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Technosexual: Identity in the Age of Dating Apps

Arts & Culture | October 20, 2014

There are no apps in the virtual world more widely ridiculed than dating apps Tinder and Grindr; more often than not, they are treated as romantic taboos and sexual dead ends, constantly abused in Yaks, tweets, and Tumblr posts mocking those brave enough to put out on the mobile market.

The anthem of Tinder and Grindr critics is bluntly echoed by Tufts freshman Lily Liu in an interview with the Tufts Observer: “They’re great if you’re desperate, but stupid if you’re not.” Yet, try as the naysayers might to discredit the two, Tinder and Grindr are making considerable headway in our daily lives, cultivating new reputations as acceptable forms of dating.

In creating streamlined virtual identities, most users present the most idealized versions of themselves for their public profiles. And, while this allows some to present a less flawed version of themselves, it just as equally prevents potential romantic interests from gaining an immediate and complete picture. Thus, choosing potential partners via Tinder or Grindr is chalked up to rapid perception: “hot or not” physical appearances and a quick socioeconomic assumption.

The two apps had exceptional upbringings. Tinder allows users to view profiles of people nearby and select or discard them based on their profile. Within two years of its release, it grew from a USC-exclusive fad dominated by 18 to 24 year-olds to a full-fledged “App Store Essential” boasting over four million matches a day.

Grindr—similar to Tinder but with a primarily gay user base—is just as popular, reporting over six million users in 192 countries, including some that legally prohibit homosexuality. Admittedly much more sexualized than Tinder (a whopping 36 percent of 7,200 men surveyed by the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center found sexual partners through Grindr), the premise of speedy connection remains the same.

For some, however, this speed presents a problem. By simply swiping people left and right to judge them as potential partners in a matter of seconds, the entire premise of dating—of “naturally” getting to know someone sans virtual aid—becomes obsolete.

In fact, when browsing Tinder or Grindr, we might even discover that our perceptions of attractiveness are closely aligned with racist or classist tendencies; perceived skin color, sexual orientation, religion, and even clothing may greatly influence our “swipe habits.” As Dr. Anne Helen Petersen pointed out in a detailed long form analysis of Tinder published on Buzzfeed, “…we find someone ‘hot’ based on unconscious codes of class, race, education level, religion, and corresponding interests embedded within the photos of their profile.”

With an understanding of your “match” limited to a few pictures and a 500-character bio, users are forced to leave everything else by the wayside. It becomes easy to dehumanize the nature of the conversation and create perpetually incomplete perceptions of the people before you. Does this type of pseudo-interaction render true connection impossible?

Critics of the app would certainly think so. However, in this especially technosexual age and environment where results surface more quickly and immediate appearance is the only standard, dating through Tinder and Grindr should not be entirely ruled out. As Tufts senior and former Tinder campus representative Nick Aull said, “Tinder is a really great way for people who wouldn’t have otherwise met to get to know each other. It allows you to extend your social circles as far as outside your campus, and is the perfect way to form new relationships.”

For especially timid or chronically busy students, the concept of dating-on-the-go may be especially enticing. With the power to control communications, anonymity, and the exchange of information, courting via mobile app becomes a rather empowering and pleasant alternative to awkwardly asking an attractive stranger on a date—or at least a less conspicuous way of finding a casual relationship.

The inspiration for starting a Tinder or Grindr account doesn’t have to be based solely on sexual desires. As the Director of the LGBT Center Dr. Nino Testa stated in an interview with the Tufts Observer, “It’s a fantasy to say that a person will have some sort of uniform desire with which they approach the app every time. You might be on it and see something that sparks a particular kind of response, and other times, you don’t want that. It depends on who you’re talking to and what kind of erotic, or romantic, or intellectual, or social moment or scene is created.”

So, while one person may be looking for a one-night stand, another may be hoping to meet his or her soul mate; many profiles include the phrase “No hookups” in their bios. Some of these people have proven successful, as shown by people who eventually become one of the 1,000+ engaged couples that Tinder claims. Their success confirms that common stigmas facing dating apps are never entirely correct.

In fact, these apps even exceed establishing individual relationships, going so far as to affect entire demographics. According to a poll conducted by Grindr last June, 18 percent of Grindr users are not openly gay, and of those users, another 6 percent do not intend on ever revealing that fact. In this sense, the anonymity of Grindr and Tinder allow people to fulfill certain romantic and sexual needs and, by extension, identify themselves in a way they otherwise would not have. It allows those in countries like Uganda and Iran (where Grindr has a substantial user base)—or other environments where anti-gay sentiments oppress LGBT communities—to form and maintain identities unsullied and uncensored by the provincial concepts of anti-gay institutions.

Thus, Grindr and Tinder have the power to engender solidarity and strength within one community, encourage relationships in another, and provide lookbooks for sex in others. This challenges stigmas and highlights an interesting dichotomy vis-à-vis our virtual and actual identities.

At first glance, it seems as if Tinder and Grindr limit actual identities, and that the virtual identities presented in the two apps are largely fabricated, but that isn’t necessarily all that bad. On the flip side, as seen in communities where identities are limited and even oppressed, one’s virtual identity suddenly gains the power to rectify these injustices by becoming more outspoken than one’s actual identity.

Despite skepticism and criticism, Tinder and Grindr are here to stay, and will only continue to redefine the means of finding love in a world where our identities are under constant reconstruction.