The drift of users on and off apps is often driven as much by dissatisfaction as it is by users finding a secure and lasting romantic relationship. However, in the heightened circumstances of the pandemic, the fluidity of this process–its liquid nature, to use Bauman’s (2003) terms–disappeared. There was nothing fluid about going from maniacally swiping and chatting, deleting, to returning to the apps. Participants were clearly rattled by the jagged cycle, expressing in a consistent sense that they were personally ‘broken’ or there was ‘something wrong with [them]’ (heterosexual, female, 30 years old, living in Sydney). The pandemic saw a desperation from participants to emplot themselves in the romance masterplot, to attain the security that provides, to not miss their ‘right’ moment for love, and an excitement about the unique affordances of the lockdown for a particular kind of romantic narrative. However, it also saw despair about the difficulties of proceeding beyond small talk to more intimate levels of conversation, and the inability to determine romantic chemistry without physically meeting. Trapped in the jagged love cycle, participants found themselves both strongly desiring romance, but unable to reach the apotheosis of the romantic masterplot.
This is a small study, but it clearly demonstrates the ways in which the romantic masterplot affects how people approach romance on dating apps. 6 Participants express their desire to meet ‘the one’ and for ‘organic’ relationships, developing in line with dominant cultural narratives of romance. They must negotiate the fact that apps offer the best chance to meet someone, but are also an environment characterized by logics of premeditation and strategy, which runs counter to the artlessness inherent in most romance narratives. App use is therefore often cyclical, as people fall in and out of relationships with each other and the apps themselves.
This was intensified by the global COVID-19 pandemic. While previously there was a liquidity in dating app use, the pandemic engendered what we have called the jagged love cycle, as participants ricocheted violently between the desire to find someone and disenchantment with the process of searching. Participants wanted the security of finding a partner, to mitigate both potential loneliness during lockdown and to assuage the temporal anxiety associated with the romance narrative (that is, not to miss the ‘right’ time to find love, especially in an environment as heightened as the pandemic). There was also a certain element of excitement at the kinds of romance narratives a lockdown situation could engender, such as those characterized by a forced proximity trope. But this was mirrored by frustration and disappointment. In addition to the pre-existing tension between seeking romance on-app and the desire for an ‘organic’ relationship, participants were frustrated by the lack of development of intimacy in their multiple low-level matches, and by the inability to determine chemistry without physically meeting. The jagged love cycle is characterized by a battle between an ontological sense of security and insecurity, a desire to tie bonds, but keep them loose at the same time–liquid love, only on steroids.
We contend that participants’ use of dating apps in this period were characterised by a phenomenon we have termed ‘jagged love’. This manifested cyclically, as participants turned to dating apps desperately seeking the security offered by the romantic masterplot; swiped, matched, and sent direct messages (DMs) in large numbers; became ambivalent and/or lost faith in the apps as a means by which they could embody the masterplot; deleted the apps; experienced loneliness; and returned quickly to the apps to repeat the cycle. While this pattern was not necessarily markedly different to the ways in which people used dating apps in the past, it was heightened and accelerated by the pandemic, as people desperately sought the certainty offered by the romantic masterplot. This caused what had hitherto been a relatively fluid cycle to become fragmented and frenetic: or, as we have put it, jagged.
Dating app academic literature focuses largely on health (Albury et al., 2020), sexting (Huang et al., 2016), the exponential growth of a hook-up culture (Albury et al., 2017), dating app infrastructure (Duguay, 2019), and, to a lesser degree, the reinforcement or subversion of heteronormativity via dating apps (Saraiva et al., 2020). However, currently, there is little analysis of the deep continuities in love and intimacy which dating apps produce and facilitate. While dating apps present as a rupture in the way relationships are instigated and developed–that is, a movement from a physical environment to a digital landscape–they also present a continuity in pre-existing relationship dynamics and romantic masterplots. As this research demonstrates, despite the ‘hook-up’ dynamic generated by app architecture like Tinder, users continue to seek to emplot themselves in a romantic narrative.
The romance plot of most dedicated romantic media involves a significant amount of conflict. In her explication of the popular romance , p. 30) notes that two of the romance ;s eight elements are the barrier between the protagonists and the point of ritual death (ie. the moment where it seems like they can never be together). The broader cultural romantic masterplot involves less conflict between the potential couple, although working through conflict as a couple has increasingly become part of the narrative of ). However, the masterplot shares the fundamental assumption with romantic media that ‘there is a right man or woman for each person’ and ‘projects a life story that involves meeting that individual and living with him or her in , p. 20).
Bauman’s contentions are arguably somewhat hyperbolic. As Shaun Best (2019, p. 1096) notes in his critique of Bauman, modernity has not ‘ushered in a sexual free for all rooted in individualism’ nor have all relationships become more fluid–indeed, as Best mentions, the movement for the legalisation of same-sex s represents a demand for more solidity rather than fluidity. Similarly, a 2016 Australian study into dating apps found ‘that traditional views on dating, relationships and monogamy are still largely prevalent’ (Hobbs et al., 2016, p. 276), and that ‘dating apps and internet dating more broadly are not “liquefying” ideals like romantic love, monogamy or a commitment to longer-term relationship’ (Hobbs et al., 2016, p. 281). To put this another way: there is still widespread commitment to the ideals and milestones of the romantic masterplot.
The global pandemic seems to have two key effects on dating app users. The first, and most obvious, was that it precluded almost all possibilities for casual sex. The second was that it cast people into a state of ontological uncertainty. The pandemic, and its accompanying promise of lockdown, sent many people searching frantically for the security offered by the romantic masterplot, including many who had not hitherto used dating apps in this way. App use spiked near the beginning of the quarantine period in ;lock down an iso-partner’ (female, 30 years of age, living in Sydney city). A participant (female, 30 years of age, living in Sydney city) indicated:
Participants also expressed the notion that once they returned to physical settings, love would once again have an opportunity to run its natural and ‘organic’ course. For instance, this participant (30 years old, living in Sydney, female, heterosexual) stated: