The Constructed Self of Online Dating

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Riki Thompson's recent work, highlighted in this month's Grit City Think & Drink, examines self-constructed identity, communication and language in online dating apps.

UW Tacoma Associate Professor Riki Thompson will give a talk about her research at Grit City Think & Drink on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 6:30 - 8 p.m., at The Swiss.UW Tacoma Associate Professor Riki Thompson is researching self-constructed identity, communication, and language in the age of technology and online dating apps. She has been conducting this research for about a year, though the idea has been brewing for nearly four. Thompson became curious about dating and social media after she entered the world of online dating herself and noticed trends in the types of profiles that people were using to sell themselves. “As dating apps became a topic of conversation in my friend group, I was filled with more and more questions about what makes certain types of profiles and messages successful and others failures,” said Thompson. “As I began to research the topic, I realized there were many unanswered questions in this rapidly changing landscape.”  

Thompson’s focus has been on understanding the selfie and its role in making connections in the digital age. A qualitative researcher, Thompson uses interviews and profile analysis in her work. “My goal in research is to understand how members of different communities, including sexual minorities and people with nontraditional sexual lifestyles and identities, communicate on social media platforms to attract their preferred partners,” she said.

While many people seem to join dating apps to save time as busy adults in a fast paced world, responding to messages, navigating through the app itself, and creating a profile can end up being significantly more time consuming than anticipated upon joining. This is especially the case if you tend to “shop,” a term Thompson reported her subjects using in reference to swiping and scrolling through profiles. Thompson commented that she has identified this as the “time-sucker versus time-saving dichotomy,” which often prompts users to delete the app – often to reinstall and go back online again in the future. Many apps have begun implementing limited response times to promote quick communication in the game of dating, though Thompson has noted that “at times this seems to act as more of a barrier than assistance when it comes to communication.”  

Recently, some apps have created the option to link Instagram and Spotify to a person’s dating app which gives another example of what Thompson has referred to as “facilitating sociality.” “These are the cues that entice a viewer, including visual, aural, and textual features that further invite a potential partner to ‘look with me’, or ‘look at me,’” said Thompson. In the case of Instagram, users are able to show their four most recent posts, while Spotify can show preferred playlists giving potential partners a look into someone's life through their dating profile. These varying ways of communicating identity contribute to the formation of the online-self that may or may not be equivalent to an in-person interaction. “These stories serve to represent ourselves to the world around us as well as provide a tool to make sense of our place in the worlds we inhabit,” said Thompson.

Thompson hopes to find more interviewees willing to share their stories and experience with dating apps to build on her current foundation of cases. She hopes to to collect more data about the experiences of members of the LGBTQ+ community and people who practice ethical non-monogamy, as well as heterosexual men.

Written by: 
Caterina Terrill / December 10, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or