Hook-up apps: regulation, resistance and re-use in big data cultures (with Jean Burgess, Kane Race, Ben Light & Rowen Wilken)

Short bio: 

Kath Albury is an Associate Professor in the School of Arts and Media at UNSW. Her current research projects focus young people’s practices of digital self-representation, and the role of user-generated media (including social networking platforms) in young people’s formal and informal sexual learning. Kath currently leads the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation’s ‘Health Narratives’ node. Since 2001, she has been a Chief Investigator on four ARC Discovery projects, and has lead an ARC Centre of Excellence project, and an ARC Linkage project. Her research has involved collaborations with a range of government and non-government organisations including the NSW Health Department, the AIDS Council of NSW, Family Planning NSW and Queensland, and Rape and Domestic Violence Services, Australia. Kath is a co-author of The Porn Report (MUP, 2008).


With the rise of smartphone use, it has been argued that ‘unlocated information will cease to be the norm’ (Gordon & de Souza e Silva 2011: 19) and that location will become a ‘near universal search string for the world’s data’ (20). Dating and hook-up apps are significant in this context in that geo-locational information is crucial to user interface design, the software sorting that occurs within apps, and the follow-up actions of app users. Despite their wider adoption and economic importance, dating apps have received less attention in communication, media, and cultural studies compared with other facets of mobile location-based communications. Yet, dating apps offer rich insights for the study of communications, cultural practice, media economics, and media and communications and public health policy. Further, the ethics and politics of apps such as Tinder and Grindr are regular topics of discussion in popular digital media forums; and sexual-health-related policy guidance in relation to hook-up app culture is already emerging. This paper offers a research agenda for inquiry into this evolving field by exploring three thematic questions. Firstly, how are people, places and things are made visible/defined by the internal and external regulation of dating and hook-up apps? How do in-app Terms of Service (relating for example, to age limits or permitted content) define practices of use, and how to app developers use data analytics in dialogue with regulatory systems (Ridder 2014)? Secondly, what are the sociotechnical aspects of use of dating apps? How do design features and embedded ‘decision support’ functionality interweave with, and shape, user activities? How do developers work with user-generated data to create ‘premium’ (subscription) services within ‘free’ apps? Finally, how do users engage with apps? How do users deploy data analytics when seeking intimate partners? What cultures of vernacular etiquette and ethics are emerging with app use? How are users ‘gaming’ apps’ data-gathering features (for example, by creating new Facebook profiles to link to Tinder accounts, or deploying third-party apps such as ‘Fake My Location’ to evade geo-locative tracking? It is clear that the social and economic implications of locative media are significant (Wilken 2014, 2013), but are yet to be explored in relation to location based dating apps. The agenda we put forward in this paper represents a step towards developing deeper understandings of this important aspect of contemporary digital culture.