A Sign of the Times:
The Dating App Photo
The image: a woman, smiling broadly at the camera, holding a bicycle.
The context: the photo is a profile picture on a dating app, or matchmaking mobile application. When viewed on the app, the photo is accompanied by the subject’s name and age. Its purpose is to appeal to other users. If another user comes across the photo and finds it intriguing, a right swipe could set in motion a potential match. A match could lead to online chatting, texting, possibly a date – maybe even love, a relationship.
An image like this one is the focal point of a dating app. This is the first impression a dating app user gives on the platform. Similar to the badges that inspired this publication, this picture can be seen as way of communicating to others. It is an invitation to swipe right. If there is a mutual interest, a match is made and communication between the users (chatting within the app) is possible.
Mediated dating certainly existed in earlier forms. For example, newspaper advertisements used short, snappy texts to attract a suitable partner. The photo is now king. In recent years the dating app has become the fast food of the matchmaking industry, whether people are seeking romance, love, sex or something in between. Install an app, link your Facebook account, select a few photos, add a bit of text, and you’re off. Potential matches – selected by criteria such as age, sex and proximity to your location are presented to you one at a time. Users quickly realise that the pool of opportunities is unending – at least if you live in an urban area. They reject and accept others with unprecedented speed.
My research looks at how people use these apps, with a focus so far on the popular dating app Tinder.1 I’m interested in what motivates people to use dating apps, how they present themselves, and how they choose potential matches. I’ve interviewed many Tinder users here in the Netherlands, spent countless hours in less formal conversation with friends and acquaintances about the topic, and reflected extensively on my own motivations and experiences as a dating app user. I’d like to explore three main points in relation to how such photos are a sign of the times.
Firstly, what motivates people to join these platforms and create these profiles? It’s no surprise that, generally speaking, we are invested in our own self-presentation. More than fifty years ago, Erving Goffman2 argued that people attempt to control or guide others’ impressions by manipulating setting, appearance, and behaviour. This observation was made in an era before social media existed, but it is still relevant. Motivations for self-presentation in a dating environment are high3, and users deliberate over which images will lead to the most positive response.
So users are highly motivated, but to what end? In the media, dating apps are often decried as a means for hooking up. Do these images show we have become increasingly superficial, judging individuals via rapid evaluation of a photo? Perhaps we have always done this. Don’t we already evaluate others on their appearance, often in a split second? Now we conduct this process via a swipe on our smart phones.
Despite a high investment in self-presentation, getting to the heart of user motivations is a tricky business. In my own research I found that motivations vary from entertainment purposes to an ego boost to seeking a relationship, and these motivations sometimes change over time.4 Whether seeking an ego boost, a hook up or a relationship, users are highly invested. They strive for an ideal yet authentic self-presentation, drawing on the possibility of meeting up in the real world.
Secondly, how do dating app users swipe? What can be said about the response to others’ photos? A dating app photo shows our appearance, of course. It gives an indication of our attractiveness. It serves to highlight our hobbies and even our personalities. Perhaps physical attraction or a shared love of winter sports is enough to find a good match. Yet, past research and my own investigations found that users also select and reject matches based on factors such as ethnicity and perceived educational disparities. The people I interviewed agreed that photos can show more than physical desirability: they also give indications of socio-economic status, shown through photos of various hobbies (yachting is more highly regarded than posing next to a sports car). This taps into another truth about how we present ourselves: many of us are seeking others who are like us in a variety of ways.
This environment points back to the high motivations of dating app users: a profile photo is not a static image. Users are constantly tweaking their profiles to get a desired outcome. Just google “how to make a successful Tinder profile”. I did this recently and found 6.2 million results. This huge interest in profile experimentation points to the reciprocal nature of swiping and profile adjustment. These photos serve as cues as to how we present ourselves and whom we want to match with. Users must also take into account multiple online communities that name and shame photos deemed funny or offensive. Have a look at Humanitarians of Tinder (Tinder users who chose images in humanitarian or volunteer settings). This site was recently analysed in an article by Corinne Lysandra Mason, who asked why people use humanitarian photos to generate hook-ups on social media.5
Finally, what do the matches we choose reveal about human nature? Or, to be relevant here, how are these photos a sign of the times? It’s time to make a confession: I am the subject of this photo. I could have chosen from a variety of photos from dating apps. I chose my own for ethical reasons: many dating app users, including my interviewees, are not interested in ‘going public’ with their profile pictures. The others, while accessible via Google, have not given their consent to participate in this analysis. Despite the great popularity of dating apps, the stigma remains: I also feel some discomfort about using my own photo as an example.
Why a stigma? It could relate to the perceived narcissism of collecting photos of oneself. Perhaps one’s presence on a dating app is seen as an admission that we judge people or look for validation in this way. Yet it’s not just dating app users: a great majority of us post on Facebook or Instagram, with the hopes of getting likes. We all create formulas to get this approval. We have spent years drawing at least part of our self-worth from this kind of atmosphere. Dating apps like Tinder came along in the midst of this environment of self-validation. Or the stigma could stem from a societal discomfort with the perception of availability in the romantic realm. Signing up for a dating app shows a willingness to create a profile, to be constantly on virtual display to other users. It’s like permanently hanging out at a singles bar.
As the trend endures, stagnation has appeared. For some, being constantly available has resulted in weariness. Swiping is a lot of work for little reward, a process detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic entitled 'The Rise of Dating-App Fatigue'. Yet the technology adapts. In October 2016 Tinder introduced Smart Photos, which means the app now chooses your best photo based on the percentage of right swipes you get. An improvement that results in more matches for less profile work? Time will tell.
Despite these reservations, we still put ourselves out there. A match may satisfy an ego boost: it provides the satisfaction of knowing the image you present is attractive to another person. But it also provides the possibility of meeting a still unknown partner. In essence, the existence of these apps shows that we crave connection. We continue to seek love and connection with others.
Janelle Ward, ‘Swiping, Matching, Chatting: Self-Presentation and Self-Disclosure on Mobile Dating Apps’ in Human IT, vol, 13, no. 2, 2016, pp. 81-95. ↩
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959. ↩
For example, see Catalina L. Toma, & Jeffrey T. Hancock, ‘Looks and Lies: The Role of Physical Attractiveness in Online Dating Self-Presentation and Deception’ in Communication Research, vol 37, no. 3 (June 2010), pp. 335-351. ↩
Janelle Ward, ‘What Are You Doing on Tinder? Impression Motivation and Construction on a Matchmaking Mobile App’ in Information, Communication and Society, 2016. ↩
Corinne Lysandra Mason, ‘Tinder and Humanitarian Hook-Ups: The Erotics of Social Media Racism’ in Feminist Media Studies, vol. 16, no. 5, 2016, pp. 822-837. ↩