The search for meaning goes beyond a left or right swipe.
“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false Self. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.”
– Thomas Merton
The Bruins were up 2–0 against the Lightning, but the college kid sitting in the row in front of me last night at Boston’s TD Garden couldn’t care less. Among the many flashes of excitement on the hockey rink that come with attending one of the last games of the NHL season, none were apparently exciting enough to take his attention away from his smartphone. At one point, his entire row of bros were captured on the Jumbotron, and it was only when his buddy grabbed him by the shoulder, shaking him & screamed “WE’RE ON!!!” that this kid looked up from the illuminating, seductive phone screen. Intrigued by his dedication, I shamefully peered over his shoulder to see what all the fuss was about. It was then that I saw a picture of a very pretty brunette girl, green-eyed with a perfect smile, holding a red solo cup. He then scrolled down, and there was yet another picture of the girl, this time in a bikini, posing with friends at a beach. I watched as this kid cycled through her 4–5 pictures before swiping right — a sign of approval — and when he did, her photo disappeared into nothingness. Immediately, upon his screen came a picture of new girl, this time blonde… rinse, repeat.
While the Boston Bruins clinched a playoff berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last night, my dude secured a few Bumble matches himself. My eyes went from watching the fast-paced NHL game to occasionally glancing down and watching the process. He would come across a girl’s profile, examine her pictures for about 15 seconds, quickly glance at her bio for less than half of that, and swipe right. More often that not, his swiping went unrequited, at least for now. Every now & then, though, he would receive a notification on the screen saying that person ‘X’ matched with him. At one point, he went into the messages tab, and then I saw a list of girls with whom he had previously conversed with — there were about 6 or 7. However, he kept going back to this one particular conversation thread he had with one girl, and although he was the last one to reply (he actually ‘double-texted’), he kept re-reading their previous exchanges. Eventually, he closed out of the app, and went on Instagram, scrolling down the feed, before getting a notification that he has a new Bumble match.
Tinder. Bumble. Happn. And now Yellow, which has been dubbed controversially as “Tinder for Teens”. In the year 2017, the Internet isn’t that scary of a place anymore, at least not as scary as my mom warned me about, the days when Internet ‘chat-rooms’ were still in popular parlance and the thought of meeting up with someone you met online was horrifying. Social media grew, from the Myspace days to Facebook, from Twitter to Instagram, and as a result, the online ‘dating’ scene changed. Yes, Match.com still exists. There are online dating services such as Plenty of Fish (PoF), OkCupid, Black People Meet, Christian Mingle, etc. But none of them can really match the sexiness of the ‘apps’, as they are called. Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, etc. are not necessarily ‘dating’ apps, although you can probably get a date or two out of them. They aren’t ‘hooking up’ apps, strictly-speaking, although they can be used for casual sex. Apps like Tinder are so seducing precisely because their purpose is so ambiguous. Some people use them ironically. One girl I know who has Tinder downloaded it just to see what kind of weird, creepy pick-up lines guys come up with. Some people have these apps to meet new people, make new friends… but if anything should happen, so-to-speak, so be it. Whereas Match.com and other dating sites are quite clear about their intent (although they can still be misused), Tinder, Bumble & company thrive off of the ‘labeless-ness’ of contemporary, Millennial dating culture. Gone are the days of courting, “going steady”, and for some, even marriage. And so, in comes the world of label-free ‘dating’. The purpose of these apps are often clouded in mystery, and that in fact is what so many of us love.
I’ll flat-out just say it: Tinder is exciting. It’s exciting because it connects us to other people (albeit artificially). Whether these people are (1) looking for a serious relationship; (2) DTF; or (3) just on it to meet new friends, Tinder is the digital playground where users can roam, explore, and search for meaning — even if such an endeavor is done in vain. Tinder also places a sense of control in the palm of your hand. You think the person on the screen in front of you is hot? Swipe right. Does the dude have too much acne, is a bit too fat, seems like a loser? Swipe left. Once you swipe left on a person, his or her existence is essentially wiped from your concern. There is a (false) sense of empowerment given to the Swiper, that they can filter out the ugly & undesirable people from their lives… something that is harder to do on a blind date.
Beyond the initial excitement of getting your first match, Tinder & co. eventually gets weird. There are those who swipe ‘right’ to everyone, see who ‘likes’ them, and then blocks all the ugly/weird/meh people. Don’t believe me? Here ya go. At some point, those with a basic moral compass will ask themselves: “What the hell am I even doing?” There is nothing more postmodern or commodifying than turning actual, flesh-and-blood human beings into objects we can ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, ‘accept’ or ‘return to sender’. Don’t get me wrong — I am NOT saying that every person is entitled to a date or a hang-out sesh. All I am saying is that, when you reject a person at the bar, there is still a form of authentic encounter, even if it’s a drunken one. There is still a recognition of the ‘Other’, even if the recognition goes only as far as “Sorry, I’m not interested”; even such a rejection involves an actual experience of someone as entirely Other. Tinder, on the other hand, is a self-enclosed circle where the Other is not encountered, but rather acquired. Those persons who would typically get a rejection at the bar are rejected anonymously. Have you ever wondered who you swiped right for and yet who didn’t do the same for you? Tinder treats human persons like any other object that, given a blemish or two, can be thrown out and replaced. And the difference between that & a rejection at a singles’ bar is this — one allows for authentic human interaction, and the other is Tinder.
Tinder also enables us to hide behind our “false selves”, to hid behind the masks we wear to present ourselves as desirable on social media. We become so enchanted with our online persona that we never actually stop and ask ourselves if we are being our truest selves. Instead, we live from distraction to distraction, from swipe to swipe, bathing in a pool of lies and self-deception, a pool party sponsored by Tinder & the like.
What are the lies that we tell ourselves? I’ll offer three, although I am sure there are many more.
- A person’s value comes from his or her physical appearance, ‘cool’ factor, & life as presented through those 5–6 Tinder photos displayed.
As human beings, we desire beauty. There is nothing wrong with finding one person attractive and another person, well… not attractive. I have many friends whom I find as physically attractive, while others less so. Is this wrong? No. However, if I established my social circle to only those finest, most beautiful people, then I would be treating human persons like an art gallery instead of people intrinsically endowed with dignity & respect by virtue of their very existence. Tinder does not care for that, nor really encourage it. On Tinder, you’re given a small presentation of a human person as displayed through a handful of photos. Obviously, these photos will most likely be pictures the subject finds the most attractive, funny, or appropriate for online ‘dating’, although that is not always the case. Regardless, in the few seconds one examines another’s profile, the focus from the start is on the pictures. Is the person attractive? Ugly? Tall? Short? Fat? Skinny? What kind of life do they live? Are all of the pictures taken in his or her room? Is that them in NYC? Wow, do they travel a lot? And then, if one is somewhat on a deeper level of interaction, the swiper checks out the bio. Are they funny? Do they try too hard to be funny? What sort of stuff are they offering as info? Eventually, our internal clock (guided by the demands of instant gratification) sounds its alarm, and we make a judgment. Do we swipe left or right? Then, afterwards, we are onto the next… and the next, and so on. At what point does the swiper ask themselves the crucial question: “Is it possible for me to make a sound judgment on whether or not I wish to meet this person based off of the trivial and shallow process of elimination?”
2. My value comes from how many people I match with, the quality of people who match with me, or how many people I can get to sleep with me.
The first lie, we see, is about the value we subconsciously attribute to the Other. The second lie, then, is about the value we attribute to ourselves. If I make a Tinder account and swipe ‘right’ to every single person in a 5 mile radius, would I not expect some to return the love? What if, after 400 swipes to the right, I check back a week later and receive 0 matches. What would it do to me emotionally? What does it mean when I essentially ‘approve’ of every person and have none ‘approve’ of me? Even if I do get a match or two, was it with an ugly chick? A hot guy? Someone who looks like he or she has options besides me? These are the questions which a person asks in their heart as the mindlessly swipe ‘right’ and ‘left’. There is also the issue of cultural/social norms & expectations. Aren’t college guys supposed to have lost their virginity by age 20? Isn’t there a subconscious rule that a guy’s desirability is made manifest in the number of girls he slept with? Indeed, there are countless pages dedicated to guys who were rejected on Tinder, such as here. For what reason would men act in such a vile way, if not for the illusion that their worth is somehow determined by a woman’s reception of them?
3. “It’s just Tinder”/Tinder has no real-life consequences.
This is probably the most insidious of lies, precisely because it seems to be so hard to refute. “But John,” you say, “why the hell are you making such a big deal about this? It’s just an app.” Perhaps so. But whether we realize it or not, how we act online is a reflection of what is going on inside of us. If I am an ass on the Internet but somehow act like I’m Mother Teresa in the school hallways, who is the real me? The line between “IRL” and the Internet is so blurred these days, especially given that most of our waking moments “IRL” are saturated with the Internet’s presence. If I am swiping ‘left’ to every ‘ugly’ girl I see, what are the chances that I start to view the ‘ugly’ girl on the bus as someone whose presence I can easily be disposed of? Do I let her sit next to me, and if I do, am I less likely to be as friendly to her as I would be if she was a total 10? At what point do I start to view the women I am in class with, work with, or even go to church with as a ‘right’ swipe or a ‘left’? You cannot objectify human beings from 11 p.m. — 1 a.m. & then treat the Other with respect & dignity at 8 a.m. Such a lifestyle is schizophrenic and deceptive at best. Our Internet behavior, especially in regards to approving & disapproving, was masterfully captured by the techno-dystopian series, “Black Mirror”. In an age where Yelp reviews can determine a business’ success or failure, are we that oblivious to think it won’t eventually spill over to human interaction/worth as well?
Iam not saying Tinder & similar apps are intrinsically evil. What I am saying, though, is that these apps can be used in a harmful way.
Since the beginning of recorded history, philosophers have largely held the belief that human life is a quest for meaning. Even philosophers who deny the existence of meaning are still, by their very denial, attempting to put forth an objective claim, a claim that they assert because they believe is true. So yes, even if we disagree about where it is to be found, we still search for meaning. Also, as humans, we are animals. We require nourishment, have the ability as a species to reproduce, we avoid pain and maximize pleasure. Is this all there is to us? Of course not. We have something different within us. As humans who seek meaning, we are different from the local goldfish. No squirrel sits on a hill at dusk and admires a colorful sunset. No woodpecker asks itself the question of why it even pecks wood at all. No penguin has composed an oratorio. We humans are endowed with a sense of the spiritual, a sense of self-awareness that no other animal can match. And this often frightens us.
It is an inescapable fact that we as humans search for meaning in all that we do, even if our actions don’t correspond and fulfill this need. The alcoholic went to alcohol the first time for some reason. Those who shoot up heroin are looking for a high they cannot seem to find without the needle. The sex addict goes from bed to bed seeking an embrace that will satisfy his or her deepest yearnings. One one hand, Tinder affirms our needs, whatever they may be — the need to be appreciated, affirmed, desired, wanted, and loved. On the other hand, Tinder offers us a mask to wear, enabling us to lie to ourselves and to each other. Our bodies and the bodies of others become tools for self pleasure. We begin to view people’s worth by what they present themselves as rather than who they truly are. With Tinder, we lie to our minds which seek truth, we lie to our bodies which seek fulfillment, and we lie to our souls which seek rest.
We live in an age of commodity, or in what a certain wise man once called the “throwaway culture”. You like something? Keep it. Don’t like it? Throw it out, and get something new that you do like. Every single person reading this piece is doing so from a piece of electronic equipment that certainly isn’t their first — whether cell phone or computer. Is that to say that buying a new phone or preferring a certain model of laptop is wrong? Absolutely not. It only becomes “wrong”, so-to-speak, when we apply the same standards to human beings. It becomes wrong when we feel that we are the arbiters of another’s value. That ‘ugly’ person you swiped left at has his or her own story, a tale of victories and defeats, hopes, joys, anxieties and worries. And yet, you will never get to know that story, nor remember his or her name or appearance. This is not to say that every single person you meet deserves you to take them out on a date. But when you pass someone on the street without interacting, there still is a sense of encounter. You don’t devalue his or her existence quite like you can do on these ‘hook-up’ apps.
Inother words, our inevitable search for meaning goes beyond swiping ‘left’ or ‘right’. We cannot find meaning when we look at a person’s picture for 15 seconds and read the bio in even less time. We cannot find meaning when we disintegrate the “Other” into an object of our own pleasure, arousal, or need. We cannot find meaning when we choose to entertain illusions that distract us instead of engaging tough realities that challenge us. We cannot find meaning in the meaningless… but that doesn’t mean we still don’t try.
The 20th-century Scottish writer, Bruce Marshall, once wrote that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Similarly, when we are snuggled up in bed, bored/lonely/hungry/horny, and feel the urge to swipe left or right, we are looking for something to satisfy our deepest longings. Will we find such fulfillment on Tinder? Probably not. But if you still choose to log onto that app in the late hours of the night, take a note from Reddit etiquette & “remember the human” — after all, that’s the only subject you will encounter on there.