What’s in a label?
Duguay began her study with a thorough investigation of the Tinder app’s design, looking at the mechanics its developers created in order to guide users for its intended purpose. She next looked at dozens of media articles about people using it for purposes other than social, romantic or sexual encounters. Finally, she conducted in-depth interviews with four “off-label” users.
One user’s profile was being used to conduct an anti-smoking campaign. Another, an anti–sex trafficking campaign. A third was using the app to market her health products and the last was supporting US Senator Bernie Sanders’s Democratic Party presidential nomination run in 2016. She then compared and contrasted these different approaches to off-label use.
“I found that a lot of the time, Tinder’s expected use — dating and hooking up — informed or complemented their campaigns,” she says. “There would be an element of flirtatiousness or they would draw on users’ perception of Tinder as a digital context for intimate exchanges.”
She adds that many Tinder users who were on the app for its expected uses became upset when they discovered these profiles’ actual aims. “That shows that off-label use can be somewhat disruptive on the platform,” she says. “Though this depends on how narrowly people see that app’s purpose.”
Not looking down on hooking up
Duguay says conversations involving Tinder tend to not to be taken very seriously because of the app’s association with hookup culture. This dismissiveness obscures a larger point, she feels.
“I think sex and dating are very meaningful activities in our society,” she says. “But I was also seeing this range of activity on Tinder. Platforms like this are more like an ecosystem, and when users adopt different purposes than the ones they are designed for, the platforms can change their guidelines or features in ways that greatly affect their users.”
Duguay’s research has more recently included looking at how dating apps are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with David Myles, affiliate professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and Christopher Dietzel, a PhD candidate at McGill University, the three researchers are investigating how dating apps have communicated health risks to their users and taken measures in response to social distancing guidelines. Their preliminary findings are currently under peer review.
Read the cited paper: “You can’t use an app for that: Exploring off-label use through an investigation of Tinder.”