In 2015, journalist Nancy Jo Sales wrote an exhaustive story for Vanity Fair about how 20-somethings hated Tinder but also couldn’t stop using it. Sales described how young men and women used the dating app to prowl for casual sex, creating a “dating apocalypse” where everyone was disposable and another, better match, was just a swipe away. The article came out right as dating-app fatigue was beginning to set in.
Now, three years later, Sales has delved deeper into the topic in an comprehensive but bleak documentary, “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age,” which Sales wrote and directed and premiered Monday night on HBO.
I spoke with Sales about how Tinder and other apps are changing dating culture. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Lisa Bonos: I found the documentary to be incredibly comprehensive. What sort of audience did you have in mind?
Nancy Jo Sales: Although everybody who’s in this culture knows this culture, there hasn’t yet been a really comprehensive look at: What does this mean? How is this affecting us? Why are we doing this? How do we really feel about it? I’m hoping that … they’ll want to watch it because it’s reflective of their lives. [But] it will hopefully also be interesting for people who know nothing about it. What our experts allege in the film … is that we are in a truly unprecedented moment in terms of dating and mating due to technology. …
Jonathan Badeen at Tinder says: “We were looking for disruption.” That’s a Silicon Valley business term, and it’s viewed as a very good thing. But what they’re talking about here is disrupting evolution and disrupting manners and disrupting love and sex.
There are so many things that are not even being acknowledged as being a problem and are not being addressed in any significant way. There’s a lot of sexual violence related to dating apps. I heard it over and over and over again, from young women that I interviewed. A study in Britain found a 450 percent rise in sexual violence related to online dating and dating apps in … five years [from 2009 to 2014].
There are other types of abuses that can happen. There’s a young woman Nicole, who’s in our film, who had a guy sexually harass her and then build this website about her, saying she’s a crackhead and all this terrible stuff. Danielle Citron [a law professor at the University of Maryland] says this isn’t uncommon. One in 25 people [say they’ve been victims of revenge porn]; that’s mind-blowing.
Bonos: I’ve been to a Tinder wedding. Several of my friends have married people they met online. Tell me about the decision not to include any success stories in the film.
Sales: While of course there are people who meet on dating apps and ride off into the sunset and fall in love, Tinder was not able to give us data, when I asked for it, about exactly what those numbers are. I would be interested to see them come out with a deep survey.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. We went to a wedding of some people who met on Hinge [but it didn’t make it into the film]. Even as I was interviewing [the bride], she was complaining about dating apps and how hard they were. She feels lucky because so many of her friends are not finding someone like [her husband] on these apps, and it’s really difficult. It does happen. But I don’t think, statistically, it is the norm.
Bonos: From the time you reported out that original Vanity Fair article in 2015 and then this documentary three years later, what has changed the most in online dating?
Sales: This industry has exploded. There are now thousands and thousands of dating apps in America and all over the world … with hundreds of millions of users. This isn’t just in America; this is a global phenomenon. … That’s one big change.
And it’s just become very normalized because of it. It’s overtaken the world of dating on college campuses — this is how young people and college students date. The girls and the guys I interviewed, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, they don’t talk to each other at parties, in terms of dating. They won’t say, “Hey, want to grab a beer or coffee?” That’s unusual. We heard again and again and again that it’s more typical to swipe on somebody that you think is cute, and then if you match on Tinder then you’ll start talking.
The “genius” of Tinder was that it relieved people of the fear of rejection. That’s good in certain ways, but what’s lost is the serendipity of chance meeting — the “romance,” if you will. I love the moment in the film when Cheyenne says she’s always wanted to bump into a stranger in a bookstore. Of course that’s straight out of a rom-com. But there’s something to be said for having an adventure that is not engineered by the tech bros of Tinder.
There are things that are gained: convenience and functionality and utility. That’s what tech tries to do. But the film really asks: What has been lost in all of this?
What’s been lost is not only the sense of adventure. Unfortunately, the whole design of these apps makes people feel like they’re one in a series of pictures that are just as easily consumed as discarded. It feels personal because it’s you and your phone, but it’s not really personal — it’s a commercial space, and it leads to a certain amount of dehumanization and objectification, especially of women.
Bonos: When I’m dating, I’m looking for someone that I connect with and we’re compatible. But I’m also looking for somebody who is fed up with all of that and is ready to pick someone.
Sales: I heard that a lot in interviewing people for this film. People are looking for someone who hates the apps just as much as they do. Because if you think it’s all really great … you’re probably not as interested in a long-term connection.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hooking up — the film is in no way trying to judge that. But as Justin McLeod of Hinge says, apps advantage people who are looking for just a hookup. If you are looking for something more serious and long term, it’s maybe not the best place to find it.
There’s always another person who may be available, may be better. And you don’t have to sit with your feelings of: So-and-so hasn’t texted me back. Uh-oh. All of that ambiguity … is alleviated to a certain extent, because you can just go back on Tinder. I don’t really have to sit with those feelings and figure out what’s up with this person because I can go on Tinder and find someone else.
Bonos: You also don’t have to confront it with that person.
Sales: Exactly. And that’s the whole ghosting thing, which I think has caused a lot of heartbreak that you’re kind of not allowed to feel, because that’s just the way things are — and you just have to be hip to it and accept it. But it really isn’t nice to ghost someone; it isn’t respectful or kind. And yet, it’s so normalized.
Overall I’m hoping the film starts a conversation. Instead of just using these things, maybe people will think about how they really feel about it.
Bonos: You’ve spent a lot of time reporting on generations that you’re not a part of. It’s a skill to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t sound like, “Geez, the kids these days.” Do you have any tricks of the trade to portraying these young people on-screen?
Sales: [In my books about teenage girls] I try and let them talk and let their voices be heard. I tried to do the same in this film. I told Daniel, my cameraman, I want to be on their faces a lot. There’s a lot of close-ups, sometimes extreme close-up, because I wanted to capture all of that beautiful emotion. It’s not all happy, but it’s beautiful because it’s real. I wanted viewers to feel what they felt as they were talking. I don’t think that me being older in any way bars me from being able to listen and understand, and certainly that was my goal.
Last but not least, I’m single. I date. You’ll find out when you get to be my age that it’s really not so different; we still have a lot of the same issues. This dating app culture has affected guys who are older, too.
There’s so much that we can share with each other across generations. This is one of the hopes and goals of feminism, is that women of different generations will listen to each other and support each other. And guess what: Older ladies do have some things that they know that the younger ones might not know, because we’ve been through all this stuff. It wasn’t Tinder, but it was other things.