"Tinder turns dating into a game"

We’re swiping like crazy on Tinder and Grindr. But are we looking for love or merely sex? Or perhaps just ego boosts and amusement? Elisabeth Timmermans (28, author of Love in the Time of Tinder) and Shangwei Wu (27) have researched the benefits and pitfalls of dating apps. A conversation about status, monogamy, stigmas and — still — love.

TEXT: Eva Hoeke

IMAGES: Krista van der Niet

How does one end up exploring love in the time of Tinder?

Elisabeth: “As a communication researcher, you’re studying the impact of media on society, among other things. When I was in America in 2014, I noticed that everyone was on Tinder, and I knew then that the subject was ripe for a dissertation. However, my supervisor was a little concerned: how could I be sure that Tinder would still be around a year later, let alone for the four years it would take for the dissertation. He had a point: platforms like MySpace and Pokémon Go were very popular for a short while, and were abandoned just as easily. But I was willing to take the risk, because even if Tinder ceased to exist, similar apps would soon step in to fill the gap left by its demise.”

Tinder was launched in 2012, but when did online dating first begin?

Shangwei: “Mobile dating began in 2009 with Grindr, the first dating app for gay men to appear in the App Store. Jack’d, Blued, Tinder and the others were inspired by Grindr.”

Elisabeth: “But of course the internet had made online dating possible even before that, in the nineties. The problem back then was that internet connections were still so slow that it could take hours or even days for pictures to load so you could see what the other person looked like. Which was why anyone dating online at the time was considered a bit weird, because you had to know a lot about computers to do so. That is in addition to the stigma that already came with the practice, i.e. if you’re dating online, you’re probably a bit of a loser in real life. Tinder dismantled those associations by making online dating seem like a game.”

But hadn’t it already lost much of that stigma with the launch of websites like Relatieplanet and Lexa? Hadn’t those normalised online dating?

Elisabeth: “Not among eighteen-year-olds, they hadn’t. I interviewed lots of students as well for my research and their view was that it’s okay to use dating apps, but not for finding a girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s why they’ll often say they’re just using it for amusement. The stigma remains, but in a different form.”

Shangwei: “It’s a different matter in the gay scene. Most of those I interviewed found partners through dating apps. And that’s because it’s harder to find a partner offline if you’re gay. Hence the early introduction of Grindr, which turned out to be a godsend for people averse to broadcasting their sexual orientation to the world.”

There’s Minder for American Muslims and Bristlr for those into bearded men.

Are there any significant differences between how men and women use dating apps?

Elisabeth: “Yes. For instance, on Grindr, you can immediately start chatting and sending pictures to one another; whereas on Tinder, you need to match before you can do that. It has to do with safety. Women are taught from an early age to beware of strangers. Another interesting gender-related aspect of Tinder is that it places women in a position of power: instead of having to deal with an avalanche of emails from men, they get to decide who’s permitted to contact them and who isn’t.”

Shangwei: “Gay men also worry about their safety. Although when Chinese men talk this with respect to online dating, it usually has more to do with the risk of contracting HIV. Anti-gay hate crimes are rare in China. Or at least rarer than they are in Europe. It’s a surprising finding, given that homosexuality is far from embraced in China, a consequence of which is that uploading profile pictures remains a barrier for gay men who care about their privacy.”

Have you tried dating apps yourself?

Shangwei: “Jack’d, the dating app for gay men, had quite negative connotations among my friends in China when it was first introduced, sometime in 2010. We’d always been very discreet about our sexual orientation, and didn’t want just anyone to be privy to our lives, not even amongst ourselves. We just didn’t talk about it. But in 2014 I went to Paris on an exchange programme, and was suddenly among complete strangers and no longer had to worry about going public on a dating app. Because I’d of course been curious all along.”

Was it a happy experience?

Shangwei: “I’m not really sure; it was all so new and I was still learning about myself. I did go on a few dates, but they weren’t particularly successful.”

Elisabeth: “The first part of my research involved interviews with people who had Tinder accounts, so I didn’t really need to have one myself at that point. But once I got to the questionnaire design stage, I needed to know how the app worked in order to ask the right questions, so I created a profile. But I was always open about my motives for being there.”

What’s the main insight that emerged from your research?

Elisabeth: “Gosh, there were loads! I went in thinking there were only three motives for being on Tinder: sex, love and maybe friendship. But I identified thirteen, which included everything from curiosity to peer pressure, and ego boosting to amusement. That’s what I mean by “Tinder turned dating into a game”. Only about half of the more than 1,000 respondents in my study had actually been on a Tinder date. What I also found remarkable was that 23% of my respondents were already in committed relationships, but still used Tinder. That means there’s also a group out there who use it to check their value in the market.

Shangwei: “There’s a reason these apps are known as hook-up apps, but I wanted to know if there was actually any truth to the accepted narrative of men only using them for one-night stands. And if it was true, how do they make the transition to serious relationships. What I discovered was that single gay men are usually open to both, and as a result don’t go in with one or the other motive. Consequently, they don’t particularly welcome so-called matchmaking chat, i.e. conversation aimed at discovering the other person’s socio-economic status. They hate that.”

Elisabeth: “Is that common in China?”

Shangwei: “Yes. It’s common for straight people to attend real-life matchmaking events, and they’re always about work, money and income. Very pragmatic, which many people don’t like at all.”

Elisabeth: “Especially if you don’t earn much.”

Shangwei: “It surprised me, because everyone always claims the apps are just for hooking up. Yet they seem to long for real connection. The next finding that struck me was that a lot of gay men continue to use their dating apps when they’re in steady relationships. Not necessarily because they want to see if they still have ‘it’, but because they’re curious to know who else in the vicinity might be gay. And it’s a good way to keep up to date with what’s happening in the gay community.”

Eighteen-year-olds are happy to admit using dating apps, but not for finding a girlfriend or boyfriend.

Does this need result from the lack of representation of gay people on television and in music and films? Are there, for instance, well-known Chinese role models who happen to be gay?

Shangwei: “No, there aren’t. Of course there are gay people among China’s celebrities, but none of them are openly gay. So you do indeed have to look elsewhere for representation. A third motive for gay men using dating apps is to learn about different types of relationships.”

Elisabeth: “Monogamy is very hetero-normative. And that’s logical, since straight couples usually start families and barely having time for each other, let alone for someone else. Whereas gay couples often reason that since they don’t have children committing them to a family unit, why make their relationship exclusive?”

Shangwei: “Monogamy is a social construct. Being gay immediately makes you a member of a minority. This causes you to not only question your own sexual orientation, but also heterosexual norms and values such as monogamy. I, for instance, was also very interested in gender studies while at university. Being gay makes you curious about yourself and about how society reflects your identity. And this makes you aware of the alternatives.”

Elisabeth: “You see shows on Netflix in which straight couples experiment with different forms of relationships, but these portrayals rarely end well. Take the series You Me Her, for instance, in which a couple (a man and a woman) falls in love with another woman. They decide to form a polyamorous unit, but a monogamous one, whereby they’re only allowed to have sex as a unit. I imagine some viewers will be watching in disbelief.”

What’s the best thing about social media?

Shangwei: “In China it offers the benefit of being a wonderfully convenient way to explore your sexuality, even if not all your online experiences are pleasant. Life in the real world doesn’t offer as many opportunities for doing that.”

Elisabeth: “One of the best things about Tinder is that it’s free, and thus very democratic: someone who’s poor can quite easily get into conversation with another who’s wealthy via Tinder, and maybe even start a relationship with them; whereas previously our potential relationship pools were more or less fixed by social class. I consider this a good thing: our view of the world expands as we mix with people who are not exactly like us.”

That said, there’s also a fair amount of pillarization happening on social media: the so-called bubbles in which people mainly see and hear information that agrees with their opinions and preferences. Have you noticed anything similar happening on dating apps?

Elisabeth: “There’s a dating app called The Inner Circle, created by a Dutch company that bills itself as an online dating platform for highly educated professionals. Anyone’s free to sign up, but a ballot committee decides whether you are indeed smart enough and attractive enough to participate.”

Shangwei: “The same thing’s happening in China. Blued is the country’s most popular dating app for gay men, with over 40 million registered users, but everyone says Aloha is classier.”  

Elisabeth: “Makes you wonder what being rejected by such apps does to people’s self-confidence.”

Constant rejection is a fact of life on Tinder too, though.

Elisabeth: “It is, but most people understand that not everyone can like you. Whereas with these other apps, who exactly gets to decide whether you’re good enough to be admitted, and on the basis of what criteria? I’ve heard that men who aren’t white stand little chance of being admitted to The Inner Circle. If true, it shows why vetting people is problematic. And there are now lots of dating apps catering to specific niches: Dig for dog lovers, Minder for Muslims; you even have one for people who fancy men with beards: Bristlr.”

Couples who met via dating apps say they regret not having an exciting, romantic story of how they met to tell their kids later on.

Don’t the seemingly endless options on offer via these apps make it hard to choose?

Elisabeth: “They do, particularly as you’re usually chatting with several potential matches at the same time. As a result, you might be on a first date with one of them and having fun, but you’re also partly preoccupied with the other people you’ve been chatting with. On top of that, the expectations that people place on first dates are often unrealistic: if the fireworks aren’t instant, they move on to the next date. Whereas in real life, we usually give people more of a chance.”

Shangwei: “Many people end up becoming frustrated with dating apps. They discover the way the apps replicate society’s hierarchies, with the resulting forms of segregation and exclusion. To give you an example: I’ve noticed that I’m not especially popular with Dutch men. With Mediterranean men, sure. But not Dutch men. And I’ve heard the same from other Asian men. It makes you very self-conscious.”

Finally, tell us some of the most interesting stories you heard during your research?

Elisabeth: “Couples who met via dating apps say they regret not having an exciting, romantic story of how they met to tell their kids later on. One of the couples I interviewed came up with a solution. While they were still wooing each other via Tinder, before meeting for the first time, they devised a bunch of scenarios in which they could have met in real life without the app. One of these was set in a supermarket. So they arranged to meet for their first date in a supermarket, in the breakfast aisle. The plan was that she’d initially ignore him, but then he’d accidentally put his pack of muesli in her cart, and they’d end up chatting by the vegetables, and so on. So that’s what they did, and had such a good time that they arranged a second date: in Ikea.

I heard another delightful story from a woman who’d always dated men and had never quite understood what all the fuss was about: she’d never been in love. Then one day, one of her male friends asked if he could use Tinder on her phone, on which she’d installed the app herself. Being a straight man, he was of course only swiping right for women he fancied. One of them responded and they began chatting, with the other woman thinking she was talking to a woman, since the profile picture was of a woman. Anyway, the male friend eventually left, and the woman picked up her phone and saw that she’d ostensibly been having a pleasant conversation with this other woman, so she continued the conversation. Lo and behold, they clicked. Long story short: they went on a date and she finally understood why she’d never really been in love. The two are still together.”


  • NAME: Elisabeth Timmermans

    EDUCATION: Media and Communication

    FUNCTION: Postdoctoral researcher

  • NAME: Shangwei Wu

    EDUCATION: Media and Communication

    FUNCTION: PhD Candidate

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