The growth of the internet and smartphones has led to the widespread worldwide use of dating apps, such as Tinder, Bumblebee and OKCupid. These location-based apps have become a popular and acceptable way to meet potential new romantic partners. With over 6.5 million monthly downloads Tinder is the most popular dating app in the world, including in South Africa.
But Tinder still has a reputation as a “hookup” app. Most people see as a means of seeking casual encounters or short-term sexual partners. Due to the emphasis on images, physical attractiveness is the primary means used by users to the decisions on matches.
The app itself has attempted to change these perceptions and de-stigmatize online dating through, for example, its promotion from the hashtag #Tinderwedding to promote couples who met on Tinder and found love. But the recent Netflix documentary The Tinder scammer has once again put Tinder on the agenda in more disturbing conditions and amusing manners. The true-crime documentary highlights the potential of being tricked by someone creating a fake identity (who “catfishes” you) on Tinder.
My study of Tinder was part of a larger project, exploring how South Africans use various social media apps as part of everyday life. My research showed that despite negative perceptions of the app and despite its functioning as a kind of smartphone game, many South Africans use Tinder because they believe they will find long-term romantic partners. But even more people use it casually because they are bored, playing with the app as a kind of game.
How Tinder Works
Tinder users create a profile, providing photos and optional information about themselves. Users of the free version only see the profiles of people who are geographically closest. Profiles appear on the phone screen and users can swipe left or right to select or reject potential matches. When two users swipe right on each other’s profiles, they can contact each other through the app.
Read more: The art of the scam: ‘Inventing Anna’, ‘The Tinder Swindler’ and gender
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the app opened its “global” feature to all users, allowing people to watch matches from around the world and do “quarantine buddies”. This briefly shifted the main focus of the dating app to friendship and connection.
My study of Tinder usage in South Africa is based on an online survey of 260 people and then in-depth interviews with 20 of those respondents.
The survey was completed primarily by white South Africans between the ages of 20 and 25, 70% of whom identified as heterosexual. I found that 56% of respondents downloaded the app because they were bored or curious; 52% said they were looking for love; and only 12% used the app to network and find friends. Thus, more than half of South Africans use Tinder for entertainment, scrolling and browsing a catalog of potential suitors. In this way, he commodifies romance. Others are looking for long-term love.
In in-depth interviews, users emphasized how they present themselves. Most said they were trying to create a special impression of themselves on the app. Although they stated that their online persona was the same as their offline persona, they also chose images to better present themselves as desirable products. While they saw themselves as authentic online, they pointed to finding high levels of deception in the profiles of others. A few people admitted to hiding certain aspects of themselves (like being a smoker or having children) to increase their chances of a match.
The women said the app gave them greater sexual freedom and access to a wider range of potential partners. They also exhibited a sense of agency by being able to “unlink” or block users they felt threatened by, which may be particularly important given the high levels of crime and gender-based violence in South Africa. South. Respondents indicated that they manage risk by withholding identifying information such as where they work or live, messaging through the app before transferring the conversation to WhatsApp, and scheduling the first meeting in public spaces.
Respondents said they were pursuing multiple matches simultaneously, browsing available profiles as if browsing through a catalog. Respondents indicated that connecting with someone gave them a boost of self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment, much like an achievement in a video game would.
What it all means
South Africans are turning to Tinder to increase their courtship practices and expand their pool of potential romantic partners. Previously, people may have met more generally through social connections, friendship circles, or interest groups.
The Internet has become a powerful social intermediary, changing patterns of dating, love, and romance. In the process, traditional ideals of monogamy, commitment, and romantic love are displaced by these online engagements.
What is interesting about Tinder in South Africa is that despite its notoriety as a hookup app and despite social fears, many are using it to find love and long term connection.
Read more: Tinder use in Cape Town reveals paradox of modern dating
But, in my analysis, Tinder turns the process of finding love online into a game of sorts. Matches are based on very little knowledge or information about the other person, other than their carefully selected photographs. . Tinder users act like game players, making moves, selecting how to swipe or message, and then whether to meet in real life, based on the other person’s “moves” in an interface of game type.