Tinder's Dating Algorithm
In the 1980s, my father ran an advertisement in the City Pages, a newspaper (now discontinued) serving audiences in Minneapolis and St. Paul to seek a romantic partner who later became my mother. However, with the rise in technology and mobile devices, online dating websites and applications are evolving the dating scene. Today, many of my friends actively use mobile dating applications like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge to embark on finding love, and some have gotten married as a result of meeting online. Tinder's online dating app makes a procedural argument about the superficiality of attraction stemming from one's need for external validation and the illusion of endless potential choices.
Author and game designer Ian Bogost introduced the theory of procedural rhetoric in his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. He argues video games can make arguments and invite players to form opinions about them. However, procedural rhetoric extends beyond video games to other pieces of software, social media, or smartphone applications. To investigate how Tinder's algorithms and processes influence how users experience the software, one must understand Bogost's procedural rhetoric framework.
Instead of spoken or written words, Bogost argues that procedural rhetoric persuades users through running processes and interactivity. Like how computers follow logical processes and rhetoric "refers to the effective and persuasive expression," Bogost defines procedural rhetoric as the "practice of using processes persuasively" (Bogost 3). He analyzes procedurality and how computers are executing commands, expressing ideas, and forming arguments. Then, he walks through the effectiveness of oral, verbal, visual, and digital rhetoric to argue "that approaches to digital rhetoric must address the role of procedurality, the unique representational property of the computer" (Bogost 28). Thus, the interactive nature of digital media, its procedural rhetoric, makes arguments impacting human behavior at large. Notably, the system of rules embedded in Tinder influences people's perceptions of desirability.
Upon viewing a person's profile, Tinder users act on quick and superficial impressions of others and filter them out through swiping left or right to indicate one's interest. Swiping right shows expressing interest in the person's profile, whereas swiping left suggests disinterest. Tinder's algorithm caters to the user's past preferences, which limits their matches. For example, if a user repeatedly matched with white people, the algorithm likely will suggest a "good match" is one who is of that particular race. Therefore, the algorithm discriminates against certain races, ethnicities, or sexual orientations because the user may never see those profiles of potential matches. According to a 2014 study conducted by a different online dating app, OkCupid, "Black women and Asian men were likely to be rated lower than other ethnic groups on the site" (Curtis). When it comes to dating, many people have a preference. Concerning the standard for desirability and attractiveness, Tinder's algorithm has bias built into it. An algorithm determines and repeats what it thinks are "good matches" without considering what "good" future matches may be. As a result, Tinder users may unknowingly express their racial bias through the simple action of a swipe because the algorithm digitizes the complexity of racial preferences and stereotyping in dating.
The visually stimulating design of the app makes a procedural argument that a person's physical appearance heavily influences a user's decision to match with them or not. Bogost quotes Charles A. Hill and writes, "images are more "vivid" than text or speech, and therefore they are more easily manipulated toward visceral responses" (22). Looking at attractive people activates the brain and releases dopamine. Therefore, the dating app's interface design intentionally tries to addict users to keep them coming back. For example, people can add more pictures to their profile, and app updates increase the interface's size to accommodate them.
Additionally, users can give more context about themselves by integrating their music preferences or social media into their Tinder profile. With the decrease in people's attention span and their desire to read blocks of text, there is not much incentive to include much personal information in their Tinder description. While Tinder's app design hinges on people matching with others based on surface-level attributes, the act of accumulating matches itself influences one's self-worth.
As time goes on, Tinder users may experience an ego boost from the number of matches they have. The goal of Tinder is to make matches, which result in conversation and eventual dates. Bogost writes, "Procedural rhetoric is a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models" (Bogost 29). For the app to remain useful, Tinder limits the number of right swipes per day to ensure people look at profiles and not spamming people to rack up random matches.
Tinder users hope that swiping will lead to a reward—the perfect person winding up in their matches. Therefore, the procedural argument about continuous swiping is that people desire external validation, immediate gratification, and gain. People receive notifications that someone liked one's profile, which may boost one's confidence and self-esteem. One's initial desire for a relationship lessens as one desire to be desired by others climbs. People end up swiping more than starting a conversation with their matches. Moreover, the illusion of endless choice of people shifts the value of meaningful conversation toward making more matches.
Tinder displays people's profiles one at a time, which sparks one's curiosity to see who will be next. According to Bogost, "Procedural representations are often (but not always) interactive; they rely on user interaction as a mediator, something static and moving images cannot claim to do" (Bogost 35). Tinder users' profiles seem unlimited, causing users to continue swiping and searching for the next best person. The dating app relies on its users remaining single; otherwise, people would delete Tinder once they found a successful partner. If Tinder matches lead to dates, one may not fully invest themselves knowing that each other may be thinking about, messaging, or meeting other people. As a result, people swipe past eligible people or ignore messages because someone new reached out.
The days of running a personal advertisement in a newspaper are dwindling as more people enter the online dating sphere. Tinder effectively uses procedural rhetoric to onboard and engage users through visual stimulation, interactive actions leading to rewards, and investing more time on the app. The algorithms powering Tinder influence its user's behavior and support dominant social and cultural ideologies. However, all it takes are tweaks to these algorithms to positively disrupt and change people's perceptions.