Dating apps belong to the category of capital I Issues, alongside veganism, the term "woke," and teen girls doing literally anything, that are thirst-traps for cheapest shots, the lowest-hanging of fruity takes, and the most flagrant of moral panics whenever they cycle into the news. A cousin to the bad-takes honeypot of hook-up culture, on the topic of dating apps, as a society, we seem to have trouble moving beyond finger-pointing, towards productive conversation.
In the last few weeks, millennial dating culture crawled into the news again — or at least that was the goal of the Tinder Trap.
You most likely first caught wind of the "social experiment" via a Twitter user named @bvdhai's (who's been identified as a man named Misha) 26-tweet Tinder horror story.
I highly encourage reading the riveting tale for yourself, but TL:DR: Misha matches with and starts texting a girl on Tinder, who then asks to put the conversation on hold for a few weeks. He figures she's ghosting but she gets back to him in a few weeks inviting him to a DJ show in Union Square the next day. Misha agrees to meet, and arrives to see a crowd and cameras. His Tinder date shows up flanked by a pair of bodyguards, gets up on the stage and, in what Misha dubs 'top 10 greatest finesse of all time" announces that she invited all the guys in the crowd to the same date, and will be running a live action game of Tinder to select a date.
A few hundred thousand likes to the thread later, the director of a "viral marketing firm" Rob Bliss publicly claimed the event as his own, and revealed that the woman was an actress he'd hired named Natasha Aponte. He announced that he and Aponte would explain the stunt and debut the video it had been leading up to on Good Morning America later that week.
It's possible you've heard of Bliss, who has made it into the news a few times for his PSA-style stunts, including his 2013 timelapse showing a homeless man being groomed and dressed, created to fundraise for a homeless services non-profit; his 2015 anti-bullying skit; and his 2017 Amazon Prime deliveries to the homeless, which was created to "raise awareness about the ability to utilize Amazon's "Prime Now" feature for social good.
But Bliss is best known for the 2014 "10 Hours of Walking In NYC as a Woman," which showcased an edited 10 hours of footage of a white woman walking around New York City as a fundraiser for anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback, which was taken to task for depicting almost exclusively Black and Latinx cat-callers and ignoring women of color's distinct experiences with harassment. Bliss explained the as a matter of chance: "for whatever reason, a lot of what [white men] said was in passing, or off camera."
Notably, in 2015 the "10 hours" actress sued Bliss for using her performance for "advertising or trade without her prior written consent" after he licensed the video to an advertising agency that superimposed life-sized TGI Friday's appetizers over Roberts' image in the video, saying she felt "humiliated" and that the ad "belittled women." Bliss was cleared in 2017 when a U.S. District Judge ruled that her claim failed since her image or persona did not appear in the video.
So, what exactly was going on in Bliss's latest stunt?
The "Tinder Trap" begins with Bliss and Aponte reading out cruel Tinder-bio fodder: "swipe left if you're under 6 feet," "not tattooed chicks, yuck," "if you don't work out, we won't work out," 'no rice, no spice," "white guys only."
The pair incredulously ask each other: "So this is messed up, right?" "Right." But everyone seems to go along with it." "But would they if someone did this in the real world?"
Emphasizing the scale of the project's execution, the video goes on to explain how, using Aponte's Tinder profile, Bliss and a team of over 50 full-time "overseas workers" started conversations with 7,500 guys, inviting them to a "fake EDM event." Going beyond where Misha's story leaves off, it shows Aponte running a "live Tinder" gameshow, "swiping left" or dismissing men with various characteristics, and having participants perform physical feats like push-ups and a foot race. Some men leave when they realize what's going on, others awkwardly and bemusedly participate, while another grabs Aponte's mic to protest the stunt.
Natasha neatly serves up the video's moral: "It's absurd, isn't it? To judge people by such petty things as if they like to wear khakis…. Look at how angry this makes people? And yet, this is what we've been doing the whole time. I guess sometimes you have to lay a trap, to catch people's attention and start a conversation."
Bliss has repeatedly stated that he believes video has been successful. He tells PAPER: "I think it's really a viral story, is what we have. A viral discussion. That's what is really happening is a viral discussion, in a newspaper article, in a Facebook comment section, in a conversation between two people who shared a link to the story, about what this means and is."
Undoubtedly, The Tinder Trap, which as racked up over 250,000 views and dozens of news items (not to mention the numbers on @bvdhai's story) has accomplished its goal of getting people's attention.
But the provocative conversations about "what [dating app culture] means and is" that the project promises are nowhere to be found. Instead, the response has largely consisted of eye-rolling, with commentators calling the argument that "Tinder is problematic" tedious; and ethical qualms about the experiment's methods, claiming that it was coercive and cruel to participants. It's also been accused of being negligently executed, given reports that a participant was assaulted by the bodyguards hired to manage the crowd.
However, even these debates have been lukewarm, quickly fizzling out after the first round of "weird news"-style coverage.
Meanwhile, the loudest and most enduring response to the video seems to be misogynistic outrage, fueled by the specter of a narcissistic, castrating vixen who has deceived innocent men. Fairly violent misogyny is being hurled at Aponte around the internet, with the Twitter chatter revolving around claims that she's "an attention whore," "playing the victim," "a stone cold psychotic who belongs in jail forever" and "cancer in human form."
A series of disturbing YouTube vlog episodes "analyzing" the Tinder Trap demonstrate the passionate debates and hot takes ignited by the video: about the downfall of "Western masculinity," the self-obsession of millennial women, the reality of reverse sexism, and whether or not Aponte was even hot enough to pull off the stunt. Beyond trolls and alt-right bloggers, mainstream news coverage has also been imbued with this narrative, offering headlines like: "Tinder hottie dupes dozens of dopes, but it's all a marketing stunt," and "woman who tricked thousands of men on Tinder explains why she did it."
However, Bliss claims that the project has neatly stoked exactly the kind of outrage it intended to. Aponte wrote on her Instagram the following day: "all of the hate and aggression is adding to why this project is so important."
This theory seems to go that Aponte is a proxy for the ills of dating apps in the equation of outrage; and that this anger and disbelief is valuable and provocative, because it is actually anger and disbelief about Tinder, which will ultimately stimulate interrogation of the ways that we treat each other on dating apps. People soon see that their disgust at Aponte's "cruelty," at how she "degraded" and "disrespected" the participants, are actually all sins of Tinder.
But the claim that the controversy of the Tinder Trap can be neatly wrapped up as the intended response seems weak, given that the the main criticisms — of the banality of the concept and exploitative, catfishing-like execution — respond to aspects of the event outside of the video's Tinder parable.
Bliss does acknowledge the resulting misogyny, claiming it too as successful takeaway data of the project: "this project has also definitely exposed issues of toxic masculinity."
These misogynistic responses to the stunt are, of course, a repulsive example of toxic masculinity. However, there's nothing remotely interesting or provocative about them. Providing high-production value bait for misogynists isn't a "social experiment" and the predictably resulting violence isn't a test result that proves the value of a project's social commentary.
Ultimately, I'm not particularly moved by the ethical conundrum of the bruised egos of the guys who were (indeed) gently catfished; the easily-stoked misogyny being directed at Aponte; or the video's lackluster critique of dating apps.
I am, however, fascinated by the role that viral content like the Tinder Trap has to play a role in messy and complex social discussions.
When they work, videos like The Tinder Trap can cause a moral panic, which is essentially what Bliss set out to do. When they don't work, like they didn't in this case, the quiet hum around the video allow us the unique opportunity to see what's really going on.
The discussion generated by The Tinder Trap reveals little to nothing about toxic masculinity or millennial dating culture (surprise, men are trash and Tinder sucks). But what is revealing is the fact that the project failed to generate nearly any outward-looking discussion at all; any genuine conversation with concerns greater than the viral design itself. The emptiness of the discussion around the Tinder Trap shows what is at the project's core: virality for virality's sake. A self-justifying spectacle that becomes an end unto itself, and confuses vaguely gesturing towards an already-sticky conversation for starting one.
When asked if he believes that viral videos are a viable platform to explore complex social issues, Bliss proposes that they can "write the first sentence of the article."
Perhaps there are subjects in our culture that need viral treatment: that need a moral panic ignited and the "first sentence of the article" written — forms of structural violence and discrimination that people genuinely aren't seeing or talking about. Perhaps street harassment did, in 2014, although the most useful conversation generated by that video ended up being aroused by racist bias in the production. Police violence against black and brown people certainly did, when footage revealing the frequency and terrors of police brutality, began to circulate virally at around the same time.
But viral content's success is explicitly dependent on a lack of nuance; most effectively launched by "evoking high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions" write Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, two Wharton professors in 2012 volume of the Journal of Marketing Research. To go viral, content can't be weighed down by contingency or complication; alternate perspectives or moral grey area; histories and viable solutions. The overwhelming emotions that viral videos are capable of affecting us with can be intensely powerful and even vital — when they're treating an issue where fervor and passion are missing. But viral videos alone aren't capable of taking a conversation to the next step, beyond outrage, horror or amazement.
When the method of a viral social stunt is applied to an issue which has already launched a thousand think pieces — an issue which already has thousands of first sentences written about it — the self-indulgence of such a project becomes transparent. The Tinder Trap's self-indulgence is perhaps similar to that of the white people who continued to share and re-share images of wounded black and brown bodies, when the discussion about police violence had far outgrown its viral spark. When it no longer needed tears or long, emotional Facebook posts: it needed action and organizing; a deep-diving interrogation of the institutional roots of police violence, and a vision of the future beyond "better." Dating culture is definitely such an issue, around which we don't need a new 2018 moral panic, or any more fodder for outrage.
So, at best empty, self-indulgent viral content like the Tinder Trap is unnecessary. But at worst, it stifles social growth and momentum, taking up space in the crucial conversations that it makes all about itself.