As shown above, the quantitative data provides some more insights beyond stereotypical presumptions often connected with online dating apps. These results, however, call for a more holistic and in-depth understanding of the app’s meaning for subjects. What is it like to be an unknown observer and to be observed by the unknown others him- or herself? Which needs does Tinder meet; which promises do users hear? Where does Tinder affect people’s routines, their everyday life, self-perception and their perception of the other? What meaning does Tinder have for the subjects?
Therefore, we conducted 68 qualitative interviews (age range 21–42; nationality German and Danish) with former users, active users and a few participants not using but knowing of the app, for example through peers. The interviews were conducted in the years 2018 and 2019 in Germany. When conducting the interviews both formats occurred: skype, telephone and personal interviews. The interviews were recorded, contain a range of length between 10 and 35 min and were transcribed by the person conducting the interview. The guided interviews targeted different objectives: reasons for using the app, perceived impact on well-being and one’s own behaviour, daily practice and usage, reasons for specific self-presentation (for instance showing a lot of skin, hiding either the body or the face, showing objects and so forth), expectations based on and assumed effects of the self-presentation, presentation of others and at last reasoning and meaning making. The interview was semi-structured following the explorative approach mostly preserving narrative impulses and leaving space for modifications following the flow of the narrative. The guide started with an open impulse following Gläser and Laudel (2010) about how oneself would describe the daily usage of the application, followed by the impulse of how one would describe feelings towards the application, during the usage, before and after. Other questions asked were as follows: Which role does Tinder play in your life? For what reason do you personally use it, how did you come to it? How is the general impact of Tinder on the society/your social surrounding? At the end of the interview, we asked the following more specifically: Is there something you like or dislike in particular? What would you like to change or improve? Do you have a particular experience in mind when thinking about Tinder, something particularly impactful or meaningful for you? How do you construct your own profile and what is the reason? How do you perceive others’ self-presentation?
While conducting the interviews, we focused on a nonjudgemental atmosphere and (non-)verbal feedback accepting all digressions as being reasonable and meaningful (Gläser & Laudel, 2010).
Through qualitative content analyses following Mayring (2015), we found various and complex reasons, behaviour and both social and individual references. Conducting qualitative content analysis normally follows two perspectives to work with the data, deductive category building, based on the theoretical background, and inductive category building, based strictly on the data (Mayring, 2000). For our explorative approach, we decided to only focus on inductive categories, following the strict first-person perspective of the subjects and the information coming from the data. To ensure intersubjectivity and to prevent group bias and homogeneous interpretation, we split into two teams, the two authors and two research assistants. We decided on a total of 10 interviews for the first round of building categories. Inductive categories following Mayring (1991, 2000, 2015) occur from the data; this meant for us to read the interviews noting topics occurring. Then, these topics, namely codes, where connected to meaning, nuances and valuation which build the subcodes. These codes and subcodes are then undergoing several loops with the same interview in other sequences and contrasted or validated with other interviews, building the sufficient code tree with categories, codes and subcodes. Each team did use five interviews to build comprehensive code trees based on the information in the randomly allocated interviews. Then, we checked with one external researcher, before meeting with the other team and their results, where we discussed the interpretations. We had huge accordance within the categories,Footnote 8 codes and subcodes, where any deviations were mainly due to wording or expansions by nuances—afterwards, we applied the code tree to the remaining interviews.
The analysis of the comprehensive data then revealed four main categories, each with some sub-categories (as shown in Table 3 with some selective examples) that are discussed with further quotesFootnote 9 below.
This category entails the specific psychological phenomena subjects experience and struggle with when using the online dating app. Users’ experiences and ways of acting are often characterized by significant ambivalences. For instance, while the general feeling towards the app is mainly positive—a ‘fun tool’ (22; 12) and a ‘positive way to pass time’ (31; 54)—and particularly having a match often comes with euphoric sensations, unfulfilling dates and especially being unmatched result in sadness, anger, uncertainty and self-doubt: ‘it really hurts to get unmatched and I often speculate about the reason, what was not good enough?’ (18; 87). As if users try to prevent themselves from such strong emotions, they often lower their own expectations: ‘really I want a baby, but Tinder is for sure the wrong place to find a partner for this’ (18; 59), ‘everybody here is really a looser and boring, but I hope to find a great match one day’ (47; 112).
This, however, is contradictory to one’s motives, because looking for love or a true match is the main goal for almost everybody. Sex, affairs or fun are only the minimum target with mobile online dating until the right one emerges. To still maintain their hope users’ narrations often refer to stories about happy couples who met on Tinder: ‘many of my friends did find their partner or wife there’ (9; 44). To raise one’s respective opportunities users work on their profiles, i.e. on their self-presentation. For this, they talk with friends about which pictures are best or even consult online tutorials or counselling with bloggers or in online forums and follow role models with ‘high tinder success rates’ (2; 108) (meaning many matches). The creation then follows a reflective process of impression management ‘I chose different pictures, one showing my body type and shape, one with friends to show that I have social competence, one where I laugh, so one knows how I look when I am having fun’ (9; 137–138).
Contradictions and ambivalences are also obvious in certain—positive and negative—suction effects when using the app. Users report being really thrilled or even euphoric by the possibilities and options and having a great time on the application, but also report about second thoughts and negative effects: ‘I am regretting the time investment, it is normal but dumb’ (18; 42) and ‘I can’t stop swiping, even though it is so meaningless and I am often disappointed’ (2; 78).
Even though responses were ambivalent and contradictory, quite a few responses referred to use the application as a serious coping tool for overcoming personal crises like a divorce, loneliness and self-doubt: ‘really I don’t know how I would ever be re-established without Tinder after my cruel divorce, I was devastated and this really helped me and brought me back to life’ (64; 122).
Users dealing with the app show how they handle the specific requirements and characteristics of mobile online dating like time pressure and countless but successively arranged dates, thereby keeping open opportunities but excluding disappointment or waste of time. Their ways of using the app reveal both an integration of and their contribution to a specific logic of acceleration and optimization.
Many users express the perceived need of being available all the time: ‘If you want to be successful you have to be online several hours a day’ (71; 98), ‘if I would chat with them all, I had to actually quit my job’ (26; 52–53).
To keep up with the pace and not lose an opportunity, they develop on the one hand agitation and on the other hand strategies like the management of likes or matches, text messages and dates as well: ‘I swipe them all to the right, very fast, like within few minutes I swipe them all right, afterwards I see who matched and then I check the profile, I don’t have the time to check all profiles before deciding’ (43; 13 seq). ‘I use standard texts; I develop them with friends or copy paste them from role models on the internet who have great success rates’ (9; 20–22). ‘I swipe and then I write with a bunch of them parallel, when I know where it goes I either add more to the parallel writing or I swipe somewhat less, to keep up with them’ (9; 91 seq).
Nevertheless, perceived time pressure and the quantity of options lead to feelings of stress and fatigue: ‘It is really hard work to keep up with the chatting’ (39; 77/26; 95), ‘I check several times a day, even though I hate it, also when being out and about, because it is necessary’ (6; 101), ‘if you don’t respond within minutes the match is gone’ (71; 57).
To reduce such stress users try to control their investment of time, money and effort, sometimes to an extent, that even contradicts the particularity of the dating context:
‘I only meet with women directly located in the neighborhood and I only take them with me to do stuff I would do anyhow, like going for a run or shoe shopping, that way I don’t invest and I won’t be disappointed so much, I learned that from tinder experience, keep the effort as low as possible’ (61; 52–54).
Furthermore, users implement numerous selection and ranking criteria to reduce the amount of time necessary to check on others profiles: ‘I don’t know what would be a good profile text, I never check’ (9; 153). When selecting matches, there occur a large amount of hygiene arguments that could possibly be a translation to milieu: ‘I check if they like look hygienic’ (59; 80) ‘I often feel disgust when looking at the dirty ones’ (61; 129).
The logic of optimization is then transferred to the analogue date, too, which has to be perfect: ‘95% is not good enough anymore, even though it’s stupid’ (34; 17). If a face-to-face contact is not immediately perfect the online dating wheel continues to spin: ‘I am stressed if there might be someone better just around the corner’ (61; 34), ‘I swipe while being on a date on the toilet’ (11; 52), ‘it is the procedure, short writing, quick dating and then back on track’ (34; 50–51).
For many users, mobile online dating is strongly connected with often inconsistent or rather ambivalent generalizations, stereotypes and prejudices about the app itself, (other) people who are using it and for example gender.
Obviously, although widely used and popular, online dating is still far from being an activity considered ‘normal’ among its users. By emphasizing exactly this ‘normality’, users acknowledge at the same time its particularity, performing a normalization ‘once it was a stigma but not today’ (32; 63), ‘I held it for myself once but today I admit it, if someone asks’ (31; 135), ‘…there is nobody not being on Tinder’ (9; 104).
Others express emotional distress shown both in their practice and their ambivalent attitude towards the app: ‘I only use it sporadically, I often delete the app on my phone (…) I delete it regularly (…) I always have it and use it too much (…) I delete it when I go to work’ (18; 10 seq & 42–43) (this user was installing and uninstalling the app). Others show a pejorative attitude towards the use: ‘it is permanent nonsense (…) it is nothing but a blunt game’ (26; 52) (this interviewee still expressed the wish to find ‘the one’ there).
Perhaps, such ambivalences are partly due to a certain reputation often ascribed especially to Tinder as a fun tool or hook up app: ‘when you only look for a relationship it is the wrong app’ (3; 74). In contrast and as if to contradict this reputation, many narrations entail legends about the possibility to find one’s true love via Tinder: ‘Everybody knows one happy couple from Tinder’ (64; 156), ‘my friends did find their wife there’ (9; 110).
Furthermore, many users express generalization about other users like ‘I think there are many awesome people on Tinder’ (34; 51), ‘everybody is so boring on Tinder’ (11; 60–87). Many stereotypes and prejudices are connected to gender: ‘everybody looks for sex there, it’s obvious, even when women write they are looking for a mate’ (43; 59), ‘guys are all desperate for a relationship’ (11; 40–41), ‘I don’t think highly of women having profiles there, you don’t really want a girlfriend behaving like this’ (5; 39).
Moreover, users apply social and obviously moral rules of behaviour that they consider to be valid, for instance in terms of honesty: ‘It is ok to lie, but only regarding for instance age, not body shape or haircut, minor polishing is acceptable, everybody agrees on that’ (9; 134).
Within the many aforementioned contradictions and ambivalences, rather few moments or periods of resistance against the immanent logic of acceleration and optimization occur.
Resistive strategies are, first, directed at one’s own usage, thereby reducing pressure and stress: ‘there is a usage evolution, in the beginning I was online all the time even at work, now I block the notifications, so I am less intrigued to be online all the time (…) I stop swiping when I am saddled by matches, then I first process these, then I continue swiping’ (28; 55), ‘I felt really stressed, so I reduced the usage significantly’ (5; 112).
Second, users try to protect the self by maintaining self-esteem and self-value: ‘I have a profile but I don’t show my face, this way I can protect myself’ (47; 83), ‘I don’t show my face, so the unmatching is easier to cope with’ (73; 101). In the very effort of self-protection, others behave contrary to the ordinary: ‘I make every date really special, I try to do that by meeting in expensive restaurants, dressing all up and letting possible partners drive a long distance to get to me, that way everything means more and is more serious and exciting’ (17; 103–105).
Third, resistive strategies are even employed to care for the (unknown) other: ‘I check all profiles carefully, I don’t want the little fat girls to be hurt by me unmatching right after the match, I do that because others told me how they are hurt from being unmatched’ (32; 21–22). As a result of feedback and reflection on the impact of the app, other users even changed their behaviour to the extent that they stopped using Tinder: ‘I stopped because my friends told me I became really tough in my behavior, like unmatching in real life, I became an asshole’ (14; 29–30).