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

Short bio: 

Jean Burgess is Director of the QUT Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) and Associate Professor of Digital Media in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. She is an expert in digital media, with a focus on the everyday uses and politics of social and mobile media platforms, as well as new digital methods for studying them. She was awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Postdoctoral Fellowship for the ARC Discovery Project ‘New Media and Public Communication‘ (2010-2013) and is a Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Projects ‘Digital Storytelling and Co-Creative Media’ (2011-2014) and ‘Social Media in Times of Crisis’ (2012-2015). Her books are YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (Polity Press, 2009), Studying Mobile Media: Cultural Technologies, Mobile Communication, and the iPhone (Routledge, 2012), A Companion to New Media Dynamics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), and Twitter and Society (Peter Lang, 2014). Over the past decade she has worked with a large number of government, industry and community-based organisations, helping them address the practical opportunities and challenges of social and participatory media. She collaborates widely with international research partners in Germany, Brazil, Sweden, the UK, Canada, the USA, and Taiwan, and in 2013 she spent four months as a Visiting Researcher at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Collective.


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.