Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication Cracking the Tinder Code: An Experience Sampling Approach to the Dynamics and Impact of Platform Governing Algorithms Cédric Courtois School for Mass Communication Research, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium Elisabeth Timmermans Department of Media and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands This article conceptualizes algorithmically-governed platforms as the outcomes of a structuration process involving three types of actors: platform owners/developers, platform users, and machine learning algorithms. This threefold conceptualization informs media eﬀects research, which still struggles to incorporate algorithmic inﬂuence. It invokes insights into algorithmic governance from platform studies and (critical) studies in the political economy of online platforms. This approach illuminates platforms’ underlying technological and economic logics, which allows to construct hypotheses on how they appropriate algorithmic mechanisms, and how these mecha- nisms function. The present study tests the feasibility of experience sampling to test such hypothe- ses. The proposed methodology is applied to the case of mobile dating app Tinder. Keywords: Platform Studies, Audience Research, Experience Sampling, Algorithms, Tinder. doi:10.1093/jcmc/zmx001 Introduction Algorithms occupy a substantially wide array of spaces within social life, aﬀecting a broad range of par- ticularly individual choices (Willson, 2017). These mechanisms, when incorporated in online platforms, speciﬁcally aim at enhancing user experience by governing platform activity and content. After all, the key issue for commercial platforms is to design and build services that attract and retain a large and active user base to fuel further development and, foremost, bear economic value (Crain, 2016). Still, algorithms are practically invisible to users. Users are seldom informed on how their data are processed, nor are they able to opt out without abandoning these services altogether (Peacock, 2014). Due to algo- rithms’ proprietary and opaque nature, users tend to remain oblivious to their precise mechanics and the impact they have in producing the outcomes of their online activities (Gillespie, 2014). Corresponding author: Cédric Courtois; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Editorial Record: First manuscript received on May 05, 2017. Revisions received on August 22, 2017 and September 15, 2017. Accepted by Nicole Ellison on October 03, 2017. Final manuscript received on October 17, 2017. First published online on 31 January 2018. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association 1 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 Cracking the Tinder Code C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Media researchers too are struggling with the lack of transparency caused by algorithms. The ﬁeld is still searching for a ﬁrm conceptual and methodological grasp on how these mechanisms aﬀect con- tent exposure, and the consequences this exposure provokes. Media eﬀects research generally concep- tualizes eﬀects as the outcomes of exposure (e.g., Bryant & Oliver, 2009). Conversely, within the selective exposure perspective, researchers argue that exposure could be an outcome of media users deliberately selecting content that matches their characteristics (i.e., selective exposure; Knobloch- Westerwick, 2015). A common strategy to surpass this schism is to simultaneously test both explana- tions within a single empirical study, for example through longitudinal panel studies (Slater, 2007). On algorithmically-governed platforms, the origin of exposure to content is more complicated than ever. Exposure is individualized, and it is largely unclear to users and researchers how it is produced. Algorithms confound user action in deciding what users get to see and do by actively processing user data. This limits the feasibility of models that only consider user action and “its” supposed eﬀects. The inﬂuence of algorithms needs to be considered as well—which is currently not the case. This article engages in this debate, both on a theoretical and methodological level. We discuss a conceptual model that treats algorithmic governance as a dynamic structuration process that involves three types of actors: platform owners/developers, platform users, and machine learning algorithms. We argue that all three actors possess agentic and structural characteristics that interact with one another in composing media exposure on online platforms. The structuration model serves to ulti- mately articulate media eﬀects research with insights from (critical) political economy research ([C] PE) on online media (e.g., Fisher & Fuchs, 2015; Fuchs, 2014; Langley & Leyshon, 2017) and platform studies (e.g., Helmond, 2015; Plantin, Lagoze, Edwards, & Sandvig, 2016; van Dijck, 2013). Both per- spectives combine a considerable amount of direct and indirect research on the contexts in which algorithms are produced, and the purposes they serve. (C)PE and platform studies aid in understand- ing the technological and economic logics of online platforms, which allows building hypotheses on how algorithms process user actions to tailor their exposure (i.e., what users get to see and do). In this article, we build speciﬁc hypotheses for the popular location-based mobile dating app Tinder. These hypotheses are tested through an experience sampling study that allows measuring and testing associa- tions between user actions (input variables) and exposure (output variables). A tripartite structuration process To understand how advanced online platforms are governed by algorithms, it is crucial to consider the involved actors and how they dynamically interact. These key actors—or agents—comprise plat- form owners, machine learning algorithms, and platform users. Each actor assumes agency in the structuration process of algorithmically-governed platforms. The actors continually produce the plat- form environment, whereas this environment at least in part shapes further action. The ontological fundaments of this line of reasoning are indebted to Giddens (1984) although we explicitly subscribe to a recent re-evaluation by Stones (2005) that allows for domain-speciﬁc applications. He proposes a cycle of structuration, which involves four intricately connected elements that recurrently inﬂuence each other: external and internal structures, active agency, and outcomes. In this article this conceptu- alization is unpacked and immediately applied to algorithmically-driven online platforms. External structures refer to the wide contextual conditions in which action takes place. It involves the incessant interactions between social institutions that aﬀect a myriad of socio-cultural practices (e.g., in science, politics, economics). Internal structures, on the contrary, strictly reside within the agents themselves. They reﬂect actors’ durable dispositions and comprise the multitude of speciﬁc roles and positions actors take on in particular contexts, guided by their knowledge and prior 2 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Cracking the Tinder Code experiences. Both forms of internal structures incite a degree of active agency, either based on subcon- scious routine, or explicitly reﬂexive in nature. Finally, the interplay between structures and active agency leads to outcomes that balance and shift between reproduction of structures or their elabora- tion and change (Stones, 2005). Recently, this framework has been further elaborated to consider the relation between human and technological actors (Greenhalgh & Stones, 2010). This development is informed by Actor Network Theory (Latour, 1992), which explicitly attributes agentic properties to objects. Technologies are not merely the outcomes of human agency, they aﬀect it as well. Technologies’ structural properties have the ability to shape and constrain human action. In the context of algorithmically-driven online plat- forms, two categories of human actors are considered: platform owners and developers on the one hand, and platform users on the other. Both categories of human actors actively interface with algo- rithmic systems whose development is increasingly outsourced to machine learning algorithms. More speciﬁcally, most platform owners and developers plan out a concept for a service and, as its earliest users, develop and reﬁne its initial platform mechanics. In the ﬁrst phase, the eﬀorts are directed towards carefully constructing an attractive discourse that creates buzz, seeking out a growing user base (Gillespie, 2010). However, while progressing in the diﬀusion cycle, the quest for a viable business model prevails, especially when investors require a return. The commercial nature of most online platforms incites owners to invest in marketing communication, attracting and retaining a large and active user base (Kenney & Zysman, 2016). After all, a large set of users actively fuels further busi- ness development which translates into economic value. Revenue is generated either directly through paying users, or indirectly (e.g., advertising and data brokerage). This sequence of goals forms the internal-structural backdrop against which platform owners and developers exercise agency. This agency relates to a wide array of choices including the platform’s interface design, its default settings, the protocols that govern it, what (meta)data are generated, and how these data are processed. Algorithms, and machine learning algorithms in particular, inform or even (partly) account for these choices. Algorithms with independent learning capabilities are used to enhance a service by oﬀering elaborate means for (real-time) (meta)data-analysis. These types of algorithms are used to continually enhance a platform’s performance (Alpaydin, 2014). They are able to assist in selecting interface features, default settings, protocols, and (continually) tweaking platform algorithms. For instance, platform owners set out a desired outcome (e.g., increased and recurrent user activity or con- version to paid services) and deﬁne the available parameters for the learning algorithm to autono- mously analyze patterns within (meta)data, seeking out the right recipe to maximize the outcomes and thus the platforms proﬁtability. The process of machine learning is metaphorically equivalent to a farmer who sows crops, caters for the resources and conditions for them to grow, while eventually har- vesting and selling the yield (Domingos, 2017). Accordingly, to feed these mechanisms, there is a need for an incessant stream of reﬁned user data. In that sense, platform development is referred to as a vir- tuous circle of big data (Harrison, 2015): more data aﬀord better services, and better services yield more data (and with it more income). Still, large platform developers’ increasing reliance on machine learning implies that they could lose general oversight due to scale and complexity of the algorithms (Burrell, 2016). This means that absolute control over their technological structures is obscured: how they come into being, and how they further develop. Mackenzie (2013) suggests that the uptake of machine learning characterizes a shift from absolute control over data to the tendency to outsource control to data. Still, algorithms remain indebted to platform owners and developers as they set out the boundaries and the corporate strategy in which these technologies function. Platform users exercise agency within the boundaries that a platform provides: they roam within a platform’s architecture that is governed by protocols, default settings, and algorithms. These mecha- nisms aim to enhance users’ experiences to entice them to stay active, and—when applicable—convert Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association 3 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 Cracking the Tinder Code C. Courtois and E. Timmermans users into paying customers (Seufert, 2013). Still, users are not powerless in this relation, albeit to dif- fering degrees, depending on their nature of using the platform (i.e., nature and intensiveness of use). First, as algorithms run on data, users are the key resource for them to learn and improve. Atypical user behavior, such as trying to play or trick algorithms, might provoke outcomes users speciﬁcally desire. For instance, by inconsistently liking objects on Facebook, users can try to confuse the algo- rithm in learning about consumer preference, which distorts individualized advertising (Bucher, 2017). Such behavior has the potential to disrupt technological structures implicitly, rather than sus- taining them as they are. Moreover, some platforms explicitly allow user control and give feedback on a personalized information stream (e.g., by discarding/hiding speciﬁc content). Even more, beyond platform protocols, the widespread uptake of speciﬁc user practices can entice the development of new formal features (e.g., hashtags or retweets on Twitter). Within the academic literature, the relationship between platforms owners and their algorithms is covered by (critical) studies into the political economy of online platforms and platform studies. The former is engaged with uncovering mechanisms of user commodiﬁcation and digital labor (e.g., Fisher & Fuchs, 2015; Fuchs, 2014; Langley & Leyshon, 2017). Platform studies, on the other hand, widely focus on platform evolutions in technological interfaces, default settings, protocols, algorithms, and metadata, as well as the discourses that characterize these platforms (e.g., Gillespie, 2010; Helmond, 2015; Plantin et al., 2016; van Dijck, 2013). Most notably, van Dijck (2013) disassembles platforms as techno-cultural constructs and socio-economic structures. She considers platforms as technological infrastructures with speciﬁc rules and resources that, together with their users, produce social out- comes by drawing upon the contents the users provide. This process is rooted within an economic logic, in which ownership, governance, and business model development compose the context in which the aforementioned process takes place. These perspectives provide the opportunity to take on the viewpoint of platform owners and developers, allowing to understand their internal structures and consequently their actions. This knowledge is especially valuable for media eﬀects research, which traditionally focuses on users, but currently falls short in incorporating algorithmic governance into its conceptual and empirical models. Due to the inﬂuence of algorithms, exposure on algorithmically-governed platforms is highly individ- ualized, hardly transparent and perhaps even involuntary. It is a function of user action, but not its direct result. This makes it hard to infer whether and to what extent exposure is molded by platform algorithms, thus obscuring the eﬀects that follow from it. It is diﬃcult to assess which factors provoke this, and how they can be resisted or turned around. Conceptually, we argue that media exposure on online platforms is an eﬀect produced by both user action and algorithmic processing, which in turn likely provokes other eﬀects (e.g., social and psychological consequences).What this algorithmic pro- cessing involves is largely unknown as platforms rarely inform the public. However, the technological and economic logics that pressure online platforms could help us to generate testable hypotheses on what algorithms possibly do. A glimpse into the black box Systematic research on the dynamics of algorithmically-governed online platforms is challenging because of the proprietary, closed oﬀ nature of such environments. In order to protect privacy and safeguard their data assets, online platforms tend to seal oﬀ both raw and ﬁltered data streams from direct harvesting through Application Programming Interface (API) calls (Lomborg & Bechmann, 2014). Even if such unrestricted platform data collection were possible, it still lacks valuable informa- tion as it is generally limited to behavioral data and hardly informs on the social and psychological eﬀects that platform exposure brings about in its users. On the other hand, self-report data gathered through questionnaires that span a longer period of time are notoriously inaccurate because respondents 4 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Cracking the Tinder Code are usually unable to properly recall high-frequent media behavior and the precise contents of exposure (de Vreese & Neijens, 2016). We need a method that overcomes these problems in grasping user actions, exposure and eﬀects on online platforms. Experience sampling method (ESM) is a feasible candidate to alleviate at least some of these methodological limitations. ESM is intended to repeatedly probe recurrent experiences as close as possible to when they actually occur (Hektner, Schmidt, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2007). A mobile device prompts a panel of participants to repeatedly ﬁll out a compact questionnaire form on the most recent relevant experience. In this case, that would ideally be immediately after a platform is used. The ESM format allows for a limited set of questions on: (a) user activity on the platform, (b) what the platform delivered, (c) how users appraise the platform, and (d) what consequences it evokes. In this case, the ESM questionnaire form should involve the most important algorithmic input vari- ables. It is equally important to capture the algorithmically-governed exposure (i.e., the output vari- ables). This allows for general inferences concerning the underlying mechanism, despite the inability to directly examine this black box. These inferences are ideally based on conceptually sound hypothe- ses. This is where insights from platform studies and (critical) studies on the political economy of online media come into play (Figure 1, top half). It should be possible to construct informed assump- tions on the mechanics of algorithms by considering the economic and technological logics that pres- sure platform owners and developers. That is where a proper grasp on platforms’ technological architectures, data streams, governance politics, business models, public discourses and ownership structures are especially relevant. User Studies Political Economy of Online Media Media Effects Research Platform Studies Platform Machine Provoke increased commodifiable user Afford user experience activity Learning Algorithms Co-construct exposure Plan out service, architecture, discourse Provide input data for machine learning Set out algorithmic parameters Co-construct exposure Platform Owners/Developers Platform Users Provide service Source of indirect/direct revenue Study hypotheses Platform Architecture/ Algorithmic Platform Curation H1 H4 User Platform App Effect, i.e. Activity Exposure Satisfaction Current Mood H2-3 Figure 1 Schematic overview of the conceptual model and study hypotheses. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association 5 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 Cracking the Tinder Code C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Of course, such an approach does not directly reveal the mechanics of algorithmic ﬁltering, nor is it capable of capturing all its ﬁnesses—especially when the platform’s algorithms draw on a great many parameters. Still, this format could suﬃce in at least grasping its general dynamics. Moreover, in contrast to digital methods research, major advantages of this approach are the independence from platform APIs to collect data and the opportunity to move beyond behavioral data by delving into oth- erwise inaccessible social and psychological consequences through self-report measures. The issue of bias in self-report data persists, albeit to a lesser extent due to the reduced time interval between expo- sure and data collection (Hektner et al., 2007). Tinder’s supposed mechanics As a proof of concept, four hypotheses are developed for the case of Tinder (Figure 1, bottom half). We choose Tinder because the commercial platform is currently restricted to mobile devices, and because it draws upon a limited number of explicit input and output variables. Also, the mobile app invites considerable speculation on how it operates (Duguay, 2017). Despite its eﬀorts to construct a discourse of a fresh, bottom-up success story (Summers, 2014), Tinder was internally conceived within an incubator program, nested in InterActiveCorp (IAC, 2017). This large media company owns a broad repertoire of global online brands, such as Vimeo and HomeAdvisor. It includes the Match Group (IPO in 2015) that holds an impressive global portfolio of over 45 online dating platforms, based on various architectures and business models that target a wide range of consumer types (e.g., Match.com, OKCupid, Meetic). As a global brand, Tinder presents itself towards the supposedly unserved audience of emerging adults. It aims to be a playful means to instigate new contacts, directed to lower the practical and social barriers that characterize traditional dating plat- forms (MatchGroup, 2016). Since its inception, Tinder has been part of a well-thought through marketing strategy. Its uptake was promoted through local events, such as Tinder-themed parties (Bosker, 2013). From the user’s perspective, Tinder is a fairly simple app to use. This has been a key objective right from the beginning: to lower the barriers to form new online friendships and relationships. Users log on with their Facebook account, and quickly set up a proﬁle that is predominantly made up by pic- tures. Moreover, they can indicate their sexual preferences, and determine the age range and the loca- tion radius in which they want to assess proﬁles. This assessment process is swift and playful: proﬁles are liked or disliked by intuitively swiping left or right (David & Cambre, 2016). The swiping process on Tinder remains anonymous until both users right swipe (like) each other, which means they match. Only after matching, are users allowed to initiate further contact through an instant messaging mod- ule. This implies that the design of Tinder is strongly focused on a dynamic of mutual attraction and consent (MacKee, 2016). Despite its simple appearance, there is more to Tinder than meets the eye. The platform draws upon algorithmic ﬁltering, which curates whom gets to like whom, and when this happens. Although Tinder rarely communicates about its underlying algorithm, it does admit that each user has an individual attractiveness score, which is opaquely computed on the basis of popular- ity and user behavior indices (Kosoﬀ, 2016). Tinder originally started out as a service without a clear revenue stream, which is common if the objective is to gain critical user mass (Kenney & Zysman, 2016). Tinder’s residing in a large, diversi- ﬁed media company relaxed the need to immediately generate revenue on its own, which allowed the postponement of the need for advertising or building paywalls (MatchGroup, 2016). However, Tinder has been experimenting with advertising, while gradually implementing paid services. Tinder is now a freemium app, oﬀering basic functionality to non-paying users, while premium features are available through subscription (i.e., Tinder Plus) or micropayments (i.e., Tinder Boost). Tinder Plus is a monthly, bi-annual or annual subscription to a series of features, including unlimited likes, an increased number of Super Likes, the possibility to undo left swipes, ﬂexible location settings and 6 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Cracking the Tinder Code Tinder Boost. Super Likes are a scarce resource that allow for indicating special interest in a proﬁle. Tinder Boost is a pay feature that ampliﬁes a proﬁle’s visibility for half an hour in the physical area where the user is currently located. The proﬁle is put on top of others’ stack of recommendations without indicating this to these other users. This feature is advertised as increasing the likelihood of getting matches (Tinder, 2016). In essence, Tinder entices users by letting them swipe through interesting proﬁles. The key is to tease users by oﬀering a wide range of fairly realistic opportunities. Based on Zhang (2016), we assume Tinder carefully doses matches, meaning that its governing algorithm monitors activity and intervenes in its outcomes to keep the user experience in check. Especially for the free service, the key is to keep users suﬃciently satisﬁed so they do not abandon the service too quickly, but not too satisﬁed so they would be inclined to convert to paying services. This means that the algorithm needs to dynamically alternate between encouraging users and restricting them. Getting too few matches frustrate users, as well as getting too many. Even more, allowing an excessive number of matches would burn out a potentially lasting relationship with a user too quickly. Furthermore, Tinder’s objective is not only to match, but also to incite conversations with matches that could perhaps even escalate to a physical encounter. It is however important to realize that, especially within the free service, restrictions are built in that try to push users to subscribe to paying services. A clear example of a limitation is the free users’ protocological, yet supposedly algorithmically-governed restriction to only like a limited num- ber of proﬁles in a particular time frame (O’Brien, 2015). To test whether these assumptions on Tinder’s mechanics hold up, the following hypotheses are put forward: H1a: Being able to: (a) swipe interesting proﬁles, (b) get matches, and (c) engage in conversa- tions with matches is positively related to user satisfaction with the app. H1b: Bumping into the restriction of free likes is negatively related to user satisfaction with the app. Getting matches inevitably requires user action, while ﬁltering mechanisms steer this process. Matches are the outcome of both actors’ active agency. The algorithm determines who gets to see who and when (Zhang, 2016), while users can build all kinds of intuitive conceptions on how these mecha- nisms are best “played.” This could be through experience, naïve impressions, or perhaps genuine insight in the logic that underlies the algorithm—there are ample blogs and online forums available on which users share tips and tricks. For example, one could speculate on the intuitive logic that cast- ing a wide net is the most sensible recipe for more matches (i.e., a positive, linear association). The consequence of such an unrestricted linear mechanism is that users rapidly burn through their pool of potential of matches, which is problematic because matches are the platform’s most valuable asset. To continually entice users, a controlled stream of matches would make more sense: the ﬁrst likes quickly yield matches and invite continued activity, whereas at a certain point likes decline in success rate (i.e., a curvilinear association). The same logic makes sense for interesting proﬁles: these too are valuable assets that are best spread over time, rather than oﬀered all at once. This leads to the following inter- nally competing hypotheses: H2a: Swiping and liking (i.e., swipe activity) is curvilinearly, rather than linearly, associated with the degree to which proposed proﬁles are interesting. H2b: Swiping and liking (i.e., swipe activity) is curvilinearly, rather than linearly, associated with the number of matches users get during a session. In a similar vein, user activity, or the lack thereof ought to be considered as a key factor in aﬀect- ing the outcomes of the app. Retaining users is of the utmost importance to keep a service viable. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association 7 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 Cracking the Tinder Code C. Courtois and E. Timmermans A user that remains inactive for a longer period could be considered as potentially on the verge of attrition. He or she needs extra incentives to remain motivated in using the app. Conversely, it makes sense to relatively discourage all too active users, as in the long run they are worth more anticipating the possibility of swiping interesting proﬁles and getting matches than when they eﬀectively receive them. Again, the asset of high-quality proﬁles and matches needs to be handled carefully. This brings about a third set of hypotheses: H3a: A longer interval in between app use is positively associated with the degree to which proﬁles are generally evaluated as interesting. H3b: A longer interval in between app use is positively associated with the number of matches. Thus far, we have mainly considered the app dynamics and how this translates into satisfaction with the app. The interplay of user behavior and the algorithmic curation explains the degree to which interesting proﬁles are shown and matches are made. This in turn explains how Tinder is appraised. Still, all of this sheds little light on the consequences of using the app. Prior research on online dating has indicated that within the shopping logic of online dating, a lack of quantity and quality in interac- tion is related to user distress (Heino, Ellison, & Gibbs, 2010; Zytko, Grandhi, & Jones, 2014). Those who receive little attention tend to feel ignored, whereas positive feedback boosts morale. Based on these insights, it is plausible that the degree of satisfaction with Tinder translates into situational posi- tive or negative aﬀect. Therefore, we propose a fourth and ﬁnal hypothesis: H4: Satisfaction with Tinder is positively related to current mood. Method Sampling and procedure This study draws on a purposive sample of 88 Belgian Android Tinder users. The pool of participant consists of 42 females and 46 males, with an average age of 24.02 years (SD = 3.02). Most participants (93%) identiﬁed as straight, 1% as gay, and 5% as bisexual (1% chose not to disclose that information). Participants were recruited in the context of a research seminar, drawing upon: (a) student research- ers’ informal networks, while (b) also recruiting through a mailing list originating from the authors’ prior studies on Tinder, and (c) inviting participants through promotional study accounts on the Tinder platform itself. The participants were invited to ﬁrst ﬁll out an online intake questionnaire, inquiring socio- demographics and prior Tinder use and experiences. Next, they were requested to download the PACO app (www.pacoapp.com), an open source ESM app. Through this app, during six weeks in April and May 2017, requests were sent to participants to ﬁll out a small form immediately after clos- ing Tinder (a function only available in the Android version). To avoid sending excessive amounts of requests, which would induce unnecessary participant fatigue, a minimum time interval of 10 hours between consecutive requests was set. A total of 1,055 completed post-use forms were gathered (on average 12 forms per participant). Meanwhile, PACO exhaustively logged the participants’ Tinder app activity, which led to gathering 16,820 individual log statements. The data from the forms, intake survey and log data were merged into a single multilevel data set. In this data set, each row represents a post-use form (level one data). As each form is nested within a participant (level two), and is collected at a speciﬁc time, both person and individual form chronology identiﬁers were incorporated. Furthermore, per participant, the level two data from the intake survey 8 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Cracking the Tinder Code were added. Finally, aggregated log data, reﬂecting the amount of Tinder activity between two forms were included as level one data. Measures The intake survey consisted of several questions on prior Tinder use. The questions relevant to this study are the following: (a) the month and year the participants ﬁrst subscribed to Tinder, which was recoded into months since their ﬁrst Tinder experience (M = 22.28, SD = 14.14), (b) the rating of their own perceived attractiveness, in contrast to other people with the same age and gender as an albeit inﬂated proxy for attractiveness on a 9-point Likert scale, ranging from very unattractive to very attractive (M = 5.49, SD = 1.63), (c) a ﬁve-item measure of satisfaction with life (7-point scale, α = .81, M = 3.55, SD = 1.61; Pavot, Diener, Colvin, & Sandvik, 1991), and (d) a one-item measure of self-esteem (7-point scale, M = 4.77, SD = 1.18; Robins, Hendin, & Trzesniewski, 2001). The post-use forms sent after using Tinder focused on the participants’ activities and experiences during the most recent app session. The measures relevant for this study are: Swipe activity Swipe activity is a measure of the number of given likes, weighted by the amount of swiped proﬁles, i.e., the product of both variables (M = 7.63, SD = 7.87, Mdn = 6). The participants were ﬁrst asked to approximate the amount of proﬁles they swiped during their most recent Tinder session. Because it is hard for participants to keep track of exactly how many proﬁles they swiped, categories were pre- sented. The response categories, coded from 1–6, are none (0), very few (1–10), few (>10–25), some- what (>25–50), many (>50–75), a great many (>75) (M = 2.82, SD = 1.40). Similarly, the proportion of given likes was documented through the following response categories, coded from 1–7: none (0), very few (up to 10% of the swiped proﬁles), few (up to 25% of the swiped proﬁles), somewhat (up to 50% of the swiped proﬁles), many (up to 75% of the swiped proﬁles), a great many (up to 90% of the swiped proﬁles), and (nearly) all swiped proﬁles (M = 2.76, SD = 1.54). Number of matches In most cases, the number of matches are not as abundant as the number of swiped proﬁles and likes. Therefore, participants were asked to give a precise number (M = .80, SD = 1.74, Mdn = 0). Interestingness of presented proﬁles The question how interesting, on average, the presented proﬁles were was followed by a 7-point Likert rating scale, ranging from (1) very uninteresting to (7) very interesting (M = 3.06, SD = 1.27). Satisfaction with the app Weighing exhaustiveness of a measure with the participant burden of presenting multiple items, and relying on research on mobile quality of experience (e.g., Mateo Navarro, Martínez Pérez, & Sevilla Ruiz, 2014) we chose to measure this variable by a single 7-point Likert item ranging from (1) not at all satisﬁed to (7) very satisﬁed (M = 3.65, SD = 1.02). Current mood For similar reasons, this variable was measured by a one-item 5-point faces scale, ranging from (1) a sad smiley to (5) a happy smiley (M = 3.48, SD = .88). Furthermore, participants were asked whether they got a notiﬁcation of temporarily exceeding their free number of likes (7% yes), and whether one or more of the following events applied to their most recent session: using Tinder Boost (.1%), using Tinder Plus (.1%), starting a conversation with a Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association 9 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 Cracking the Tinder Code C. Courtois and E. Timmermans new match (7%), having a new match start a conversation (10%), continuing a conversation with a prior match (15%), having a prior match continue a conversation (23%). The log ﬁles, gathered through the PACO app during the study, were ﬁrst screened for indications of Tinder usage. From these data, a variable was computed that indicates the number of hours it has been since Tinder was used prior to the session that triggered the form request (M = 36.21, SD = 63.77, Mdn = 16). Results The collected data had a multilevel structure: experience sampling forms and log data gathered over time from multiple participants, paired with cross-sectional measures from the intake survey. This requires that the proposed hypotheses were tested through multilevel growth models that account for the aspect of the chronology of participants ﬁlling in forms, as well as individual diﬀerences. The ﬁrst set of hypotheses proposed that user satisfaction with the app is positively explained by the ability to swipe interesting proﬁles, to get matches and engage in conversations with these matches (H1a). Furthermore, it was predicted that bumping into restrictions, such as running out of free likes negatively explains user satisfaction (H1b). To simultaneously test these hypotheses, a multilevel model was computed with satisfaction with the app as a dependent variable. The random part of the model allowed both participant intercepts and the nested individual chronology of the forms to vary freely. The ﬁxed part of the model consisted of the variables of interest with regards to the hypotheses and additional control variables. These included the number of the study form, age, gender and months since participants’ ﬁrst experience with Tinder. Also, own perceived attractiveness was added as a proxy for genuine attractiveness, which we assume positively aﬀects success on the app. The summary of ﬁxed eﬀects in Table 1 shows that being able to browse interesting proﬁles and getting matches was generally positively related to satisfaction with Tinder. Moreover, starting conver- sations with new matches, as well as continuing a conversation was positively associated with this sat- isfaction. This means the expectations in H1a were supported by the data. H1b was also supported, as having run out of free likes was indeed negatively associated with satisfaction. An additional model, computing six cross-level interactions between the chronology of forms on the one hand, and matches, swiping interesting proﬁles, and the four conversation variables on the other hand did not yield signif- icant eﬀects. This implies that the found eﬀects were stable at least for the duration of the study. The second set of hypotheses predicted that swiping and liking activities are curvilinearly associ- ated with proﬁle interestingness (H2a) and the number of matches (H2b). The third set of hypotheses focused on the interval between app use, predicting that it is positively related with proﬁle interesting- ness (H3a) and the number of matches (H3b). To test these hypotheses, two models were computed: one for interestingness and one for number of matches. The proﬁle interestingness model’s random part included freely varying participants and nested individual form chronology. The ﬁxed part was composed of the following control variables: chronol- ogy of forms, months since ﬁrst having a Tinder account, gender, age, and self-perception of attrac- tiveness. The hypotheses’ variables were also included: swipe activity and its squared form, as well as the time between recent logins in hours. The results of the ﬁxed part, shown on the left-hand side of Table 2 (column a), show that male participants were generally evaluated the oﬀered proﬁles as more interesting. The results indicate that the association between swipe activity and proﬁle interestingness was indeed a curvilinear one, in the shape of an inverted U-curve (H2a). The hour intervals however did not aﬀect interestingness (H3a). 10 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Cracking the Tinder Code Table 1 Estimates of Fixed Eﬀects, Explaining Satisfaction With Tinder. An unstructured covariance structure was deﬁned for the random part, computing the eﬀects for participants and chronology of forms. The Residual variance amounts to (Z = 18.63) .03 (.02), p = .000. The random eﬀects are UN (1,1) (Z = 4.72) .39 (.08), p = .000, UN(2,1) (Z = 2.14) .01 (.01), p = .032, UN(2,2) (Z = 1.93) .00 (.00), p = .054 Satisfaction with Tinder B SE p Intercept 1.943 .698 .005 Chronology of individual forms −.008 .006 .235 Months since ﬁrst Tinder experience .003 .006 .608 Gender (Male = 1) −.112 .167 .501 Age .026 .029 .374 Self-perception of attractiveness .056 .052 .279 Interestingness of proposed proﬁles .268 .023 .000 Number of matches .036 .015 .018 Starting new conversation with new match .333 .090 .000 New match starts conversation .104 .087 .234 Continuing conversation with prior match .185 .077 .016 Match continues prior conversation −.002 .069 .974 Ran out of free likes −.234 .093 .012 Due to right skewness of the variable “number of matches,” a negative binomial model was com- puted to cope with its particular distribution (Allison, 2012). Apart from that, the matches model shared the exact same deﬁnition as the prior proﬁle interestingness model. The results, shown in the middle of 2 (column b), indicate that, on average, male participants and older participants gathered fewer matches. Interestingly, there was a negative eﬀect of chronology of forms on the number of matches. This suggests that over time, the number of matches tends to decline. Furthermore, the model supports the hypothesis (H2b) of a curvilinear relationship between swipe activity and matches (i.e., an inverted U-curve). H3b was not supported, as we found no eﬀect of hours between the two last logins. Finally, the relationship between satisfaction with Tinder and current mood was tested (H4). This model’s dependent variable was the participants’ current mood. As in all prior models, this model’s ran- dom part too included freely varying participant intercepts and nested individual form chronology. The ﬁxed part was composed of seven control variables: chronology of forms, months since ﬁrst having a Tinder account, gender, age, self-perception of attractiveness, satisfaction with life, and self-esteem. Satisfaction with life and self-esteem were considered as diﬀerential factors that were likely to structur- ally aﬀect one’s mood. Evidently, satisfaction with Tinder was also included as an independent variable. The summary of the model’s ﬁxed part Table 2 (column c) yields two signiﬁcant eﬀects. First, it shows that a longer experience with Tinder was negatively associated with current mood, right after using Tinder. However, satisfaction with the app was positively associated with mood. This begs the question whether both variables (i.e., longer experience with Tinder and satisfaction with Tinder) pos- sibly interact in explaining the target variable (i.e., mood). Therefore, a supplementary model was computed, also including an interaction term between time of experience with using Tinder and satis- faction with the app. This nulliﬁed the main eﬀect by satisfaction, but not of having a longer Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association 11 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 Cracking the Tinder Code C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Table 2 Estimates of Fixed Eﬀects, Explaining: (a) Interestingness of Proposed Proﬁles, (b) Number of Matches, and (c) Current Mood. For all three models, an unstructured covariance structure was deﬁned for the random part, computing the eﬀects for participants and chronology of forms (a) Interestingness (b) Number of of proposed proﬁles matches (c) Current Mood B SE p B SE p B SE p Intercept 1.716 1.053 .104 .869 .937 .360 2.440 .538 .000 Chronology of individual forms .002 .009 .849 −.046 .017 .018 −.005 .005 .254 Months since ﬁrst Tinder experience −.003 .008 .681 .001 .007 .911 −.011 .004 .005 Gender (male = 1) .486 .231 .036 −1.084 .241 .000 .125 .117 .286 Age −.012 .043 .778 −.154 .036 .000 −.003 .021 .877 Self-perception of attractiveness .054 .073 .461 .124 .068 .075 .066 .043 .132 Swipe activity .181 .015 .000 .207 .036 .000 Swipe activity (squared) −.003 .000 .000 −.004 .001 .000 Hours between two last logins .000 .001 .795 .001 .001 .055 Satisfaction with the app .243 .025 .000 Satisfaction with life .054 .054 .316 Self-esteem .011 .049 .817 UN (1,1) .72 .18 .000 .54 .25 .031 .19 .04 .000 UN (2,1) −.01 .01 .560 −.02 .02 .382 .00 .00 .804 UN (2,2) .00 .00 .131 .00 .00 .123 .00 .00 .000 experience using Tinder (B = –.05, SE = .01, p = .000). The interaction term proved signiﬁcant (B = .01, SE = .00, p = .000). More experienced users that were satisﬁed with the app generally tended to report better moods right after using the app. Discussion and conclusion This article presents a conceptual structuration model that considers algorithmic governance of online platforms as the dynamic interplay of three types of actors: platform owners and developers, machine learning algorithms and platform users. More speciﬁcally, platform owners design the architectures and construct the discourses tied to services (van Dijck, 2013). Within a technological and commercial logic, they set out the potential parameters and preferred targets for self-learning algorithms. These mechanisms work semi-autonomously in developing the recipe to push users into desired behavior (Alpaydin, 2014). Still, users are the key resource for this learning activity by providing the necessary data. This implies that users at least indirectly, and probably unknowingly, have a hand in how a plat- form operates and develops. Users have the ability to attempt to resist platform algorithms by trying to ﬁgure out the essence of their mechanics and act accordingly (Bucher, 2017). We argued that in current models of media eﬀects, the inﬂuence ofalgorithmsismainlyignored. This obscures how exposure comes about as an interaction between users and algorithms. Unfortunately, platforms rarely communicate on how their algorithms work, which complicates our understanding of how they aﬀect exposure and users. To indirectly explain the interaction between algorithms and users, we argued in favor of adopting insights from the (C)PE of online media and platform studies. These per- spectives have thoroughly analyzed the technical and economic backgrounds of numerous platforms. Still, 12 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 C. Courtois and E. Timmermans Cracking the Tinder Code they rarely involve larger scale quantitative research that assess algorithms’ eﬀects on users. As such, both perspectives are complementary and beneﬁt from being jointed together. The unique combination allows to derive assumptions on how algorithms work, and allow to gather data to test hypotheses on associa- tions between input, output, and eﬀects measures. More speciﬁcally, we successfully appropriated experi- ence sampling to measure user action (input), exposure (output), and eﬀects immediately after a usage session. This oﬀered a glimpse into the black box, without actually having to open it. It feeds back to media eﬀects research by reﬁning its conceptual model to ﬁt algorithmically-governed platforms and by oﬀering a method for empirical research. Moreover, evidence that follows from this approach provides (C)PE of online media and platform studies with statistical evidence that strengthens and/or nuances their assumptions on the user consequences. This proof of concept focused on Tinder and the supposed general mechanics of its algorithm. It showed that swipe activity is curvilinearly, rather than linearly related to proﬁle interestingness and the number of matches. Such ﬁndings suggest that, at least for non-paying users, more swipe activity does not necessarilyrelateto moreoutcomes(i.e.,getting to seemoreattractive proﬁles or establish matches). These outcomes, that precede and enable further communication, are Tinder’s key features that account for satisfaction with the app. It is reasonable to assume that Tinder deliberately limits these outcomes. It prohibits its major assets of attractive proﬁles and liked proﬁles to run out too soon. This could be con- sidered as an element that frustrates users to convert them into paying customers. Tinder incorporates a mechanism that explicitly, and apparently successfully, dissatisﬁes users by restricting their number of free likes; a restriction that is taken away by simply buying a premium subscription. However, the current data do not support usage frequency intervals as an important factor in showing interesting proﬁles and allowing matches. We assumed that this would point platforms to users that pose a potential threat for dropping out. Oﬀering more matches could entice them to return, or become more active. However, we did ﬁnd an eﬀect of chronology of forms, which points to a simi- lar logic, although based on the overall activity. The more Tinder is recurrently used, the lower the number of matches becomes. Still, we need to consider that this is only an indirect indicator in this study. We expected similar eﬀects of interestingness of proﬁles, which could not be conﬁrmed. A plau- sible explanation is that Tinder attempts to continually feed users anticipation of potentially getting attractive matches, regardless of activity frequency. Also, attractive proﬁles are a resource that are not as scarce as attractive proﬁles that warrant a match. This study sheds preliminary light on possible eﬀects that using the app provokes. The analyses show that the longer it has been since Tinder was ﬁrst ever used, the more negative participants reported on their mood after using the app. However, this eﬀect is less pronounced for participants who are more satisﬁed with the app. If we take into account that the key features explaining satisfaction (i.e., interesting proﬁles and matches), are aﬀected by the interaction between users and the algorithm, it must be acknowledged that this interplay is likely responsible for the psychosocial consequences the platform provokes. This implies that research on online media eﬀects that solely draws on either an exposure-eﬀects or a selective exposure logic remains oblivious to the genuine complexity that underlies this exposure. Exposure to online platforms is a media eﬀect in itself that provokes other eﬀects. This study suggests that longitudinal eﬀorts that closely focus on user activity and exposure as it occurs could help in overcoming this fundamental caveat. This proof of concept of a structuration approach to research algorithmically-governed platforms not only ﬁts Tinder, but virtually any platform. However, a signiﬁcant challenge in generalizing its methodology is that platforms characterized by a wide array of input and output variables are probably too complex to capture in their entirety. It should be noted, however, that it is not our ambition to reverse engineer algorithms or capture their ﬁnest nuances, rather than uncovering and testing their general mechanisms. Still, this study is inevitably characterized by several limitations. Despite the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association 13 Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018 Cracking the Tinder Code C. Courtois and E. Timmermans considerable number of completed forms, it draws upon a relatively small sample of users. This only allows us to reliably test relatively simple statistical models. Due to required investment, it is diﬃcult to engage a large number of participants. Also, the sample includes few paying users. It is unclear whether they are treated diﬀerently by the algorithm. However, the number of paying Tinder users was esti- mated at only 2% a year ago (McAlone, 2016). We also noticed that some participants struggled with setting up the ESM app, in spite of detailed user guides. Finally, we need to acknowledge that eﬀects measures in this study are far from perfect. In order not to overburden participants, we chose for com- pact single-measure items incapable of capturing the phenomena’s full complexity. For these reasons, we encourage further theoretical and methodological developments that render this logic applicable to more complex platforms with a wider range of less evidently identiﬁable input and output variables, and for a wider array of more reﬁned media eﬀects. 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Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Supporting Group Work, Sanibel Island, FL. 16 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2018) 1–16 © 2018 International Communication Association Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article-abstract/23/1/1/4832995 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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