On Tinder, you are given very basic information and have to make a decision to swipe left (reject) or swipe right (accept) the person on your phone screen. In this essay, Amanda Fehlbaum investigates how men perform their masculinity on this notorious dating app.
Last weekend, I went on a date. I did not meet this person while browsing at the grocery store or partying at the club. My friends did not set me up on a blind date, nor was he a friend of friends. I did not even connect with this man on a dating site like Match or eHarmony. We connected on Tinder.
Tinder is described in the Apple App Store as “a fun way to discover new and interesting people nearby,” noting that over 10 billion matches have been made using the app. The way it works is this: You sign up using your Facebook profile and your Tinder profile is populated with some photos, your name, age, location. You have the option of including where you went to school and your occupation as well as the option to write a 500 character-length description about yourself.
You are then presented with the photo, name, age, and information of people within a set radius of your location. Because the app is covertly linked to your Facebook, you can also see if you have any friends in common with that person. You do not get to filter matches beyond sex, age, and location. In other words, you see every person who fits just those three criteria.
If you like what you see, then you swipe right to indicate that you like them. If you do not like what you see, you swipe left to indicate that you pass on them. Matches are made when two people swipe right, or like, each other. You can then start chatting with that person within the app. It is so much like a game that, after the app alerts you to a match, you can choose to send them a message or “keep playing” with swipes. The match will be waiting for you in your message queue.
Although it is often portrayed as just being for people who want to hook-up or have casual sex, there are many people – myself included – who are using the app as a way of finding people to date. In his book Modern Romance, comedian Aziz Ansari with sociologist Eric Klinenberg note that perceptions of Tinder are slowly changing. Although people may initially have been self-conscious about using Tinder, by late-2014 people were using Tinder as their primary matchmaker. They said:
Ansari also points out that Tinder is not much different from seeking connections in the real world. “Walking into a bar or party, a lot of times all you have to go by is people’s faces and that’s what you use to decide if you are going to gather up the courage to talk to them. Isn’t the swipe app just a HUGE party full of faces that we can swipe right and go talk to?”
Although I have been on the app for less than a month, I probably viewed hundreds of potential matches. One of the things that stuck out to me was how men presented themselves in their photos and in their brief descriptions about themselves. I decided to analyze 30 of the men who were presented to me based on my age and location criteria. I only included those who had written descriptions and more than one photo. In this way, I hoped that I could see how they catered their profile to present themselves in a certain gendered way. In other words, I looked for how men were presenting their masculinity.
In terms of photos, many men included selfies. Some of the selfies were taken in the car or in the bathroom mirror, while some were taken at the gym or even in bed. When professional photos were included, they tended to be of the man as a groomsman at a wedding or of him in the middle of a muddy obstacle course race. Twelve of the men in my sample had photos of themselves outdoors, from flexing his muscles in front of Niagara Falls, to playing in the snow with a pet, drinking on a beach, riding a bicycle, or on top of a mountain. Some men showed off their hobbies, like playing guitar or skydiving. Many of the men included playful pictures of themselves in costumes and others showed off their pride for a sports team.
Men were not always alone in their photos. A handful of men included pictures of their pets. Thirteen men had pictures with friends or family, including children and even one with a grandparent. Generally, when a man had photos of himself with children, he disclosed whether or not the kids were his own. Likewise, if he had a picture of himself and a woman, he clarified if the woman was a friend or a relative.
Men’s descriptions of themselves ranged from simple “KCCO” (“Keep Calm and Chive On”) to more detailed information about themselves and what they were looking for. Many of the men mentioned their height in their description. A third of the men noted they were fans of Cleveland and its sports teams. Some men wrote about how they are “laid back” while others mentioned being “hard working” or wanting to “live life to the fullest.” Half of the men mentioned working out, fitness, or some activity like running or lifting weights. A handful listed things they enjoy doing such as being in the outdoors or going to “restaurants, bars, sporting events, festivals, shows, and new places.” Although this is one man’s description, it could substitute for most of the men in my sample:
It was common to see men mention their job as well as other symbols of adulthood, such as owning a house, “making great money,” or having their act together. For example, one man wrote, “I live by myself, I pay my own bills, I wear socks that match, and I love my mom.” In general, the men were looking to make connections with “cool people” who wanted to “hang out.”
Presentation of Gendered Selves
As previously explained in another Sociology in Focus piece, Erving Goffman wrote about how people engage in impression management. As you can imagine, this concept is especially important on Tinder because you have up to six photos and 500 characters to convey to the other person, “Hey! I’m appealing and interesting! You should swipe right and find out more!” without directly saying that.
Goffman also wrote about hegemonic masculinity, or the dominant model against which men’s masculinity is measured. He said:
Although Goffman gave this definition in his book Stigma in 1963, there are elements that still ring true today when looking at men’s presentation of themselves on Tinder. For example, many of the men in my sample mentioned being employed, being active and working out, enjoying sports, and some even mentioned their height. Their photos were also proof of their youth, complexion, weight and height, as well as race.
My brief examination of men’s Tinder profiles supports the idea that men are using the app to give a gendered presentation of themselves. That is not to say that most of the men are purposefully selecting photos and writing descriptions that overtly convey masculinity. In fact, gender is often invisible, especially to men. In other words, gender seems natural and built-in rather than the result of social factors like hegemonic masculinity. My results suggest that men are presenting, at least in part, adherence to norms of hegemonic masculinity.
A thorough scientific analysis with a randomized sample of men – not just those that fit the age and location criteria I set in the app – would help us to know whether my findings accurately fit the reality for men using Tinder. Regardless, we need to keep in mind that gender is part of the presentation of self, even when you might be taking just a few seconds to swipe left or swipe right.
- Ask your parents or grandparents how it is that they decided to go on a date with someone. Did they have certain criteria they were looking for, like whether the person lived nearby or was close to their age? Who was the one to ask the other on a date? Do you think these dating norms have changed?
- Aziz Ansari claims, “Swipe apps like Tinder definitely seem to be where online dating is headed.” In fact, many of the older dating sites like Match and OK Cupid have incorporated a swiping element into their websites and apps. Ask your friends if they agree or disagree and why.
- Read this news story about what it is like to use Tinder in a rural location. How might Tinder’s location restrictions help or hinder one’s search for a date?
- Goffman’s definition of hegemonic masculinity is over 50 years old. What would you add or subtract from this definition to update it?
- Ansari, Aziz and Eric Klinenberg. 2015. Modern Romance. New York: Penguin Press.
- Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
 It should be noted that men are not inherently masculine. The men could have presented themselves as masculine, feminine, androgynous, or some other gender. In this small sample, however, I determined that all of the men were presenting some version of masculinity.
-  I won’t lie, there are some men who say close to those exact words in their descriptions.
-  We could make the logical leap that unmarried men without children would be presenting that they are marriage material or that they could be fathers.