Dating in the Modern Era: What Gets Lost When We Swipe

By Zoe Barr

Thinking critically about the subliminal impacts of Tinder and online dating culture

Let’s talk about Tinder. Whether or not you’ve used it (which, according to a study conducted by LendEDU, 72% of college aged millennials have) you probably know someone who does. Since its release in 2012, Tinder (and consequential competing dating apps) have completely re-invented the way we court and date each other. In only 5 years, Tinder went from being a novel, bizarre concept often regarded as more of a game than a dating service, to something seen as a popular, normal, healthy way to meet other singles. According to a statistic gathered by Pew Research Center and presented in the Atlantic, “80% of Americans think a dating website like OkCupid or Tinder are good ways to meet people.” As millennials, we are the demographic most likely to engage in online dating according to the same Pew Research Center survey on Americans’ online dating habits. “Just two years ago, American adults ages 18 to 24 used online-dating sites and apps at an average rate for all American adults- about 10%. Since then, the rate has almost tripled” (Meyer.)

We’re living in the crux of an age in which the way we seek potential mates and sexual partners is constantly evolving and moving towards the digital sphere. We must consider the way these shifts in technology influence the way we interact with one another- both on and off the internet. Even if you don’t use Tinder, its presence permeates our cultural psyche: none of us are immune, and this conversation is relevant to all who have or will date in the modern age.

In my observationally based experience, the incorporation and normalization of Tinder and similar dating apps into social culture has had drastic, and often damaging, consequences on the way young people think about and approach dating, sex, and face-to-face interaction. Tinder culture forces us to act as digital versions of ourselves, changing the guidelines for social courtship. Tinder and online dating culture makes us less receptive to building sexual or romantic connections with people in person. Further, Tinder perverts what we look for in a mate by programming (perceived) physical attraction to be the first indicator of potential compatibility.

First of all, when we converse online, we do so as our digital selves, and often these depictions are not congruent with our real-world personalities. The online personas we adopt, however innocuous, create a distance we can hide behind when we converse virtually, allowing us to operate under norms and rules markedly different from those that govern in-person communication. There’s a lot that people say and do on the internet that they wouldn’t in real life. This phenomena makes finding genuine connection via the internet all the more difficult.

Tinder streamlines the dating process, but in a way that prioritizes looks and initial physical attraction (based on a few, highly cultivated photos). Maybe looks are what’s most important to you when you think about who you want to date. But, for most of us, looks are only a portion of compatibility. Tinder conditions us to swipe based on physical attractiveness, primarily. Even if this doesn’t align with your intentions when you use dating apps, you’re pigeonholed into compliance by the structure of the service. Whether or not you realize it, Tinder prioritizes physicality as the dominant trait judgement when looking for a mate. At least when you flirt with someone at the Boot, or strike up a conversation with that cute friend of a friend at a party, you can sense the chemistry or lack thereof between the two of you. Attraction is not one-dimensional, and shouldn't be limited to a set of photos and a short bio.

Now, I’ve been operating under the assumption that everyone who uses Tinder is doing so to find a romantic interest, but it’s necessary to consider the large portion of users who swipe out of boredom, as a game, or as a way to boost their confidence. According to the aforementioned LendEDU survey, “44% of college students use Tinder for ‘confidence-boosting procrastination’”.

Many people swipe to accumulate matches while chasing the ego-rush that they provide. Using Tinder as a game or ego-boosting device will likely pervade your approach to dating and sex. Swiping as a game reduces everyone on the app to their card. Even if Tinder is just used for confidence boosting procrastination, the micro-high it produces is habit forming. It draws you in, inspires continued use, and reduces the objects of your sexual attraction into personal validation machines.

As impressionable young adults, our sense of what is normal is directly influenced by the behavior of our peers. No one swipes in a vacuum, and in participating you create and uphold new norms. Maybe you’d like to pretend that these issues don’t exist and continue matching with people on Tinder and then pretending it didn’t happen when you see them in PJs or at F&Ms. But Tinder is becoming a fact of single life, so let’s not lie to ourselves about it’s implications on our cultural understanding and value of sex and attraction.

Tinder forces us to act as idealized versions of ourselves, creating new rules that guide our interactions in the process, often allowing for behavior that would not be accepted in “real life.” Tinder culture moves dating to the digital realm. In this modern age, it’s important to ask ourselves why we may be turning to online dating and remain conscious of the effects it has on culture on and off the internet.

CurrentLara Miloslavsky