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Dispatches from the Dating Apocalypse: an Interview with Nancy Jo Sales

We talk to the author and filmmaker about her HBO documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age
By Amy Marie Slocum|
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On Aug 11, 2015 at 8:55 a.m. @nancyjosales tweeted “Thirty percent of all Tinder users — who are supposed to be single — are married, per a new report from GlobalWebIndex”

At 12:59 p.m. @tinder tweeted: “Hey @nancyjosales — that survey is incorrect. If you’re interested in having a factual conversation, we’re here.”

At 4:42 p.m. @tinder tweeted: “But we know from our own survey data that it’s actually a minority of Tinder users.”

At 3:06 p.m. @tinder tweeted: “-@VanityFair Little known fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.”

At 4:41 p.m. @tinder tweeted: “Next time reach out to us first @nancyjosales… that’s what journalists typically do.”

At 4:43 p.m. @tinder tweeted: “You could have talked about how users build a Tinder profile that expresses who they are.”

This sublime example of corporate meltdown was fomented by the publication of “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” — Nancy Jo Sales’ viral Vanity Fair feature from 2015, which last year she brought to the big screen via the HBO documentary SWIPED: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.

Both SWIPED and her Vanity Fair feature take an unflinching look at the mobile dating industry; examining the impacts that Tinder and its ilk have wrought on millennial mating rituals. Through candid interviews with her (mainly) twenty-something subjects interspersed with expert opinions from figures like Zoe Strimpel, an historian of gender and relationships in modern Britain, Sales paints a picture of a world where the sex positivity of third-wave feminism is isolated from its radical origins and turned against a generation of women raised in the appearance-focused world of social media.

The intersection of technology, culture, and sex is very much Sales’ beat. An award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, and other national publications, Sales has published two books: one of which is a New York Times Bestseller — 2017’s American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers — the other — The Bling Ring (2013) — which was turned into a feature film of the same name by Sofia Coppola.

We were able to catch Sales over email while she was out of town working on a new book to ask her about the future of dating, what she feels coverage of SWIPED has gotten wrong, and what happened between August 11, 2015 and the filming of her documentary.

“It is bleak when it’s a “contest to see who can care less” — which is a phrase I’ve heard over and over again”

After your Vanity Fair article came out in 2015 Sean Rad attacked you on Twitter. In 2018 he was interviewed in SWIPED. What happened between the article and the filming of the documentary?

It was the Tinder Twitter account that tweeted at me over thirty times in one night in 2015, not Rad himself. But then he subsequently gave an interview in a British paper in which he said he “knew things about me.” So I wrote an open letter on VF.com asking him to say what this was that he allegedly knew, and challenging him to an open debate about dating apps. After this he apologized to me on email and we struck up a dialogue, and he agreed to be interviewed for the film; but on the day of the interview in L.A. it was the COO Jonathan Badeen and the “Tinder sociologist” who were available.

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When you started this project, did you expect it would lead to painting a picture as bleak as what we see in SWIPED?

I think the corporate takeover of the dating space is bleak. But I think the characters in SWIPED give it a human face that is very hopeful, especially some of the young women in the film. These are young people who are going through things, sometimes very difficult things, because of the way dating is today. And they’re not clueless or unaware of how messed up it all is — they realize that, but they also feel at a loss as to what to do about it. I think it’s bleak when we are losing human connection. It is bleak when it’s a “contest to see who can care less” — which is a phrase I’ve heard over and over again in interviewing people about what it feels like to date today. But I think it’s hopeful when people are honest and forthright about how this feels, and how they wish things could be different. That’s the beginning of change.

Do you think dating apps are here to stay or is this just a phase we’re going through as a culture?

Dating apps and social media have overwhelmed dating. The way most people date now is through apps or other online platforms. Most people I’ve interviewed find this very frustrating. People talk about not being able to strike up a conversation in person with someone they’ve never met or don’t know that well — someone at work, say, or the gym. Even kids in college who have classes together or are at the same parties will go on dating apps rather than talking to each other in person. It’s so much easier to go on an app where there are so many options and you won’t get rejected (at least not that you know of). Think about that. This is a huge change in human behavior; it cuts very deeply into how we have evolved; and it has happened in a very short time. As you can see in SWIPED, dating apps were designed with all of these things in mind — the fear of rejection, the anxiety around conversation — and also they were designed to be addictive, engineered to tap into our anxiety and loneliness and ego and desire. So I don’t think we’re dealing with choice, to a large extent; we’re dealing with social conditioning, social conditioning by corporations designed to make you act in certain ways and make certain choices to serve the companies. The first step towards changing this culture, I believe, is to recognize this for what it is: not companies trying to introduce you to your soulmate, but companies trying to take your time, money and data.

We know now that Artificial Intelligence reflects and magnifies the biases of the cultures that it is created in. Do you think that there is something similar going on with dating apps — that rather than being created with explicit bias, they reflect the culture that they exist in?

Yes and no. What we call hookup culture has been developing for decades, so it isn’t like dating apps created casual sex. Misogyny and rape culture existed long before dating apps as well. The dating industry is a big business which capitalizes on existing cultural conditions and trends and continues to capitalize on its own exacerbation of these conditions and trends. It also clearly introduced new technological features into the dating scene — such as the swipe; the swipe didn’t invent commodification and objectification, but it has exacerbated the way people objectify and commodify each other — and themselves — in the realm of dating.

In SWIPED you focus especially on how dating apps have brought about increased violence towards women. Have you been aware of any progress in these companies implementing safety protocols for their female users since the documentary came out?

Nope. They are still woefully remiss in doing anything to protect anyone, women, men, or children from harassment, abuse, and sexual violence. There is now a push in Britain to hold dating apps accountable for rapes of children. There is no age check on these apps and children and teenagers go on pretending to be older. There have been more than sixty recorded rapes of children in the UK as a result of using dating apps. We are talking about a small group of countries. I am sure the problem is much worse here; there just hasn’t been any attention on it so far. I’ve heard from many teenagers that kids go on these apps by using fake profiles. This is for me the absolute worst thing about dating app companies — their disregard for the safety of their users. There is so much more they could be doing, but they aren’t because a) they don’t have to; Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects them from being sued. (It’s a law that needs revisiting); and b) because the apps are almost exclusively designed and run by men, the protection of women is not uppermost in their minds. But as I said, men and children are at risk too.

“the squelching of this conversation — the conversation we need to be having about dating and rape culture — is part of rape culture itself”

Is there anything that you feel the coverage of SWIPED so far gets wrong?

I was surprised how little mention there was in the coverage of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault on dating apps. For me this is the biggest problem with these apps, and yet it was not the lead of the discussion in the media coverage around the film (and the film spends a lot of time on this subject). I was almost never asked a question about it — I almost always had to bring it up myself. I think the squelching of this conversation — the conversation we need to be having about dating and rape culture — is part of rape culture itself. There’s a silencing that goes on, particularly when we’re trying to raise women’s voices.

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