The following content was published on medium.com as part of our team's Digital Ethnography Project in May 2018.
Hello! We are Janice, Anna and Olivia. We’re women in our early 20s and find that our male friends were coming to us to have us remake their Tinder profiles to get more matches. We found that the act of curating yourself on an online dating app has a lot to do with your dating intentions and how you represent yourself. We are specifically interested in the following questions: How do people convey their intentions on Tinder? How do they find people with similar intentions? How does authenticity factor into people’s interactions on Tinder?
In our graduate program, we study innovation and the creation of new products and services. We are interested in digital ethnography, or the study of communities online, because a deep understanding of the online community of Tinder might help the organization innovate and create better experiences for its users.
Background: Tinder Culture
Tinder has a lot of rules for the concise and organized presentation of self within the app. In order to create a Tinder profile, users must link to their Facebook profiles. This initially works as a means of verifying the authenticity of profiles and prevents users from easily making multiple or ‘fake’ profiles. Tinder allows users to connect their other social media profiles like Instagram and Spotify to further personalize their profiles. Users have a 600-character limit for writing a bio for their own profiles and can add information like the school they go to or the job they have. Tinder automatically adds a first name, age, and mutual friends to the profile, imported from Facebook. Lastly, Tinder shows the distance between the two people swiping. These rules allow Tinder users to quickly compare and make judgments about people that they are swiping through. In addition, they add some semblance of authenticity to the users’ profiles.
Tinder places some game mechanics into meeting people through the app. It asks users to swipe left on profiles that they are not interested in or right on profiles that they are interested in. Tinder has a highly curated interface in which single taps in specific locations power decision-making. This interaction model promotes superficial, quick judgments and hides instances of rejection. The in-app notification that indicates a ‘match’ is a happy little gif meant to deliver a dopamine buzz with each instance. The infinite potential of new profiles and new matches keeps users swiping.
Tinder’s model of ‘swiping’ only highlights mutual interest or attraction between two users. In this way, it numbs the sting of rejection. As a Tinder user, there is no notification of in-app action that indicates rejection. Tinder works to hide these potentially negative interactions and highlight the positive ones to retain its users.
Survey of Intentions
To understand Tinder better we created profiles and revised them often to pursue our questions about the platform and the people using it. For those not using the app, Tinder is understood to be a dating app focused on hookups or one-time sexual encounters. However, after speaking with many Tinder users about their intentions, we discovered that many of the people we talked to were not actually looking for hookups, but that there is a broad spectrum of stated intentions from each individual. Beyond sex, Tinder users are looking for new friends, relationships, or just someone to talk to when they’re bored. For some, it’s just a way to pass time, “people watch” in a sense, with no intention of meeting in person. One of the biggest categories of intention was people’s search for a loneliness cure. In one case, one college student was on Tinder because all his friends left the city for spring break and he had no one to hang out with.
Tinder has evolved to become a friend-finding application for those who feel lonely or feel the need to extend out of their social circle. The randomized selection of people and low-risk interactions opens up a person’s social connections without any commitment. However, it’s not clear through our research whether it is actually opening up anyone’s circle in real life.
While some intentions were explicitly stated on a person’s bio or in conversation, there were more subtle ways of telling the Tinder community what the person was looking for. A popular way to do this was with emojis. For example, an eggplant emoji and a peach emoji have sexual connotations due to their resemblance to body parts. If a user puts these emojis in their profile or in a message, it indicates that they might be looking for something more sexual. Other emojis have developed more nuanced meanings beyond what the image signifies. We found instances of couples on Tinder looking to have sex with a third person. They would put the unicorn emoji in their bio, to indicate that they were looking for a hard-to-find or mythical person willing to have a threesome. Another “hidden” use of emojis in bios is the spade, which is used to indicate that the person is a white woman looking for a black man or vice versa.
Vanity and validation could be another reason why people use Tinder however, this is something that we felt was more subtle and not necessarily something we saw all the time. The feeling when you match validates your attractiveness or humor because someone else chose to say ‘yes’ to you. The adrenaline rush from matching with someone else, keeps us all addicted to Tinder.
For some, they are on Tinder for various reasons, although their intent still stems from loneliness. Depending on who they talk to, they might gauge what that person’s intentions are and match their intentions. By tailoring their intentions to who they’re talking to, it keeps their choices open and keeps the matches talking to him/her. But most of the time, the safest answer when someone else wants to know their intention is to just say they are looking for friends or they are open to meeting new people (which could cover a wide range of intentions).
The intentions mentioned only cover some of the subtle differences between each Tinder user. Most intentions change over time and depend on the person’s situation in life. Some are looking for hookups after a breakup or they could be moving into a new city and want to explore the city with a local. In our research, we even saw people who were using Tinder to look for a partner to an upcoming wedding. Every user is unique to their situation and intents could always change with each interaction.
In an age of social media, curating one’s online presence has become increasingly important. From our survey of intentions, we developed a cultural model to describe how Tinder users craft themselves online, and how other people perceive that. We used the metaphor of a cliff to describe what separates users from truly understanding one another. Users will use social artifacts to build their profile, including their name, age, and where they live. They will also describe themselves, their hobbies, interests, and maybe even their religion in a way that they want to be perceived. Whoever they interact with does the same. However, each user is looking at one another through their own lens of assumptions, biases, and expectations. Therefore, there are many layers of perception separating one Tinder user from really getting to know another.
Another cultural model that we created is adapted from economist Joseph Pine’s TED talk “What consumers want”. In the TED talk, he describes a two-by-two matrix of authenticity, in order to help businesses provide more authentic images to their customers. We have adapted it to describe different types of Tinder users. On the horizontal axis are two options: ‘what you say you are’ and ‘not what you say you are’. On the vertical axis is ‘true to yourself’ and ‘not true to yourself’. A person on Tinder who has curated their bio would be considered a fake real — they are what they say they are, but they are not true to themselves. A bot would be considered a fake fake— not what they say they are and not true to themselves. In our time on Tinder, we met someone who has not revealed his sexuality in real life, but out online, so he was a real fake. Ultimately, we could not find anyone who was real real on Tinder, we determined that this quadrant would be nearly impossible to achieve.
Insights and Recommendations
After going through weeks of data collection and analysis, our team found some insights that could potentially be beneficial for Tinder and its users to understand. In offline dating culture, men are traditionally expected to make the first move. This cultural model manifests in online dating culture within Tinder. The Online Dater experiments indicate that men swipe right more frequently on Tinder. Our own research validated this. To balance this, women must be more selective to filter this large number of potential male profile matches. The cycle repeats. Because women are more selective, men must swipe right even more frequently, etc. This generalization might not apply to everyone, however, it does apply to the people we interacted with in our research and interviews. From this observed behavior, male users are more likely to purchase or ‘need’ extra features Tinder offers, despite being free to download, to stand out from the crowd since female users are much more selective. With the existing paid features, we saw male users are also already using a lot of the existing features to have extra swipes, superlikes, or hide their age on their profile.
Tinder could possibly expand on these paid features to create a balance on the platform for the female experience as well. To encourage female users to have a more positive and comfortable experience on the application would also help their users hopefully swipe right more.
Most people do not care about messaging after a match. Nor does Tinder create and facilitate an interesting experience after matching. A lot of the messaging responsibilities are on the male user’s shoulders. From our informants, we know most female users do not start the conversation. This is parallel to the outdated real-world dating culture where most males will start the conversation first. Thus, it is very difficult for men to stand out if they only say “hello” or copy and paste pickup lines. Tinder has attempted to facilitate more options with messages by adding gif and reaction features, but that actually depersonalizes the messages even further. If this is not something Tinder could improve on, Tinder users need to be wary that just saying “hello” will not get you a reply or even a connection you might hope for.
From Anna Lawn: My friend met and set me up with a guy that she thought I may be compatible with. We met for coffee, hit it off immediately, and continued to date from there. A month later, I started this research project and found his profile while I was scrolling through my tinder inbox. To my surprise, he had already messaged me 3 separate times and I never responded (or even opened the messages).
What does this say about Tinder? How could I have connected with this person so well in real life, but neglected them online? For one, women on tinder face a match and message overload. There is no way for message-senders to stand out alongside the barrage of other messages that fill the inboxes of women on the app. The short bios and hyper-curated photos in Tinder profiles do not accurately convey the personality or intricacies of a person that may be obvious in real life. I was introduced to this guy by one of my female friends. Tinder could implement a feature where women could talk to each other about the men that they are meeting on the app. That way, they could let each other know “this guy was a total creep” or “this guy was not my type but very nice”.
Tinder is a powerful platform to meet a plethora of people in your location, yet it does not provide a strong interface to encourage interaction beyond the act of swiping. Other dating applications like Hinge have countered this issue by providing prompts for people to answer on their profile so others can connect with them and have topics to discuss. By creating richer interaction post-matches, might help Tinder retain and encourage its user who wants deeper connections and fulfill their intentions. This is especially true for Tinder’s changing user population that has no intention of just hooking up. By understanding that their users have a wide range of intentions, Tinder could start catering to the evolving variety of use cases.
In summary, we set out to better understand how people communicate their intentions on Tinder. Although two out of three of us had used Tinder before, we were surprised to find the wide range of intentions that men had on Tinder. We found that Tinder is a platform that provides services that goes beyond their own app intent. It has evolved into another type of social media platform for users to meet new people and branch out of their own community. Lastly, a shoutout to all the Tinder users we interacted with and talked to. Thank you for talking to us, giving us new insights, and sharing your stories!
The duration of this research project was seven weeks in total. In order to better understand Tinder culture and interactions, we each created Tinder profiles with curated photos and a biography. The photos, at minimum, were clear images of our faces, photos that showed our full bodies, and photos alongside friends. The biographies we wrote evolved as we learned more and tested mini hypotheses. We swiped right on everyone that came up on the app and screenshotted each profile that we interacted with.
We spoke with various people on the app’s messaging platform. Usually, this included men who messaged us first. We engaged in conversation, asking each person why they were on the app, what they hoped to achieve using it, whether they read our biographies and looked at our photos, and more.
We tested various hypotheses by editing different aspects of our profiles:
- Whether people actually read our bios
- What about our photos or bios would detract from or attract matches
- What topics would incite or damper conversations
- What intentions could be perceived from our profiles
- How identifying ourselves as researchers would impact interactions
- How the ‘completeness’ of our profiles changed perceptions of us
Thumbnail Image credit: http://gifmyass.com/post/85820976599/romance