Choice may be the result of the abundance produced by consumer capitalism, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. In fact, there’s quite a wide selection of research that goes to show that an overwhelming array of choices may dazzle the consumer, and not in a way that’s going to make the purveyors of those choices very happy. The famous “Jam Study” carried out back in 1995 by Columbia University Professor of Business Sheena Iyengar showed just this. After comparing two groups of consumers – one offered a dizzying array of jams to choose from, and the other offered only six – the group that was offered the small selection were much more likely to go home with a jar for themselves. While compelling research since has shown that it would be too simplistic to otherwise conclude that when it comes to choice, less is more, it is equally wrong to conclude, as one might expect, that all choice is good, and that the more of it the better.
Rather than giving people a sense of liberation, endless choices can give a feeling of over-stimulation and oppression. Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice notes that overwhelming choice can be both debilitating and tyrannising. He argues in The Economist that the digital generation is forcing us to be “pickers” rather than “choosers” where, “all a picker can do is grab this or that and hope for the best.” While the consequences of these choices in relation to the kind of toothpaste or smart phone contract you might end up with are relatively banal, what are the consequences of such a “picker” economy when it comes to other people? What is the nature of the “Tinderisation” of human beings in a world where sexual partners can be chosen and discarded with the left or right swipe of a finger?
In a previous blog post for Welldoing.org I discussed dating apps like Tinder and Grindr in the context of Melvin Kranzberg’s famous maxim that “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” As I described in that post:
The thing that makes technology not neutral is its architecture – that it enables certain kinds of relating, while disabling others.” In the context of dating apps like Tinder, the technology narrows down the complexity of potential interpersonal relationships to photos and short profiles creating “a space for quick judgements enabling an erotic encounter.”
The development of online shopping and social media over the past decade, in some sense, has always been leading towards what might be called “Tinderisation” and it is somewhat worrying.
The underlying notion behind Tinderisation is a combination of choice and convenience. This is reflected in most of our online shopping opportunities these days, with Amazon being the best example of a market for just about everything – all made even simpler with “one click” ordering and free delivery. With a little suggestion – perhaps a Facebook ad – one can click an image, be taken to the Amazon shopfront, and purchase a product without ever having to even input the expiration date on a credit card; this can all be done from the (dis)comfort of a bus seat on the way into town. The combination of choice, convenience, and what might be called the narrowing of “money-distance” lowers the bar to any purchase making it easier by several orders of magnitude. This “low bar” works in a variety of ways right across the Internet. For example, it enables easier access to pornography (more of it, and more extreme versions of it), it enables virtual stalking (by way of search engines or social media), and it enables access to others for conversation, game playing, or sex.
While many of these engagements may have negative consequences, there is nothing essentially bad about the low bar that’s enabled by the Internet. Through social media and platforms like FaceTime and Skype, we can be in much closer contact to friends and family members spread across the globe. It truly does make the world a smaller place. The shadow, however, is that the same ease and convenience that lets you one-click shop on your smart phone has a series of consequences that we might ultimately call “Tinderisation”. When shopping, objects can be chosen or returned with little emotional consequence other than momentary excitement, sticker shock, or regret; people, on the other hand tend to experience some of their most profound emotional reactions when chosen or rejected by another. While the actual method of choosing or rejecting on Tinder itself protects its users from constant rejection by only pairing individuals that find each other attractive, the implicit nature of the platform is where the real action is happening. This implicit nature is also imbedded into most of our technological hardware and software, and that involves what might be called droppability.
It is not uncommon, when on Facebook chat, for example, to suddenly stop responding to the person you are communicating with online. The same goes for a conversation going by way of text message – it may go back and fourth for some time before one member of the party suddenly goes silent. Most of us have learned to accept this. Perhaps the learning started in the early days of the mobile phone when connections would suddenly be lost, as still happens today when trains go through tunnels.
Texts may cease because another call has come in, a connection is lost, or a real-life conversation took priority. Facebook messaging often occurs at work, so an engaging conversation may cease when the boss walks in the room. All of this, we have mostly come to accept. What appears less acceptable, however, is when we are having the real-life conversation and we are dropped for a text message, an incoming call, or even worse, when you’re on a Tinder date and someone checks their Tinder! Have we learned to make each other droppable?
With the increase in choice and the lowering of the bar to access in a variety of different circumstances people, not just products are beginning to feel like objects that can be picked up and dropped. If there are an unlimited amount of pretty faces queuing up on Tinder, then why should I spend time trying to get to know the one right in front of me, in real life? If the allure of the new is so compelling, how long does it take these days, for the date in front of you to become old news. When both parties have been “Tinderised” both may, in effect, be looking over their date’s shoulder for the next thing. After all, it might be better. While this may prove exciting for some time, it ultimately produces despair and fatigue. When people become droppable, it becomes more okay to end a date on an optimistic note, and then either text a “thanks anyway” or, even worse, go incommunicado. In just the same way that we may order a dozen shirts from Asos, and send nine of them back after trying them on, people become something we try on too.
I believe that there is starting to be a backlash against Tinderisation. People are beginning to experience both choice-fatigue alongside an exhaustion of online social connection. Businesses and brands that want to get in on the act are merely adding to the fatigue. Not only can most people see through many brands’ simplistic efforts at “psychological incorporation” – that is, trying to become some “body” rather than an entity, but if people can be picked up and dropped like a gum wrapper, with inchoate brands it will be even more so. Such a backlash is evidenced in social research as discussed in Susan Pinker’s new book The Village Effect: how face-to-face contact can make us healthier, happier, and smarter. After the excitement of the new, the quick, the convenient and the fast, there is a yearning for something a bit slower, more complex, more meaningful, and less Tinderised. This doesn’t mean we should give up on online social media. As I have discussed in my book, social media like any technology is re-created through social shaping. I believe that as it develops, it will create room for deeper and more meaningful connection. There will always be room for the fast-food consumption that Tinder offers – but a diet of only fast food is ultimately boring and fundamentally harmful. The real developing niche is based in a rather more nutritious offering – one that enables deeper engagement and ways in which people not only have choice, but can express something more profound and connected by way of their choices.
More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.
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This piece was written for the Josephine Shaw Partnership for a cross-disciplinary exercise with other professionals also looking at “Tinderisation.” All of our inputs will be published there soon, at which point I will update with a cross-link here.
“Tinder”: Denis Bocquet
“As Seen Online”: Richard Winchell