Is There Something Missing? Self-Presentation Practices on Tinder

Today I presented my ongoing research on self-presentation practices of Tinder users in the Netherlands. The conference was the 12th ICA Mobile Pre-Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Slides are available here and an abstract is below:

The desire to connect with other people for romantic or intimate purposes is an age-old activity. Mobile dating applications have exploded in popularity in recent years. As these applications become mainstream, so does the urgency to re-explore the issue of virtual self-presentation: how men and women present themselves to potential partners.

The matchmaking mobile app Tinder has 50 million global users and 1.5 million users in the Netherlands. The research question asks, what are the self-presentation practices of Tinder users? This paper presents the results of 21 semi-structured interviews with Tinder users in the Netherlands.

Analysis revealed two types of users in terms of impression motivation: the indifferent and the ambitious. For all interviewees, impression construction was a carefully chosen process complete with various “props.” Interviewees used photos and texts to illustrate attractiveness, personality and interests, but also their social class and education level. Especially noteworthy was the mirroring of self-presentation with one’s potential matches, as users overwhelmingly reported searching for people “like them.” This research provides both empirical and theoretical contributions into user experiences and perceptions within a still under-researched area.

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Remarks on #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator

I was asked to serve as a guest speaker for the Movies that Matter on tour program. The program screens documentaries and films with a human rights theme.

On Thursday May 8th 2014, the documentary #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator was shown in Lumen, in the city of Delft. The documentary is about Ala’a Basatneh, a 19-year-old college freshman living in the suburbs of Chicago. She coordinates between protestors on the ground in Syria and social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, and provides footage to major news outlets.

To summarize my remarks:

I spoke first about the political communication system, and the three main actors in this system: political leaders, media, and citizens. This system is interesting to mention because it works over time and it applies to pretty much any political system around the world. How? The system allows for “forces of instability.” These include evolving technologies (like social media) and also the changing relationship between political leaders, the media and citizens.

#chicagoGirl is fascinating because it combines these two forces of instability. It talks about how technology is evolving, and it also shows how citizens like Ala’a Basatneh are speaking back. Let’s think about this. Traditional media used to be all about mass communication: one particular message sent to a large group of people. Now, the very structure of how we use media has changed. Ala’a is not only able to coordinate people in a global scale, but she can also make her own media, which is then picked up by traditional media and reaches a mass audience. There are many examples of this in the film regarding protest videos. The Syrian regime says this is an internal problem and they don’t want the rest of the world to know. Fortunately that is not possible anymore, and there are incredible activists working to get the story out so the world doesn’t forget.

There’s another interesting point to make here. We might think of social media as pretty much non-political: just a way to keep in touch with friends and family. Or maybe we see it as a commercial space, a place to attract us as consumers and also gather our data for marketing purposes. But these spaces have, like one speaker in the film put it, the “potential for democratic rebellion.” Like Ala’a says at the beginning of the film, “From my laptop I am running a revolution in Syria.”

chicagoGirl  The Social Network Takes on a Dictatorchicagogirl1Regular citizens are using social media in political ways, too. Just to give you all an idea, at least in the US context, a 2012 Pew Research survey found that those who use social media, especially Facebook, are more civically and politically active than non-users. Almost 40% of all Americans over the age of 18 have done at least one of eight civic or political activities with social media, such as “liking,” commenting on, or sharing materials relating to politics or social issues.

Now Ala’a is obviously doing much more than this, but it’s the willingness of other citizens to share her materials that creates a widespread impact. In the film they talk about how citizens are using social media instead of weapons, and I think that’s a great way to see it. They are making a difference without turning to violence.

The last thing I want to say also happens to be the final message of the film: The real social network is the person-to-person connection: it’s the people who bring the state down. Technology itself isn’t powerful. Rather, people are powerful if they are enabled. Technology is a neutral tool: it just helps citizens participate.

In conclusion, we have no excuse not to get politically active, now that we can see what can be accomplished with a mobile phone and a laptop.

Open Mike contribution to POLITICO’s Arena

I wrote this for POLITICO’s popular Open Mike feature on The Arena:

Does social media matter for the campaign?

Of course it does. Candidates sure think it matters. They seem to value a high number of friends or followers online. In July, it was reported that Mitt Romney’s Twitter account (@MittRomney ) gained 116,922 followers in a span of just 24 hours. This was probably the result of using a Twitter follower service, but the intent is clear: high numbers demonstrate popularity. And it’s not just quantity, it’s also image. Online and in print, tips to politicians abound on how to act in the virtual world: Be friendly. Be authentic. Expect that people will want to engage in conversation. POLITICO argued that social media savvy was one benefit in Romney selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate. But it’s true – buzz is no guarantee for a win. A study of four 2010 races (two for Senate, two for Governor) by NM Incite found that the most buzzed about candidate won the seat – but in only three out of four races.

What about citizens? Does all this online chatter make a difference? In five minutes on Facebook, I can comment on a friend’s new hairstyle and get outraged about Todd Akin’s remarks on rape and abortion. Funny how a tool like Facebook can also be politically effective. But that does seem to be the case. Recent research published by Nature found that during the 2010 congressional election campaign, people were 0.39 percent more likely to vote if they received Facebook messages telling them that their friends had voted – that was an additional 282,000 votes cast. And that effect was strongest of all from closest (most interacted with) friends. It may not sound like much but in an election as tight as this one, it can make a big difference.

For democracy to thrive, we need well informed citizens who are well connected to each other and enthusiastic about sharing their views. Let’s not discount the role of social media outlets like Facebook.