‘Software Mediated Intimacy’ in Tinder: have we ever been in love?

Tinder has become an almost ubiquitous dating app that has built quite a lot of controversy even as it sits in most of our mobile phones.

While users swipe left and right searching for people they might be interested in, questions of legitimacy and authenticity in love, intimacy and dating arise. I was motivated to write this blogpost after a debate with a great friend of mine about the authenticity of love in Tinder.

Questions arose for me: If love is a social/cultural construct, is it authentic? What does Tinder do to change how love manifests itself? What has changed that we can’t right away see?

These tensions hang about within an atmosphere of heavy technical mediation that silently organizes, classifies, and structures how users interact with each other.

In an article by Fast Company, Austin Carr had the wonderful opportunity to interview Tinder CEO Sean Rad about the algorithm that measures user desirability and matches users to their equivalents. This is the ‘Elo score’ program.

Tinder users do not have access to their desirability rating, however, this rating does predetermine who gets to see who. It brings together a large and heterogeneous set of data on users in order to measure their desirability. Users only have access to viewing profiles that share a similar scoring.

Algorithms are active mediators in the construction of networks of intimacy. I would like to call this ‘software mediated intimacy’. Before we explore this concept we need to understand the basics and histories of two concepts: actor-networks and intimacy.

On actors, networks and the silent power of algorithms

Actor-networks are a set of conceptual tools originally devised and made popular by science and technology studies scholars Latour, Callon, and Law.

The most fundamental distinction of this school of thought, sometimes referred to as actor-network theory (ANT) is the principle of generalized symmetry. This concept holds that humans and nonhumans (atoms, systems, computers and codes) are equal in their ability to shape intentions of actors in networks of associations.

An actor, which can be human and/or nonhuman, is made to act.

This act is always done in relation to other acts.

So actors, together acting, create actor-networks. Humongous, unpredictable webs of associations.

This model of understanding society—through complex, overlapping networks of humans and nonhumans, is very useful for understanding how actors shape each other over social media platforms.

There are countless nonhuman’s working in sprawling actor-networks that shape, structure, and mediate how we interact with others online. Most of this remains hidden within our electronic devices. Strings of codes and wires affect us in ways that are sometimes more meaningful than our interactions with humans.

Some ANT scholars call this the blackbox—where a vast actor-network becomes so stable it is seen to act together and it becomes a node in other, more expansive actor-networks. Think about how many blackboxes exist in the many components of your mobile devices.

I would go as far to say that most Tinder users are unaware how much their romances are mediated by algorithms. These algorithms are typically trade secrets and the musings of Science and Technology scholars—not quite specters in the imaginations of users.

On the social construction of love and intimacy

Love is not universal, it is a complex set of changing associations and psycho-socio-technical feelings that are tied to space, time and historical circumstance.

Anthony Giddens, in his book The Transformation of Intimacy, demonstrates the social and cultural influences that actively construct how we understand, perceive, and pursue, love and intimacy.

In the past, the pre-modern, relationships were forged through arranged marriages that were mainly tied to economic priorities. This is something that Foucault, in his work The History of Sexuality, called the deployment of alliance—in other words, the creation of social bonds and kinship alliances that shaped the distribution of wealth and ensured group and individual survival.

In a complicated move that I am unable to detail here—the deployment of sexuality emerged that changed the very nature of the family. It also led to the love and intimacy that we know today—a social bond that is not necessarily tied to the family unit.

Gidden’s follows, as Western societies began to experience the characteristics of modernity—intimacy and love began to emerge alongside it. Romance emerged when the family institution of premodernity collapsed.

Why am I talking about this? I am talking about the work of Giddens and Foucault in order to illustrate the love and intimacy are a constantly shifting social and cultural construct. Every generation experiences love and intimacy differently.

This is probably the reason why your parents scowl about your one night stands and the fact that you haven’t given them grandchildren yet.

Love and intimacy is going through a massive shift right now.

‘Software mediated intimacy’—algorithmic love

In his essay A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans, Latour speaks about our progression into modernity as a deepening intimacy between humans and nonhumans. An integration between humans and their technology. A folding of all sorts of intentions and agencies.

In this case, as humans become further enveloped in their associations with mobile devices and ubiquitous social media. Most of our interactions become mediated through strings of codes, complex algorithms and digital hardware.

In the case of Tinder—the algorithms are mediating and structuring how we meet and communicate with people who may become love interests. Of course, these algorithms don’t exactly control such love. Human actors enter into associations with the Tinder actor-network with all kinds of intentions and expectations.

Some actors want a fling, a one night stand. Others might want a long-term relationship. Others may even just want attention or friendship.

So even though Tinder is sorting who gets to talk to who—a heterogeneous and constantly shifting clusters of intentions are constantly shaping how Tinder-based relationships will turn out.

And it’s not perfect. Love and intimacy falter and wilt just as much as it blossoms.

But that’s not my point. ‘Software mediated intimacy’, like all of the forms of before it, is another form of social and culturally curated love and intimacy. So it’s not authenticity that is the primary question here. All forms of love emerge from some degree of construction or performance. There is no universal standard.

However, what is different and what is often not seen is the degree to which love can be engineered. Computer scientists and engineers, at the beckoning of large (or small) corporations, embed particular logics and intentions into the algorithms they construct.

As Dodge and Kitchin remind us, in their book Code/Space, this is not a perfect product of social control—but a constant problem to be shaped. Even so, it is disconcerting that so many users are being shaped by silent human and nonhuman mediators.

Tinder’s algorithm and the ‘Elo Score’ is a trade secret. Not opened up to the public. Or the academe. So I am left scrambling for an answer that only raises more questions.

‘Software mediated intimacy’ can offer us a new and novel way to construct relationships, whether they are temporary or sustained. It is a form of social interaction that is just as authentic as prior forms of love and intimacy. However, the codes and algorithms and the complexities of computer science and statistics make it overwhelmingly easy for corporations to shape users based on private interests.

We must learn how these processes work and how they might be democratized so that the user may benefit as much as the capitalist who produces and hordes such software. We must embrace ‘software mediated intimacy’, in order to learn about it and master how it works so we might sidestep the potential and precarious exploitation seeping through our engineered social bonds.

Note: This blog post will be followed by a more in-depth analysis of this understanding of Intimacy. I am seeking to expand this into a larger, theoretical project. Any comments, criticism, or thoughts would be incredibly useful.

About Abigail Curlew

Abigail Curlew is an MA student in the Sociology of Surveillance @ Queen's University in Kingston, ON. As a writer and academic, he is interested in a vast variety of topics including: surveillance, anonymity, science and technology studies, video games, simulations, queer studies, and social media.