Tinder is the night?

Tinder, the social media app du jour, which recently featured in both the Guardian and the Telegraph, seems to me to be a very old new new thing. I have envied academics who were able to grab headlines for research on cutting edge social media trends, and this month , Tinder represents a class of app which is cutting edge. It seemed worth a look, so I looked, and what I found was slightly worrying, and slightly ‘so what’

Tinder is one of a number of apps which offers a new layer of link ups, in this case based on the promise of anonymous, no fault hookups. Since it has come out it has been a big hit on iOS and Android, and has led to the development of other services which claim to offer even more anonymous, safe ways to meet possible partners with shared interests. This class of mobile app goes beyond online dating sites to offer users a quick and easy path to blame free hookups.

Online dating has long become a respectable way to meet people with shared interests on which one can build a relationship. A significant number of sites can now legitimately say that they create a digital space in which people with real shared interests can link up and build lasting relationships, and there is no doubt but that in many cases, this is true. If you get beyond the instant physical impact of “s/he looks nice” to the domain of actual interests, you can find a partner with whom you can build a real long term relationship. A great deal of research as been done on this, often in order to advise people on how to optimise their online presence. The question is, given that work, how far would research on new apps like Tinder produce significant new findings?

Tinder falls in the space of questions about privacy, identity and social networking. In an age which is rightly and deeply concerned about privacy, on the internet, Tinder is topical. It would be very difficult to conduct meaningful academic research on tinder and it’s users – the research ethics issues are complex. But I thought I would have a rummage around and see if I could find issues which might add some up to the minute ‘edge’ to my teaching on social media. What I discovered was disturbing.

The articles  on Tinder in the Guardian and Telegraph, like a great deal of writing on and research on social media, are located in the context of a large city with all the anonymity which that implies. In fact, London is almost legendary as a city in which people do not talk to one another. Cork is a university city. We have had a university here since 1849, and with 17,000 students out of a city population of about 150,000, students make up a visible and important part of the local economy. Tinder required that you have a Facebook  profile, and it pulls information on shared interests from your Facebook profile to help you find people who may have shared interests or even friend in common. It is important to note that Tinder only presents profile of people who have downloaded the app and signed into Facebook with it.

It was very quickly obvious that there were clusters of Tinder uptake. Many of the people who popped up on Tinder had a common like of a particular fast food outlet in one city suburb which suggested a high level of Tinder use in that part of the city. Many of had liked the students union run news Facebook page. One subject based student society turned up frequently.

Some of the people who appeared on Tinder liked or were friends with businesses, clubs or music groups with a very defined local base. Here, the model of confidentiality offered by Tinder falls down, not because of any fault in the app or it’s inbuilt protocols, but because it is drawing from a small pool. Given the power searching options available to search Facebook profiles, it is actually possible with a name and a collection of interests for a person in a 5-6 mile radius to track back in many cases from Tinder to a full Facebook profile. Facebook search options and privacy setting change frequently, but the inherent problem remains fairly constant. In a small town, Tinder and similar apps are not as anonymous as the user might believe.

Research design would require redacting the photos, coding the names as subject numbers, and coding all the ‘likes’ to produce anonymised profiles. Then you could run it through SPSS and find some patterns. I see research problems even with that. If this research was to be replicated, validated or peer reviewed, I would need to make the anonymised data available, so it would be necessary to make sure the data perpetration was rock solid. The other problem I see is that if I do the coding, and I do the analysis, I will know that the two or three people in my sample whose likes include items coded 7B  and 8A have liked a particular musician and the pub he gigs at, and I do not think any researcher, no matter how objective, can ever avoid drawing inferences based on local knowledge like that. The only way to avoid it is to have one person encode the data, and then pass it off to another researcher who no knowledge of the meaning of the codes to do the analysis. (There are no academic research papers which reference Tinder – yet – but there are a few which refer to Grindr, an older app aimed at the gay community. Most of those studies used it as a means to recruit subjects for medical research, rather than for social media research.)

Context, it seems to me, in important. Columnists who have written about Tinder, or indeed social media in general, in the media recently have all reviewed it in the context of their experience in large cities, cities which are of their nature, crowded and anonymous. When Sherry Turkle says social media is making us lonely, she isn’t writing from the perspective of a small town.  My exploration was in the context of a small university town in Ireland, where, as we know, everyone knows everyone else. Digital doesn’t actually dilute this at all. Ireland isn’t as bad as Iceland where they now have an app to make sure you’re not chatting up a cousin. But here, whether it’s swiping to like on Tinder or ‘throwing the glad eye’ at someone in the pub, the odds are you know  ‘their people’ and they aren’t really a stranger at all.

The other question which is interesting is how these applications could be subverted to build on interests apart from chatting people up. Could you not fix your Tinder profile so all the interests which showed up were books you recently read? And isn’t that just Readmill? Or a book, a film and a wine you have tried this month? But how does using that as a strategy to meet people differ from, for example, the use of programme hastags on Twitter by channels like the SCiFi channel to build discussion while people are watching shows? How is this different form the old and honours Irish custom of gathering on Eurovision song contest night with a couple of bottles of wine to complain about the songs or the costumes?

Overall, I think this trendy new thing may be trendy, but it isn’t very new. What is more interesting to me is not the “Gee Whiz” factor it has generated in the media, but the that it can be located in broader issues of privacy, security and safety online, and how so much of the discourse on social media is driven from the cities, and might not work so well on other parts of our ‘urban’ world. Cultural context of social media might actually be an issue for which it would be worth going to the trouble of devising a research proposal.

But I’m old, so I think I’ll just go back to text analysis of the Parliamentary Debates on Home Rule from 1912 – they are more my speed.

Guardian Article “Tinder – the shallowest dating app ever”
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/23/tinder-shallowest-dating-app-ever

Telegraph Articles –
Mans perspective  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/10318706/Tinder-dating-app-review-a-mans-perspective.html

Woman’s perspective  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/10317832/Tinder-review-a-womans-perspective.html

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