On popular dating apps like Tinder, users often post pictures of themselves “do-gooding” in Third World scenarios hoping for more matches. Researchers have begun studying these “Tinder humanitarians”, and the issues that this self-presentation can raise. We spoke to Corinne Lysandra Mason, author of a paper on the subject, to find out more.
By Carolina Are
In March 2014, a Tumblr blog that collates pictures of western Tinder users in humanitarian and development situations went viral. The website, Humanitarians of Tinder, founded by writer and filmmaker Cody Clarke, was reported in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Huffington Post – to name but a few. This media coverage, Corinne Lysandra Mason writes, was fascinating. At times, it appeared to be a moral panic. At other times, the news articles were genuinely curious about the phenomenon: why does “holding an African baby make someone ‘hot’”?`
Scholars have started to investigate this phenomenon, researching the tinder images, the blog compiling them, and the media response. According to Professor Lisa Ann Richey, there are multiple issues at play. Humanitarians of Tinder ‘outs’ Tinder users who use photos of themselves ‘do-gooding’ to enhance their image. While this ‘outing’ technique is problematic in terms of privacy and public shaming, its denunciation of how the Western world represents suffering strangers to enhance the appeal of Western image producers is very valid. Richey summarises the issue with Tinder Humanitarians by saying:
“The images themselves raise questions around the politics of representation—who has the right to represent the Other and on what grounds and with what consent? They also provoke thinking around the intertextual references in the photographs themselves—why do these seem so familiar? Finally, the circulation of the images of the Humanitarians of Tinder between the semi-private platform of the dating app and the public platform with commenting of Facebook requires a consideration of the morality of public shaming as a political act.”
Corinne Lysandra Mason, author of Tinder and humanitarian hook-ups: the erotics of social media racism, tells us more about this phenomenon.
Q: Why do you think Tindertarians do what they do?
A: I’m not sure what exactly motivates Tindertarians, but I imagine they post these images to get dates. The photos are posted on a dating/hook-up app, so people are hoping that others find something about them attractive—in this case their humanitarianism.
Q: What differentiates people who post these types of pictures from every other user?
A: These folks might not be different than every other user in that they are attempting to differentiate themselves from everyone else on the application to attract the attention of other users. So, they might, in fact, be the same kind of user. They might just be using a different angle to encourage someone to swipe right.
Q: How do we avoid falling into the trap of posting these pictures? What is the correct way, if there is any, of using images and social media to showcase humanitarian work?
A: I think white and Western people, in particular, need to think about the images that both take and then post of their voluntourism on social media, especially when they feature racialized people as background props to showcase their “do good” nature. I’m not the first to be concerned with the ethics of voluntourism, and I would suggest that the place to start here is for individuals to think about the neo-colonial politics of such travel. As someone who went to Tanzania to voluntour in my undergraduate days, I have to reflect on what motivated this travel, and what contributions I made to the community I visited, if any. I also need to reflect on my own journey and “transformation” (as such trips are often described as offering) within global political and economic systems that create the conditions in which privileged individuals can take on short-term, unpaid, and unskilled trips to “help,” but mutual exchanges are much less common, and racialized bodies are held up at borders. If I do this work, I might move on to thinking about how I would go about posting images of such trips on social media.
Q: Can Tinder Humanitarianism be defined as a form of “cultural appropriation” of aid workers’ and celebrities’ work? Or is it a modern claim to fame through do-gooding?
A: In my article, I use bell hook’s conceptualization of “cultural appropriation” to think through the ways in which “Africa” (or anywhere in the Global South) is made visible for the purposes of creating desire for (mostly white) bodies. This is not unlike Miley Cyrus engaging in hip hop culture only to return to her “roots,” or Justin Timberlake appropriating R&B while also claiming to be a “man of the woods” in a way that harkens to Western-frontier and colonial imagery. In every case, including Tindertarians, the occupations, mass incarceration, genocide, and other violations of racialized bodies are obscured by white people “playing,” and ultimately profiting or benefiting, from these sites of domination. Celebrity philanthropism, and social media posts from celebrities about their “doing good,” likely fuels individuals to also take these trips to “give back.” Academics and activists are highly suspicious of celebrity humanitarianism for simplifying the complexities of contemporary aid and creating consumer industry where people try to buy their way out of global inequities. We might think of social media as part of this complex consumer-based system.
Q: How has the public shaming of Humanitarians of Tinder affected the discussion on social media use in humanitarian situations?
A: I’m not sure, actually. I would hope that the critique around Tindertarians in academic and popular spaces makes people reflect on how they engage humanitarian work and with social media.
Read Corinne Lysandra Mason’s article here:
- ‘Tinder and humanitarian hook-ups: the erotics of social media racism’ by Corinne Lysandra Mason. Published in Feminist Media Studies Volume 16, 2016 – Issue 5.
Read more on Tindertarians here:
- ‘“Tinder Humanitarians”: The Moral Panic Around Representations of Old Relationships in New Media’ by Lisa Ann Richey. Published in Javnost – The Public Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture, Volume 23, 2016 – Issue 4: Global Moral Spectatorship in the Age of Social Media.