Bumble Basics: Retrospective Reflection from An Anthropologist

I spent five months inside the Bumble hive and write about these torrid experiences from the perspective of an anthropologist who studies sexuality and a woman trying to date. I found the Bumbleverse a tough place to break into in a meaningful way. The preference for messages over meeting was one of the perplexing observations I made. Does texting equal dating in this palm-held landscape? Does this explain the predilection many men have about fleshly encounters? But, if dating isn’t about meeting someone what is it about?

I’ve written about these experiences here and elsewhere. In this piece, I return to the most fundamental – and often overlooked – building block of the Bumble process: decision-making.  Exploring this hidden aspect of the routinized behaviours we engage in globally—we use the same platforms—reveals the psycho-social and emotional circuity that gives meaning to contemporary dating cultures and our experiences within them.

Why reflect on this when we’re many years into Bumble and dating apps broadly speaking? Because although these platforms are used ubiquitously, people who use them rarely reflect on what they’re actually doing or what using these apps means personally or in social terms.  Indeed, the things we do and use every day often escape our reflection because they are so common. Yet, they reveal insights about how we live and, in this instance, how we Bumble.

The dynamics of swiping culture

At one level, the decisions are fairly straight forward. Left for the less attractive profiles and right for the hot ones. But what about the ones in between, which make up around 30% of the selection? I found these “maybe guys” demanded the most work in terms of decision-making. This was mainly because I live in a rather provincial city with very few super hot options. If I said no to a lot of these 50-50 guys I might really be losing out. But, if I swiped right on a bunch of them, and they ‘liked’ me, then I’d need to create a bunch of opening conversations.

Yes, this is the point of being on Bumble but starting conversations with a load of strangers doesn’t always feel ‘natural.’ Speaking to a couple of men in the course of a night out, OK maybe, but not 20 a day! It also generates a lot of texting activity, which I kind of despise and found hard to manage without feeling manic.

Creating multiple opening lines involves deciding what to say, how to say it and then responding in suitable timeframes to what they say – if they say anything at all! Then there’s the checking in – often obsessively – to see if they have indeed gotten back, all of which occupies a tremendous amount of time. I turned off my notifications after a week or so because I couldn’t stand the invasion of the notification dings.

Taking a break from Bumble is another way to reduce the cray feels. However, like any good capitalist product, inactivity is discouraged on the app. Indeed, users regularly receive messages from “HQ” about increased productivity, for which we receive virtual pats on the back. We’re good little bees!  Inactivity also wouldn’t get me inside the male hives I wanted to explore. So, I had to press on and continue sending out my opening lines (113 in 5 months), which I found challenging creatively and physically because I only type with one hand.

Ultimately, it comes down to the age-old question many of us ask ourselves, almost unconsciously, in various social situations (i.e., the bus, the waiting room, the bank): would I or wouldn’t I? Sex is what I wanted, so that was driving my selection process, which is true for most Bumble users. I wasn’t interested in meeting someone just to meet ‘someone.’ I don’t need another male admirer…I know that sounds cocky, but it’s true.

The VIP advantage: Or is it?

I purchased the VIP package to help manage some of my Bumble decisions. The paid version offers additional features and/or categories of prospective matches beyond those offered in the free version (i.e., left or right on the main feed). It actually increases the decisions that need to be made but made me feel more in control. Along with being able to extend my matches past the 24-hour period, the VIP package allowed me to access the “Beeline.” These men hung out in blue circles on the top row of my home roster and are the guys who have already “liked” me. Unlike the Russian Roulette of the main feed,  swiping right on these guys guarantees a match.

Like the “maybe guys” I mentioned above, I often struggled with the Beeline guys because they were like my rainy-day fund in case I wasn’t having much luck in the main feed or with other guys in the Beeline. I didn’t want to squander them and would regularly look at these symbolic beacons of hope and wonder what they’re like. Do they really like me and what does ‘like’ mean?

When these guys appeared in the main feed  I had to decide, one way or another, to keep playing. I would often get nervous to swipe left because doing so means I was kissing a ‘definite’ match good-bye. Instead of deciding, sometimes I just closed the app and returned a few minutes later. That sometimes works for a guy or two, but then the blue guys often appear again. Decisions of all magnitude must be made for the game to continue.

Time to press snooze?

I am not alone in my complex feels about the whole thing because Bumble recently launched the “Snooze” feature that allows users to take a break without losing their connections. This feature is described as: “encouraging you to go offline so you come back to our community a healthier, more balanced person — whenever you’re ready”. Welcome to the Bumble California, where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave!

Talk about using ‘wellness speak’ to deflect responsibility and make frustrated users feel nuts while ensuring we remain signed up. Yikes!! I realize that it’s not all “Bumble’s fault” that many of us have weird, unfulfilling experiences, but its design directly contributes to some of the strange things that happen on this platform. Would I have used the Snooze function during my digital tour of duty on this platform? Maybe, but what if some great guy(s) were scooped up scoop by another Bumble girl while I’m decompressing in my sticky hive? That would suck…

The risk of not remaining in the game – FOMO anyone – is a powerful determinant in Bumbling and digital life more generally. Are these restorative offers an illusory attempt to put a caring face on the yellow hive in the palm of our hands. The idea of ‘the app’ caring for us as customers is interesting to consider. For me, it conjures up images of The Wizard of Oz and 1984: dystopic mechanisms of power hidden behind emerald cloaks and Big Brothers. Bumble is part of the broader capitalist post-industrial economy that makes our globe, and our hearts, spin.

During my five months inside the hive I often pondered the cost of this exchange of my time, money, and emotional energies for the sometimes sexy but more often frustrating buzz around the Bumbleverse. Instead of introducing a snooze function, why not add more user -informed features to enhance the harmony and humanity of our dating devices and experiences?