Nancy Jo Sales Swipes Left on Tinder

By Allie Waxman

The filmmaker behind Swiped questions the social impact of dating technology.


HBO: What made you want to make a documentary about dating in the digital age after your 2015 Vanity Fair piece?

Nancy Jo Sales: My interest in the subject matter as a journalist for the last five years has been social media and youth culture, and really, how all these platforms have become so widely adopted by young people, and how this has changed the way they come of age. I first heard about Tinder when I was interviewing a girl for my 2016 book, American Girls; it was early 2013 and I had never really heard about dating apps. I was interviewing a 16-year-old girl in Los Angeles and she told me this story about how she had had her heart broken, and how she was going to go on Tinder to lose her virginity to get over it. It became the opening anecdote for a piece I wrote in 2013 called “Friends Without Benefits.”

I started getting emails from people all over the world saying, “It’s just like this here,” not just with the dating apps, but with social media and how it was affecting girls, especially, in regards to sexism, sexual harassment, and misogynistic messaging online. I continued to hear about dating apps and how people were using them, and I started taking my cameraman along and filming the interviews.

“The goal of these platforms is to get people to use them as much as possible.”
— Nancy Jo Sales

HBO: Do you feel that users’ intentions with these apps have changed over time?

Nancy Jo Sales: My take on all of this has always been that we should look at the corporate intentions behind these apps. I would never ascribe blame on the people that use them. Let’s look at how this industry is really shaping our culture, and the goals of the people who design these platforms. The goal of these platforms is to get people to use them as much as possible. In the film, Jonathan Badeen, the CSO of Tinder, speaks pretty candidly about how the design of the swipe was in part inspired by this controversial experiment done by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, where he turned pigeons into gamblers.

If the pigeon pecks and immediately gets food, he’s not as interested than he would be if he weren’t sure when he’d get the food. And then he just keeps pecking to keep playing the game because it’s fun. It’s important for people to think about that with any social media. Because this is an unprecedented moment in human evolution and human psychology in terms of how we date and mate, it’s really profound to consider that love — if you use a dating app — is being engineered by someone else. It’s creating a lot of dysfunction and a lot of challenges.

HBO: How did you make sure you were reflecting the range of experiences people have on dating apps?

Nancy Jo Sales: It was very important to me that the film be diverse and intersectional with people of color, people of different gender and sexual identities; we talked to people in four cities, including New York City — where people use Tinder the second most in the world. I think the film represents a broad spectrum of people who have had different kinds of experiences. I was very conscious of that. I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a single person who has just said across the board, “I love these [apps], I think they’re perfect, no complaints whatsoever.” That’s just not what you hear. Even people who have gotten married on these platforms complain about them.

There’s nothing wrong with hooking up with someone on Tinder or any dating app. We have a young woman in the film who does say, “I’ve gotten what I’ve wanted on these dating apps; I want casual sex and I’ve gotten that. I’m very clear about what I want.” But why is it that these dating apps so strongly market to us that they lead to lasting connections? I think they know that’s what users want. Tinder’s own survey says that 80 percent of users are looking for long-term relationships. People want love; they want a real connection. But there isn’t data about how these apps are going to help us do that.

HBO: What advice do you have for someone using the apps?

Nancy Jo Sales: The film is about how the whole phenomena of social media, the internet and dating apps have affected the ways we date. We’re talking about something much broader and something that involves more issues of misogyny and sexism. I’m not trying to say you will never meet someone to love on a dating app. We’re trying to do an investigation of the culture and how these corporations are affecting how we think and how we act. When you say what advice do you have, I say, I’m a journalist, I’m a filmmaker, I’m not in the business of giving advice. My job is to investigate and to report.

Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age is now streaming on HBO.