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“It’s a Match!” Dating and hooking up with digital media

Posted In Projects - By On Thursday, September 4th, 2014 With 0 Comments

Dating websites and apps have exploded in popularity over the past couple of years, taking advantage especially of the growth of smartphone use and advances in geolocation technologies.

Of course, at least some of us have been dating on the go for quite a while – indeed, people were using Bluetooth as early as 2005 to meet nearby strangers.But these days the technology is now easier to use and the number and variety of mobile apps available provides more ways to meet potential dates, friends or lovers than ever before.

Grindr has cornered the gay male market, with about 8 million users overall and 1.5 million users logging in every day, while other applications like Hornet and Scruff target subsets of this demographic. Tinder – arguably the app that has sent mobile dating mainstream – boasts of its popularity with women, while its spin-offs aim to satisfy those who would like the ‘hot or not’ style app to be more intellectual (e.g. Willow) or more explicitly sexual (e.g. Mixxxer). Online dating sites have also joined this market by creating mobile applications and mobile-friendly websites.

With this growth in popularity, it is no surprise that media outlets have reacted with noticeable anxiety about the social degeneration and personal dangers the location-based aspect of such apps may pose. For example, in a Guardian story that also charges mobile dating apps with the “trivialisation of human courtship”, the headline ‘Break out the chamomile tea: ‘scary’ Tinder is outdated. Enter: Happn’ implies that readers have reason to be wary of the new French application, which notifies people of prospective hook-ups within 250m, without even bothering with profile matching first.

But despite the recent and rapid uptake of digital technologies like these, and the significant public interest in how they are mediating personal relationships, there is very little research that can help us understand how people are using them, making sense of them, adapting and resisting them in their own everyday lives.

This interaction between users and dating or hook-up apps is exactly what Stefanie Duguay, Ben Light, and Jean Burgess are studying as part of the Social Media Research Group. Our research focuses on how the users of these services negotiate with the technology in order to present themselves as authentic, trustworthy, or safe to meet up with in person.

Bringing together theory and methods from cultural studies, science and technology studies, and software studies, we will discuss this interplay between apps and their users at the Brisbane ICA Regional Conference in our paper ‘On Delegating the Communication and Regulation of Authenticity Claims: Dating and Hooking Up with Digital Media’.

The presentation will discuss some of the significant differences in how people are able to make and evaluate authenticity claims on different dating applications. For example, on the mobile-friendly dating website Squirt, the community weighs in on whether users are who they say they are. They do this by posting ratings and testimonials to the pseudonymous profiles of users they’ve met in person.

By contrast, Tinder uses people’s Facebook information to populate their profiles, importing what’s supposed to be their real name, profile photos, age, friend lists, and interests they might have in common with others. This information then claims authenticity on users’ behalf without them having to spend time completing their Tinder profile.

Meanwhile the ‘adults only Tinder’ app, Mixxxer (web-based and so not subject to App Store rules) employs a very light touch when it comes to authentication, leaving it up to individual users to look after their own safety and enabling a flood of profile pics of dubious authenticity, where arguably it is comfort with nudity and readiness for sex that counts as authentic ‘membership’ of the site – but app reviewers complain of “creeps and fake accounts” in abundance.

Each application’s design works under a different understanding of what demonstrates authenticity, which provides users with certain opportunities and constraints for the way they express themselves. In turn, users can react in ways that conform to the application’s design or that modify and resist its understanding of authenticity.

The features and uses of digital technologies like these can influence our personal relationships. They can frame our interactions, affect our sense of safety, and ultimately affect our health and well-being. But just as important are the many different ways that people make digital technologies work for them.

If you want to learn more, register for the Brisbane ICA Regional Conference and join us in discussing the social and technical dynamics of mobile dating apps.

These and other related topics will also be discussed the day prior to the conference at the first Australasian Symposium on Health Communication, Advertising and Marketing (Health CAM 2014)

This post originally appeared at the QUT Creative Cluster blog.

About the Author

- Jean Burgess (@jeanburgess) is a Professor of Digital Media at Queensland University of Technology, where she is also the Director of the Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) - see http://qut.edu.au/research/dmrc. Her research focuses on the cultures, politics, and methods for studying social and mobile media platforms. Her books include YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (Polity Press, 2009), Studying Mobile Media: Cultural Technologies, Mobile Communication, and the iPhone (Routledge, 2012), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), and Twitter and Society (Peter Lang, 2014).

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