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Brave New World: The Social Impact of Hooking Up in the Internet Age

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Since its launch in late 2011, Tinder, a dating app designed for GPS enabled smartphones, has gained a meteoric base of users and wide-spread media attention.  According to Tinder’s co-founder, Sean Rad, the app is responsible for more than 150 marriage proposals. As of March 2014 its network is growing at an incredible rate of 15 per cent a week, clocking an estimated five hundred thousand monthly active users. With these figures it is no surprise that some have reportedly contracted repetitive stress injury from using the app. Drawn by the hype and schooled for years by other Internet dating sites, lonesome singles have swarmed to Tinder, bees to the technological honeypot.

Seamlessly integrating with Facebook to retrieve a user’s name, age, sex, personal interests and location, Tinder takes seconds to download and set up. Its user-experience feels like flicking through the pages of a magazine: intuitive, convenient and, somehow, personable. Users virtually swipe through photographs of prospective matches: they either swipe to the right if they find them attractive, or swipe to the left if deemed unsuitable. This continues until two users have selected each other. Early versions of the app then invited users to chat using ironic, playful and sometimes condescending prompts including, ‘Send a f*%#^+g message already!’ and, bizarrely, ‘Ready to get Tinderized?’ (A welcome change, recent software updates have removed these prompts altogether).

For most new users Tinder is fun and unthreatening. It can be a social or solitary activity, something to pass the time while waiting for a bus or to share over dinner. Yet, it can be extremely addictive as Christine, a 27-year-old social worker and one time Tinder user, found. She admits that, for her, the app created a false sense of self worth. On Tinder, Christine was the despot of her own dating universe. ‘It’s an ego trip,’ she says, ‘I started to enjoy rejecting people. It makes you feel important and powerful.’ Christine found it thrilling to (digitally) wade though piles of photographs and generate criteria for potential partners. Since on Tinder a person’s image outweighs any other factor, the app schools you to be visually ruthless. Christine, soon obsessed with the app, became aware of how racist she was being. She also quickly dismissed people for ‘seeming too short’ or being a ‘bit flabby’. In bed one night, excited after several matches were made, she dropped her phone on her nose, bruising it. She started dreaming about Tinder. Wanting a partner became her new hobby. ‘It prevented me from concentrating on the things I actually valued, like reading and being creative,’ she admits. ‘Tinder made me extremely anxious about who was looking at me online. I started to take photos just to seem more attractive.’

Like other social media before it, Tinder demands you become extremely conscious of your online image, but with a slight difference. It asks you to assess yourself, not as a friend, acquaintance, colleague or family member, but as someone looking for a one-night stand or a romantic relationship. This new context differentiates how users portray themselves on Tinder. Sexual personas are overtly staged: men are often found shirt off and in front of sports cars or posing with tigers; women, cleavage prominently positioned, can be seen lounging on the beach pouting with glowing pink lipstick. Taken in front of mirrors so a person’s full figure can be viewed, ‘selfies’ – or self-portraits – are also popular.

Some may argue that being self-conscious about how we present ourselves online has become a necessary fact of life. For those who hold this point of view, Tinder is simply an unmediated extension of the self. But what is often overlooked, is that all representation on social media contains an element of fantasy: profiles are portals where we can represent who we are but also who we want to be. It is no surprise then that Tinder users are frequently disappointed that – in the flesh – people never look like their profile pictures. This is because our images are never direct representations of the self, but are put to use for specific purposes. Even seemingly gratuitous Facebook photos have a purpose and value relating to personal expression and promotion. Their subject matter – extremely limited in range – commonly extol how outgoing, sociable, talented, well travelled, well dressed or attractive we perceive ourselves to be. With the rise of celebrity chefs and hit shows like Master Chef and My Kitchen Rules, it is no surprise that ‘food porn’ is also common on Facebook; for traditionally, what solicits desire and admiration for someone more than their ability to cook? On Tinder, however, images proclaimed by users to anyone who wishes to take notice usually equate to a mix of self-validation, promotion and marketing.

In many respects Tinder is no different to MySpace, Facebook and even games like Second Life, which have schooled users to be skilled practitioners in personal-image design and management: online, we are all our own personal stylists. However, becoming overtly aware of our online image may, as Sherry Turkle has argued in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, have detrimental psychological affects. Turkle, a professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, has for nearly three decades explored how emerging technologies influence conceptions of the self. In Alone Together, Turkle coins the phrase ‘presentation anxiety’ for that state of mental unrest – commonly associated with Facebook users – when they start to believe that every minute detail on their accounts has meaningful and weighty consequences. Though it is easy to quickly dismiss this anxiety, for many users it is well founded. With a greater number of employers, law enforcement agencies and data-aggregation companies mining Facebook, email and now smartphone apps for user data, uploading images of yourself partying, ‘liking’ NOFX, and declaring that you religiously watch Game of Thrones may, after all, have ‘real world’ consequences. Hence, it is now common for people to Photoshop profile images to make them seem thinner or blemish free. Large numbers of youths spend hours ‘tuning’ their profiles to seem more ‘popular’. As Turkle suggests, perhaps most alarming is that ‘[s]ocial media asks us to represent ourselves in simplified ways. And then, faced with an audience, we feel pressure to conform to these simplifications’.

One is more likely to present a ‘simplified self’ using dating apps like Tinder, since a set of up to six images is the primary way people represent themselves. For the majority of users, this amounts to showing off their physical assets, interests and hobbies. For example, a person’s sportiness, their creativity, or their penchant for exploring the wilderness may be on show. It is as if Rob’s ironic musing from High Fidelity, that ‘what really matters is what you like, not what you are like’ has become the mantra of the Internet Age. Online, people are generally viewed as the sum of their interests, and users, quick to intuit the expectations and rhetoric of dating apps, swiftly learn what it takes to use it successfully. Hence, a double vision of the self occurs where everything one does is assessed in terms of what others will think. Conforming to the group, one is likely to avoid a nuanced portrait of the self, and instead, use clearly defined templates – the lover of art, the sporty chick, the outdoorsy type, the buff man, the sex object.

What is the social impact of millions of users conforming to stereotypes in a bid to find one-night stands or romantic relationships? Part of the cognitive impact is partly due to the content of dating apps – the actual images uploaded – but potentially more significant is how the app’s form and function inadvertently affects the mind through constant use. Marshall McLuhan’s influential statement from his groundbreaking book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man comes to mind: ‘The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts… [rather they alter] patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.’ Similarly, McLuhan’s much quoted phrase, ‘The medium is the message’, seems more relevant than ever when addressing not only the Internet, but smartphone apps.

What McLuhan proposed is that any media, whether the written word, radio, television or the Internet, influences not only what people think, but how they think, and what they can think. According to McLuhan, the medium’s content (say a news story about a fire, or a television show about a serial killer) is ultimately less influential than how that media is presented to us. For example, the linear process of reading a book affects the brain differently to reading written content online. The latter, rich in hyperlinks, asks the mind to rapidly alternate between words, videos and sound bites, which reinforces certain types of thinking procedures, or ‘patterns of perception’. With constant use, switching between tasks and forms of media becomes normalised. As discussed in Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, it has been found that reading online habituates the mind to always want information in short, rapid and fragmented portions, and this, in turn, has tangible neurological consequences:

As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful through physiological changes, such as the release of higher concentrations of neurotransmitters, and anatomical ones, such as the generation of new neurons or the growth of new synaptic terminals on existing axons and dendrites.

As Carr goes on to write, this process is commonly known as Hebb’s rule: ‘Cells that fire together wire together’. Any frequent and repetitive process of the mind establishes connections in the brain that are lasting and meaningful, not at the level of content, but at the level of perception and cognition: to paraphrase McLuhan once more, the message that ultimately affects us is the medium itself. Probably the best example of how the Internet and the cognitive processes it promotes has affected mental functioning, is the adverse affect it has on short-term memory and our ability to concentrate. In a study conducted in 2009 by Clifford Nass and his team of researchers at Stanford University, it was found that ‘heavy media multitaskers’ had greater trouble ‘filtering out irrelevant stimuli from their environment’ and were ‘less likely to ignore irrelevant representation in memory’. With a cascade of information always a click away, our short-term memories are constantly overloaded. The mind, quick to adapt to new circumstances, does not necessarily learn to cope with the overload, but rather, begins to normalise this type of pattern of perception. Hence, we begin to feel comfortable multitasking, but our ability to read linear narratives (as found in books) quickly appears ‘unnatural’ to us. One should ask, then, what are the patterns of perception that are encouraged while using apps like Tinder, and how are these perceptions neurochemically enforced? 

It is likely that when matches are made on Tinder, dopamine – the chemical associated with feelings of pleasure – is released in the brain. Studies have shown how dopamine is secreted while social networking, for example, when content is ‘liked’ on Facebook. The production of oxytocin – the chemical associated with love, happiness and feelings of trust – has also been studied in relation to social networking and fools users into thinking they are surrounded by caring individuals. The release of oxytocin is also required to cure loneliness and broken hearts. In short, Facebook – and now Tinder – virtually produce the conditions that promote the release of oxytocin in the brain, making users feel loved though, in reality, that may not be the case. Combined with frequent hits of dopamine, the act of finding a date becomes as addictive as gambling – another pastime where, with each win, dopamine is released. When a match is made, perhaps after hours of searching and swiping, it seems random and is always accompanied by feelings of reward, satisfaction and euphoria. With strong chemical rewards literally at your fingertips, it is unsurprising that in a recent survey it was found that 42 per cent of people check their Facebook or Twitter first thing in the morning. Social media, it seems, is the new caffeine.

Tinder thrills like winning at gambling, but it can also be compared to another addictive pastime: computer games. Besides, it is now common for people to admit they are not using Tinder but playing it. Like Tinder, computer games are skilled at offering frequent neurochemical rewards and often employ rapid and repetitive gestures that gamers can quickly master. Turkle has suggested that computer games are less about ‘winning’ than ‘going to a new psychic place where things [are] always a bit different, but always the same’. She continues that if gamers are lonely, they can find ‘continual connection’ through their games. However, the consequence of constantly relying on virtual communities may leave gamers, and Tinder users, more isolated than they may have wished. What is more, some people may start to crave, and prefer, the security of online communities even when surrounded by people in the flesh.

This is certainly the experience of Hugh, 32, a student completing his Masters of Fine Arts. As he speaks his smartphone hardly leaves his hand. ‘Facebook is over,’ he says, ‘what’s happening in my life is through my phone. This is how I interact with people. All social networking is going to be through my phone soon.’ In fact, 2013 was the first year recorded where Facebook users were in decline. Particularly among teens aged between 16 and 18, Facebook is beginning to be seen as uncool and passé. Older teens are not rejecting social networking completely, but are turning to smartphone apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp to communicate with their peers.

For some users like Hugh, Tinder is a convenient way to meet new people. But, at the level of cognition and perception, using Tinder, even for a short while, is likely to affect the associations users make about dating and potential sexual partners. Christine noticed that Tinder influenced her view of the opposite sex. After a few days using the app, she began to assess everyone as if they were on Tinder. She began to think as a computer would: the Hot or Not thought pattern continued regardless of where she was or what she was doing. Gone was the mystery, unpredictability and romanticism of finding someone new; she was only concerned with the rational, goal-oriented pursuit of fulfilling her desires and rating everyone around her. The process had become mechanised: the people she pursued were objects on a virtual conveyer belt, some passed quality control while others were rejected.  Furthermore, the app appears to shore up the belief that to be fulfilled one has to be sexually admired. In short, Tinder objectifies people: it turns dating into a game to be mastered. Fail once, and there is always a constant stream of dates at the ready, each as disposable as the last. It is little wonder that ‘rating’ someone on his or her ‘date performance’ has become a common conversation topic. Reducing someone’s behaviour or personality to a number is natural in this state of affairs, when comparisons are bountiful and people appear to be interchangeable.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley depicts an engineered human race that is devoid of feeling and emotion, where sexual partners are interchangeable, where hedonism reins supreme, and a world where people are categorised by ‘type’. Tinder, and other dating apps, may not produce a world as envisioned by Huxley, but it may contribute to the type of thinking – the pattern of perception – that could make that world a possibility, and perhaps, more disturbingly, feel completely natural.

Michael Lindsey Davison is a Melbourne-based writer and photographer. His artist books are held in numerous private and public collections including the Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive and the National Library of Australia. 

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