Investigation: Why Tinder, and why today?

Since quarantine became a thing, all the usual (read: Zuckerberg-owned) apps have been hopping—whether with news, memes, recipes, unwarranted opinions, dangerous advice, or what have you. But we at The Miscellany News wondered what became of Tinder, an app that often relies more on a, shall we say, “physical” presence. Each of us created a profile labeling ourselves as student journalists and turned our bios into an open invitation to engage with us in an on-the-record conversation. We swiped right on everyone—including, awkwardly, a collection of classmates—and let the social experimentation begin. Tinder turned out to be far from a social-distancing induced wasteland: Users were present, numerous, and sharply self-aware of why they were spending their quarantine on the app. 

For many users we interacted with, Tinder conversations serve as a coping mechanism—a low-stakes, but potentially high-reward place to engage in human interaction. Bumping into strangers or encountering cool people at a party may not be possible while quarantine measures are in place, but Tinder can satisfy the desire to move through new social circles. For Tinderer Catie, the app has become the “only outlet for meeting new people.” She explained that before social distancing measures were put in place, she didn’t even have an account. For Catie, Tinder’s random collection of people allows her to escape from her present situation: “With not being able to get out into the world and meet new people or even just see a stranger, it’s comforting to know that there’s still people out beyond your houses walls,” she said. 

A paramedic working in the Dutchess and Ulster area also described using Tinder as a means of escapism. “[Tinder] is nice to disconnect from the news and connect with an actual human which is gratifying,” they explained, but described Tinder as a “superficial” means of socializing compared to a concrete group of friends. This approach seemed to be common among some of the essential workers we talked to on the app. Oliver, a worker at a family owned grocery store, described not feeling safe at work: “I kinda see it as a hub for the virus. If people are afraid to go out in public but need groceries they aren’t going to go far, and they are gonna come to our grocery store. There’s already been a woman that has come into the store that said she had gotten over the virus.” For him, Tinder is a place to “find someone to talk to.” 

The conditions of quarantine and illness have driven many others toward increased use of social media for support purposes, whether to engage with strangers or friends and family from afar. Jose, who shared that his health professional grandmother recently tested positive for the virus, said “It may sound shallow and straight up weird, but Tinder and Netflix are all that’s getting me through this whole mess.” Nicholas Ryan, a user whose mother and cousin—both nurses—have experienced the day-to-day tragedies on the front lines of the pandemic, shared Jose’s concept of Tinder as a means of maintaining needed social contact. His family has caused him to understand the human cost of the pandemic, which he described as “horrifying.” He explained, “Most of their patients are alive by the time they leave work, but when they arrive the next morning they’re all dead.” With constant awareness that those around us are suffering or at risk, Ryan stated, “We need that connection to stay mentally healthy.”

For those whose daily realities are filled with more questions than answers, Tinder provides a way to engage with a broader reality, in an online space less confined than the four walls most of us have become accustomed to by now. As Jose put it, “I think that my fear and uncertainty about the ‘new normal’ are what’s driving that desire to connect.”

Most of us found that users, like Jose, were willing to delve deep into their backstories or personal situations, even without us asking about COVID-19 specifically. After establishing that we are journalists and what names they would be comfortable having quotes attached to, our conversations usually began with reasons for using Tinder while under quarantine. Most users openly shared their feelings of loneliness, struggles with personal losses, and, sometimes, shared optimistic visions for the future. Human connection was more than welcome. 

Throughout our conversations, nearly every user described using Tinder as a pastime. For some users, occupying time was not a side benefit, but the entire goal of using the app. Daniel Goodman explained that even before quarantine, Tinder was a way for him to keep busy during quiet moments. “This situation has been awful for me,” Goodman explained. “[I have been] previously diagnosed with mental illness. The worst thing for me is to stay still.” Although Goodman is a Tinder regular—having even made friends through the app—he reported increasing his use under quarantine. 

Some users described incredible anxiety surrounding the situation, even though they do not live near hotspots. Tinder user Victor shared that the virus had upended his daily life. “I’m really in fear to go out or get sick because of this. I stay at home now all the time. I can’t go back to work,” he wrote. 

Like others, Tyler, a first-year college student currently living with his grandfather in rural Ohio after the cancellation of in-person classes and the closure of residential buildings, uses Tinder to fill seemingly empty days. Tyler moved away from his mother and step-brothers near the beginning of the pandemic due to their possible exposure, and now helps out on his grandfather’s farm. However, he said that given the limited number of users in his area, there aren’t many new people for him to swipe on. This in mind, our conversation seemed to be a welcome diversion. We went into more depth about the general experience of living in the rural Midwest during this time. At the time of our conversation, Tyler reported no cases in his county, but said that those in his community “were taking [COVID-19] more seriously to begin with, but now the older people are still and the younger people are feeling like [government measures and individual responses are] overblown.” For those whose immediate realities are not within hotspots, Tyler indicated that patience and perseverance may be slipping. Indeed, his home state of Ohio has been at the forefront of the Reopen America movement that began in Ohio’s neighbor to the north, Michigan, in the form of “Operation Gridlock” protests in the state capital. Protests have now spread across many states, including Pennsylvania, Maryland and Texas.

Several of our matches were more plain spoken about the utility of Tinder. When asked about his primary purpose for using the app, Eric stated, “Boredom really.” Joey (perhaps a potential match for Eric?) responded to a similar query with “Lol I’m bored.” While simply stated, we were compelled by this reasoning; after all, we were spending hours of our lives swiping around for this piece (between the writers, our average time on Tinder was around five hours each).

With our hours of app use, it was perhaps inevitable that we ran into someone we knew. Enter Juliàn Aguilar, Graphics Editor for The Miscellany News. After super liking one another and passing a series of compliments (the previous clause is not actually true), we decided to ask him some of our questions. Aguilar dismissed using Tinder for romance during such uncertain times: “It’s easier to just distance myself from my expectations/wants and just do this as some sort of game to pass time.” For him, Facebook is “chaotic, and there’s so much drama going on.” He concluded, “Tinder is much easier.” Others also characterized Tinder as a relatively low-stakes way of both passing time and connecting with others.

Calvin, whose conversation with us unfortunately disappeared due to premature un-matching afterward—revealing the perils of Tinder journalism—described Tinder’s text-based communication as less stressful and anxiety-inducing than other, more visual forms of social media, such as Snapchat. He also noted that on Tinder, one can engage with strangers, instead of having to work to keep established relationships going. Part of the appeal of Tinder, according to Calvin, is socializing in ways that may not trigger social anxiety. Another user, Juan, described Tinder as a low-stress way of connecting and meeting with people from around the world, using the app’s “passport” feature. He stated that using Tinder has bolstered his confidence in communicating with people internationally. After our interview with Calvin vanished without a trace, the true ephemerality of Tinder-based interaction was revealed. Perhaps this quality mitigates anxiety attached to the permanence of online communication, the enduring effects of first impressions.

Of course, there are a host of swipers who don’t see the app as low-stakes, nor its present uses as divided from its stated purposes. For those looking for love, the increase of casual users has made genuine, long-term connection nearly obsolete. Oliver uses Tinder due to a recent breakup. He explained that he’s looking for someone to talk to and meet once it is safe to go out in public. But with the increase of disengaged users, he feels that many of his interlocutors are losing interest quicker than expected. “I’ve had really good conversations with girls on here that suddenly end,” he described. “I feel that because Tinder users are at home and don’t have much to do, they just kinda swipe and swipe and swipe, matching with tons of people, and start up conversations because they’re bored. I’m guilty of that, too.”

Sam shares Oliver’s purposes for being on Tinder, similarly open to his conversations blossoming into something more after quarantine. “I’m not responding to anyone that’s looking to meet up asap because of obvious reasons,” he said, while reporting that “20 percent [of matches] still want to meet up ASAP.” Oliver has observed that many people on the app are patiently waiting until they can meet up safely, and that some bios express a willingness to have Zoom or FaceTime dates. He summarized his own thoughts on the matter of in-person meetings during quarantine thusly: “How balls would it be to meet someone you’re interested in romantically only to get or give the virus?” 

Though we didn’t match with anyone who intended to rendezvous in person with matches, many of the people we talked to have encountered those who plan to do so. We attribute this to the self-selecting nature of these Tinder interactions, given that our bios made our lack of sexual or romantic purposes explicit. Daniel (different from Daniel Goodman) has run into a handful of users who said they would “break quarantine” to meet up. He even said his friend who lives in Italy continued hooking up with people for some time after the outbreak there began. He described these interactions, “Not gonna lie, it’s mostly sexally charged, so I wonder how many people are still hooking up.” Disparaging Tinder users who planned in-person hookups via the app, he wrote, “There’s always a few people who just don’t give a shit honestly … I think it’s still good people have the opportunity to talk online here but it’s also frustrating because most people aren’t patient enough and they’ll eventually just meet anyway.” 

It seems that many existing Tinder norms, apart from the goal of in-person dates and hookups, have been amplified due to the current situation—casual users are hardly new, but there are now vastly more of them. In fact, according to a Tinder press release published on April 2 and based on statistics gathered between Feb. 20 and March 26, daily conversations increased by an average of 20 percent around the world, and those conversations are lasting longer; the average length of exchanges has increased by 25 percent. In the United States, where most of our matches live, daily conversations have been up an average of 19 percent and conversations are 8 percent longer. 

Coupled with these statistical findings, one user named Curt described encountering a different type of Tinder user with increasing regularity: “Tinder has been a little more alive than normal but it seems that Down Low guys have been rising in numbers.” The slang term “Down Low” originated in American Black communities specifically to describe men who identify as heterosexual and have sex with men. The term has historically been used to bolster paranoia surrounding transmission of HIV/AIDS, but some Black men have embraced the label “DL” as an alternate way of formulating sexual identity outside normative white gay/bisexual male standards. Curt indicated that the term has gained an aditional usage as “gay slang for a guy, girl or someone in between who is basically closeted and uses ‘dating’ apps to hook up with the same gender without anyone learning about [their sexuality or gender identity].”

With the closure of collegiate housing, many LGBTQ+ students have been required to move back to living situations with people who do not support their identities. Other LGBTQ+ people may be left without anywhere to live or with limited resources. Given this climate, Curt’s observation of increased interactions with closeted folx on Tinder is hardly surprising—though the emotional support provided by the app does not compensate for lack of supporting in-person relationships, it does provide an anonymous means of sharing interpersonal connection, which can be especially needed for young queer people. 

Even as we collectively learned about our sources, the experience of practicing Tinder journalistically occasioned some self-reflection. All of us put ourselves out into the Tindersphere with the goal of gathering sources, which is itself not the app’s intended purpose. We are not the only journalists to try the Tinder approach, either; longform documentary correspondent for VICE News Isobel Yeung recently tweeted about her own attempts to gather information on life in Wuhan under stringent quarantine measures, and BuzzFeed News covered a trend of non-journalist users setting their location to Wuhan in an effort to get direct information about the conditions there. The capacity of generating relatively random source samples is an advantage of the app. 

We say “relatively random” because all of us noticed that many more cis male users engaged with us via the app than users of any other gender identity. It’s unclear whether this demographic was more willing to speak on this topic, or whether cis men are overrepresented in the user base of the app—perhaps both were factors at play. It is worth noting, however, that as of December 2019, 78.1 percent of Tinder users in the United States were male and 21.9 percent were female, according to data published on Statista—that means roughly three as many men use Tinder. 

This is all to say that Tinder is its own complicated social ecosystem, one that we did not merely observe, but became a part of. In trying to answer if and how Tinder has bridged gaps left by social distancing, this project connected journalists and Tinder users throughout the United States and the world. We made Tinder accounts. Mutual swipes turned into questions. Questions invited answers. Answers invited more questions. Have we just described formal journalistic interviews or casual conversations? If we found it hard to generalize about all Tinder users, we did come away with one certainty: Whether we were wearing our journalist hats, or whether our interviewees were simply swiping through time or coping with the times, looking for friends or searching for more than friends, we all came away with one more human connection.

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