Dating the world

Tinder has made its Passport function freely available. Typically reserved for paying members, it allows users to change their profile location in order to match up with people across the globe. Just click on a city in the world you’re interested in and begin swiping.

The dating app is pitching its offer as a remedy against isolation, brought about by COVID-19. “People are feeling a potent mix of anxious and lonely”, Tinder said in a company statement. For many singles, they note, social distancing has amplified the need to communicate.

Even though we’re socially distant, Tinder members haven’t disconnected, there were more swipes on Sunday March 29th than on any single day in the history of Tinder (3+ billion swipes) […] Rates of Passport use were up over the last week of March in Brazil: 15%, Germany: 19%, France: 20% and India: 25%.

The budding romances that Tinder is currently enabling are part of the cultural longing for a reopened world. As I wrote elsewhere, this is a more alluring dream than ever.

Then there’s the language of social entrepreneurship Tinder uses. “We’re inspired by how people are using Tinder to be there for each other, and we want to fan these flames of social solidarity.”

Of course, it would be difficult to overestimate the value that online sociality can have in times like these. But the key to understanding the success of Passport lies elsewhere. If anything, it demonstrates the co-constitution of romantic imagination and touristic place-making. It is about the relations with the places that people are having relations in.

The ideological underpinnings of Passport are on full display in Tinder’s first advertisement for Tinder Plus. It is a 90-second thrill ride of touristic mythology.

The advertisement starts in an office cubicle — not the grey, claustrophobic kind, but the Manhattan variety, bright and spacious. A blonde girl, hard at work, gets a message from a friend: “Hey, how was your vacation!?” The girl smirks, sits back and lets out a sigh of relief as a subtle electronic rhythm starts swelling, much like the waves we’re hearing.

We see her on a tourist ferry. As she opens her Tinder app, she selects her current location: London. Joyous music now kicks in, as a brisk-paced sequence of travel vignettes flashes by. She’s taking pictures of Big Ben (with a plastic camera, not her phone), waiting on the metro (not the cab), playfully holding an issue of Suitcase magazine inside said metro, eating fish and chips like a proper Brit. Then, the other cast shows up: she is with a guy, visiting a soccer stadium. He takes her home; she says goodbye at the doorstep and contemplates that choice in the bathroom.

Next scene: Paris. A young man named Sam shows up on her dating app. “It’s a match”, Tinder chirps, and in the next shot, Sam hands her a bouquet of red roses in front of the Eiffel Tower (we softly hear him say “Bonjour”, while the girl sighs and flicks a curl behind her ear). Now they are taking selfies, posing in front of the Louvre, smiling in a carousel by night. Then, the fallout at the end of act two: they fight on the street, she chucks a glass of water in his face, only to immediately start making out with him. Next shot: she wakes up in bed, Sam next to her. They go to a museum, drink wine on another boat; he gently holds the side of her back as she beams in romantic joy. He kisses her — first on the cheek, then as the French do — as her cab is waiting, her suitcase already in its trunk.

The third act commences, and we see the girl flicking through Tinder again. As she changes her location once more, we see she has messaged Sam: “Miss you!” He responds: “Have fun in Istanbul! Maybe see you soon ;)” We see a foggy day, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, as the wayward girl buys trinkets and sweets and coffee in colorful stalls. But when she sits down, watching yet another splendid piece of history, she sighs. There is no one to share it with. Until Sam moves into the frame again — a single rose in hand. Now they’re visiting Cappadocia, riding camels, and ending up in a luxurious hotel room. She sits in the bathtub, takes off her top. Cut to the next day, a balloon flight at sunset. They kiss. Hard cut to the office and the music falls away, where she falls back in her chair with a sigh and a satisfied look in her eyes.

Clearly, the ad is just as much about touristic romanticism as it is about romance. It is an ode to the intensity of travel. This might also be why Tinder Passport strategically adheres to the limits of the physical body: one can search in only place at a time. On its blog, Tinder developers compared the feature to “teleporting to a different location”. These functionalities all underscore the imaginative act of travel that Tinder speaks to. The list of potential places to start swiping in feels a lot like the front page of It asks: where to next?

What Passport offers is an intoxicating confluence of places and faces. What better way to begin exploring Rio de Janeiro, Paris, or Seoul than by speaking to someone who lives there? All the minutiae of dating a foreigner come into play: fashion choices, linguistic limitations, particular kinds of humor, and so on. Every potential date we meet is also a local. In fact, their status as the former becomes significantly more relevant due to their status as the latter.

As such, the Tinder Passport is more resembling of Airbnb’s recently introduced Online Experiences function than anything else. Airbnb has always sought its competitive advantage in the authenticity of its hosts — people living in a place you want to explore, whose local expertise renders your experiences more valuable, and even more real.

Airbnb’s corporate slogan, Belong Anywhere, turns locality into a transitive property. It means that the ‘belonging’ of the host, in itself an assigned value, can rub off on us. The Online Experiences function packages this principle as a form of ‘distant learning’:

“Now you can meet people all over the world while trying something new. Join live, interactive video sessions led by expert hosts — all without leaving home.”

The Passport function similarly answers to the fluidity of social dynamics in contemporary tourism. It offers a global repository of singles, a standing-reserve of people waiting to be met, whose locality is endemic to their attractiveness. It shows that love cannot be spelled out without the place giving birth to it.

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