The Life of a Tinder Muse
A mutual swipe right unlocks an exhibitionist archive, and new arenas of desire.
The difference between the Tinder and iPhone camera screens is subtle, but I know it well. The tell is a bright orange shutter button, often visible between my partner’s thumbs. He uses Tinder, although not for its intended dating utility. Instead, he uses Tinder moments to document our life together and share it semi-anonymously with his (or our – we often play together) matches. It’s an exhibitionist archive, a diary that can only be unlocked by a mutual swipe right.
We both started using Tinder about a year into our relationship. In the summer of ‘14, Tinder was a social activity. My friends, my partner, and I stood in a circle, looking down at our phones while facing each other, gossiping in real time about who we had matched with, who had messaged us. Even though one of our friends kept telling the story of a girl he met through Tinder who gave him the best head of his life, most of our friends insisted they had never, would never actually meet someone from the app. It was enough just to swipe, just to look, be looked at, get a buzz in your pocket and be matched.
That fall, my partner made a little art book about Tinder called “Eye of the Beholder.” It was a flip book, and on every page was a cropped photo of just the eyes of every person he’d matched with so far. The eyes were strange, grainy, endless.
Tinder, like cruising, is a way of feeling out the possibility of touch. Unlike a passing glance, though, Tinder matches are counted, hypostatized as data, archived. It’s like watching a stack of money grow. But what are these riches? Votes of confidence? For the bold, they are cracked open doorways to a hookup. For most, I think, they are stats of a kind, a measurement of that which is often hard to measure. Or maybe it’s what we already know: in high school, I remember boys rating girls from 1 to 10. Now we can all watch our numbers climb.
My own Tinder use has been less fruitful, artistically and emotionally, than my partner’s. After about two weeks of swiping, Tinder was making me sick. It felt compulsive and intrusive. It also made me feel unfaithful –new girls matching with me and messaging me all the time, looking into the eyes of all these people who were, theoretically, presenting themselves as potential partners. I know I sound like a square, but I’m just being honest. It made me uncomfortable. After a particularly vehement message that made me feel attacked, I deleted the app and never downloaded it again.
My partner’s use of Tinder also weighed on me. That he continued to choose me in this absolute glut of choices seemed increasingly absurd. Even if I was the prototype, Tinder showed endless variations, many more adept than I at self-presentation. There are better options than me, and they’re just a few thumb taps away. The only way to beat the system seemed was to opt out. At least I have one thing over any Tinder match: my physical presence.
I tend to discount my experience of dating sites and apps because, well, I don’t like them. Everyone else seems to, so I must be missing something. Or, I guess, they don’t seem to exactly like them, but they tolerate them as part of their everyday existence, a kind of modern necessity, whereas I just can’t. I don’t like being confronted with so many stranger’s faces, even if they are pretty young women, even if they like me back, and send me respectful messages. These apps are about putting yourself “out there,” but I don’t want to put myself out.
I deleted the app from my own phone, but I’ve never asked my partner to delete his, even when he offered. I guess I don’t think that technology can just be banished like a demon. The affects and desires it creates can’t be deleted with a piece of software. Tinder is not the first piece of software that facilitates touch and lets us turn our lives inside out for each other. It certainly won’t be the last. I’d rather actively participate in its assimilation into everyday life than pretend it doesn’t exist. Plus, my partner started doing way more interesting things with Tinder than I could have imagined, and I want to see where it goes.
He still uses Tinder every day. Since that first summer, Tinder has added the “moments” function, which transformed the app into a kind of Snapchat for charming strangers. He almost exclusively posts pictures of our partnered life. Pictures of us with our window plants (“plant dads”), pictures of me in exceptionally good light (“angel”), pictures of our tongues in each other’s mouths (splashing water emoji). We usually get 20 to 30 likes per photo – way less than we would on Instagram, but considering that our audience consists of bored strangers who have no reason to give us their approval, it feels like a lot.
My presence confuses the people my partner matches with. They often message him asking why he uses Tinder if, as it appears, he has a partner. The easy answer is, of course, that we’re looking for threesomes; in this case, I would be something like the bait. “I’m about 5% looking for a threesome,” he said, when we discussed it (“I’m more at like 1%,” I said). So what about the other 95%?
The need for friends accounts for some of it. Among folks my age, it is a truism that the first thing you do when we move somewhere is open OkCupid or Tinder and explore the possibilities, platonic, or otherwise. This summer we moved to NYC, where we met up with a Tinder match for the first time. We liked her snackwave aesthetic and copious body hair. We started messaging and decided to meet at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. She was late, so we let her share the ice cream cone we had started.
“I feel like you know my life better than my close friends do,” my partner said to her. It was true – she’d seen our room, seen us snuggle in bed, seen what we cooked for dinner last night. We wondered if we were as cute together IRL as we looked online, but we were too shy to ask.
I see Tinder as how my partner tests and assures his desirability outside of our relationship. It’s like a night of cruising and turning everyone down for fun. I would be curious whether people’s behavior changes on these sites when they get into a relationship (our case is the other way around, having started using it while dating). I know some people delete their profiles when they get serious with a partner, either as a symbolic gesture or an accession to each other’s comfort. I suspect, though, that most people keep them, a symbol of the possibility of single life. It’s a way of having it all, or or at least having more.
Perhaps the internet creates desire and insecurity that IRL relationships can’t fill. Technologically facilitated exhibitionism certainly is a different flavor of intimacy than one-on-one eye gazing. And while these activities threaten to interrupt each other at any moment, they are not mutually exclusive. Dating sites don’t coexist comfortably with monogamy, at least not without a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Not that they explicitly facilitate non-monogamy either. Rather, they tend to have a troubled relationship with every other form of intimacy.
These relationships are troubled because they compete for our resources, time, attention, interest, and loyalty. Tinder is a brand, after all, that competes with other dating apps as well as IRL relationships and cruising time. Like two suitors, the internet and meatspace compete for our affections, for primacy as the ultimate arena of our desire. Of course, we don’t want to choose, and at this point at least, we don’t have to.
The life of a Tinder muse: my partner touches his phone with fingers wet from my body. After sex, he pulls up Tinder and I watch girls’ faces parade past us from my resting place on his chest. Most of the time, Tinder is just another thing, another iPhone game in a world threaded with digital laborplay. Sometimes, it reminds me that I’m not the only person in the world. Not the only person that sees and is seen by my partner. But for me, that’s no dating apocalypse. In every moment, as partners have always done, we choose each other, no matter how many other options we swipe, left or right.