Part 1, Take 3: The Hourglass

hourglass“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” is the tag line for Days of Our Lives, one of the longest running American daytime soap operas (c.1965-present). The term “soap opera” originated from radio dramas that were sponsored by soap manufacturers, so interesting. These shows were central to my understanding of popular culture in the 1980s and there were daytime and nighttime versions, which were usually higher-class productions that involved more sex, violence, and a more elevated pedigree of actors. Many actors remained on these shows for decades, especially the daytime ones, which had longer staying power than those that aired after 8pm. Most of these shows center on the dynamics of feuding families, secret relationships, betrayal, love, and being double-crossed in all the ways. And, they’re also fascinating accounts of things like class, gender, sexuality, power, and pressing socio-political issues of the day.

NO ONE of my generation can forget the “Who Shot JR?” phenomenon of 1980 (yes, 1980!), which was a feat of marketing gold. We had to wait a whole season to find out, which in those days mirrored an actual season and wasn’t just a couple of months. How can a shy Saskatoon teen with curly hair, a name she doesn’t really like (because it’s different- hush), and teeth in need of ‘train tracks’ (what we called braces then) get so sucked into this very adult drama about family dynasty, oil, and corporate power in Texas? Nothing could be further from my life, but that was the key–we all like drama and need an escape. This cliff-hanger about JR galvanized millions of people, who waited with baited breath to find out who done it. Ultimately, the person who pulled the trigger was revealed to be Kristin Shepard, who Wikipedia describes as “J.R.’s scheming sister-in-law and mistress, who shot him in a fit of anger and claimed to be pregnant with his child as a result of their affair.” 

Soap operas are sort of like dating apps: tech-mediated platforms through which people can learn about sex, power, dating, love, like, lust, and even hate. Like soap operas, dating apps are consumed by many millions of people and often described as ‘ridiculous’, ‘drama’, and ‘pathetic’ in dominant social discourse. Drama is not in short supply, that’s for sure, but there are many powerful and troubling things to be learned about life and love and how we know one another, and ourselves, through this now-dominant technology…As this last section of the Introductory chapter reveals. 

 

Bumble basics and my stats

Like other geosocial networking platforms, users select matches from a pool of prospective candidates within a local area. What sets Bumble apart is that women initiate the conversation and they have just twenty-four hours to do it, after which time a match who is not contacted disappears. The same is true for the men, who have twenty-four hours to respond to an initial ‘ask’ from women before they disappear from the prospective dating pool. Wolfe Herd has said that this temporal feature of the app is designed to encourage users to make their dating lives happen quickly and keep their socio-sexual networks moving. It embodies the idea of our modern networked lives that are always being attended to and aligns with the constant hum of activity that defines bee hives in the wild. Most users’ match prospects are mediated through Facebook, but this platform is not required to create a Bumble account.

The essential playing pieces of Bumble include: photos (up to six), written profile (up to three hundred characters), gender preference (M, F, Same-Sex), age range, and the distance one is willing to travel for a match. Each of these variables are fluid and can be altered at any time, which I did often during my five months in the hive. There are two ways to obtain matches, the first is by scrolling through the home feed that features the people who meet your criteria. If you swipe right and they also select you as someone they like a match is made, and the women must contact the match for communication to begin or be ‘pollinated.’ Because I purchased the VIP package I could tailor my searches by selecting a special category of men who appeared atop my home feed. Each man’s face was surrounded by a blue circle, which indicated they had already liked me. It was nice to have a choice, begin with the ones who are interested or scroll through the indiscriminate masses. There was a catch though because the images come up in both spots and to get to the next match you must swipe either left or right. I found that part of the process challenging because sometimes I did not want to decide, I just wanted to see who is out there.

 

Total matches-2, 957 (August 20, 2017- January 16, 2018)

Conversations initiated- 113

The matches I contacted replied to my first move- 67/113 (59.3%)

The matches I contacted did not respond to my first move -46/113 (40.7%)

App to phone texting-18

Phone calls- 9 with 5 people; all initiated by them

In-person meetings-10 people and 18 total meetings

In-Person Meetings with 10 men/ 67 replies = 15 %

In-Person Meetings with 10 men/113 conversations = 8%

In-Person Meetings with 10 men/2,957 total matches -.003%

Doubles (saw the same guy twice)-227 -Started September 15

Triples (saw the same guy three times) -158–Started September 30

Quadruples (same guy four times) -139 -Started October 3

Quintuples (same guy five times)- 42 -Started October 20

 

Why should I write this book?

This is a book of our time. It documents my experiences on a dating platform that is used by over thirty million people, roughly the same population as the country I live in. Yet, there are virtually no accounts of what it is like to use Bumble. I offer my five months in the hive to fill that gap. Documenting women’s experiences with dating, love, lust, and how we come to form our ideas about who we are in relation to the technologies that are dramatically impacting our lives is interesting, important, and sells books! I also offer broader commentary on what Bumble dating culture reveals about the state of sexuality, gender, how we communicate with one another, and the powerful role of technology in reconfiguring these fundamental aspects of human life.

My five- month tour of duty lends credibility to the insights I share about Bumble: been there, done that, limped away with my pride intact and head full of timely, fascinating questions. My twenty-year career exploring how people make sense of their lives and the broader world around them has also come in handy, especially the technique of participant-observation. This is when the researcher immerses herself in the cultural context at hand and sets about observing its inner workings and taking part in as many activities as is possible, welcomed, legal, and safe. With my own life as the field site, I regularly participated in and observed the goings on inside the Bumble hive. Indeed, I engaged in participant-observation every day for five months and recorded detailed notes about as much of the experience as I could. It was exhausting, and I often felt like I went through each Bumble moment twice: once while living it and again when I recorded it. However, it was essential to documenting the fulsome experience and my richly detailed account really captures what life is like inside the hive. Whether it is the look on a man’s face, snippets from a provocative text, or a mundane technical function, I bring readers inside the honeycomb in an intimate and informative way.

By bringing readers inside my life they are not just passive observers, they become partners in the journey. This intimate, inviting approach is how I connect with my students, family, friends, people who take part in my research, pretty much everyone I encounter. It is real, accessible, and creates opportunities to talk about experiences we have in common. Swapping stories and howling at photos or bizarro incidents has opened a floodgate of co-sharing and information generation. People want to talk, learn, and read more about these things. My hive life was not all jokes and compelling observation, however, and when I revealed my embarrassing, confusing, and self-doubting moments people really perk up, lean in, and pour their hearts out about similar experiences. Readers do not want just the sunny, funny parts of our lives, they want something real that they can relate to. That is why the book is not called Sticky and Sexy, it is also about sadness and confusion, which were critical parts of the experience. Without these bits, this would be just another playful romp through ‘dating app nightmares’, which I assure you it is not.

 

Other details: Ethics, safety, what this book is not

My experiences are the predominant focus of this book. However, I did not move through the hive alone and the behaviours and bodies of some of the men with whom I interacted are also present in these pages. I did not tell any of them that I was going to record different aspects of our interactions or that I was writing a book, which is something I did not realize until well into the journey. When a friend commented that my covert writerly pursuits could be perceived by these men as unethical I bristled and then acquiesced, somewhat. I am sharing intimate details about events that transpired between myself and these men in the private sphere of our respective bedrooms and the confines of our phones. Why did I keep quiet? Honestly, I did not want them to unmatch me, run away, or call me a bitch. Also, the nerd in me knew early on that I was on to something important and I did not want to lose an opportunity to learn more about Bumble. To keep the juicy-ness intact while also respecting the men who crossed my hive, I have changed their names and removed information that could be used to identify them. Some men may recognize themselves in the text, but that will be a function of the events that transpired between us and not the inclusion of readily identifiable details.

My time on Bumble was a heady mix of strange, fun, fascinating, and disappointing. Some exchanges were uncomfortable, scary, and bordered on violent, and they remain in the book because they were part of what I went through. To sanitize these events or moments would misrepresent my experiences and could be viewed as a sanctioning of the harsh, unkind, and dangerous things that can and do happen on Bumble. That is the last thing I want to do. Life can be very precarious for those of us who are denied equal, fair, or consistent access to the means with which to circumvent the unjust power structures that define many male-dominated societies. Some of the unsavoury and scary things I witnessed during my time inside the hive are directly related to the reconfiguration of feminism, gender, and various socio-economic roles that is currently underway globally. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have helped illuminate how much unfinished business related to sexual and gendered equity we have ahead of us. Some of the things I observed on Bumble alerted me to this fact as well, which is critical to acknowledge if we want to address the underlying issues that continue to drive wedges between us. I have marked the in-person encounter that was frightening with a trigger warning and people can decide for themselves if or when they want to read that passage.

Some of my behaviour and decisions while inside the hive may raise concerns among readers. I met many men while on Bumble, all of whom were strangers to me prior to downloading the app. Most of these meetings occurred on my phone and I met ten men in- person, most often in my own apartment and two meetings took place in the nearby city of Toronto. On more than one occasion I was chastised for bring men into my home and meeting them at all (“I could never do what you are doing”, “how can you do that, just meet a stranger?”). How else can I meet someone if I don’t meet them? Doesn’t everyone begin as a stranger?! I understand that my friends/family/others wanted me to be safe. However, my home is my life center, a beautiful, calm environment that each man I brought into my home commented on.

Another reason I invited them to my place is because as a woman walking the road of recovery, meeting at a bar or public place where people were drinking made me a little uncomfortable. I no longer feel that way but did at the time. I flag this at the outset with the knowledge that some of my adventurous or risky, which ever way you slice it, behaviours could trigger readers or upset them. That is not my intent and I share these things because they are part of my Bumble experience. When I think about my days on the app in relation to my wild, sometimes dangerous drinking days the image of two opposing planets comes into view. I have lived in both places and choose to spend my time in a stratosphere that is not free of risk, but it is rich with wisdom, fun, self-love, and strength.  It is where I am at and it is a place I am proud to call home.

                This book is not a how-to-guide for mastering Bumble or a guide book for how to get ahead in dating. It is an exploration of sex, dating, and how technology facilitates and shapes these experiences as well as our ideas about our selves and each other. It is not intended to be a grand narrative that explains everything about Bumble or the experiences of all users. It showcases my experiences and is written with an eye to understanding how we connect with others as well as ourselves through apps like Bumble. Sticky, Sexy, Sad touches on things we are all trying to make sense of: the weirdness, failures, and hilarity, the whole ball of cultural wax that holds together what counts as sex, intimacy, desire, and romance in our world today. 

 

 

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