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Courtship and Camera Angles

Decoding Tinder Profile Pictures

Tinder is now a huge part of our romantic imagination. “Swiping right” is a sign of approval and sex appeal, while our pictures stand in for the ever-so-important first impression. We’ve eliminated that chance meeting, the sign of fate, the story of how we met. Looking for a date now is no longer about approaching someone, reading body-language, and judging chemistry through conversation. It is about decoding pictures.

Philosophers Alain Badiou and Richard Kearny have discussed the changing landscape of dating along the lines of the body, our touch, and how we filter the qualities of our lovers through dating apps. 

In her paper, "Unpacking the Tinder Lexicon: Visual Rhetoric and Power," Chelsea Bihlmeyer discusses power processes through Michael Foucault’s theories using how we filter what is considered desirable, and what is not, in our Tinder profiles. 

Equally as interesting, she uses Roland Barthes’ “rhetoric of the image” to analyze the denotations and connotations of Tinder profile pictures. In this theory, Barthes suggests that we can break down the message of an image, or in this case, the profile picture in three ways; the written, the detonation, and the connotation. The written is the little biography that a user offers on Tinder. It gives some context. The detonation is reading the image without any deeper meaning or understanding of the symbolism present. For example, you see a woman in the picture with her dog, and that is exactly how you read it.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. The connotation is how we become Tinder pros, or at least get a better idea of who we are going to date. The connotation is the new first impression. For the connotation of the Tinder profile pic to be read properly, one has to be in tune with culture, sub-cultures, and their symbolic qualities. What kind of cues does the profile pic offer? 

Instagram-trendy clothes could mean someone who picks up on small visual details, or a mirror pic in someone’s bedroom could help you see some of that person's identity by what they have on display in the background. Someone posing by their truck could mean they’re trying to signify a certain type of masculinity. Even selfies have their own set of symbols (narcissism, maybe). We learn about our romantic prospects not through conversation, but through an image and what we pull from it. This, of course, doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it is influenced by the surrounding culture(s).

Expressing identity through an image is nothing new. We might do it now more often because of social media, but artists such as Frida Kahlo have been using images as symbols in their art to express their identity in self-portraits, while royals and nobles have been painted wearing their wealth for hundreds of years. We’re deciphering identity in a format that is more like an art museum of portraits, rather than using verbal cues and asking questions.

This leads to more interesting questions about identity. How much of it is wrapped up in what someone can see about us? What do we keep on display in our homes and why? What do we collect? What art do we like? What do we hide about ourselves in these profiles? A photo also leaves a lot open to the viewer. It leaves room for the daydream. We can imagine more about what this person is like, and insert our own fantasies into the idea of this person. For the moment, the narrative is in the viewer's control, and it may be the re-creation of the fairy tale or, at least, the romantic comedy.

We are using one sense to judge a partner upon first impression. We don’t know how they smell, we can’t judge their body language, and we don’t know the sound of their voice. Kearny suggests that we are losing something by skipping the meet-cute and obsessing over dis-embodied photos. 

We might be, but in a culture where Instagram thrives and we chant “pic or it didn’t happen,” it is the obvious next step that our most intimate aspects of our lives, our love lives, would start with a photo. 

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