Where do dating apps sit in the social media landscape?

When I first started investigating dating apps, and in particular Bumble and Tinder, I quickly situated them in the social media landscape. In my mind dating apps replicated the instigation and facilitation of social and intimate connections (relationships) in an online space. Traditionally, you might have met a hook-up or a significant other at a bar or club, at work, or even in the bookstore (insert communal locations) and dating apps mirror and enhance this capacity to connect in the online world. You joined this “network” of people by developing a profile (a descriptor of self and identity) in 140 words, added some images, and were linked to people based on the app algorithms and criteria. To me dating apps met every requirement of a “social network.” However, as I’ve progressed in my readings this definition and how it relates to dating apps has become increasingly more nebulous.

There are a few definitions which need to be considered in relation to social networking platforms. The first from danah boyd speaks to “networked publics”. She writes, “Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2)the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology and practise.” (A networked self, Papacharissi, 2011, Routledge) Networked publics are spaces that allow people to connect socially, culturally and for civic purposes online. Networked publics develop their own culture, for example, Facebook and Instagram, which might be examined through multiple lenses. An overarching culture dictated by the structure of the app and what it allows us to do / how it facilitates our interaction and for what outcomes - as well as the impact of the person’s real world network, values, and beliefs which come to be mirrored in the space of the “networked public”. Within the confines of this definition, dating apps are indeed networked publics. Simultaneously, a space is created on the dating app, and an imagined collective of people emerge i.e. the people on Bumble or Tinder - seeking a relationship or hook-up. A dating app culture is developed, led by the app itself, and intersected by the way people use the app and their own personal schemas.

However boyd and Ellison (2007) also define the “social networking site” - a platform which has a number of features that allow individuals to “(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (A networked self, Papacharissi, page 43, 2011, Routledge). Dating apps fit criteria 1 (the profile within the bounded system), 2 (to some degree, they allow you to articulate a group of people you have a connection with, however not necessarily by aggregating a list - rather, it’s criteria 3 which is problematic. Dating apps don’t allow us to traverse the list of other peoples’ connections. However, users usually do check the “matches” connections by consulting a broader digital ecosystem i.e. they might check the legitimacy of the matches claims by examining their other social media presences (facebook, instagram etc). Even, within these expanded parameters, dating apps do not meet the social networking sites definition.

Finally, we also need to examine the affordances that boyd articulates emerge from networked publics, these include:

  • Persistence (online expressions are automatically recorded and archived)

  • Replicability (content made of bits can be duplicated)

  • Scalability (The potential visibility of content in networked publics is great)

  • Searchability (content in networked publics can be accessed through search).

These affordabilities make the definition of dating apps as a networked public problematic. They meet criteria 1-3 (in varied way) but not criteria 4. Online expressions on dating apps are archived, they can be replicable (however, this means the user would need to take an image or record an interaction in some way i.e. duplicate), scalability (can occur if this captured capital is shared), however searchability is indeed an issue. Content can not be accessed through search, unless duplicated and misused.

To me these definitions are based on functionality of networked publics and social networks rather than intention. While dating apps might not necessarily meet the requirements of these definitions, the intention of the person is to make an online connection, create an intimacy (whether a hook-up or a relationship).

While these definitions are relevant from a functionality perspective, it seems remiss to not create a new definition based on intent - i.e. “an online community where individuals form connections and intimacies, whether new or pre-existing, that can be continued in the real-world.”