I’ve never actually used Tinder, but the basic premise seemed perfect as a case study for how information as a means of sending technical information can be compared/contrasted with the meaning making that accompanies those signals being sent and received. For those not in the know, Tinder is an app designed for matching people who may or may not be strangers, based on the mutual understanding that they are already attracted to each other. (Or at least to their photos and profile). But technically speaking, what is happening behind the scenes before that understanding can actually take place? What does a “swipe” mean in context? How do we know that? How can a digital process with only two signals, someone swiping left or right, result in contextual meaning?
In “The Information Paradox“, Denning and Bell resolve the ambiguity of this relationship, saying “The association between a sign and its referent is new information.” (Bell & Denning, 2012). So let’s take a look at how “swiping” acts as a sign for sending technical information, what its referent is for both users on a technical level, and how that association leads to “meaning making” for both of them.
On a procedural and technical level, the process toward this “matching” is pretty straightforward:
A user scrolls through profile photos of other users in their area using their finger on the screen to shuffle them either to the left or the right of the screen.
- Tactile gestures on the screen filter interest in the people being looked at. “Swiping” the photo to the left to discard them, and “swiping” their photo to the right saves that profiles information for future signaling and receiving of text communication. The same signals can be sent by touching the corresponding icons on the screen, “x” for pass or “heart icon” for liking.
- These signal are encoded digitally, and then signal electronic changes for whether the user should be labeled as available to initiate a match and conversation or whether matching and the initiation of digital contact should be ruled out.
- The people whose profiles are being examined do not receive any signal based on these gestures UNLESS they happened to have “swiped” the other user’s profile photo to the right as well.
- At that point, both users are notified by the app of a “match” at the same time, and a text conversation is initiated in case they want to get together.
How then do these people draw meaning? “Information is the difference that makes a difference”. (Bateson, 2000). The difference between “left” and “right” is where meaning is drawn. Each user has become familiar with the procedural actions that lead to a “match” notification, and so they know that they both have “swiped right” as a show of potential attraction or interest. The absence of a “match” notification would have meant that the other user either hasn’t seen their picture, or “swiped left” as a a lack of interest.
Both users are simultaneous receivers of each other’s previous asynchronous signals of interest. In this context of ‘information as a design problem’, Tinder organizes digital information tied to the relationships between swipes and profile photos to “design and control patterns and quantities of electrical current (and radio waves) as signals that map onto human sign and symbol structures”(Irvine, n.d.). The difference between which database or bucket that each photo is swiped toward is ultimately the starting point for a slew of potential meanings, and the initiation of a more nuanced level of electronic signaling within the ensuing text conversation.