity is proof that people are turning to social media technologies to increase their chances of finding a mate.

The reason why Tinder is successful is simple. As chief executive Sean Rad states, “[Tinder] solves the problem of helping you get acquainted with new people you want to know.” Tinder thrives on the assumption that human beings want to connect with one another, and its simple premise has made it the fastest growing free dating app in the United States. (“Dating App Tinder Catches Fire”, by Nick Summers, Bloomberg Businessweek, 5 September 2013)

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Tinder is successful among “the hypersocial millennials” who own smartphones. Tinder is an app that users can carry with them. On the one hand, it allows people to connect with other Tinder users within a close proximity, and on the other hand, someone can still enjoy a night out with friends if Tinder fails to offer a satisfying match.

The question remains: Why do people use Tinder? If we are to understand Tinder as a dating app, then we ought to define what is meant by dating in contemporary culture and society. Is dating dinner and a movie? A one night stand? The beginnings of a long-term relationship? These questions are significant because some Tinder users like Eli Epstein of Askmen claim that the expectation of Tinder is “that you’re going to get laid.” As a result, Epstein concludes that Tinder isn’t “really dating”, precisely because he believes that “real dating” is associated with expectations of commitment and a long-term relationship. (“Dating with Tinder: What It’s Really Like to Date with Hookup Apps”, by Eli Epstein, 11 March 2013)

Ann Friedman of New York Magazine shares Epstein’s view: “There was that old trope that, unlike superficial men, women need more detailed information on a guy before they decide they’re interested. This, too, is disproved by Tinder.” (“How Tinder Solved Online Dating for Women”, 10 October 2013) There’s an underlying implication in Friedman’s sentiment that Tinder is used primarily for casual sex, and Carole Kent echoes this assumption in her review of the dating app. When describing Tinder, Kent asks: “What more modern way to make the most basic binary decision of whether you want to shag someone than a game of real-world ‘Hot or Not’?” (“Tinder Review: A Woman’s Perspective”, The Telegraph, 19 September 2013)

The responses by Epstein, Friedman, and Kent imply that Tinder is used primarily for casual sexual encounters. As a result, they question whether or not it can be classified as a “dating” app at all. This assumes, of course, that there’s a difference between the two. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Sociology professor Kathleen A. Bogle claims that there is a difference, and she uses interviews with college students to argue that most young adults today understand that dating and casual sex, or “hooking up,” are not the same. Moreover, the majority of students Bogle interviewed acknowledged that they would prefer to date, even though they have more casual sex. Donna Freitas confirms Bogle’s results with a similar study, as her book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy concludes that young adults are dissatisfied with “hook-up culture”, but feel they cannot escape it.

These studies may be accurate in their findings, but they assume that dating and hooking up are completely separate entities when, in reality, the experiences often blur. For example, people who go on “real dates” might expect to fall in love and find a soul mate, but some might also be looking to “get laid”. As Elizabeth Ann Persimmons explains so eloquently, “I’m not sure if our love affair with these labels helps us to be better-or worse-off in the dating world.” (“Label Me: The Perils of Labeling Your Dating Life”, Examiner, 9 June 2010)

Persimmons calls attention to the ambiguity of dating and the fact that there is no monolithic dating practice. People may be united by the desire to connect with each other, but some are looking for sex and others are looking for love, and some find this by going on dates and others might find it by hooking up.

However, not everyone agrees with Persimmons. In Data, a Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match, Amy Webb generalizes that “most women do want to be in long-term relationships.” Webb isn’t exactly an expert, but David Brooks’ well-researched The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement seems to confirm Webb’s sentiment by stressing that human beings are innately social.

Dating is an amorphous concept and to confine it to one practice or a few rituals is to overlook its central concept: human connection. Tinder has become too popular to be used for one sole purpose. Some Tinder users look for a one night stand, whereas others hope to find their soul mate. However, Tinder is no more complicated than dating in “real life”. After all, not every couple that meets for dinner and a movie intends to get married. Some look for brief companionship whereas others are interested solely in sex.

Ultimately, the major difference between Tinder and real-life dating is that Tinder eliminates the “meet-cute”. If traditionally one stranger would approach another stranger in a real-life scenario, now the two strangers are digitally matched by a dating app, thereby removing any angst and excitement that typically associates with a real-life encounter.

Does the elimination of the initial meeting make dating any less intimate? Does it render contemporary romance false as a result? It doesn’t appear as such. On the one hand, no one is forced to use Tinder, and people still have the ability and freedom to approach a potential mate the old-fashioned way. On the other hand, those who do use Tinder don’t spend the rest of their lives in virtual relationships with other people. The intention behind Tinder is to be set up with another person in the hope that a real-life connection will be formed, and nearly every Tinder user expects physical human contact when using the dating service.

Whether this connection results in a one-night stand, a marriage, or nothing at all is entirely dependent on the Tinder user. But to claim that social media dating apps cheapen or destroy romance is to forget the trials and tribulations of old-fashioned dating and the many who were never able to find that real-life connection.

Tinder doesn’t offer any guarantees, but it does offer a service that can potentially change the course of a person’s life. According to Marie Claire Tinder has led to over 50 marriage proposals (“Tinder: The Dating App Everyone’s Talking About”, by Sally Newall 19 October 2013) Even if, statistically speaking, half of these marriages will fail, 25 couples will cultivate long-term love, meaning, and happiness because of Tinder.

Somewhere the founders of Tinder are cashing in on all of this “love”, as they use the latest technologies to profit from humanity’s most basic desires. The founders of Tinder haven’t released their financial information, and cynics might be quick to appropriate theories of Theodor Adorno to suggest that social media users are being manipulated and exploited by corporations.

However, if we are to focus on its negative aspects, we must also keep in mind the positive. Tinder gives anyone with social media access the opportunity to form a romantic connection with a person they would likely otherwise never meet. If, according to the cliche, everyone has a soul mate, Tinder has the potential to bring them together.

Whether or not it will work, or if there will be just as many desperate souls searching for human connection when the next dating technology comes along, only time will tell.