A Documentary Swipes Left On Dating Apps

Sep 9, 2018

For some of the 40 million or so Americans who currently use online dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, the findings of the new HBO documentary Swiped might be intuitively obvious.

But for others, there may still be revelations aplenty in the film, which is subtitled Hooking Up in the Digital Age. It's about how these apps may change how we think about relationships — and it doesn't paint a positive picture.

"I think that what the film is trying to do is to get us to look at the technology and what it means and what it's doing to us, how it's changing our culture, how it's changing the way we treat each other, how we interact," says Nancy Jo Sales, the filmmaker behind Swiped. "And I think some of these results and ramifications are pretty bleak. But what I wanted to do and what I tried to do in the film was, No. 1: to get people to think about that and examine that, but also to bring to life and humanize the people in these stacks of pictures."

Sales is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author, but Swiped is her first film. She spoke to NPR about her documentary.


Interview Highlights

On certain African Americans' experiences with online dating

I think that dating apps normalize things that are unacceptable. And one of the things we just talked about, objectification, and another thing ... we heard about racism. Because it's somehow considered, on these apps, OK to choose what you want in a romantic partner. And sometimes that veers toward what some of our African-American characters are experiencing as racism. And that's not OK. Imagine being a woman, age 22, 23, 24, and going on a dating app and ... swiping on people and seeing a profile — which they said they saw pretty regularly — that actually said, and this is a quote, "no blacks."

On interviewing Tinder, Bumble and Hinge executives, and confronting them on the deeper implications of their creations

I would say my favorite part in the film in a way is — and just talking about revelations — is talking to Jonathan Badeen, who is the [chief strategy officer] of Tinder. And he is the person who invented the swipe. Now, the swipe is — the "swipe mechanic," it's called, where you swipe on someone's face or picture, right or left, are you hot or not. But I was so struck by him talking about inventing the swipe, and how he was quite open in discussing how he had based it in part on studies, psychological studies, about controlling behavior and causing people to become addicted to things. ...

I think that some of the things that they say about the apps are ridiculous — not just in this film, but in interviews and elsewhere — and I think that it's marketing. Because I think that what they really are is businesses, and their real goal overall is to make money. But they don't want us to think about that. When I asked Jonathan Badeen — again, the CSO of Tinder — why did you guys make this app? He didn't say: So that people can fall in love and get married. What he said was: Well, we were looking for disruption in the marketplace. They have certainly created disruption in the realm of love, sex and dating.

On other takeaways from the film

I would love for the film to raise a discussion around dating app culture and online dating and sexual violence. I was really not aware of this, I would say, relationship between dating apps and rape culture before I started interviewing young women for the film. There's a real problem with it, you know? And I took it to the heads of these companies in the film, and I did not find their responses satisfying. So I'm hoping that this conversation will begin in a real way. Especially in the #MeToo moment, we have women speaking up about sexual harassment, sexual assault. And yet the place where I would say it's likely that they're experiencing a lot of this the most — in their dating lives, on dating apps — is not being talked about.

Dana Cronin and Natalie Friedman Winston produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, this is one of those conversations that's going to be so obvious to some people that they might wonder why we're having it. And here, I'm talking about the 40 million Americans who currently participate in some form of online dating, using apps like Tinder or Bumble or Hinge. But for others, well, there are revelations aplenty in the new HBO documentary "Swiped: Hooking Up In The Digital Age," including how these apps and this method of meeting people could be changing how we think about relationships. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SWIPED: HOOKING UP IN THE DIGITAL AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just in, like, economic terms, if you have a surplus of options, then the value goes down. I could see a Tinder profile that I'm, like, excited about. If I met that person in real life, I would have this, like, sense of urgency. But I think on Tinder, if I see that profile, well, then I just swipe one way or another. I'm just swiping. And then, there's somebody else, immediately.

MARTIN: Nancy Jo Sales is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, but "Swiped" is her first film. And she's with us now from our studios in New York. Nancy Jo, thanks so much for joining us.

NANCY JO SALES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I'm just going to go right to the point. It's a pretty bleak picture that you paint, and this will come as no surprise to people who date. And some of this might be a gendered response. I'm just going to admit that upfront. I know very few women who find this experience awesome...

SALES: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I'm - I mean, I don't know. If - and...

SALES: Sorry to laugh. I don't mean to laugh...

MARTIN: Yeah.

SALES: It was a laugh of recognition.

MARTIN: Yeah. And part of it is because it's that these apps are very visually oriented. They're very focused on appearance, on looks, on superficial looks, on how you look in the five seconds that somebody's going to look at your profile picture but also the fact that women feel like they've been commodified, you know?

SALES: Yeah.

MARTIN: They're just - they're a commodity now. And, presumably, men feel that way, too. But they seem to feel that way less. Did you suspect that going in, or is that something that emerged from your reporting?

SALES: I understand what you mean about a bleak picture, but I think the bleakness comes from the technology itself. I think that what the film is trying to do is to get us to look at the technology and what it means and what it's doing to us, how it's changing our culture, how it's changing the way we treat each other, how we interact. And I think that some of these results and ramifications are pretty bleak.

But what I wanted to do and what I tried to do in the film was - Number 1 - to get people think about that and examine that but also to bring to life and humanize the people in these stacks of pictures.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, you have some very - I don't know - heartbreaking encounters with people talking about their experiences on online dating. And there's a scene where a group of African-Americans are talking about their experiences with online dating. I'm just going to play a short clip. And yes, I'm going to bleep some of the language.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SWIPED: HOOKING UP IN THE DIGITAL AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here's how you get treated as a black woman when you're at a dating site. Either they don't want to [expletive] with you because you're black - I don't know why that freaks so many people out - or you're so exotic because you're black. I've never [expletive] a black girl before.

MARTIN: Why is that?

SALES: I think that dating apps normalize things that are unacceptable. And - one of the things we just talked about, objectification. And another thing I think has - is we heard about racism because it's somehow considered, on these apps, OK to choose what you want in a romantic partner. And, sometimes, that veers towards what some of our African-American characters are experiencing as racism. And that's not OK, you know?

Imagine being a woman age 22, 23, 24 and going on a dating app and seeing - you know, swiping on people and seeing a profile, which they said they saw pretty regularly, that actually said, and this is a quote, "no blacks."

MARTIN: One of the things that was - I think many people will find fascinating is you got to interview the makers of a number of these apps, including Tinder, Bumble and Hinge executives. What struck you from those conversations?

SALES: I would say my favorite part in the film, in a way, is - and just in terms of revelations - as talking to Jonathan Badeen, who is the CSO of Tinder. And he is the person who invented the swipe. Now, the swipe is - you know, the swipe mechanic, it's called, where you swipe on someone's face or picture, right or left, hot or, you know, hot or not. But I was so struck by him talking about inventing the swipe and how he was quite open in discussing how he had based it in part on studies, psychological studies about controlling behavior and causing people to become addicted to things.

MARTIN: You know, you confronted them about whether they thought about the deeper implications of what they have created. And I just want to play a short clip from an interview you had with the sociologist at Tinder. Her name is Jessica Carbino, and this is what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SWIPED: HOOKING UP IN THE DIGITAL AGE")

JESSICA CARBINO: It's incredible, the number of people who've met via Tinder.

SALES: Some people do use it to have more casual relationships. I mean, it is used that way as well.

CARBINO: Certainly. People meet people at church or meet people at their schools, and they have casual relationships with them as well.

MARTIN: So what's going on? Is that this - what is that? I mean, you're making a specific point, which is that you're changing people's behavior. And you're changing - what? - thousands of years of social history - right? - with these apps. And what do they...

SALES: Tens of thousands.

MARTIN: Yeah. And what do they say about that?

SALES: I think that some of the things that they say about the apps are ridiculous, not just in this film but in interviews and elsewhere. And I think that it's marketing because I think that what they really are are businesses, and their real goal, overall, is to make money, you know? But they don't want us to think about that, you know?

When I asked Jonathan Badeen - again, CSO of Tinder - you know, why did you guys make this app, you know, he didn't say so that people can fall in love and get married. What he said was, well, we were looking for disruption in the marketplace. They certainly have created disruption in the realm of love, sex and dating.

MARTIN: How do you want people to - what do you want them to take from the film? I know that you do report this detail, that, according to the dating app Hinge, according to their research, 81 percent of Hinge users have never found a long-term relationship on any of these online dating, you know, apps. Is that the takeaway here? What do you think the takeaway is?

SALES: I think that I would love for the film to raise a discussion around dating app culture and online dating and sexual violence. I was really not aware of this, I would say, relationship between dating apps and rape culture before I started interviewing young women for the film. There's a real problem with it, you know?

And I took it to the heads of these companies in the film, and I did not find their responses satisfying. So I'm hoping that this conversation will begin in a real way, especially in the #MeToo moment (ph). We have, you know, women speaking up about sexual harassment, sexual assault. And yet the place where I would say it's likely that they're experiencing a lot of this the most in their dating lives, on dating apps, it's not being talked about.

MARTIN: That's Nancy Jo Sales. She's the director of "Swiped: Hooking Up In The Digital Age." It comes out tomorrow on HBO. Nancy Jo, thanks so much for talking to us.

SALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: