Tinder and other dating apps have come to define modern dating, and notoriously so. Users download the Tinder app to their phones or other devices and can then view the profiles of potential dates nearby. If they think someone might be a match, they swipe to the right on their touchscreens to show interest. If the other person swipes right too, a chat can begin, which might lead to an in-person meeting.
This initial introduction involves minimal information – a photo and some basic details about yourself. The result is that romance and trust are sometimes assumed to be missing from the dating process. Added to this are fears of harassment and scams as well as uninspirational (and often sexually aggressive) Tinder opening lines like, “Wow, your clothes would look great bundled on my bedroom floor”. Yet, Tinder remains firmly part of the repertoire when looking for love, casual connections or intimacy.
Now Tinder’s chat game has been taken to new heights with the much discussed “smart” chatbot, ChatGPT. Prompted by a typed question or instruction, ChatGPT provides answers and suggestions that have surprised many with their plausibility. It seems to have human qualities even though it is an artificial intelligence tool that frames its answers based on vast amounts of data from the internet. Some Tinder users have started to consult ChatGPT to suggest creative lines to use when chatting, modelled to the profile information available. It can even be used to design more intriguing profile biographies.
But what does this mean for app dating? Does it make building trust through technologies even more difficult? I don’t think so.
To consider the question, I draw on the experiences of 25 Tinder users in Cape Town, South Africa whose dating journeys I followed for two years. My research confirmed that the first phase of app dating is regarded with some scepticism and caution. But it also revealed that users often find ways to make the app’s technology work to build trust and romance. It depends on how it’s used.
What is ChatGPT?
ChatGPT was launched by OpenAI, a US research laboratory, in November 2022 and sparked a chatbot development race among global tech giants. Available free, ChatGPT reached 100 million users within just two months who soon got creative with it.
Significantly more sophisticated than earlier chatbots, it builds sentences by picking words that are likely to follow one another, drawn from a large pool of information. While it doesn’t always do well with very simple questions, it impresses when more things are specified besides a topic – like the mood, tone or intellectual level required of its response.
ChatGPT can be used as a search engine to suggest a list of literature on, say, feminist theory. But it can also be instructed to write an essay or a poem on living as a woman. Or a podcast introduction on the topic, for that matter.
Even if the bot is not always factually correct – just like a human – it creates conversation that seems confident and intelligent, even humorous and witty. And it’s getting better at it.
Tinder meets chatGPT
Users experimenting with ChatGPT realised it can make the initial stage of Tinder dating less tedious and replace cringy or boring human pick-up lines with more intriguing and personalised ones, even entire poems.
On Tinder, there’s a general agreement that certain behaviour is wrong – like catfishing (pretending to be an entirely different person). But things get blurrier when Tinder already offers built-in chatbot technology to suggest opening lines – like, “What are your favourite song lyrics?”. Tinder users can also manipulate their photos with filters or exaggerate their most positive attributes to attract more attention.
These slight manipulations are among the reasons my research respondents found Tinder introductions lack authenticity. The debates around ChatGPT and its potential to shortcut the labour needed to establish relationships made me think about their struggles to really connect online. Apart from an appealing profile, another deciding factor for a match is proving oneself through quick wit and bold banter. This can easily go wrong under pressure and communicating via text, emojis and GIFs. Enter ChatGPT.
Will trust be ruined?
Confident chatbots could indeed make the process of building trust and romance more complicated. But are they spoiling the integrity of romance and trust on Tinder? My answer would be no. ChatGPT will probably inspire bolder lines that users often dare to write.
While the line between inspiration and deception may become thin at times, this doesn’t necessarily mean that human qualities like creativity or confidence become replaced. Nor does it have to lead to an erosion of trust.
Putting ChatGPT to the test
Putting ChatGPT to the test, it seems one might actually get some surprisingly useful dating advice from it. When I asked clumsily for an opener for Tinder, the chatbot offered me some general advice and then concluded, “The opening line is just the beginning of the conversation. The most important thing is to be genuine, show interest in the other person, and be respectful.”
ChatGPT could be used to cheat in online exams or spread misinformation, but it can also be part of constructive development. For instance it can prompt a rethink about what education should look like. Similar discussions should be encouraged regarding dating. What do we want intimacy to be today?
Technologies don’t disrupt by themselves. Dating and sexuality are part of social processes that involve regulation and coding. Manipulating, violating or playing with these rules is also nothing new. The ways in which this happens change. When they do, we need to focus not so much on the technology but on how it is used. It’s worth remembering that humans can be untrustworthy and untransparent offline as well. In its worst applications, technology just accentuates this.
Technology is people
The fact that the Tinder users I interviewed kept deleting and redownloading the app showed me there’s a willingness to persevere, to navigate through the clichéd openers and posed images to get to more meaningful encounters. Experiences that felt inauthentic were part of this.
Given that the bar is quite low on Tinder and people tend to play it safe by not revealing too much about themselves, bold and personalised ChatGPT may initially seem like a breath of fresh air.
But there’s no reason to believe that intimacy can be readily manipulated through the bot on a deeper level. My research found that the initial stage of Tinder dating, the online part, was recognised and humoured as a necessary stepping stone to get to the “real stuff”.
The good news about it all is that Tinder users have become good at sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to say. Even if this is a tiresome process, it’s a life skill that’s becoming ever more relevant.
A performance of confidence through ChatGPT cannot be maintained for long anyway. Once it wears thin and questions become more personal, people have to fall back on their ability to communicate sensitively, take risks, and slowly build trust.