When she set out to make her new documentary “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age,” journalist Nancy Jo Sales says she wanted to humanize the people who used dating apps: These are real people, not just pictures to be swiped left or right on.
She found out that they’re also participants in a decades-old psychological experiment. In the documentary, Tinder CSO Jonathan Badeen — a.k.a. the guy who invented swiping — told Sales that he was partly inspired by college psychology classes, in which he had studied the work of B.F. Skinner.
In one of Skinner’s experiments, he conditioned hungry pigeons to believe that food, which was actually being delivered at random times, was prompted by random pecking. So, the pigeons began pecking more often in certain ways, in the hopes of getting more food.
“That’s the whole swiping mechanism,” Sales said. “You swipe, you might get a match, you might not. And then you’re just like excited to play the game ... Skinner essentially turned pigeons into gamblers.”
Although she’s careful to say that she does not impugn the character of anyone who uses dating apps, for any reason, Sales argued that the executives running dating companies have shirked their responsibility to protect users from threats like sexual assault; moreover, they don’t care about whether the relationships fostered by their apps are healthy or happy.
“We’re guinea pigs. We’ve become products,” Sales said. “We are providing valuable data on a pretty consistent basis to people who are making money off of us. We’re laborers, in a sense, to people who don’t really care whether or not we fall in love or get married or whatever. They want our data, they want our money.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Nancy Jo.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Nancy Jo Sales, a journalist and best-selling author who has written for Vanity Fair, the Guardian and New York Magazine, among other places. She’s also the director of a new HBO documentary called “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.” Nancy Jo, welcome to Recode Decode.
Nancy Jo Sales: Thank you so much.
I like to go into the backgrounds of people I talk to so they understand how they got where they got. I want to do that, but this is based off a story you wrote in Vanity Fair. Is that correct? This was a very controversial story, too, at the time.
“Based on” wouldn’t exactly be correct, but it covers the same subject matter.
Yeah. Yeah, but it was really quite ... It was really interesting because what you did, and quite correctly, even though people ... There were a lot of complaints about it, but I didn’t think it was ... I thought it was absolutely dead-on in terms of what the gamification of dating was doing to culture, and girls especially, and boys, too, and how they behaved.
Just before we started here, I said it actually had a really big impact on me. I was reading it one night at my house and I was so angry. It was so clear, the coarsening of relationships through this app and how people behaved on it, and all these apps, these more inclusive ... These different dating apps.
I got up from my bed, I was reading it, I was so mad. I was like ... you had ... Some girl did something and I got so angry that you ... And you wrote it beautifully.
That I went down ... My son was sleeping and I woke him up. I said, “If you ever treat a girl like this I will break your arm!” Or something like that. Not break his arm, but I was like, “If you ever ... I am so mad at you right now!”
He was like, “Mom, what did I do? I’m like 12.” I was like, “Listen, I just want to make sure. You need to read this.” I made him read it. I was like, “Don’t ever speak to women online like this.” It was a ridiculous parenting moment on my part, but in any case it was ... It had a great impact on me.
I don’t think it’s ridiculous. Maybe it was a little abrupt.
But I think it’s necessary that as parents we do start talking to our kids, girls and boys, about ...
Yeah, I’m going to make him watch the documentary, too.
About the new ways that people communicate with each other.
Communicate with each other, yeah.
I wrote a book about that, “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” that goes into that very thing, and talked to a lot of schools. And parents often said, “Well, what do I do?” It seems pretty obvious to me, as it did to you, that we need to start having conversations like this about what this new technology ...
Yeah. Yeah, and how you interact and stuff. Let’s get started. Talk about how you got to here, because you have written a lot about this topic, and you were very early to writing onto it. Obviously everyone knows about Tinder and knows about dating and the changing nature of dating and the gamification. Talk about how you got into it because you were a longtime journalist. You covered various and different sundry things.
I started writing about teenagers in the ’90s at New York Magazine. I randomly got assigned a piece about teenage culture. There was not ... We didn’t say things went viral back then, but it was sort of the same kind of thing. It went “viral” in the sense that everybody was talking about it. And then it went from there to a series of articles, and then it became sort of my unofficial beat. So I’ve been covering ...
What was your first story? What was the first one you did?
It was called “Prep School Gangsters.” It’s about how hip-hop, the hip-hop generation, was influenced. I love hip-hop music, and I also covered hip-hop artists and nightlife and so forth for Vibe magazine. This was more about boys and how some boys, especially white boys in New York City, it was for New York Magazine, were adopting this kind of gangster mode.
Yeah, I’ve seen it.
It was, they were actually aspirational in ... To be gangsters, to actually be gangsters. Some of them were dealing drugs and getting into all kinds of situations.
It was more about the culture. Hip-hop was — this has been written about a lot by others, not by me — but the music industry pushed gangster rap. Not that it’s not great. I love a lot of those artists very much, but it was taken up in the sort of way that I think a lot of people could say bordered on a kind of racial offensiveness or racism. And yet, it was nuanced in the sense that I also saw all of these really interesting connections and relationships being formed.
It was sort of shocking, I think, to a lot of people who read it, what was going on.
I didn’t really think about it back then, but I was covering kids in technology back then.
Right, right. With music ...
Well, also, they were running around with cameras, these handheld video cameras. They were filming themselves fighting and having sex. It was the era of sex tapes — Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee — so it was this new kind of way that ... They were all suddenly watching porn, which they had not had the same availability to before.
Boys were watching a lot of porn, so … It was dial-up.
I would sit in these rooms with them and they would wait a long time … that “ding!”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
For these images to appear.
I didn’t really know it at the time, but I was already sort of noticing how technology was changing culture for kids because they were doing ... They were adopting, as kids do, technology earlier than everyone else and using it in ways that then became the way others used it.
That was a thing. I covered kids then and throughout my time at Vanity Fair. Also, I was often put on stories when I did celebrity culture that were about youngish celebrities: Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton.
Then, I did “The Bling Ring,” which was the story of the teenagers in Los Angeles who robbed celebrities’ homes.
And they used technology to find out when the people weren’t home. Then they also advertised things that they had stolen. They advertised on Facebook. That’s actually kind of how they were caught. If you watch Sofia Coppola’s film that she based on my article for Vanity Fair, it was called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” she incorporated a lot of these tech images.
Yeah, she did.
I think that film was very underrated, by the way.
I agree with you. I love that film.
It’s a really great film.
It is. It really is.
It is. I don’t know why ... I don’t know why people didn’t see that at the time. I think it’s going to come back around. People have been writing about it recently. Yeah. She and I, when I was consulting with her on the film, I told her, “They’re all ... They’re just on screens all the time now.”
This is 2013, so it was ... This was sort of coming up and coming along that this was happening. She incorporated this aspect of it very well, I thought, this kind of, like, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch way that the brain is sort of flitting around to all these different images all the time.
Right. Right. I call it continuous partial attention.
She has that in the film, I think, and graphically, it’s done very well. Then, I did a piece ... This is getting back to how did I write about technology.
You did the dating piece, the Tinder piece.
No, actually, the first thing that I really dived into tech and kids was ... It was called “Friends Without Benefits.” The first ... It was viral, 2013. It was about how girls use social media and how teenage girls, age 13 to 19, use social media. I was really, I think ... I think it’s safe to say I was the first person to really write about, in any kind of deep way, about likes and how likes had affected these girls’ self-esteem.
They’re feeling like they had to be validated by others’ approval and how it was messing with their heads. The continuous posting.
What attracted you to that, the idea? Because you could see the warping of these teen minds or ...
I started ... I wanted ... Okay, so 2012 we saw a lot of really tragic stories all of a sudden about cyber bullying that led to suicide. There was Amanda Todd, which is a tragic suicide that really devastated me. She committed suicide after having a non-consensual nude shared online by an older man that she met on some site.
These were things that we had never seen before. It’s unusual to see something that you’re actually like, “That has never happened before.”
I talked to Graydon Carter, who’s the executive editor at Vanity Fair, my boss for decades, and I said, “I really want to know what’s going on with all this, and why is it? Why do girls seem to be the victims of these events?”
There was Steubenville, where these girls ...
The video of the girl being assaulted was put online. It wasn’t only teenagers that were commenting in this very ugly way about it. There were adults as well. He said ... I think he said — and I think it was a good call as an editor — he said, because I wanted to focus on one case. He said, “Let’s find out what the broader thing is that’s going on with ‘average’ girls.”
Whatever that means. Regular people.
Rather than tragedy cases.
Rather than tragedy.
The ones who don’t —
Who are suffering from it, but don’t kill themselves or ...
Right. Exactly. I went to a couple cities and interviewed some girls about their social media use. It really ... People really had not been thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it.
The opening scene of that story, “Friends Without Benefits,” is about Tinder. It’s about a girl who ... This is 2013, I had never heard of Tinder. Of course I knew about Grindr, but she’s the one who told me about Tinder, and she said that she had had her heart broken by a guy. She was just going to go on Tinder and have sex with somebody, lose her virginity to get over it, get over her feelings. I said, “What’s Tinder?”
She took it out of her purse.
Took her phone out of her purse and started showing me what it was.
I was like, “Oh my goodness, so this is very different.” At that time, Tinder all owed 13- to 17-year-olds to be on the app.
Yes, they did.
Now they don’t.
That piece led to “American Girls” ...
Allegedly, but go ahead.
Allegedly. Well, they still make fake Facebook profiles and still get on it.
There were a lot of young girls, girls really young, like, 13, who were telling me they were on it.
Right. I know.
And talking to older guys, and “older” to them, to me, is even 16 or 17, but I mean older, like, 20s. This seemed very dangerous to me.
Not only in the kind of sexual assault-type situations that could occur, but even just emotionally.
Right. And the gamification of it, too. That it was a game.
A game, yeah.
Versus real relationships.
Going fast to ... Then I did this piece — while I was reporting my book, I did a piece for Vanity Fair — “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse.” It came out of another conversation with Graydon. He said ... I was telling him about, “Well, what are you up to?” I’m telling him about my book. He said, “Oh, yeah. You should do a piece just on those dating apps.” I said, “Uh, you know…”
I was actually very hesitant at that time because I thought, “Well, everybody kind of knows about them already. I kind of wrote about them in that last piece, that everybody’s on them.” He said, “It’s just ... But nobody’s really writing about the culture of it.” There were a lot of sort of cheerleading-type of stories that you see in the New York Times sometimes, or in other places.
“This is cool.”
Yeah. Like, “Hey, the kids are doing something new and isn’t it great?” I find a lot of times the writers ...
You just wrote like so many articles I’ve read.
Right? That is tech reporting.
Yeah. It can be.
I think, well, a lot of it.
I know that there are good, really good, people who cover the world of tech. You.
Sarah Lacy, Nick Bilton have a more critical eye and a more intelligent, analytical way of looking at it, but a lot of the stuff that gets written about ...
No, it is. “It’s great. Look at this. Isn’t it cool?”
Yeah, “Isn’t it cool? And the kids are doing it and Mark Zuckerberg’s such a boy genius.”
And “Wow!” So that was how the tone of what a lot of it was. I wrote this piece that was really about misogyny, sexism, sexual harassment.
Because this is what I heard from young women and men who were using ...
More than that, the willingness to put up with it, the ... Becoming anesthetized to people speaking to you in ways you should never be spoken to, or accepting that. That was what struck me about that article was that they had become used to it, and that to me was the saddest part of it.
Became used to it so quickly. I mean, we’re talking ...
Technology’s made so you do become used to it.
You allow yourself to become a piece of meat. You really do, or an object or a thing.
It had happened so fast. At one point, Nick Bilton said to me, when I was interviewing him actually for this movie that I’ve just done, “Swiped,” he said, “Technology makes everything go faster. Cars go faster, airplanes make us go even faster, but when you go faster you have more accidents.” I think the accident that has happened here is this ... I’m not sure that the creators of these platforms really even thought about this.
Well, that’s my whole issue with them right now. I’m having a large, long debate with Silicon Valley about what they should’ve known and what they didn’t know. It’s ...
They didn’t really think about how it was going to exacerbate misogyny.
No. They never thought about it. Absolutely. You did those articles. Then, talk about how you got to that. I want to get to the film in the next section. You were just interested in how these technologies were being used to change relationships, correct?
Yeah, especially in terms ... My subject, my focus is a lot on young women and girls, but in the film we have people from the LGBT community, a trans person.
Where it began, where a lot of these dating apps started.
I mean, way before Grindr, actually.
We talk about how they were and still are useful to people in the LGBT community who come from places where it’s often not even safe to openly be yourself, so they can be very useful and they can be a way to meet someone.
We talk about that. It’s not ... Nothing is ever 100 percent one way or the other. I know that they are used in all kinds of different ways, and yet the other thing that I’ve noticed is even where people do have positive experiences and even where they do appreciate the utility and so forth, and of course we know that they’re ... I mean, we all know that person who’s gotten married off of Tinder. That happens.
The New York Times ... Sorry, I’m not trying to Times-bash, but it is true that they love to put in their Vows section these things about “They met on Tinder!” In fact, when I was ... I don’t know why. I mean, it does happen. Okay. When I was at Tinder and I interviewed ... I can’t wait for you to see the film because when I interviewed them about it, and that’s what they say, and I … We ran a clip of that interview that you did with Sean Rad.
Because that’s what he says.
Right. That’s his thing.
Because you actually said to him ... Your piece ... Your question’s not in the film, but his response is. What you actually said to him was, “But isn’t it just a hookup app?”
Because they’re known colloquially as that.
He says, “Oh, well, we’ve gotten people married off Tinder. We’re just inundated with emails about people who have relationships.” Just all this bliss.
Yeah. I think my next answer was like, “Oh, come on.”
Wedded bliss. Okay, so then when I was ... We ran that, and then when I’m at Tinder they gave me ... They wouldn’t let me talk to Sean. He agreed for me to come, my film crew and everything. You can ask me about that if you want.
I will in a second, yeah.
Because it was like we had this big fight. Then, he was cool with it. We thank him in the credits for that, but he let us come up there. They wouldn’t let me talk to him. He said he was busy. I’m talking to Jessica Carbino. She’s the sociologist at Tinder. That was her title at the time.
I said, “Okay, so where’s the data? You’re a company that traffics in data. Where the data on all this?” She says, “Well, we don’t ... That data’s not available, but we are inundated with emails on a daily basis.” She uses exactly the same phrase, which meant to me, suggested to me that it was a talking point, because I do think that there are people who say that, “Well, anecdotally…” I think they want to believe in the fantasy of it.
They do, they do. They want to believe it’s not just a hookup app. They do.
They want to believe in the fantasy of it. They want to think that that romance that I so yearn for, which we all yearn for someone to love because it’s part of being a human being, is on this little app. It’s going to be so easy. I’m going to swipe. It’s going to be there.
Statistically, we don’t have any data. We have data. There is data on how many people want that, which is most people, 81 percent, says Hinge’s survey. They want a long-term relationship, eventually. Not that it’s bad if you don’t, but that is what most people do want, and yet there’s no data on who finds that.
Well, we’re here with Nancy Jo Sales, who’s a journalist and author and now the director of an HBO documentary called “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.”
You started to make this documentary. It wasn’t just Twitter, although swiping is a Tinder kind of thing, so talk first about going to Tinder. What was the ... How did you want to frame this? Just, like, stating “this is how people hook up” or what was the ... What was your point?
I wanted to investigate the culture of dating apps. I did not have any kind of agenda in my mind about, is this good, is it bad? In certain ways I would be hesitant to really pass judgment on anybody for ever using these things or doing whatever they want to do on them.
I was really more interested in hearing from characters who do use them, humanizing the people in those many stacks of pictures, and finding out about what their experience has really been, how it feels to be on these apps, what they see when they’re on them, how it makes them feel, what they’ve experienced.
We want to hear from people, actual ...
And the people who make them.
Actual users, and then, also, talk to the people who make them.
The people at Tinder and Bumble, and we also talked to Hinge. Then we finally talked to Mandy Ginsberg at Match Group, who’s the new CEO of the company that owns Tinder, OkCupid and many of these apps. I wanted to really find out, why did you make these things? How do you think it’s affecting culture? Does it bother you that there are people who have these very troubling, very troubling experiences and outcomes, including sexual assault? That’s what I took to them.
Did you? Now you ... there’s quite a little bit of history of dating apps. There was a move to technologize dating a long time ago. Lots of ways to do it. Then they moved it to another period, which I covered, which was a whole bunch of apps where it was like a clearinghouse, it was classifieds, essentially. Where they were, here’s some people you might like, here’s people who might match you. That was sort of the period of ... what’s the company that was a big pioneer in that? It wasn’t Ok ... OkCupid was one of them. There was a bunch of them. Things changed really dramatically, though, with the advent of the mobile phone.
We talk about that in the film.
Exactly. I’ll never forget, years ago, there was a ... I’ve seen all the startups that come through. And there was a ... it did start off a lot in the gay area, among gay men trying to hook up. And there was a ... I think it was called mtomforsex.com. Which I was like, oh all right. That pretty much says it all.
Yeah, I know what that is.
And I remember calling Jerry Yang of Yahoo, just talking to him, and he’s like, “What’s interesting?” And I go, “You gotta buy this company.” And he’s like, “I’m not buying mtomforsex.com.” I go, “No, no. The concept of it is brilliant.” Like, “I wanna have sex in the Castro at 4 o’clock, and I like to be peed on,” whatever ... it was like, and then it went “do-do-do-do,” and then found people.
And I go ... that is ... matching is brilliant, it’s astonishing that you could then literally make a list ... and I said, “It’s horrifying and fascinating and you should understand how important this is.” And as it got smarter and smarter ... and he, of course, didn’t buy the company, but I was really intrigued, not so much by the dating aspect of it, as it takes relationships down to ones and zeros in a way that had never happened. And with speed. Like that you can find someone locationally near where you are.
I think there’s also a stereotype, a homophobic stereotype of gay men that they just want to hook up.
And I found that when I talked to the gay men that I talked to for the film, what they wanted to talk about was not how much they loved all of this, but how it was making it harder to actually connect and have relationships with gay people.
Every gay man talks to me about this.
Right? Because with ... So I think that there’s a great quote, one of the ... and we talk about how it changed gay culture, too. Because there’s a great quote, a young man named Austin who’s in the film, that says it started to ... I know all these quotes by heart almost, cause I’ve ... you know, you sit with a film for a year editing it, it’s like you know everything by heart. He says, “It started to change the gay clubs. And it was like instead of talking to each other, and being there together, everyone was on their phones. And everyone was looking on their phones.” And he said, it occurred to him, “Why are we doing this?” because — and I love what he says — “We’re all already here at the dance.”
Right. Right, right, right. Yeah.
And like suddenly ... and we went into some gay clubs in New York and filmed, and everybody was on their phones. Not every single person ...
But they’re looking on Grindr or ...
And we have a young gay man in the film ...
What’s the other one, Scruff?
Scruff. He’s says, “You know, if I see somebody, and I’m bi, or whatever, who I’m attracted to, I won’t go over and talk to him. I will just go on Scruff and see if he’s on Scruff. And like maybe we’ll match on Scruff.” In the same room.
And this also was what we heard when we went to the University of California at Santa Cruz campus where we filmed, a lot of beautiful footage of that place, my goodness. What a beautiful place.
Yeah it is a beautiful place.
Beautiful place. And all these really wonderful, wonderful young people. We interviewed one of them who was trans, and they were saying that, “Oh yeah, college? College campus? Nobody talks and hooks up. We just go on Tinder.” People have asked me as they’ve been interviewing me for this film, “What did you learn? What surprised you?” And that is something that really surprised me, that in college ...
Right. They don’t want to meet ...
When they’re all there, and that’s like your time to talk to people and have flings and romances and relationships, and all your practice relationships for your future relationships. No. It’s all Tinder and ... mostly Tinder, actually. Other apps too as well, but on Santa Cruz campus it was Tinder. And they would even say like if you’re going to a party, you try and match with somebody before you go to the party, and meet the person that you match with at the party. So it’s already all arranged already.
So this whole weird way that, like you said, gamification is one issue, which we go into in the film with Adam Alter, he’s the great sociologist at NYU, wrote “Irresistible.” And we relate it to a B.F. Skinner experiment, it just like blew my mind.
Talk about the gamification of it. What’s happening? What’s happening when people are playing these things? Because when I see young people use them, often they’re doing it and they’re like, “[swipe] No, [swipe] no.” I’m like, “That’s a person that you’re just ...” it’s not like a product, it’s not something you’re going to ...
I can’t wait for you to see this. I would love to know what you think, because one of the most striking moments to me, in interviewing Jonathan Badeen, the CSO of Tinder, was when ... I said, “How did you invent this?” And he had talked a lot in interviews about ... you know, he’s looking at himself in the mirror and he’s swiping on the fog on the mirror and like that. Or like it’s looking at a deck of cards.
What he hadn’t said before this film, that I know of, is talking about gamification, and how he actually in part based this all on psychological studies and experiments involving addiction and gamification that he learned about in psych — I’m quoting him, “Psych courses” — in business school, or whatever major he was in, I’m not sure. So he’s talking ... he mentions this phrase, and I don’t want to get it wrong, but I believe it’s “variable ratio schedule, variable reward schedule”. Now this is all ...
Feels very mouse-like, but go ahead.
Oh, pigeons. All right.
It’s pigeons. It’s all related to an experiment done by B.F. Skinner, the very controversial — and some say very insidious — sociologist whose whole work was a lot about controlling behavior. “Oh look. Look what we can do. Look what we can make people do,” or make pigeons do.
He did this experiment — and then I went and had my archival researcher go and find the footage of the experiment, it’s in the film — where Skinner, this kind of, you know, some people would say evil genius, is surrounded by cages with pigeons. And this is what Tinder is. It’s like the pigeon becomes a gambler, because when he pecks and gets food, he gets bored, so he peck-peck-pecks, he doesn’t know when he’s gonna get the food. He might get it, he might not.
That’s the whole swiping mechanism. You swipe, you might get a match, you might not. And then you’re just like excited to play the game.
You just keep playing the game. Because it’s like, “Am I gonna match?” or “I might not match.” And people will match like ... we talked to people who would just match, match, match, match, match, and it was really just about the swiping and the matching more ... it became more about that.
Because it makes you feel better.
Right. You get that little dopamine rush.
And so he ... Skinner essentially turned pigeons into gamblers.
And so when you think about the ... because there’s two things you’re talking about there. One is gamification of it, which means it’s somewhat fun to start to treat people like not real people, just pictures on the screen. And the second part is addiction. That it’s addictive. Which great games ... successful games, not great games, usually are.
We have a character in the film named Kyle, he’s a young man in New York City, and he’s like a ... you know just like a regular heterosexual white dude, kinda the guy that these apps are sort of made for, would be my thesis.
Yes, they are. They are all made for ... everything on the internet is made for a white man who lives in San Francisco, and who wants things delivered.
Okay, I’m glad you said it. Well anyway, so ...
You know my joke that I always tell?
San Francisco is assisted living for millennials.
Think about it. Everything they want ...
I’ve been so heartened, in a way, because I have seen a lot of tweets and posts since the film came out on Monday, it’s on HBO now, you can see it on all the HBO platforms now, it’s called “Swiped.” I’ve seen a lot of tweets and so forth from young women — and men — who have said, “Wow, I didn’t realize that this stuff was made by like white tech bros. Like I wasn’t thinking about it.”
Of course it is.
They don’t think about it.
They’re not you and totally immersed in this culture. They’re not me on the sidelines, a reporter reporting on this culture. They’re just using it. They’re not thinking about who’s making it. They’re not thinking that like a bunch of white dudes in a dorm room ... most ... you know, were just sitting around saying, “Hey, how can we get all the guys like us laid?”
Which is not what ... I mean that’s a ... I understand that that’s a reductive way of saying it, but ...
No, it’s not. You’re a hundred ... yeah, they were thinking about the women, and how good they could feel about themselves the whole time.
They’re never thinking about ...
She has the sarcastic-face emoji.
Yeah. I was talking to someone from Twitter who recently ... who worked there, got attacked recently, online. On Twitter and stuff like that. And was like, “Oh, this was really hard.” I’m like, “Welcome to the experience of the rest of the world.” And the reason Twitter allows bullying is because the people who made it didn’t get bullied on Twitter.
You know what I mean? like there’s slow ...
And they would argue with me, and I just know it. I just ...
Yeah, well, the bullying is something that I covered a lot in my “American Girls” book, and it does sort of come into people’s experience on these apps too, because you could say that sexual harassment is a kind of bullying, it often spills into what is bullying.
We interview ... one of the most powerful things I think in the film is the story that is told by a young woman named Nicole, who went on a few dates with a guy she met on — I was about to say the app, I can’t say it — okay, she met him on a dating app. And he did not take kindly to the fact that she would not have sex with him. He felt that he was entitled to sex.
There have been ... there’s actually a recent case of a rape in England where the guy said as he was arrested, or at trial or something, “But I met her on a dating app. I mean we were supposed to have sex.” A lot of people feel, I think young men in particular, sometimes feel ...
That that’s what it’s for.
Yeah, that’s what it’s for. So he got mad at her, and he constructed a website about her. Now, I did not know how common this was. I talked to Danielle Citron who’s ... she’s “Hate Crimes in Cyberspaces,” she’s the author of that, and she’s a law professor, and she’s like, “Oh yeah, this is not uncommon.”
Not at all.
He made this website about her, all about how she was a crackhead.
And it was just completely not true.
And when she went to the app on which it had happened, they said, “Oh, sorry, not our problem, call the police.” Of course the police are not equipped to deal with something like this.
And she went to other people who might be able to help her, like Facebook and Instagram. Because this guy had scanned all of her photos ... scanned for every single bad photo of her that ever existed, 17 years old, drinking and at a party and looking awful, and all that kind of stuff. That’s her words, “looking awful.” And put it on this big mosaic. So it’s like terrible “ugly” pictures of her, her words, and then, “She’s a crackhead,” just because she wouldn’t sleep with him.
And so I think that the risks involved ... we do go into the risks involved, which are enormous, and include ... yeah, we talked to a young woman who met someone on another app who was sexually assaulted. He did not rape her, but he attempted to.
And so these horrible things are happening, and yet no one is talking about it. We’re in the #metoo moment, people are talking about sexual harassment and assault in every ... in the workplace, and all these ... even online. And yet not on dating apps. And that perplexes me. Because I would guess that the place where most young women, if not young people, are experiencing this kind of sexual harassment is on dating apps.
On a daily basis.
When you ... and the next thing I wanna talk about is sort of the responsibility of the tech companies to that. What is their actual responsibility? Which they seem to abrogate almost continually, on anything. On anything, whether it’s the Russians or dating apps or anything else.
I asked Mandy Ginsberg about that. She is the CEO of Match group, again. She’s newly hired, the first female CEO of Match Group, and she said, “Oh, well, we’re going to do everything we can to make all of these products” — you know, she actually said, “We’re in the #metoo moment, we’re going to do everything we can to make these products safe and great for women.” And I say, “Okay” — this is all on camera — I say, “Okay, well, how are you going to do that?” And she says — I swear to God, you’ve gotta watch it — she says, “We have tips: Don’t ever drink. Don’t get in someone’s car.”
“Don’t go to someone’s house. Young women have to be really careful.” I mean, a lot of young women actually have posted about this, and said this is very ... This is one of our problems, is that we put all the onus and the responsibility on young women “not to get raped,” whereas you know ... you have all these platforms where you’re meeting ... you’re putting together strangers, without any kind of vetting, without any kind of really knowing who this person is. Anybody can say anything from behind the screen. And when one of these things happens, you can’t get sued.
I think it’s, oddly enough, one thing I’m writing about next week is the immunity from Section 230 that these companies have.
There you go. That’s the problem.
You can’t get sued. I want them all to get sued.
Because then they’ll stop.
Exactly. That is the ... that is the heart, that is the Rosetta Stone of the whole thing. They can do ... they have no responsibility, and they don’t give an F, because it will never affect their bottom line if Nicole is bullied on a website, or Dylan, our character in the film, has a guy come over and tries to rape her. There’s no accountability whatsoever, and there doesn’t have to be. And it’s all Section 230.
It’s the whole thing.
You were talking about the ... They like to say the positive things about the uses of these. And some people like them, they like to meet people this way, because it is hard to meet people.
Well, and yeah, I mean we don’t dismiss that in the film. We do have a character named Claudia, in the Santa Cruz section, and she says, “Hey look, I like casual sex. I wanna have casual sex. I have casual sex on these apps and that’s just fine with me.” And that’s fine with me too, and that should be fine with everybody. You should be able to choose whatever you want to choose.
But the problem is that, as we’ve already discussed, most people want a real connection, a real kind of lasting, or at least short-term, long-term, whatever ... but something realer. That’s borne out by studies, most people do want that, men and women.
And the marketing of these companies is that they’re gonna get that on these apps, and yet there is no proof, or study, or anything, or data, that that is what you get, statistically. And even Justin McLeod, who is the CEO of Hinge, who we interview in the film, he openly says these swiping apps, these swiping platforms privilege people who want hookups.
Right. Absolutely. So they’re designed that way. What do you think ... is there any that’s sort of tried to be different, from your perspective, that you think is decent?
I’m always really hesitant to say what’s ...
Because Bumble tried, who was one of the founders ... but tried, I mean that was their premise. But didn’t. And then ... is there any of these that ...
I’d be really interested for you to see the interviews that we have with Whitney Wolfe Herd in the film.
She was one of the original Tinder people, and then went off, had a ...
Well yeah, she’s in the film. And she’s being sued now by Tinder for allegedly stealing the swiping mechanism.
Bumble is very similar to Tinder. And the only real difference is that women have to message first. And her marketing — which has bee qn very successful — is that this makes it feminist because you have to message first. And this makes it so that you can’t get harassing messages. But that’s not true. I’ve talked to women who’ve been harassed on Bumble. As soon as you contact them, they can then harass you.
Right, right, right.
You’re just messaging them first.
So is there anyone that doesn’t ...? I’m just ... that’s the marketing for that, is that you have control of it, but you don’t. Once you’ve started your first ...
I think that a lot of marketing is done around the ... With this dating industry that kind of robs a ... it kind of adopts a feminist discourse, and kind of makes it seem like you’re gonna be all liberated and empowered if you do this. Because that sells it better. A lot of companies do that with women, when they want to sell them something that isn’t necessarily in their best interest, or even good for them. But they’ll say, “Hey, but if you do this, you’re gonna be a feminist.”
Because you can have control of your ...
Right, and I mean actually we have this dating historian in the film, she’s really great, her name’s Zoe Strimpel, and she had this great British accent. And she says, “But that’s just ... but Bumble” — her critique of it is, “That just means women have to do more work, and they always have to do more work.”
What about the specific ones, like JDate or the others? Because there was ... best ad I ever saw, I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and there was an ad for I think it was JDate, and it said, “Why is this app different than others?” It was ... you know, “Why is this night different than others?” It was written, very funny thing ...
Yeah, that’s cute. A lot of them have good marketing.
Yeah, they really do. Is there any of those specific ones, like ChristianMingle, or JDate, or ...
There’s an app now for everything.
Yeah, there is.
Do those change ...
There’s Farmers ... there’s FarmersMeet ... or farmers something. I went on it because I wanted to know what it was like. What are they doing on here? And I was on my book tour, and I was in the Midwest somewhere.
Did you meet a farmer?
I didn’t. But I could have. There was a lot of discussion of livestock and barns and stuff.
I like that, okay.
Yeah, cool. Okay. A guy in a flannel shirt, that’s cool. But you know, I just ... There’s nothing wrong with being a farmer, I just ... we need farmers. Farmers. I like farmers. But I’m just saying ... what I was trying to say is that they can get very specific, and very ... they can go into very specific things. They’re trying to make money, so they’re looking at every demographic and ...
Are those better, or not? Or is there anything ... is there any way this could be done using technology in a good way?
To meet people?
In a good way.
You know ...
Or does it just remove all the emotion from it so it makes it impossible and it becomes utterly transactional? I wonder. I don’t know the answer to this, because some days ... like I was having a discussion with Kevin Systrom from Instagram ... I think about Instagram and those other ones a lot because I find them performative, and I find them ... nobody feels good.
No. There’s a lot of ...
Everyone shoves stuff into it, but it ...
When my book “American Girls” first came out, like you said, it was one of the first to sort of talk about this stuff. Some people resisted it and said, “Oh no, that’s not true.” And now there’ve been ... in the last few years there’ve been like a million studies, this stuff makes people, especially young people, feel bad. Makes them anxious, makes them depressed, it can lead to all kinds of things, like cutting. The sexualization can lead to all sorts of body image issues and everything.
When I’ve gone to schools, every single school that I have been to, talk to teachers. If you want to know what this stuff is really doing to kids, talk to teachers because they have to deal with it every single day in the classroom. Most schools do not ban phones because their parents want them to have their phones so that they can be in contact with them. The teachers say — I heard this again and again and again — “This is ruining our school.” I think because they’re just too addicted, they’re too distracted, they’re not paying attention, they’re not looking at the teacher, they’re trying to text or sext or watch porn or whatever it is.
Just read the news.
Or just talking about whatever. Going on BuzzFeed, whatever, on their phones instead of paying attention to what’s happening. They don’t know how to be in the moment a lot of the time.
So, think about a good way of using ... Is it just too addictive to ...
Well, okay. So, I think what we have to face is that this is unprecedented.
We’ve never had a way of meeting each other like this before.
No. I just had Jaron Lanier on a podcast, he had written a book about getting off of social media. He’s a technologist, he loves technology. But I think one of the things he said that was most profound is we’ve never had an experiment with all the world talking to each other in a digital format and instantly. He said maybe we’re not ready for ... He thinks humanity’s not ready, can’t handle what’s happened.
It’s going too fast.
We’re guinea pigs. We’ve become products. I think that’s pretty clear. We are providing valuable data on a pretty consistent basis to people who are making money off of us. We’re laborers, in a sense, to people who don’t really care whether or not we fall in love or get married or whatever. They want our data, they want our money.
Well, Tinder is now charging a lot for its services. After they get you addicted and hooked, a lot of these companies, then they start charging for certain features. Well, no more swipes, but you can do this and you can do that. What I always try and do in this work is trying to get people to think about that, to think about the man behind the curtain and what ... And really to connect with your feelings and how you really feel. Not only when you’re swiping, but when you’re actually meeting up with these people and having sex with them and stuff.
We have a sex therapist. She’s a sex therapist and she talks about connection and how good sex is really about connecting, to connecting with yourself even. Connect with yourself and be in the moment with yourself. If you have technology, which makes people so dissociative, with not only others ...
Right. That’s exactly the right word.
... but with their own selves, and it becomes this thing where, like, this is what I’m supposed to do. I push this button, push button, send these six messages, and that’s ... One of the guys says in the beginning of the film, six messages is all it takes and then I’m with this person and our clothes are off. You know, just connect with yourself.
Right. So is there any good to it? Because I, at this moment, I don’t actually have an answer to that. When I think of what’s good in these kind of things, and this is not a dating app, but whatever you think of Uber or Lyft, it’s a utility, it moves. When it becomes a utility, it is, but what’s happened is dating has become a utility versus when it’s ... I want to buy something, it arrives, that’s better than going to Best Buy. It is. It just is. It’s a better experience. I’d rather not have done the Best Buy experience. Whatever happens ...
But I think that’s a really great argument for what’s disturbing about this, because you just talked about buying stuff.
Right, I know, but that’s what I’m saying. Dating doesn’t fit into it, and that’s the problem and they put it into that paradigm.
That when I’m saying, when I like digital, it’s that kind of thing.
Right? And it does make sense. There’s nothing wrong with it.
Well, no. Just because you look at something critically doesn’t mean you’re a Luddite and want it just to all go away and you want to go live with the Amish, and like, you know, I don’t know.
I think the Amish themselves understand, so ...
I’m sure they have Tinder. No offense to Amish people, but you know what I mean? It’s so pervasive and so addictive, but I think that’s a good analogy, and that’s the point at which we should start thinking about it. Like a guy in that article that you referenced, “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse.”
I’m still mad about that article. I still want to wake up my kids. “What the hey?!”
I don’t write the headlines, but “dating apocalypse,” by the way, was a quote. It got taken up as this weird thing. People were like, “Oh, she says there’s not going to be more dating. I went on a date last night.” It was a quote from a young woman describing what a mess it all was. But there’s a guy in that piece who says it’s like ordering Seamless, except you’re ordering a person.
And I’ve had other people who I don’t think have read that article make similar analogies, but we’re not Seamless. We’re human beings, and it’s really ...
So, what do we do? Let’s finish up talking about what happens? Where does it go? Where’s it going, first of all, from your ... You know, you’ve done a documentary. It has a certain space in time, but where’s it going? Where’s it headed?
Virtual reality sex and sex robots.
That’s right. Yep.
We talk about that in the end of the film. I think that’s what’s next.
“Minority Report,” remember?
The first thing that’s going to happen is livestreaming on Tinder and other dating apps. That’s happening almost immediately. You know, in other words, people will be able to, instead of just swiping on a picture — that’s going to look really, really rudimentary very quickly — people will be able to stream. They already stream. What most people, not most, but a lot of people do on dating apps is they match and then go offline.
Well, meet or just to have cyber relationships, maybe sometimes just cybersex. Go to FaceTime. So in other words, maybe take that FaceTime thing and maybe they start, you know, mutually sexting through FaceTime after they’re on the app and meet each other. “What’s your number?” So that ... I’m sure the dating apps know that, so they’re just going to incorporate that into the platform so you can just start doing that right away. Are people going to talk about Tolstoy and stuff? Maybe, some people will, but I think a lot of times, it’s just going to turn into ...
It’s going to become naked stuff. And that’s cool if that’s what you want to do, but like I said, it’s not ...
What is that app that did that? You had to go to business. It wasn’t ... Roulette. Something chat.
Chatroulette, yeah. Which everyone was horrified, but now that’s going to happen.
Yeah. It’s happening, and I think it’s going to be ... Adam Alter says, in the film, if you could just put on some goggles and put, you know, some of those things ...
Haptic. It’s called haptic.
Okay, thank you.
Put on that thing that’s going to attach to your appendages or whatever. Whatever you’ve got down there. You don’t have to spend any money, you don’t have to get dressed up, you don’t have to take an Uber, you can just sit in your home and feel like you’re not just having sex with someone, but that person can look like Scarlett Johansson or Chris Hemsworth or whatever, why wouldn’t you do that? That’s what he says. Why wouldn’t you do that every day?
Instead of, you know, people are difficult to get to know ...
Yes, they are.
... and deal with and have relationships with. Relationships are hard, marriage is hard. I did it twice unsuccessfully. Even just the highs and lows and fallout of a hookup is so difficult to deal with sometimes.
So I think that probably what’s going to happen is technology, people who want to make money through this technology, are going to step in and say, “Hey, guess what? You don’t have to go through any of that. You can just put on your goggles.”
And I think that there are people, of course, who will just be horrified by that and who will say, “No, I don’t want to do that. I want to go through all that hard work of knowing someone because that is valuable to me.” I think there are lots and lots of people who will still want that and still do that, but I think there are a lot of people who will just ...
You think that’s good then? Removing all that friction, so to speak?
You know, I always try and not say good/bad because I don’t know. I know that it makes me sad, and I know that a lot of people who have watched ... There’s something about it that makes me sad.
And I know that a lot of people who have watched the film have said, even though I’ve been lucky, you know, a lot of people really liked the film and they’re tweeting about it and got some good reviews and all that kind of stuff and coverage, but a lot of people have said that, that it makes them sad, that it seems sad that this is where we are this is where we’re going.
So, VR, haptic, what else?
Sex robots. In fact, there’s already some sex robots out there.
They’re becoming more and more affordable, and there have been memes. Now, you don’t have to understand also, the way that this subject matter affects me and my perspective on it is as a woman and as a woman who has written recently about young women and girls and who has a daughter, not that you have to have a daughter to understand.
No. Thank you for saying that.
Of course not.
Of course not. You don’t at all. But I do have one, and it does affect how I look at these things. Of course. So, that’s true too. Both things are true. You don’t have to have one, but if you do have one, we can all appreciate that all of our experience is legit.
Yes, 100 percent.
And we can all add to each other’s understanding. So, as someone who comes at it from a perspective that I would call, yes, feminist, it disturbs the heck out of me because I see it as being ex ... and it’s not just that I think this, it’s I see it. I see it. I interview young guys who, you know, and there’s some young guys in the film who feel very emboldened to say and do degrading things because the technology seems to promote that.
And we don’t want to blame them, especially when they’re really young and they’re teenagers and stuff, they’re just growing up in this culture. Of course, they’re personally responsible for anything that they do.
Yeah, it does. I mean, someone’s not ...
But their toxic masculinity is a thing.
No, I think it’s designed to dehumanize. Even text, the things you say on text that you wouldn’t say in person.
Well, so I’ve seen these memes lately ... My editor, I was really lucky, my editor’s only 25 years old. Never did a film before, and this was his first film. I wanted someone young. I really lobbied with HBO to get someone very young. He’s really a brilliant guy, I think. You’ll see in the film, he’s a great editor, Spencer. And so, you know, he’s aware of all this stuff, and he’s on these apps and he, you know, is a social media kid. He grew up with social media, and that’s why I wanted his perspective in the film. So, just a few days ago actually, he sent me all these memes he was starting to see on Instagram about robot sex.
They’re very much like, you see her, the robot, bent over, ready to do whatever. I don’t know the exact phrasing, but to paraphrase, something along the lines of, “Why deal with a real girl when you have this?”
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
So, is it good, bad? I mean, huh.
That’s bad. I’m going to go there. I’m going to make ... I’m going to make a value judgment there.
I’m going to let Kara say it because she’s allowed.
Yeah. You are, too. You know that’s bad. That’s like, “Oh no, come on.”
I know that makes me upset, and I don’t want, you know, I don’t want young women to have to see that and have to feel like that’s preferable to me, this real person here with a beating heart that you could get to know.
So, let’s end on the positivity, if we can do it.
What could save this, besides the entire breakdown of the internet?
What could save what?
Where could dating go that would ... Is there any sign that it’s not going this direction, that people want to meet in person? Is there any quaint moment where people go, you know, “You know what? Let’s not do it this way. Let’s do it a different way.”? Or is it just the Amish?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. And again, I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do with this film or with any of my reporting. I’m uncomfortable telling people what to do. I don’t like anybody telling me what to do.
But I report, and watch what I found out. Also, the film is beautiful. Can I just say that?
I mean beautiful to look at. I have the best DP. His name is Daniel Carter, and he just, I mean, he just made the world of dating ... Even as disturbing and as troubling as it is, it’s a beautiful film just to look at. He’s just a great cameraman. He did a great job. We had this ... I spoke with him, I spoke with Daniel, and also, the colors for the film, about how colorful I wanted to make it. I wanted it to look like an iPhone, because this is all taking place in a very colorful world.
Yes, those colors are for a reason, another addiction.
Right. Addiction, popping ...
I always go around and grayscale peoples’ phones, and then they-
... ’cause you don’t like your phone ...
You don’t want to look at it anymore.
You don’t want to look at it anymore.
That’s so funny.
I’ll grayscale yours later.
So this is a ... I should. I’m way too addicted to it, myself. It’s just a beautiful film with a lot of colors in it, and it’s just great to look at, I think.
So, is there any —
Okay, so, the good story. Going back to “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse,” there’s a guy in that story. It’s all, you know, he’s the Tinder Man, the Tinder King or something. There were Reddit threads about him. Everybody talking about him because he was effing a different girl on Tinder every night, and you know, so, he kind of became my friend. He’s a young guy. It’s okay, because we don’t know his name, and you don’t know who he is. But he’s a real person, and he became sort of my friend.
A lot of these guys become, you know, women too, become my friends because I like them. They’re interesting. He reached out to me a few months after the piece came out and he was having a lot of trouble emotionally. He had a lot of addictions. Not just to Tinder, but drinking and drugs. Cocaine. He reached out to me, and he said, “I’m not really feeling okay. What do I do?” So, I hooked him up with a person that I know who’s in that medical profession, about getting some help. Cut to a year later, he doesn’t use ... He went to different, you know, rehabs and so forth, and he doesn’t use any of that stuff anymore. It’s all related, I think.
I think it’s all related. It’s all about addiction.
This country has a real problem with addiction of all kinds. Food, alcohol, drugs, technology, dating apps, it’s all addiction. So he’s not on any of it anymore, and I said, “So, how do you date now?” And he said, “Well, my therapist said I should really get a hobby, you know, to take up my time when I’m not working or whatever,” so he took up swing dancing.
Oh. That’s a good way to meet people.
Yeah, he became a swing dancer.
He’s not Tinder Man anymore. He’s Swing Dancing Man.
Okay, we’re going to end off there.
And he met a nice young person, and they’re together.
So, I’m not saying everybody’s gotta do a swing dance-
Swing dancing is a great way to meet.
But, whatever. I mean, he’s dancing instead of swiping.
Nancy, I think we’re going to end on that. That makes me happy. That’s a really ... That’s fantastic. Tinder Man, you’re Swing Dance Man.
I’m so glad he’s, you know, doing well.
Well, good. All right. The movie is called — the documentary on HBO, thank you, Richard Plepler — is called “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.” It’s now available on HBO?
Is it going to have any other showing, a theatrical showing or anything?
HBO, HBO Go, HBO Now, all the HBO platforms.
All the HBO ... Okay.
It was shot for television.
All right. What’s next for you?
I’m trying to get somebody to give me a chance to do another documentary I have an idea for. That’s really what I think I want to do now.
I love doing this so much. Not dating, something completely unrelated.
All right. It’s a great way to express yourself.
I think I finally — and you know, I’ve done a lot of things — I think I’ve finally found the thing I like doing the best.
Well, good. This is fantastic. I urge everyone to watch it, and I’m going to watch it. Not tonight because I’m going to go do something analog tonight, but when I get in front of the next screen, I do. Nancy Jo, it was great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show.
You too. Thank you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.