In Turkey today, 2.7 million people use online dating apps like Tinder, OKcupid, and Bumble. While dating apps have fortunately lost some of their social stigma, the digital component does open up some unique possibilities as well as opportunities for awkwardness. Both of the promises and the pitfalls of online dating have become more extreme as the coronavirus affects how people approach physical and emotional intimacy. A number of recent documentaries shed light on people’s experiences searching for sex, love, and/or entertainment on these platforms.
The Turkish streaming platform BluTV has been making waves with original content from the mystical detective show Alef to documentaries about poor urban youth. Now the creators of popular BluTV documentary Pavyon have returned with the five-part series Dijital Flörtleşme (Online Dating). The documentary follows the stories of several young people active on dating apps and includes commentary by sex and relationship experts.
The highlight of Dijital Flörtleşme is the interviews with Sena, a woman who is interviewed out on the streets of Kadıköy as she gets ready to drink coffee for the first time with an online match. As a white-collar worker, Sena explains, it can be hard to meet anyone outside of work. While apps create a useful way to meet potential dates, the way people behave on these platforms is often absurd.
Sena humorously breaks down the haphazard way men often communicate, with a laconic slm used in place of the Turkish greeting selam. Alternatively, when she decides its not worth continuing a conversation with a match, they often get defensive or aggressive. Many times these men continue writing for months on end, even if they never receive a response from her.
In her commentary for the program, renounced sexologist Rayka Kumru describes how dominant ways of approaching relationships in everyday life bleed into the digital domain. In the same way that men catcall women in the streets and get angry when they don’t receive a response, men online assume that matching with someone means that they owe you something. Jealousy and possessiveness similarly run rampant in online dating. Another young woman interviewed for the documentary describes a relationship she formed with a man off Tinder. Though they met on the platform, eventually the man began judging her for being online in the first place, demanding to know how many men she slept with.
We get a different window into how people see online dating from the men in Dijital Flörtleşme. Two guys interviewed in a gym describe how scoring a date is simply a matter of having muscles, money, and jokes. Their comments are cross-cut with women describing how off-putting it is to see biceps and fancy cars as online profile pictures. Similarly, the men’s ideas of witty repartee is simply saying “You have nice lips” or pretending to like the same movies or music as the women with whom they are trying to meet.
In this way, Dijital Flörtleşme provides ironic commentary on how some women and men’s perspectives on dating differ, or even contradict one another completely. While there are still four episodes to come, one finds oneself wishing that the series discussed other types of relationships besides straight ones and included perspectives from non-cis people. There is also the cricial issue of how Turkey bans dating apps specifically tailored to LGBTI people.
Yet Rayka Kumru’s commentary does shed light on the way the social mores trap heterosexual people in unsatisfying and stifling patterns. For example, Kumru describes the calculations women often make to not be seen as “one of those girls” who has sex on the first date. This category of “those girls,” she argues, keeps women from using these potentially freeing platforms in the ways they might want to. While someone might want to use the app simply to “hook up,” the same social pressures that exist at home, at work, and in the street enter the digital realm.
The online documentary channel Mevzu provides an additional perspective on the world of app dating. The episode “It’s a Match,” released on YouTube last week, includes interviews with a person who works as a “camgirl,” dancing for customers on videochat, and uses digital platforms for dating and sex. “It’s a Match” also features commentary from a young gay man who describes some of the more humorous interactions he has had online and candidly describes meeting up for sex as a positive outcome of app-use.
Similarly, the YouTube channel +90, funded by Deutsche Welle, has a recent video story titled “App States of Love: Finding Love Through Matchmaking Apps”. It features a wide variety of characters, from a straight married couple who met on Tinder to a non-binary student in Eskişehir who uses dating apps to find like-minded people.
While Dijital Flörtleşme, “It’s a Match,” and “App States of Love” all take up different sides of the complex world of dating online in Turkey, more recent events add another wild card to the mix. Alongside most aspects of our lives, COVID-19 has also affected dating. As people across the world face state-mandated lockdowns and/or calls to stay at home to flatten the curve, many have turned to online dating as a place to seek romance.
On Sunday March 29, for example, Tinder marked 3 billion swipes across the world, a new record for the platform. The app OKCupid has seen matches rise by 15% and the number of messages rise by 10%. There was also a 900% increase in mentions of coronavirus and social distancing on the platform. In response, OKCupid (which matches profiles based on answers to personality questions) wasted no time in adding coronavirus-related content. Users in Turkey and across the world were asked “How do you plan on dating during this time of coronavirus?” 94% of those who responded said they will keep dating but will do it virtually. Catering to people’s need for intimacy across distance, most of the major dating apps now offer a video chatting option to allow people to date virtually from the safety of quarantine.
Yet as summer approaches and the process of “normalization” begins in Turkey, prospective dates will be faced with new choices regarding how to both act responsibly and meet their very real need for friendship, flirting, conversation, intimacy, sex—whatever it is that brought them to the apps in the first place.