Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse” was the title of a reactionary essay in Vanity Fair’s August issue, about the streamlined hookup app Tinder. The introductory line of the essay says it all:
As romance gets swiped from the screen, some twentysomethings aren’t liking what they see.
For the uninitiated, this is how Tinder works: it gives you a set of Facebook-linked profiles, according to the criteria you set (gender, location, age), in the form of “cards” that show up on your phone one by one. Swipe a person’s photo (card) right for yes, left for no. If two people swipe each other right, Tinder tells them they have been matched. Only then are they allowed to message each other. And if they rub each other the wrong way, they can ‘unmatch’ each other right back. These last two bits are especially useful for a woman, because she doesn’t get spammed like she would on, say, OkCupid.
The Vanity Fair essay sparked an angry reaction from Tinder – which led to a “Twitter meltdown” as Vox.com called it in this neat summary of Tinder’s defensive tweets.
But I think Tinder got it wrong. Instead of fighting fire with fire and trying to talk to a journalist in their own language, I wonder what would have happened if Tinder had said, “Yes, our users have casual sex. And they like it, or they wouldn’t be patronizing us. We sincerely hope you’re as successful with your readers, Vanity Fair.”
Tinder’s need to be acknowledged as respectable and wholesome – in a word, romantic – is as sad to witness as a gay celebrity using a female date as a beard. The official party line on their home page says, “Any swipe can change your life.” Come out of the closet as the roaring orgy you’re marketing, Tinder! Vanity Fair is clearly channeling a dating culture that feels threatened by Tinder – and we all know that smirking hubris is the way to deal with someone who’s threatened by our existence.
Because not only are Vanity Fair’s notions of romance and dating largely limited to a very heteronormative, bourgeois demographic – the rest of us might want them but might not have access to them in our lives, for reasons ranging from poverty, stigma and disability to too much discernment – they also don’t work infallibly for this limited group of people either. So, beautiful as they are, like every other form of human love, they deserve to be smirked at when they can’t live and let live.
But now it’s time to play Devil’s Advocate. So let’s put down all the hippie “free love” arguments and pick up the hippie “love everyone” arguments.
You might ask, how is it okay to swipe an entire human being left with the mere flick of a thumb? I am aware of the fast-food nature of this approach to sex. But I don’t think our dehumanization of each other in dating culture is because of the swipey quality of Tinder; rather, the swiping works because a culture of dehumanization already exists. So let’s not blame Tinder for being a symptom of something much, much larger.
So what hormone imbalance is Tinder playing the innocuous pimple to?
“Human resources” is a term we have no trouble with, but suddenly we’re all maine-Gandhi-ko-nahin-maara when the same spirit of dehumanization and commodification enters our oh-so-sacred personal lives, because we thought our bedrooms were immune. We thought the “sanctity of the boudoir” would never be affected by the rest of our fast-food world. Well, surprise, surprise! It turns out the way you live your life ends up being the way you have sex.
But enough of this slightly self-righteous Devil’s Advocate.
The trouble with Tinder is, it shouldn’t be getting so much attention from either faction. It was never built to represent entire cultures of orgies, hedonism and casual sex. It was built to crunch numbers and GPS locations. It’s an algorithm with a graphical user interface, held together by Facebook, and based on a ton of research about human psychology. The fundamental error Vanity Fair made, as we often do in the face of artificial intelligence, is that Tinder isn’t shaping our dating culture; it’s the other way around. And unless you want to get all metaphysical and laws-of-robotics about it, I’m standing by that opinion. Robots aren’t about to take over the world, and Tinder is not precipitating a “dating apocalypse”. Don’t give it so much bhaav.
Instead, what say we put on our white lab coats and start tinkering with sex (casual or not), figuring out under what conditions it enriches our lives, and when it impoverishes us? And how about we figure out the difference between casual (from the Latin casus: “chance, occasion, opportunity”) and callous (from the Latin callosus: “hard-skinned”)?