Swipe right: Tinder and the pursuit of perfection
Stcancel, scroll, pause. Scroll. Write something witty. Scroll. Repeat.
Welcome to digital dating in 21st century. With 50 million users in the summer of 2018, the Tinder phenomenon is radically rewriting the way strangers make first contact in the hopes of something more, and dozens of similar platforms are vying for a piece of the pie. Dating apps are a hot grab because its developers commercialize something that is at the heart of human desire: connection. Naturally, this is interpreted differently between the genders, roughly bifurcating into sexual gratification and long-term hopes among men and women, respectively. Tinder’s reputation as an app for « dating » and « casual sex » shouldn’t detract from its core, soul-penetrating promise. And while millions of users around the world seem to find it an enjoyable way to burn off an average of 35 minutes a day, it’s worth remembering the seriousness of interacting with another human being for the purpose of developing a relationship beyond the platonic.
The app’s success appears to be tied to how it resonates with its target group: Millennials, the generation with more options and screen time than they know how to do. Where meeting someone that led to dating and courtship once flowed seamlessly into the daily grind of work, church, and community participation, dating apps promise more while demanding the least. Tinder creates isolated enclaves, where swipers are nodes in a strained network so large that users often feel uncomfortable when they come across the profiles of their colleagues and fellow churchgoers; people seem to want to make connections with the real Other.
In this way, [Tinder] taps into the pursuit of soul perfection while inviting the user to advertise for mass consumption.
The key to remotely controlled person selection lies in the public profile, the avatar that presents who you want to be to the scanning community. While insight and qualitative study have revealed that a few photographs and a few curated lines limited to 500 words simply aren’t enough information to tell if a person is a compatible match, Tinder knows her audience well; the addictive fun is in the superficial and flashy, not the ordinary and truthful. Thus, the Tinderverse is flooded with photos of people proudly atop Machu Pichu or lounging on beaches, in Mr. Universe mirror poses or twisted yoga positions, sipping red wine or ready to launch into gourmet cuisine. Indeed, some profiles are eerily normal, people who expose their workplace, their pets and their favorite poems, with the utmost sincerity. But, let’s be honest, the general population doesn’t hang out on Tinder to watch the corny.
Nor are images the only element in this mass experiment in human advertising. Self-introduction words are necessarily short, on the off chance that someone spends more than two seconds on a profile and becomes interested enough to read it. Actually taking the time to read them, I think, is rare. Where people write about themselves, they are urged to abide by the laws of modern writing: avoid useless words. Dozens of blogs teach the inexperienced to be incisive, captivating and mysterious. Preach yourself at all times; if necessary, use words. More important: Never be boring.
StOverall, one wonders what is actually going on. Tinder isn’t about relationships, it’s about choice—a choice heavily reliant on visual appeal. In doing so, it taps into the soul’s quest for perfection by inviting the user to advertise itself for mass consumption. With 1.6 billion swipes made every day, it would seem that users are never looking for a particular person, but the Next person, and next, and next. Once the daily quota of likes is used up, there’s the dreaded 12-hour refractory period before the next round of swiping can continue.
If we put Tinder in dialogue with religious practice, we would find similarities with iconography. Ancient Christian traditions have proliferated meticulously crafted sacred images of religious figures as a window into the ethereal realm, where the saints and the Lord are godly in their escape from the ordinary. Where the text appears, it’s just their name and location. It is the legend imprinted on the image that invites the faithful to venerate them with kisses and a desire to join them. Christian opinion on the use of images in worship has fluctuated violently over the centuries, and the gap remains wide. Orthodox traditions hold that icons affirm the communion of saints and the reality of Christ’s incarnation. Iconoclasts, however, both in the early centuries of the church and in most sectors of the Protestant Reformation, repudiated the veneration of images as a violation of the first and second commandments. Since Jesus’ divine nature cannot be imagined, they argue, any visual representation of Jesus is at best inadequate and at worst idolatrous; and worshiping other saints simply obscures the devotion that belongs only to the invisible God.
Confessional stances will certainly vary among readers, but I wonder if the Tinder phenomenon sheds any light on the powerful link between affection and visual stimuli. The Tinder profile is a curated attempt at what could be, reaching deep into our visual psyche to draw a longing for more, an approach towards the ideal, the promise of fellowship and embrace. With each session of relentless, dissatisfied swiping, we’re painfully reminded that the perfect doesn’t exist in this world; the best is always beside us, in front of us, which escapes us.
TOf course, the veneration of icons is well attested in Christian history, but the New Testament’s deafening silence about the religious use of images is noteworthy. It’s not up to John’s Revelation that spiritual people and events are imagined in a form amenable to sight and image. But even then, the images are shrouded in apocalyptic symbolism. In vain dozens of Christian artists throughout history have attempted to recreate John’s visions in paintings and sculptures, for we are not expected to imagine seven-headed dragons emerging from the waters or four horsemen galloping across the plains. In general, the visions were coded sermons of encouragement to persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire: a visual song with the repeated refrain Jesus will win. Meanwhile, as we experience our spiritualities through the eyes of faith, however, New Testament authors would rather follow their Jewish ancestors in casting suspicion on images, if not outright condemnation. In fact, the only indirect reference to the apparition of Christ describes it as disfigured; « she had no appearance nor majesty to make us behold, nor beauty to make us desire » (Isa. 53:2).
If Scripture is so resistant to definition through image, what medium can we turn to as a model for an interface to connect? The church may have resorted to iconography, but the original symbol through which Jesus has enabled us to identify, remember and communicate with him is primarily the Eucharist. Far from the ideal snapshot of unblemished skin, we are presented with a body of broken bread; separated from the ideal of individuals who eat life in its fullness, we are made to drink the wine of blood poured and poured as an offering for others. Christianity reverberates its age-old formula against the grain of our Tinderized strategies for fostering touch. Enough with the pseudo-perfect image and replace it with words, stories, harvested meal, creed! These are designed to help us see beyond, to see with faith. It is the narration that favors communion; memory brokers watching. And rather than terse paragraphs that bring our highlights to the fore, Jesus’ words are ominous reminders that invite us into his lowest moments. “Take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26:26). Here lies the true identity, self-definition par excellence with which we must participate and make our own.
Applying this to our mutual knowledge requires an investment of more than a few seconds of passing glances and gut-judgments. Knowing and being known in this fallen world are exercises in standing still. Since we see dimly as in a mirror, the fleeting, creeping image is simply not good. Definition comes through the pain of constant contemplation through remembrance, and this through our fellowship at a common table, dispensing from our titles Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female (Gal. 3:28). Thus we find our true self in a way that does not reflect our earthly self at all; what has made us more real is deeply inward and essentially spiritual. We are truly defined when we are defined not in reference to ourselves, our awards, nationalities or aspirations, but in the one who has emptied himself of everything to give us everything. In a Tinderverse ignited by short, superficial self-promotion ads, Christianity understands true identity not with displays of strength but signs of weakness. He refuses to scroll for something better because he’s already landed on what’s best. The self in the eyes of the world is only as good as the flashing click of a sinful spectator. You need an objective perspective, a bird’s-eye view. As Paul writes, “I grasp what Christ has taken hold of me for, not a perfection that comes from me, but that which comes when I trust in Him” (Phil. 3:12, paraphrased).
To read this issue of Christ magazine and popular culture in full today, become a member for just $5 a month. Members also get full access to all back issues, free stuff every month, and entry to our exclusive members-only group on Facebook, and you’ll help keep the lights on. Sign up now.