Tinder Hearts: Navigating the Youth Dating Scene in Precarious Times

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By Taylor Casteen

Introduction

“So what do you think about Tinder? I’m interested, why are you doing this?” This is a question one of my respondents asked me at the end of our interview, and it’s a question I’ve had to ask myself several times over the course of my research. Why am I so interested in Tinder, a dating platform that, from most of my respondents’ standpoint and from my own, is only used for fun and as a cure for the tediousness of everyday life? But the real question in the end was not why I cared about Tinder, but why I cared about our generation’s relationship with dating as a whole.

In the beginning my motivation was rather simple: I was bitter.  Reeling from my most recent failed relationship, I had decided to throw my hands up in defeat and accept the fact that love was a lost cause in today’s world and that the whole idea of being in a relationship as a 20-something today was a complete waste of everyone’s time. And like so many others, both in my own generation and in older ones, I blamed the popularity of hook-up based “dating” apps like Tinder for this. For years now I have been fed up with my generation’s seemingly universal idea that serious connections and commitment were things to be feared, replaced by temporary intimate fixes, moving from one to the other at the rate of how internet memes gain and lose popularity daily. So, fueled by bitterness, and a need for a research topic, I decided to make what I assumed was the guilty party of this mentality the subject of my project.

As my interviews went on, however, I began to notice something interesting: all of us, at least my respondents and I, seemed to feel the exact same way about Tinder. And yet here we were, still taking up to 30 minutes out of each of our days to swipe left and right mindlessly. That is when I realized what was really going on, which is what has become my main focus on this project. It isn’t Tinder and similar social media apps that are changing us and how we date and interact with each other; instead, it is how we prefer to interact with each other that is allowing a platform for apps like Tinder to exist; it is our superficial nature, our fear of commitment, and our hectic Millennial lifestyles that influence how we connect, making Tinder just a tool to facilitate these kinds of connections.

In this paper I discuss this question of precarious human connection, using Tinder as the lens for which I looked at casual dating. I will also discuss questions related to issues of self-esteem, precarity, and the need for “shelf-life” dating and how these concepts contribute to Tinder’s success and popularity.

For my research, I interviewed 10 people. I selected them based on these qualifications: must be currently using Tinder or have actively used it in the last three months, must be between the ages of 18 to 25, and must have had at least some kind of relationship not facilitated by any social media platform, as this was an important way for me to compare and contrast what I would refer to in my interviews as “Real Life” relationships versus Tinder ones. In saying this, though, I would like to specify that I do not believe that one of these types of relationships is better than the other, I just needed a way to differentiate the two using a term my respondents would best understand based on already popular internet terms; the term ‘IRL,” or ‘In real Life,’ is popular online for distinguishing between what happens on the web versus what happens in the physical world. This term was used by some of my initial interviewees, and it seemed to be the most understood way to phrase this differentiation later on. I found this to be a very interesting observation in my interviews, because it really set the tone for how young people view Tinder – as just something that exists outside of themselves in a virtual world until the jump from virtual to “off-line” occurs in the form of a physical meet up.

My questions during our interview sessions ranged from simple Tinder use questions – when did you start using Tinder? How much time do you spend on it per day? –  to more abstract questions about dating in general – what is your opinion on hook-up culture or casual dating? How do you see your dating life in the future? My goal was to encourage my respondents to think more critically about their Tinder use and how it either affects or is affected by other aspects of their life and their understandings of popular culture. To a lesser degree, these kinds of questions also allowed me to see how the layout of Tinder mirrors real life interactions.

Using Tinder

Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, two Los Angeles based tech entrepreneurs, first launched Tinder in the fall of 2012 for the iPhone, but the app grew to include androids as well in the summer of 2013. The app was originally created to target college students aged 18 to 24 and was intended to mimic the way people flirt with each other at bars. By 2014, Tinder had reached 2 billion matches, though the college user base had declined to only make up around 50 percent of all Tinder users (Crook and Escher 2015). Tinder now has an estimated 100 million users, of which 79 percent are Millennials, and it is active in 196 countries (Smith 2016). In light of Tinder’s success, many other dating apps have been developed including Happn, Bumble, and Hitch, which all work in a similar fashion with a few minor changes for differentiation.

The mechanics of Tinder work as such: a user creates a profile consisting of photos of the user’s choice from their Facebook or Instagram account along with a short “Bio.” When opening the app the user is shown the profiles of others based on the user’s set preferences – distance, gender, age – and the user can then swipe left for “no” or right for “yes.” If the user does swipe right, the other person is then presented with the opportunity to also swipe left or right which can either lead to a “Match” which facilitates the opportunity for the users to initiate conversation through messages or make the other user’s profile disappear all together. If the users do Match, one of them can “unmatch” the other at anytime as well.

Most of my respondents began their Tinder use around two to three years ago when the app first began to gain popularity. Their motivation for downloading it came from general curiosity of this new platform for connection or the fact that their social group was engaging in it, making them want to join in on the fun as well. That is how most of them saw it: just something for fun they could use as a cure for boredom or a way to gain new experiences and meet new people. More than half of them also admit to deleting and re-downloading the app multiple times due to periods of non-usage or other engagements like unexpected “real life” relationships. Daily use typically ranged from getting on the app three to five times a day, for 5 to 15 minutes at a time. This varied depending on whether or not the user was engaged in a conversation with someone or was simply just swiping through to see who was on.

When it came to actually messaging someone they were interested in, the ways for which they initiated conversation varied but generally centered around some kind of joke, witty remark, or even the sending of Gifs (Graphics Interchange Format, a short video-like graphic that loops). One of my respondents, Mark (21), explained the use of humor instead of a normal “hi, how are you?” introductions this way:

In a weird way it’s kind of like a job interview, like, you want to stand out from the crowd, you want to stand out from everybody else. Any body can just be like ‘Hello, hi, How are you?’ I was talking with my friend who recently got Tinder and she was just like ‘Why are you asking me hello, hi, how are you? You don’t know who the fuck I am, you don’t really care about me.’ So like maybe it’s a way of breaking the ice, getting to know somebody’s humor level because comedy is a really good way to get to somebody.

Given this explanation, a lot of things seem to be at work here. First there is a desire to “stand out” from the thousands of other users that could be messaging the same person as you are, therefore adding a certain level of competition to each introduction, even if the person sending the message isn’t taking the interaction too seriously. Second, there seems to be an overall understanding that with each message received there is some unspoken motive that has very little to do with actually getting to know someone, yet at the same time the use of humor lets a person reveal a little bit of themselves beyond the typical surface-level social graces we exhibit in real-life interactions. If Mark’s friend’s comment, “you don’t really care about me,” is true, then why do we still make an effort to make others care about us through humor or wit? This reminds me of Newell’s (2014: 385) description in her work with young people on the Ivory Coast of the way urban Ivoirians use the word Bluff to describe the ways men and women perform in different ways to attract a potential partner:

It was at once based on the idea of deception and prestige of illusion, yet at the same time no one was fooled, the audience was aware of the hoax before the show even began. And yet, everyone acted as though the bluff were real. The bluff was perhaps less about the deceit its moniker indicates than a kind of public secret, in which everyone knew that things were not what they seem, but chose to act as though they were. (Newell 2014)

A similar “bluff” applies to communication on Tinder, including people’s Tinder profiles. When Janey (22) described her Tinder profile to me, she said that she chose her pictures to show off “different sides of herself,” including a photo of her with friends, one with a book in hand, and one from a modeling shoot she did in Houston, TX. Her bio is something “silly” as she puts it, like “I do my own stunts,” because to her funny bios are far more interesting than the typical “let me tell you everything about me in a handful of words that don’t mean anything” bios. I’ve known Janey since high school since we grew up in the same hometown of Macon, GA, and the way she describes herself on Tinder to me seemed fairly true to how she is or how I’ve always known her to be: sarcastic, intelligent, and always down for a good time. So, although she was in many ways being performative in the way she portrayed herself on her profile, there was still a hint of truth to it. Most of my other respondents shared similar types of profiles and claimed to be interested in similar profiles of others as well.

This want to “stand out from the crowd” while also wanting to keep things casual and nonchalant was the first indication to me that something interesting was going on underneath these seemingly superficial interactions. Could it be that, although we try very hard to display otherwise, we might actually care about what others on social media think of us? And how exactly does this “low-key” caring affect our interactions and our use of Tinder as a whole?

Self-Esteem, Rejection, and Moving On

I think it is fairly safe to say that most of us have at least some fear of rejection when it comes to dating. For me, the thought of going up to someone I find attractive and having them completely shoot down my romantic advances gives me anxiety almost to the point of nausea, and most of my respondents felt the same way to varying degrees. With this in mind, you would think that approaching someone online, using your phone as a shield in a way to guard you from unwanted emotional harm, would be much easier and less devastating to the heart and self-esteem. But while some of my interviewees agreed with this, others said getting unmatched – when the other person discontinues conversation with you – still felt like a stab in the heart of their ego as if it happened in person. Seana (20), who was on exchange in Amsterdam from her hometown of Boston, said she felt “slightly offended” when someone unmatched her. As we sat talking outside of the CREA café [at the University of Amsterdam campus], having a beer in between lectures, her face filled with a look of annoyance as she explained:“

Usually I would only notice if someone unmatched me because we’d been talking. So I guess I’d feel defensive because I’d wonder what it was that I could’ve said to make them want to unmatch me.

Janey had similar feelings on getting rejected on Tinder, though she admits on her side she does like the fact if she rejects someone they “disappear forever” figuratively speaking:

I like just being like, no nooo no no. But then sometimes you swipe yes on somebody and they won’t swipe you and that’s like the worst feeling ever. [online] It’s like dehumanized in that way, but when it happens to me I’m like damn…

Another common theme I came across with Tinder users, one that I personally can attest to, is using the app in order to “rebound” from a recently failed relationship. After the end of the relationship that left me bitter earlier this year, one of the first things I did was download Tinder in hopes of finding someone new to try and make myself feel better. Tinder provides a quick and easy way to find people to help take a person’s mind off their ex-partners. It distracts them, and serves as an ego boost if their last relationship left them feeling bad about themselves since now they can see there are plenty of other fish in the sea that think they’re lovely. A few of my interviewees agreed with this, but added that getting into multiple casual relationships or hookups after a bad breakup of a long-term relationship was also helpful in figuring out themselves again as an “I” instead of a “we.”

Seana confessed that after finding out her boyfriend of three years cheated on her, leading to the end of their relationship, she felt the whole incident had really messed with her head. Her confidence and self-esteem were destroyed, and she was finding it difficult to bounce back. In response to these feelings, she downloaded Tinder to try and take her mind off things. There she did end up finding someone that helped her heal her broken feelings, though she never actually met up with this person in person, only corresponded with them through Tinder over a few months period. She said this Tinder relationship gave her a sense of “security” and helped her feel “in control” again, because she perfectly understood the dynamic of the relationship and could choose to continue it or leave it at any time without any real repercussions. This need for control in one’s life was a common theme in my research; many of my respondents noted that Tinder allowed them full control over the relationships they wanted or didn’t want to be involved in, a control they didn’t feel in the academic, career, or financial aspects of their lives.

On the other hand, Mark also believed that Tinder could help reclaim lost self-esteem but could just as well hurt during periods when you aren’t getting any matches, making you feel more alone than you might feel normally. These negative feelings seem to not fall into the fun, non-serious reasons for choosing the app in the first place, something that I couldn’t quite understand at first. It wasn’t until I began asking people about other aspects of their lives that it started to make more sense: although there are some negative side-effects to using Tinder and casual dating in general, the pros far outweigh the cons when compared to the precarious, anxiety-inducing real-world issues they face in their work, financial, school, and home lives. Tinder works, then, in some ways like bad reality television, allowing you to distract yourself with entertaining nonsense even if you feel like in the grand scheme of things you’re getting nothing from it, which sometimes is exactly what you need in a world where everything else is completely uncertain and, frankly, terrifying.

Temporality and Precarity: How Fear of Our Futures is Affecting How We Date

Is Tinder changing the way we date, or is the way we choose to interact today providing the platform for apps like Tinder to exist? The best way to answer this is to look at how exactly we do interact today and why that may be.

Young people today are extremely busy. Back home in the United States I juggle a full-time course load at my university while working five days a week to be able to afford my rent and living expenses while at the same time trying to find the time to spend with my friends and family. And maybe sleep occasionally. Most of my friends and people I spoke to for this project mentioned similar conditions for how we live our lives. Barely having time to eat and shower everyday doesn’t leave much room for ‘traditional’ dating or meeting people in real life places. Apps like Tinder, along with other kinds of social media, provide people then with opportunity to meet others without interrupting the flow of their very busy lives. It’s done on their time, on their schedule, and doesn’t come with any obligations that could get in the way of other more important obligations. Janey works full time as a bartender, meaning she works mostly at night and then sleeps during the day. Due to this nocturnal lifestyle, she finds it very difficult to not only find time to date but to find people she could be interested in for any kind of relationship, romantic or platonic. Marisa (22) had a similar issue with her work and school situation, and decided to use Tinder as a way to not only meet potential hook-ups but to make friends as well. Marisa met one of her best friends Tyler on Tinder, and the two have been close for two years.

Yeah we matched on Tinder and started talking, realized we had a lot in common and just generally got along really well. After a while we ended up being in LA at the same time so we finally met up and the rest is kind of history I guess. We were never romantically involved though, never hooked up.

From the information I gathered from my respondents, while it did seem more common that people use Tinder strictly to find romantic relationships or hook-ups, friendships did occasionally happen. I would argue that the likelihood of this depends mostly on the personality of the individual. For example, Marisa is a very charismatic person who genuinely enjoys meeting new people and is a self-proclaimed “pro” at separating sex from emotional attachment. This, for her, meant even if an encounter started off with sexual or romantic intent, she could move past that fairly quickly, making it easier for her to have platonic friendships even with people she met on a dating app. For others, they typically only found friendship when they were using the app for that specific purpose, most commonly when they were abroad.

Half of my respondents are either currently abroad or have been abroad before and most of them downloaded Tinder as means of meeting new people in their new country. If you scroll through Tinder, according to Ruth (24), you will find many profiles of people claiming to be in town from another city or country who want to get together for not just hookups but companionship. On her first exchange trip to San Francisco from her hometown of Dublin, Ireland, she met many people on Tinder who were using it to make friends while away just as she was. This is when national origin becomes important, when we look at how young people adjust to living in new places for study or work. My respondents who used Tinder for this reason while abroad claimed their Tinder use increased once they got to their new city. “I used to get on it when I first moved here [Amsterdam] to just ask Dutch people where to get things like vacuum cleaners and stuff like that,” Seana said, “I would ask them the best places to go out too…just not with them, which a lot of people I told that too thought was weird but it really helped!” Or as travel blogger Allison Davis (2016) wrote in her article, “What I Learned Tindering My Way Across Europe,” she met up and arranged “dates” with people using Tinder in order to find “tour guides” to accompany her through the cities she visited and to give her a local’s perspective on where she should go and what she should do.

My goal wasn’t to get laid (though if the opportunity arose. . .)—I was more curious to see what Tinder could offer a single traveling woman besides just convenient sex. If I was lucky, maybe I’d have a good conversation with someone I would never otherwise have met, a meal at a restaurant I would have overlooked, in a neighborhood I might have neglected to visit, or a buddy to show me some wild underground party that I never would have been cool enough to discover—basically facilitating the other chief travel fantasy, experiencing a city as if it were your own.

All this moving around and busyness shows some insight on the precarity of what it means to be a young person today. Though almost all of my respondents claim that someday in the future they would like to get married or find a serious long-term partner, they find it impossible to even consider trying right now at this stage of their lives. I definitely relate to this feeling. It was a key motivation of mine to do this project as well as a key cause of frustration in my personal life. Sure, I would love to meet someone special, fall in love and live happily ever-after, settling down in a cute apartment with a dog. But though this dream seems simple, the current unclear trajectory of my life, not knowing where I’ll be in a few months let alone years, keeps this dream unattainable for the time being. This is the reason many have turned to more casual dating, since it gives them the ability to still have some intimate connections, while still allowing them to focus on themselves as they try to find meaning and purpose during very uncertain times. As Arnett argues about these times:

To say that emerging adulthood is a self-focused time is not meant pejoratively. There is nothing wrong about being self-focused during emerging adulthood; it is normal, healthy, and temporary. By focusing on themselves, emerging adults develop skills for daily living, gain a better understanding of who they are and what they want from life, and begin to build a foundation for their adult lives. The goal of their self-focusing is self-sufficiency, learning to stand alone as a self-sufficient person, but they do not see self-sufficiency as a permanent state. Rather, they view it as a necessary step before committing themselves to enduring relationships with others, in love and work. (Arnett 2004: 13-14)

This is the reason I believe Tinder is so appealing to young people: it is easy, relatively stress free, fun most of the time or at least entertaining, and it lets people feel in control of something when they may feel completely out of control in every other aspect of their lives.

Conclusion

When I told my mother about this research project she made this comment in regard to casual dating these days: “Used to, you hooked up with whomever was left at the club at 2am. But now you don’t have to do that.” Though this comment was intended as a joke, it does bring up a few good points when thought about critically. For one, it assumes that all young people actually have time to go out enough to be at a club until 2am to meet someone. While that may be true at times, this doesn’t include the time it takes to start talking to someone and find out whether or not that person is into you or wants the same things that you do. With apps like Tinder, intentions are made fairly clear upon first impressions, saving a lot of time as far as figuring things out. Second, this comment alludes to the fact that because we now have more choice in who we decide to hookup with and it is more convenient to find people in many ways, we are somehow more lazy than before, which is a comment made often of the Millennial generation. In an infographic currently circulating on LinkedIn, sponsored by UXC Professional Solutions, a company that suggests new strategies to business in order to promote growth, it would seem that Millennials are the most lazy and unproductive generation in the work place (Herman 2016). However, what the infograph does not address is how Millennials often work multiple entry-level jobs they are intellectually overqualified for, making them feel undervalued or underappreciated, or how Millennials at the same time feel a constant pressure to do better as we watch the generation that precedes us surpass our skill levels at younger and younger ages due to exposure to technology at an earlier age. Arab youth, according to Muldering  (2013) in her research following the Arab Spring, are now finding that having more education makes it less likely for them to find long-term employment. This unemployment affects other aspects of Arab youths’ lives as well, including their ability to marry and have a house for themselves and future spouse. Examples of these same problems – job insecurity and housing insecurity, which seems to inevitably lead to a delay of marriage and serious commitment – can be seen in many other places around the world. Ideas of what it means to be a Millennial now ignore the very real difficulties faced by youth today to find meaning and self-worth in a time of great precarity.

Young people want real connections; we still believe in classic notions of love and intimacy and wish for it for our futures. But at a time where everything is so unclear we must concede that such limitations as time, priorities, and adult obligations often get in the way. In the end, Tinder acts as a way for us to unwind for a little while by entertaining us and allowing us to meet others going through the same issues as we are. It distracts us and makes us question ourselves at times, but no more than we already do. Are the old ways of dating gone forever? Maybe, maybe not. But at least if we can have an open mind about online dating we can come to understand that it is the reality we live in today that facilitate it, not that it influences our reality.

After the final session of the Youth Cultures course, a group of us from the class went for a beer to celebrate the end of a great semester. After a few rounds, Yatun, the professor of the work group I was not a part of, sat next to me and asked me what the topic of my final project was. As I began to explain my topic and my experience conducting my research, I suddenly noticed it had grown very quiet around us, and that the rest of the group’s attention was now focused on our conversation.  Since I’ve never been a terribly shy person when it comes to talking to peers, especially when it’s about myself, I then addressed the whole group as I spoke about my personal experiences with love, pain, insecurity, and frustration in relation to today’s dating atmosphere. The response was astounding. Suddenly everyone began sharing their similar experiences openly and in great detail; even Yatun! The conversation got extremely deep and heart-felt, and by the time I left I honestly felt I had just left a session with a professional therapist.

This made me realize something very important; a key theme I’ve found during my research. No matter what form it comes in – whether it be a casual hook-up, a friendship, a serious romantic relationship, an on-again-off-again fling – we all want to feel some kind of connection with one another. We want to feel understood, to feel listened to, to feel validated for our struggles and our insecurities. And as superficial as Tinder may seem on the outside, we as a generation have transformed it, like we have transformed many other social media platforms, to be used as a tool to help fill a void within us we seem to all have. Maybe acknowledging this fact will help us help each other mend our tinder hearts; I know that realizing others felt the way I do through this project certainly helped me mend mine.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

Arnett, J.J. (2004). A longer road to adulthood. In Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties (pp. 3-26)Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crook, J. and Escher, A. (2015). “A Brief History of Tinder”, http://techcrunch.com/gallery/a-brief-history-of-tinder/. Consulted on May 24 2016.

Davis, A.P. (2016). “What I Learned Tindering My Way Across Europe”, http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/tinder-while-you-travel. Consulted on May 13 2016.

Herman, D. (2016). “Did You Know: Milliennials Are Lazy”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-herman/did-you-know-millennials-are-lazy_b_9373672.html. Consulted on May 24 2016.

Muldering, M.Ch. (2013). An uncertain future: Youth frustration and the Arab Spring. Pardee Papers, Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Long-Range Future, No. 16.

Newell, S. (2009). Godrap girls, Draou boys, and the sexual economy of the bluff in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Ethnos, 74, 379-402.

Smith, C. (2016). “By the Numbers: 37 Impressive Tinder Statistics”, http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/tinder-statistics/2/. Consulted on May 24 2016.

 

 

 

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