Down the rabbit hole: an ethnography on loving, desiring and tindering in Cape Town

Doctoral Thesis


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This ethnography on loving, desiring and tindering offers insights into how the dating application (app) Tinder is adopted in establishing various kinds of intimacy in Cape Town. Given the scholarly neglect of intimacy's sensory aspects (especially when looking at Africa), the study, based on interviews and participant observation involving 25 participants, lends weight to phenomenological experiences unfolding in partially cybernated social processes. Considering the body to be a defining dimension of human social existence, it looks at how engagements with relative strangers unfold as virtual reality and realised virtuality. Tinder and other apps have shaped what it means to get to know another individual beyond conventional sensory perceptions. Technologies as means of self-extension in Michel Foucault's sense and practices of relating (and non-relating) reach far in sundry ways. They have a significant impact on social identities, politics, economies and demographic developments. They also hold the promise of different economies of bodies and pleasures, as Foucault presaged. This study's findings show that, although dating apps pervade everyday experiences and are embraced as extensions of the self, they are simultaneously disassociated from daily life and hypernormalised as less than ‘real'. Desires for more meaningful and complete experiences were continuously manoeuvred by study participants despite disappointments, uncertainties and hurt. What these approaches of stretching oneself beyond profiled essences entailed is at the heart of this ethnography. The resolute, adaptive usage of Tinder despite disillusionments owes to the app offering refuge into both fantasy and reality, which have long become hybrid in a digitally enhanced experience. The multitude of dating app experiences in what Stempfhuber and Liegl (2016) have referred to as a ‘rabbit hole' with skewed proportions may not be an absolute escape from reality. However, it does provide opportunities for re-encountering different facets of the self when stretching beyond them. What is, nonetheless, needed to embrace technologically facilitated dating as ‘real' encounters of equals is to understand oneself and others as non-unitary and incomplete. Thus, I argue, a broader view of relationships is needed than ideas and ideals of ‘modern' romance and dating app designs relying on binary categories currently promote.