Dating apps are, moreover, the products-and exemplars-of neoliberal Western society, offering social scientists insight into broader socio?political and economic sensibilities, as well as the historical conditions that are at play in shaping people’s efforts at intimacy (Illouz, 2007; Liu, 2016). Dating websites (as precursors to mobile dating) and now mobile dating apps have been examined for the ways they have been predicated on the model of the free market, whereby people are simultaneously positioned as (willing) consumers and products for romantic and sexual consumption (see, in particular, Bauman, 2003; Illouz, 2007; Liu, 2016; Schmitz & Zillmann, 2016). For example, apps can promote illusions of availability and choice for a person to swipe through other users’ profiles, thus seemingly positioning people as commodities to be selected or disposed of (Beauchamp et al., 2017; Blackwell et al., 2015; David & Cambre, 2016; Duguay et al., 2017; Race, 2015). Additionally, the creation and maintenance of dating profiles, like other forms of social media activity and app usage (Goodwin & Lyons, 2019; Lupton, 2014, 2018, 2019a), also produces highly curated digital versions of people (Blackwell et al., 2015; Illouz, 2007; Ranzini & Lutz, 2017).
Indeed, people who use dating apps have been found to engage in highly strategic performances as they search for and create ‘networked intimacy’ with others (David & Cambre, 2016; Hobbs et al., 2017).
The diverse ways that people enact this agency is compelling to consider in light of people’s differing sociomaterial conditions (their age, socio?economic status, ethnicity, living conditions) and their different relationships with digital technologies. This avenue for research becomes even more promising when thinking about how people’s engagement with mobile dating apps might be shaped by the social processes of ‘risk’ that are constituting the ‘COVID society’ we are now living in (Lupton & Willis, 2020; Myles et al., 2021).
It is tempting within mobile dating research, however, to view apps and app users within a simple subject/object dichotomy, with users positioned as being ‘at risk’, while apps and sexual practices are ‘risky’. This could be particularly the case for those of us working in psychology or public health, where aims to promote digital and sexual health and well?being are frequently put on the research agenda. However, this can further reinforce a uni?directional relationship, where users act upon apps or vice versa. Such a view could also perpetuate realist notions of a rational actor who is removed from their sociocultural and discursive context (as seen in early critiques from discursive psychology quarters (Henriques et al., 1984).
Instead, a turn to new materialism in the social sciences as proposed, for example, by Braidotti (2019), Fullagar (2017) and Lupton (2019b), could offer a new avenue in which the phenomenon of mobile dating can be viewed as a product of material and discursive conditions and relationships between human and non?human actors. From this perspective, agency is afforded to all (humans and non?humans) involved in producing what people experience as intimacy, affect, and connection-in this case-in the performance and experience of mobile dating. This argument can be taken further to explore how intimacy is created, maintained, and negotiated during this historic moment of a viral pandemic. In other words, we need to examine the role and operation of mobile dating apps, COVID?19 as a virus, notions of infective ‘risk’, public health messaging and so forth, in relation to people both as individuals and as social actors-as a web of relations between humans and non?human actors. Given that this pandemic is unlikely to be eliminated any time soon, and that future pandemics may well occur, understanding how people are able to form intimacy, develop relationships and maintain affective connection with others is vital.