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Javnost - The Public
Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture
ISSN: 1318-3222 (Print) 1854-8377 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjav20
“Tinder Humanitarians”: The Moral Panic Around
Representations of Old Relationships in New
Lisa Ann Richey
To cite this article: Lisa Ann Richey (2016) “Tinder Humanitarians”: The Moral Panic Around
Representations of Old Relationships in New Media, Javnost - The Public, 23:4, 398-414, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2016.1248323
Published online: 24 Nov 2016.
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“TINDER HUMANITARIANS”: THE MORAL
PANIC AROUND REPRESENTATIONS OF
OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA
Lisa Ann Richey
According to the company website, Tinder is a mobile phone application for “friends, dates,
relationships, and everything in between”. Cody Clarke, a writer and ﬁlmmaker, documents
screenshots of photographs from the closed network of Tinder to publicly “out”users of the
site who post photographs showing themselves in some “do-gooding”relationship that
appears to take place in the South. Through the posting of a new photograph every day,
the “Humanitarians of Tinder”Tumblr blog and Facebook page have generated a public dis-
cussion on the politics of representing suffering strangers in attempts to enhance the appeal
of western image producers. This article will investigate the phenomenon of the Humanitar-
ians of Tinder in order to understand its representations of North–South relations from the
photographs themselves and from the debates held around them in new media and old.
Critical development studies, media studies and sociology will provide an interdisciplinary
theoretical framework to understand the moral panic that these Tinder humanitarians
have created through posting private photographs of humanitarian performances to
increase their personal desirability.
KEYWORDS humanitarianism; new media; north-south relations; Tinder; Facebook; moral panic
According to the company website, Tinder is a mobile phone application for
“friends, dates, relationships, and everything in between”.
While some consider the
quick turn-around time of swiping through photographs of potential hook-ups to rep-
resent a particularly vulgar side of transactional interaction for sex, there is also a per-
formance of humanitarianism that deserves scrutiny for the representations it presents
and the engagement of the public in North–South relations. Popular media such as
The Atlantic and The Hufﬁngton Post have derided these “humanitarians of Tinder”,asdis-
covered through a blog on the popular social media site Tumblr and its linked Facebook
page. Cody Clarke, a writer and ﬁlmmaker, documents screenshots of photographs from
the closed network of Tinder to publicly “out”users of the site who post photographs
showing themselves in some “do-gooding”relationship (Littler 2008) that appears to
take place in the South. Through the posting of a new photograph every day, the
page has generated what might be considered a “moral panic”over the use of distant
Others posed with “white saviours”in selling the western self on a dating app. It has
also sparked a public discussion on the politics of representing suffering strangers in
service of Chouliaraki’s(2010) (post?)-humanitarian self. This article will analyse the
images and texts as forms of political communication that perform interesting nego-
tiations around identity in relation to proximate and distant Others.
Javnost: The Public, 2016
Vol. 23, No. 4, 398–414, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2016.1248323
© 2016 EURICOM
Goldberg writes in the Hufﬁngton Post that “While it’s true that the volunteers on
Tinder could be a little more humble about their advocacy work and may be painting them-
selves in a martyr light, we can’t completely fault them for showing off their selﬂess side.”
Yet this “selﬂess”demonstration through the Tinder proﬁle has provoked signiﬁcant contro-
versy and back-talk. On a popular blog for travellers, Emily Westmoreland writes “An Open
Letter to the Humanitarians of Tinder”which notes, among other critiques:
Cultural imperialism isn’t sexy. Relationships should be reciprocal: you shouldn’t be the
only one left feeling good. I can’t help but wonder whether your presence had a lasting
positive effect on the community you visited, and if not, why would I ever think you’d
have a lasting positive effect on me? Voluntourism is selﬁsh and short-sighted.
Megan Garber, a staff writer for The Atlantic covering culture, wrote her own critical
and artistically snarky poem “To the Humanitarians of Tinder: An Open Ode from Walt
Whitman to the Dating Apps Do-Gooders”in which she interposes selections from Whit-
man’s“Song of Myself (1892 version)”with 10 of the photographs taken from Humanitar-
ians of Tinder in which the faces of the central white subjects are blurred. The
introduction to this work states:
Do not mock the humanitarians of Tinder. Do not resent them, or be horriﬁed by them, or
assume that the images they have posted to a proximity-based hookup app are specimens
of white privilege or liberal guilt or thoughtless violation of the categorical imperative.
Instead, celebrate the humanitarians of Tinder! Revel in the complexity they are attempt-
ing to bring to a smartphone-enabled dating culture whose sexual-economic logic is
otherwise stark! Admire the layers of humanity these people are trying to bring to
Tinder’s two-dimensional approach to romance!
An early critique of the Humanitarians of Tinder appeared in Nerve, where the title—
“Meet the Humanitarians of Tinder, Saving the world, One Dating Proﬁle at a Time”— is a
spoiler for the article that follows:
“Everyone wants to present themselves well on their
dating proﬁles. It’s possible to go too far, though, and make a forced attempt to brand
oneself as a younger, hotter Mother Theresa.”It begins with a lovely, thin young woman
posing with her arms around two brown Asian girls, preceded by the introduction: “Starring
that girl from college who spend a month in Ghana”. No mention is made of the disconnec-
tion between the photograph on one continent and the referent of the critical introduction
to another. For critics of Tinder Humanitarianism, as for the photographs they are critiquing,
a smooth global notion of do-gooding acts as an adhesive that pulls together even the most
disparate things like a hook-up app and humanitarianism. This article will investigate the
phenomenon of the Humanitarians of Tinder in order to understand its representations
of North–South relations from the photographs themselves and from the debates held
around them in new media and old. Critical development studies, media studies and soci-
ology will provide a theoretical framework to understand the moral panic that these Tinder
humanitarians have created through posting private photographs of humanitarian perform-
ances to increase their personal desirability.
While an online study of images from a location-based hook-up app may appear an
unlikely site for improving our understandings of humanitarianism, I argue that these
MORAL PANIC AROUND OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA 399
representations need serious scrutiny as a manifestation of political values, as a perform-
ance of North–South relations and as potential sites of assemblages of solidarity (see
Ong and Collier 2005). Mason’s(2016) study of Tinder draws on Berlant’s(1997) justiﬁcation
for studying “waste communication”in the public sphere, where citizenship is constructed
through the “silliest, most banal, …erratic logic”(Berlant 1997, 12 as quoted in Mason 2016,
3). Through a close examination of the social media engagement with “humanitarians of
Tinder”and an exploratory online ethnography, this article will critically consider the
claim of the smartphone dating app that “Tinder empowers users around the world to
create new connections that otherwise might never have been possible.”This is a
complex case analysing both the use of humanitarian photographs on the dating app
Tinder and the critical assemblage of these photographs on Tumblr and Facebook.
To begin to understand the debates sparked by Tinder Humanitarians’represen-
tations of old relationships in new media, I begin with thinking around “moral panic”.
The concept of “moral panic”dates back to sociology of the mid-1960s when the symbolic
interactionists developed theories of labelling (Becker 1963; Wilkins 1964). However, it was
the development of the concept in relation to the ampliﬁcation of deviance by the moral
panic of the state through the media that brought the term “moral panic”into popular
usage, and clariﬁed the critical role of the media in the constitution of the panic and its reac-
tions. Back in the mid-1990s, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) argued for a revision of the
theory of moral panic and the social relations that construct it to recognise both the expan-
sion of media and of public involvement in debate. Their revision of moral panic that
emphasises both the role of the media, in this case, Tumblr and Facebook, and the increas-
ing participation of the public, ranging from “comments”on Facebook to popular articles, is
particularly useful. Yet the moral issues raised by this complex case of the Humanitarians of
Tinder extend beyond the scope of creating “folk demons”of the Tinder users who share
photographs in humanitarian poses. The images themselves raise questions around the
politics of representation—who has the right to represent the Other and on what
grounds and with what consent? They also provoke thinking around the intertextual refer-
ences in the photographs themselves—why do these seem so familiar? Finally, the circula-
tion of the images of the Humanitarians of Tinder between the semi-private platform of the
dating app and the public platform with commenting of Facebook requires a consideration
of the morality of public shaming as a political act.
Chouliaraki (2013) emphasises that humanitarian communication in the new media
favours partial, personal readings as opposed to more objective, shared interpretations of
humanitarian problems, and thus, is less effective at integrating audiences and providing
a shared foundation for collective action. Therefore, critical scholarship must question the
“optimists”who lead us to believe that globalisation and mediatisation are permeating
all corners of the globe and “networking”everyone, while leaving isolation, misunderstand-
ing and callousness as part of a “pre-humanitarian”past (for a useful overview, see Robert-
son 2015). Simultaneously, argues Chouliaraki, the grand narratives of solidarity have been
replaced by individualist projects. This is linked to changes in technology and new media
forms where audiences in the North have become both producers and consumers of a
public communication that obfuscates the distant Others.
In previous work, I have examined the ways in which humanitarian causes have been
sold to northern consumer publics (Richey and Ponte 2011) and I draw on these under-
standings for the analysis of how we might think about the Humanitarians of Tinder. I
focus on what Smith and Yanacopulos (2004) describe as the “public faces of development”
400 LISA ANN RICHEY
or what Scott (2014) groups as “media representations of development”—the various ways
in which meanings and representations of the Global South are conveyed to northern
publics. In this article, I will argue that the reception of the photographs in various
media, both online and in traditional media, can be considered a new form of “moral
panic”. In examining the social relations around the Humanitarians of Tinder and their
media representations of the ensuing debate, I return to their revision of the classic theories
of “moral panic”, but read this within the context of “post-humanitarianism”and the increas-
ingly celebritised relationships of humanitarianism.
As a relatively new phenomenon, the dating app Tinder has not been a concern taken
up by much serious research. However, there are two exceptions that are worth mentioning;
the ﬁrst is a journal article that uses a “theoretical analysis of Humanitarians of Tinder”as a
platform for inquiry using racial erotics (“how racial power operates through sex”) (Mason
2016, 2). The article is based on theories of race and bodily exploitation; notably it
studies the idea of Tinder Humanitarians, but not the actual images themselves or the
content surrounding the posting of these images. The other academic analysis that is
useful for this study is a master’s thesis in which Braziel (2015) actually conducted an ethno-
graphic study with Tinder users and analysed the results. This thesis has been invaluable in
understanding more about how people actually use Tinder, but does not include the Tinder
Humanitarians in any way.
Initially, I too had planned to undertake an ethnographic study, because I believed
that it could have been useful for understanding the reasons why Tinder users posted
photographs of themselves as “humanitarians”. However, I did not actually undertake my
own ethnographic study with Tinder users, because I am still thinking about how to ethically
create a proﬁle that would allow me to directly access and chat with users on the site. There
are considerable ethical dilemmas involved in studying this phenomenon up close, such as
whether young people in a relaxed environment of seeking hook-ups would be disrupted
by a connection with a professor of international development studies seeking data. There
are practical obstacles as well, because the average age of the Tinder Humanitarians in my
sample was 26 years and thus my proﬁle would be unlikely to be sorted by the Tinder algor-
ithm into the same batch as my target respondents due to our differences in age. Therefore,
for ethical as well as practical reasons, I have chosen to analyse only data that are already
available in the public realm. Additionally, there is no risk that the research itself will expose
previously private data to public critique.
I have collected three types of original data for this article. First, I downloaded and
systematically analysed all of the photographs from the Humanitarians of Tinder Tumblr
beginning with the date I started this research (posted 10 May 2016) and going back sys-
tematically until I reached a total of 100 photographs (posted 20 January 2016). Because
the initiative remains ongoing at the time of publication, it would never be possible to con-
sider the entire universe of cases for analysis; thus, I selected 100 photographs retroactively
to ensure that I would have a representative selection of sufﬁcient quantity to understand
overall trends in the postings, and not to choose photographs simply because they were
more interesting for my analysis. Having now done the analysis on the photographs, it is
clear that the number of photographs is sufﬁcient for reaching the point of data saturation
for qualitative analysis (Seale 1999).
MORAL PANIC AROUND OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA 401
Second, I also conducted as much as possible (given that I remained within the realm
of publically accessible material and did not “friend”unknown people to retrieve infor-
mation) an online ethnography of a selection of approximately 10 per cent of these photo-
graphs. I read all of their comments and any information publicly available from the
Facebook proﬁles of the commentators on the Humanitarians of Tinder photographs in
order to try to understand whether some of the contextual issues that are assumed
about these users are, in fact, veriﬁable. The photographs selected for this online ethnogra-
phy were chosen to inform my understanding of the different kinds of comments that were
written on the Facebook page.
Third, I also conducted a question-and-answer interview online with Cody Clarke, the
individual responsible for the Humanitarians of Tinder Facebook page, providing back-
ground material for this article. Additionally, I looked at many more of the Humanitarians
of Tinder photographs on Facebook, read extensively the Tinder website and blog, and fol-
lowed up on relevant initiatives that could inform our understanding of the Humanitarians
of Tinder. This empirical material has been analysed in consultation with secondary sources
from both popular media and academia written about the Tinder Humanitarians.
Tinder Humanitarianism: What Is the Problem?
In vernacular usage, the term “humanitarian”is used as an adjective to modify a noun
in ways that indicate any gesture engaging in transnational “do-gooding”(Littler 2008).
its commonly used noun form, a “humanitarian”is “a person who seeks to promote human
welfare”. Yet the welfare of humans is meant as an extroverted activity, not linked to the
immediate needs of or care for the human “self”.“Humanitarians”are assumed to exhibit
a fundamental “selﬂessness”in their work in service of simple, needy Others (Malkki
2015). The adjective “humanitarian”is assumed to work in opposition to other potential
modiﬁers that function at different levels from the structural to the individual—like “mili-
tary”,“narcissistic”or “political”. It has become a catch-all term for an imaginary of selﬂess
engagement with suffering, distant Others whose “bare life”(Agamben 1998) exists outside
any identiﬁable political, historical or social context (see Calhoun as quoted in Barnett and
Weiss 2008, and other contributions therein).
In such an idealised world of humanitarian selﬂessness, it is easy to understand the
moral panic that has arisen from the exposure of the “humanitarians of Tinder”who use
anonymous photographs of people in the Global South to frame themselves as desirable
and attractive. These “Tindertarians”are the manifestation of all that is wrong in North–
South relations. They are self-serving instead of selﬂess; they are displaying their “exotic”
companions instead of helping them; and they are enjoying poverty instead of weeping
with its victims. In this role, they are set apart from the normal workings of humanitarian
organisations in practice or from theoretical presumptions of “human welfare”in theory.
The single piece of thus far published academic work on this topic argues that “while not
explicit in a majority of popular humanitarian campaigns and images, the Humanitarians
of Tinder explicitly place desire, the erotic, and their ‘sadistic/voyeuristic’gaze in the
hand of users swiping through to ﬁnd ‘hot’people for hook-ups”(Mason 2016, 8).
Humanitarianism itself is a contested concept that cannot be assumed “innocent”in
analysing the photographs and the phenomenon of “Tinder humanitarianism”. International
relations scholars use “humanitarianism”with a speciﬁc historical reference to the 1864
402 LISA ANN RICHEY
Geneva Convention’s recognition in international law of humanitarian principles to govern
the moral practice of war. Yet the term has spread to involve a more generalised gesturing
to “do-gooding”extending beyond war, and in some instances to both war’s aftermath
and its prevention. The expansion of humanitarian space from the governance of war to
more nebulous interventions on behalf of an assumed shared humanity dates back speciﬁ-
cally to the 1970s crisis in Biafra and links clearly to media representations of humanitarianism
and human suffering (see Vestergaard (forthcoming) for an in-depth review).
There is a signiﬁcant gap between the portrayal of the causes of humanitarian disasters
as “emergencies”and considerations of their historical and political roots, and these differ-
ences shape both conﬂict itself and institutional resilience, as argued by Roberto Belloni
(2007). What we have seen since Biafra is that global humanitarianism, and the solidarity
that is supposed to underpin its foundations, have been reliant on images—photographic
representations that bridge the gap between the western self and the (typically African)
Other. Robert van Krieken (2016) analyses how the logic of humanitarianism or, using
Hannah Arendt’s(1963) turn of phrase, “the passion for compassion”has always been an
essential and contested element of the colonial project. In consideration of the roots of
humanitarianism in the colonial project and the reliance on representations to provide
moral justiﬁcation for solidarity and action, we turn to consider the Humanitarians of Tinder.
Launched in 2012, Tinder is the world’s leading social app for meeting new people. With its
global reach, people in all 196 countries around the world are swiping right to connect
with others, making it a top 10 lifestyle app in more than 70 countries. In 2015, the
company introduced Tinder Plus, giving users access to premium features, Rewind and
Passport. Each day, 26 million matches are made on Tinder with more than 10 billion
matches made to date.
Tinder was the second most downloaded app in 50 countries around the world in
2015, but notably is not yet widespread in Africa where the market (limited to Kenya,
Nigeria and South Africa) is dominated by its competitor Badoo.
The US-based dating
app launched its ﬁrst overseas ofﬁce in India, and it was the nation’s most popular
dating app in 2015, now attracting 14 million swipes per day in India.
While Tinder is ﬁrst and foremost a dating app, it has also been used for a number of
explicitly political engagements and campaigns. In 2014, Tinder in Australia partnered with
Amnesty International to celebrate International Women’s Day. The Amnesty International
“Take Over”of Tinder involved sharing proﬁle photographs with Amnesty’s colours and
logo, stating: “Not all women have the choices you do.”
On 8 March 2014, Tinder
agreed to show these proﬁle pictures regularly. When users swiped on them, they were
directed, according to a description of the campaign, to a “fully-responsive HTML5 microsite
detailing the rights abuses many women face, and the work Amnesty does to stand up for
Mason describes the campaign as “using neoliberalised feminist choice rhetoric”of
“‘Nope’or ‘Like’as the epitome of gender equality, and a yardstick with which to measure
other nation’s inequitable standards on love, marriage, and choice for women”(2016, 3).
The unusual partnership between Amnesty and Tinder was undertaken in spite of the
potential friction between the goals of user in a dating app and an international humanitar-
ian organisation. Yet the data mined, including emails, and “thousands more”click-throughs
MORAL PANIC AROUND OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA 403
to Amnesty’s website suggest that it was a partnership with beneﬁts for Amnesty. In an
article from The Guardian on the Voluntary Sector Network, a representative from
Amnesty stated: “We were mindful that we were talking to individuals in leisure mode
and we were also wary that Amnesty’s messaging could come across as ‘too serious’in
such a relaxed medium.”
The award-winning campaign clearly offered beneﬁts to
Tinder as well, both in producing a respectable corporate morality of supporting
women’s rights, and in getting Tinder signiﬁcant publicity. On an award website, it states:
the campaign was a world ﬁrst, and a clever way to bring up such an important issue at the
right time and on an extremely popular social app. Its successful delivery reached both
national and international headlines, as well as several industry blogs.
Tinder users must download the free app for their smartphone that links Tinder auto-
matically to their Facebook account and make a proﬁle with six photographs and, if desir-
able, a few lines of text. Users are allowed to indicate their gender (from male or female), the
distance range they would like to search for connections, the age range they prefer
(between 18 and 55+) and whether they would like to be shown proﬁles of females,
males or both. The app automatically links to photographs from Facebook, so you can
chose amongst them for the six photographs that will decide if you are “hot”. The ﬁrst,
and often only, item a potential connection will see is your proﬁle page that includes a
photograph and an optional 500 characters of text. If you click on the proﬁle photograph
of another Tinder user, you are then able to see their other ﬁve photographs, the text
they use to describe themselves and whether you have any of the same Facebook
friends or interests in common. There is a red X on the left and a green heart on the
right for the choice of whether you would like to connect or not. If you choose the heart
and the other user chooses the heart, then you are a match and are put through to the
possibility of chatting. A message appears on your screen: “Congratulations! You have a
new match.”This means that another user has also swiped right, or liked your proﬁle.
The screen on the app then asks whether you want to “chat now”or “keep playing”.If
you want to pass on the proﬁle photograph you are shown, you “swipe left”; but if you
want the potential to connect, you “swipe right”. If you make a mistake or want to
change your mind, you can return to a previous user only if you purchase a Tinder Plus
account for a charge of $10 per month.
Tinder brands itself as being a safe environment for meeting new people, particularly
for women, and gives explicit advice on its website for how to connect in public, keep your
data safe from scammers and protect your sexual health.
However, the ethnographic
account provided by Braziel suggests that Tinder can also be used for harassment. She
writes of her own Tinder experience:
Occasionally when chatting with other users I notice the button to “unmatch”or “report”another
user. Although I do not think much of the feature at ﬁrst, I suddenly understand its use when one
of my matches becomes angry that I did not text him back after he gave me his number. “Is that
too large of a task for your tiny brain? You stupid cunt.”Clicking on the “report”button before
“unmatching”myself with him—meaning that we cannot contact each other again—gives me a
small sense of relief, although he reappears under a new photo many months later. It is some
time before I use the app comfortably again. (Braziel 2015,9)
The concerns with sharing information on Tinder are signiﬁcant, and the amount of data
collected by Tinder for the use of its advertisers is wide ranging.
However, it is notable
404 LISA ANN RICHEY
that Tinder does not give the rights to the use of proﬁle photographs to the owners of the
Humanitarians of Tinder blog. These photographs are screenshots, taken by other Tinder
users, who then submit them for posting as “humanitarians”. On some of the Humanitarians
of Tinder photographs, the names and faces of the Tinder users have been blurred, on some
all faces are blurred and on one the penises of young men painted for their circumcision
ceremony were blacked out. I asked the Facebook page respondent Cody Clarke whether
he blurs out the faces in response to requests from the subjects of the photographs, and
if these requests were common. He responded:
Yeah, sometimes people request that their faces are blurred, so I oblige. Even though I’m
probably well within my rights to post the photos, I try to keep the peace so that I don’t run
the risk of the page ever being shut down. The requests are pretty rare. Maybe one or two
every couple months.
In my sample of 100 photographs, only four had the faces blurred by request. This
raises the question of how likely is it that any individual Tinder user would become
aware of being selected and posted as a Tinder Humanitarian.
The Tinder Images—In Circulation
For purposes of our analysis, it is important to clarify that the images of Tinder Huma-
nitarians we see are already in public circulation on the social media platforms of Tumblr
and Facebook. Thus, we are gazing at images that were produced in unknown contexts,
shared on a semi-public dating app (Tinder), reproduced without permission by anonymous
Tinder users and shared with Humanitarians of Tinder, curated by the blog writer Cody
Clarke, and ﬁnally shared on social media for access by anyone with an internet connection.
This raises ethical questions about the sharing of information from the (semi-)private space
of the dating app to the public Facebook page. The issues of exposing personal information
that was never meant to reach the public realm have not been seriously considered in the
writings thus far on the Tinder Humanitarians. Clarke explained:
I started it just as a place to post all the ones I was noticing on Tinder. I started out just
posting them on my personal Facebook page for friends to see, and they were so
popular that I ﬁgured I might as well do a Tumblr. I’d never used Tumblr much so I had
no idea how fast things can circulate there, and only a couple days after I started it, it
started taking off really fast.
On 25 February 2014, the ﬁrst photograph was posted on the Humanitarians of Tinder
blog showing 26-year-old Lauren from the back. Lauren’s photograph was also reproduced
in many of the popular articles in the media about the Tumblr page. In the ﬁrst photograph,
a young, white woman, hair practically pulled into a bun, dominated by a heavy backpack, is
crouching down to extend a hand to a Black toddler dressed in a plain white t-shirt. You
cannot see the face of Lauren, but see only a small child sitting on a broken sidewalk.
The child wears a ragged, old t-shirt stained with red clay dust. Seated and gazing intensely
at Lauren, the image conveys a need or at least a request from the child, and an action in the
reaching of the hand in response from Lauren. It is a photograph in which the small Black,
assumedly African, child’s need is central. It is one of six photographs used by Lauren as a
presentation of herself to potential Tinder dates or friends.
MORAL PANIC AROUND OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA 405
From my manual counting on the Facebook page, 308 photographs were posted in 2014
and 305 photographs in 2015. When I asked the Facebook page owner (Cody Clarke) how many
photographs had been received in total, he replied “probably around 1500, and I receive
5+ submissions a day from all over the world”.
According to a post on the Facebook page
from 16 August 2016, it seems that submission numbers are ever-increasing. The post states:
Sorry I have been MIA! I have over 1000 submissions I still haven’t posted, and it’s very
overwhelming. I receive a ton of submissions ever day and I needed a break. Even
though this page is popular, I’ve never made a single dime off of it, and it’s time consuming
to maintain amidst everything else I do. Anyway, I’m back now.
From this post we see that while the interest in Tinder Humanitarians appears to be
growing, it is interesting that its curator emphasises that this is “voluntary”work for
which he receives no pay. I will return to this point again later in the discussion.
“For most critics, Tindertarians are a new breed of inappropriate millennial selﬁe-takers”
(Mason 2016, 4). Yet none of the critical work on popular or academic media has so far
addressed the content of the photographs. There is a general assumption that we all know
what these photographs are (rich white people trying to get dates by exploiting helpless
Others), and we know before looking at them what forms these images will take. The
images themselves come from screenshots of private Tinder users who then share them
with the manager of the blog, who will choose which ones to post of those he receives.
My systematic sampling of 100 Tinder Humanitarian photographs came from the
site’s Tumblr blog where only the photographs themselves are visible. From a descriptive
analysis, we can understand that most of these do-gooders are young, with an average
age of 26 years; the oldest proﬁles were two men aged 45 years, and the youngest was a
male aged 17 years. The vast majority of the sample had proﬁles in English (sometimes
we can understand whether they were American, British or Australian based on the
mobile phone service providers that appear in the screenshot, but this was not always poss-
ible). After English speakers the next most common language was Dutch (still with only 11
out of 100 proﬁles), German and French speakers both had four proﬁles, while Spanish and
Italian speakers had only one proﬁle each.
The overall genre of the photographs in my own categorisation was predominantly
“tourist”(54outof100proﬁles), many featuring the Tinder user in tank top and shorts with sun-
glasses and carrying a backpack and sometimes a camera. The second most common genre was
“saviour”(34 out of 100), in which the proﬁle picture showed the Tinder useramidst visible signs
of poverty such as standing in front of villagers’earthen homes, cradling dirty children in torn
clothing or in the process of doing some “helping”activity like carrying a bucket on their
head in a village. The other genres coded were “Rambo”, in which men posed in military uni-
forms, and “professional”, which included a doctor posing with a patient in a clinic context, a
school teacher and a woman appearing to be an aid worker digging together with an Asian boy.
While visually claiming to identify race or ethnicity is both empirically unreliable and
conceptually problematic, it appears that nearly all of the Tinder Humanitarians in this
sample were white, with only three perhaps Asian humanitarians and one Black humanitar-
ian. The Black proﬁle was clearly within the “tourist”genre, a young man in sweatshirt and
sunglasses holding a shield with “jambo”(a popular greeting for tourists in pidgin Swahili)
written on it, posing with two “natives”in traditional dance costumes. When the image was
reposted on Facebook, one commentator wrote: “Naw, this one doesn’tﬁt the usual patron-
ising, condescending HoT. Dominic’s ok.”To this, another replied “DONT LET HIS COLOUR
406 LISA ANN RICHEY
FOOL YOU lol.”
The racism inherent in Tinder humanitarian images is important (and well
critiqued in Mason 2016), but we cannot make any empirically grounded claims on the per-
formances of Black humanitarians on the basis of a single case. However, the comments
added to the Facebook photograph suggest that the racism of humanitarianism does not
go unnoticed, and demonstrate some of the moral uses of this digital platform.
Networked Political Communication? When “HOT Images”Are Posted on
In consideration of the links between morality and values in political communication,
Blumler and Coleman suggest that an important distinguishing feature about communi-
cation on social media sites is that it “enables groups and individuals to present themselves
to sizeable global audiences without needing to pass through the gatekeeping ﬁlter of the
professional media”(2015, 123). Yet according to survey data from Allmer (2014), only 2.5
per cent of the student respondents listed “communication in political and interest groups”
as one of the beneﬁcial aspects of engaging in social media. Here it may be that whether
communication is identiﬁed as “political”is more a question of interpretation than one of
ontology. When the Humanitarians of Tinder images are posted on the Facebook site,
they are subjected to “commenting”in addition to “liking”(now expanded to include
“love”,“haha”,“sad”or “angry”). I suggest that the practice of adding a comment to the
photographs constitutes a form of political communication, deﬁned by the outcomes of
the discourse, not the intentions of the user. This political communication that takes
place as images travel between networks of Tinder, Tumblr and Facebook becomes one
that is radically democratic (anyone with access to a Facebook account can comment),
although limited by the usual “community standards”of Facebook.
Thus, while the
images themselves are curated, the comments, we can hypothesise, would be less so.
The public performances of the Tinder Humanitarians result from an interplay
between production and reception of the images. Thus, our analysis switches between a
focus on the production of the photographs (how the Tinder users portray themselves)
to a focus on the reception of the picture (how others have commented on the Facebook
page next to each picture). On the Facebook version, each photograph posted can be com-
mented on in the public domain by any other Facebook user. Almost all photographs have
comments, and an unsystematic examination of them suggests that most commenters are
English speaking, from North America and of a similar age range to the Tinder Humanitar-
ians themselves (as estimated by the sample of 100 photographs).
Exploring these comments on the photographs can provide an indication of the
engagement that they provoke. For example, Sérgio has an exceptional photograph in
that it shows a Black child in intimate space together with the white Tinder user. This
space is a car, and it is rare that a Tinder humanitarian photograph shows the Other in
the “civilised”,“modern”space of the subject. It is far more typical to see the Tinder user
together with the Others in a context that is dirty, barren, squalid and, most often, outdoors.
The comments on Sergio’s photograph are not unusual in that they range from stating the
core of the problem (“he’s a humanitarian dude, that’s what they do, take little black kids for
rides in their cars, then use the photo to get dates”) to random, silly comments (“Kim Kar-
dashian needs a shave”), and some are just to connect other Facebook friends to the
MORAL PANIC AROUND OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA 407
First, many times the commentators take a close-up screen shot of the Others who are
in the background of the photograph—the African child in the crowd whose face shows his
disinterest in the spectacle around him, or the individual on the receiving side of the hug for
the photograph who appears to dislike the squeeze—and they post the cropped-out image
into the comments section on the photograph of the Tinder Humanitarian. Often these are
posted in the comments section without any textual comment. While these may be just
ways of poking fun at the Tinder humanitarians, they are also performing a layperson’s cri-
tique of the visual image of humanitarianism. They are literally taking the background, the
Other, and making them the foreground, the subject of consideration. In a stark visual
move, unencumbered by the excesses of postcolonial theory, the Facebook commentators
on Humanitarians of Tinder are turning the gaze away from the humanitarian self of the self-
promotion of Tinder and towards their often seemingly unwitting accomplice.
The other play that is seen often in the comments section of the photographs on Face-
book is when a Tinder user posts a photograph in which they are amongst a crowd of African
schoolchildren or a group of Maasai, for example, and someone in the comments will write
“how do you know which one is Aj?”.
While this may seem like the silliest of low humour,
and it is repeated on numerous different group photographs, it performs an interesting trick
in forcing the view to consider why it is that the comment seems so absurd. In this absurdity,
it gestures to the harsh geopolitical realities of North–South relations which make it obvious
that the white person in the photograph is the subject, while the racialised Others are
simply background. Mason’s(2016) informed critique of the use of Black bodies in the perform-
ance of white pleasure in Humanitarians of Tinder is far more nuanced and grounded in critical
race theory, but the punch of this critique is also manifestedin the comments asking us to con-
sider why we should just “know”the racialised subject of the photograph.
The comments around the photographs, reposted on the Facebook site, include cri-
tiques of structural racism and ﬂippant sexism of the “you’re so hot”variety, and everything
in between. There is sufﬁcient acknowledgement of the moral panic invoked by the use of
Others for enhancing the appeal of the humanitarian self on a dating app proﬁle. A young
Black woman named Stephanie Betti epitomises this sentiment with a comment on the
photograph of Danielle crouched down next to a poor African girl: “Why do people think
having a little brown child on their proﬁle pic on a dating app makes them more fuckable?
So damn disturbing.”
Mason’s critique (2016, 7) links the aspirational fantasy of whiteness (exhibited in the
photographs of “benevolent and classed volunteers giving away their leisure time and
vacation money to ‘help’those in need”) to its explicit eroticism of Blackness (those
bodies who are on the “wrong side”of the colour line. She draws on critical theories of
race, and combines them with Kapoor’s(2013) psychoanalytical critique of celebrity huma-
nitarianism. Mason frames the Tinder photograph as a quintessential encounter between
strangers: “it’s the stranger that makes the white stranger familiar”(2016, 7). The
“strange”is produced through getting close to the “one we do not know”and, as Ahmed
writes, “one is made a stranger when strangeness is produced through the displacement
of social relations through the transformation of objects into ﬁgures”(2000, 5 as quoted
in Mason 2016, 9). In Tinder Humanitarianism, erotic racisms are certainly an important
408 LISA ANN RICHEY
part of the interpretive story, but just as the racist tropes on which these images play are
universalised, self-referential and ignoring the particularities of detail that could be used
to challenge this very displacement of social relations, Mason’s analysis of the phenomenon
of Tinder Humanitarianism also remains at the level of ideology. Photographs of Tinder
Humanitarians reproduce racist, sexist and classist notions of North–South relations; this
is true, but as the previous section has demonstrated, the comments suggest that the
racism does not go unnoticed and the Humanitarians of Tinder are called into account.
On This Is Africa (a leading forum for African opinion, arts and music), Kagure Mugo
wrote a scathing essay that links Tinder Humanitarians to the history of “saving Africa”by
Since back in the days, there’s been no shortage of Westerners ﬂooding our shores with
grand designs to “tame the dark continent”full of “negro children.”But now we have
the next generation do-gooders, pretty young things that have come to save the continent
during their gap year and then never want to leave. One phrase that I have heard in
passing describing this new generation is “Humanitarians of Tinder.”They form an integral
part of the White Saviour Industrial Complex. This generation of “Down with Darfur,”
#Kony2012 and Band Aid crooners insist on closing their eyes to the ills within their
own countries, seeking instead to come and carry on the work of those who came
before them—namely saving Africa.
Yet we should ask ourselves whether the photographs posted on the “Humanitarians
of Tinder”blogsite could really surprise anyone. After the widespread dissemination of the
video Kony2012, and the debates on multiple fora about the Invisible Children and its
photogenic founder Jason Russell, the term “white saviour industrial complex”was
coined by Teju Cole.
In his seven-part response to this video, using Twitter, Cole
mapped out the terrain of the post-colonial angst that undergirds North–South relations,
of which humanitarianism is a part. Fundamentally, these tweets link sentimentality with
the continual refusal to acknowledge structural inequalities that make humanitarianism
possible. This sentimentality is produced by the images of the “white saviour”, who is
then linked to militarism, corporatisation and celebriﬁcation of contemporary society.
Cole tweets: “The white saviour supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities
in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”(8 March 2012). The “white saviour
industrial complex”is at the root of most of the criticism received by the Humanitarians
of Tinder, from the popular media (i.e. The Atlantic,The Hufﬁngton Post, Yahoo News, The
Washington Post) and also from feminist critics in the blog Jezebel and academia (Mason
2016). Yet these critics are missing a critical point, the white saviours in Tinder are not
linked to a do-gooding corporation, be it a humanitarian NGO or a CSR-inclined
company. They are not claiming to “save the world”with a voluntourism programme
(Hannam and Mostafanezhad 2014), or to provide lifesaving drugs to women and child
who need them through a purchase-linked donation of a RED product (Richey and Ponte
2011), to donate a pair of shoes to a shoeless child for each pair they sell you (Ponte and
Richey 2014) or to validate the work of the United Nations in the Thai–Burma border
zone (Mostafanezhad 2015). They are in fact selling only themselves.
Perhaps the problem with Tinder humanitarianism is therefore that it draws on all of
the visual motifs of fundraising by international humanitarian organisations, and nearly dupli-
cates pose by pose many of the images we have of celebrity humanitarians (Richey 2016), but
it actually has no link whatsoever with institutionalised humanitarianism. There are no
MORAL PANIC AROUND OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA 409
organisations to be called into accountability for the representations of Others, no annual
reports where the “bad”side of the representation can be weighed against how much
funding it might have contributed to raising for genuine humanitarian interventions.
While the Humanitarians of Tinder do not literally post a new photograph every single
day, they do keep coming, long after the initial moral panic in the popular media has died
down. As of 16 May 2016, they had posted 719 photographs. I asked Cody Clarke how long
he plans to continue running the website and he replied:
I’ll continue for as long as I get new and interesting submissions. A lot of times I’ll get sub-
missions that are ﬁne (and I keep every one I get) but are poses that have been seen a
hundred times before. I try to only post ones that I get excited about, ones that are differ-
ent but the same, if that makes any sense.
The photographs are “different”in the sense that they were intended to be shared on
a location-based hook-up app to make their subjects more appealing to other Tinder users,
and instead they are on public social media websites where anyone can interrogate them.
They are exciting, as “good white people”(Brown 1995) try to distinguish themselves in
secret or in the comments section from their more overly exploitative counterparts who
are using humanitarianism with Black Others to increase their hook-ups. But the photo-
graphs in the Humanitarians of Tinder are also “the same”; the poses, visual performances
of witnessing or simply being in the same spaces with Others are the same. Each photo-
graph is fundamentally the same as the other on these terms. We have no way to know
whether either the young woman posing with a small African child in front of what
could be a health clinic (or a house, or an orphanage) or the man standing next to the
African man with a bandaged leg in a hospital bed is a tourist or a doctor. What we do
know is that they posted a photograph of themselves in an apparently African setting as
one of six photographs representing who they are for potentially interested dates.
Why the “moral panic”over Tinder Humanitarians? Classical theories of “moral panic”
can provide part of the answer. The practices of perpetually stirring up moral panic have
been inﬂuential on business:
The promotional logic is twofold: ﬁrst, the cultural good will receive a lot of free, negative,
publicity because its associations with moral panic have made it newsworthy; second,
rather than alienating everyone, it will be attractive to a contingent of consumers who
see themselves as alternative, avant-garde, radical, rebellious or simply young. (McRobbie
and Thornton 1995, 572)
The proﬁtability of the outrage over the Tinder Humanitarians may therefore explain
why when the popular media was awash in moral panic over these photographs of global
do-gooding for self-promotion, Tinder itself never spoke out to protest the unintended use
of its photographs. If there had been any real damage to the company’s reputation through
the articles on the Humanitarians of Tinder in places like The Atlantic or The Hufﬁngton Post,
we would have expected a public response from the company. However, the proﬁtability for
the curator of the site is unclear. The originator of the Humanitarians of Tinder websites
himself does not receive, according to his own testimony, any sort of sponsorship or
payment for this work:
I wish I received any sort of payment or sponsorship! I haven’t made a dime, a penny,
nothing. Which is a shame kind of, because it’s actually a lot more work running this
thing than people realize. I respond to every message I get, and I get messages all day
410 LISA ANN RICHEY
long, and I sift through photos for the bets ones, etc. It’s not a huge part of my day, but it
does take up time, and that time adds up. I may start a Patreon soon where people can
donate $1 a month or something to me, just to compensate me for the work I’ve put in
and continue to put in. Hope that helped!
It appears that only Tinder itself is making money out of the exploitation of its users as
Humanitarians of Tinder.
Humanitarians of Tinder is a phenomenon that opens up multiple interpretations of
intentions and outcomes. I asked Cody Clarke what he thought he had achieved through
the Tumblr blog and he replied:
IthinkmostofallI’ve just cataloged a phenomenon that I’m surepeople ﬁgured was out there
but nobody (including myself) realizedhow widespread it is. Iﬁgured I’d top out at about50 or
100. But it seems likethere’s an endless supply of pictures of these. And now when people see
this sort of thing, they think ’Humanitarians of Tinder’,it’s just sort of stuck.
In consideration of the objective of this special issue—to investigate how solidarity
among citizens can be built through representations and practices of new media—Tinder
Humanitarianism provides a more complicated answer than the popular discourse of “moral
panic”would suggest. First, it is questionable whether Tinder users who post photographs
of their engagement in seemingly “humanitarian”practices are voluntarily participating in a
community of potential humanitarian solidarity. Without the ethnographic understandings
of the context of the pictures and the choice to post them on Tinder, and potentially their
outcome—did this photograph actually make the Tinder user more likely to “hook up”with
a desirable swipe mate?—all we know for sure is what we see in the photographs themselves,
their curation into the Humanitarians of Tinder blog and Facebook site, and their contextualisa-
tion in secondary media. The form of display and circulation of the Tinder photographs when
they move from a semi-private dating app to that of a publically accessible Tumblr blog and
Facebook page produces a structural partiality. There is little way of linking up the represen-
tations with their actual actors or practices. We are seeing less than the original Tinder user
who submitted the photographs to be “outed”on the Humanitarians of Tinder websites,
because they could at least see the other ﬁve photographs of the same subject. This format
itself limits possibilities of solidarity in the ways described by Chouliaraki (2013) where huma-
nitarian communication in the new media favours partial, personal readings as opposed to
more objective, shared interpretations of humanitarian problems, and thus is less effective
at integrating audiences and providing a shared foundation for collective action.
From the representations of the Tinder Humanitarians and their contextual intertext
studied here, we see movement towards an understanding of what solidarity in North–
South relations might, at a minimum, entail. This movement is characterised by the
debates around the photographs that include direct censure of the exploitation of Black
bodies for the pleasurable enhancement of white ones. They also include open discussions
of race and racism, of the boundary between humanitarian action and militarism, and, to a
lesser extent, of the reactions as captured in the photograph of the humanitarian subjects in
the background of the Tinder user.
If we critically consider the claim of the smartphone dating app that “Tinder empow-
ers users around the world to create new connections that otherwise might never have
MORAL PANIC AROUND OLD RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW MEDIA 411
been possible”, the Humanitarians of Tinder show no real shift in the visual possibility of
moving beyond the historically problematic aspects of humanitarianism. However, it
should be noted that the Facebook page includes in the “about”box “typically replies
within a few hours, Message now”, where any Facebook user can send a message to the
page (we can assume that it is always answered by Cody Clarke). Additionally, numerous
comments and “likes”are posted by Facebook users on most of the posted photographs
as discussed. Therefore, when taking together the dating app, the Tumblr and Facebook
websites and the interactive space provided in the comments, we can conclude that the
moral panic over Tinder Humanitarians is misplaced, because these photogenic do-
gooders trying to get a date are not the deviant “folk demons”of a subgroup of society,
but are instead the manifestation of dominant trends in the North that link global do-
gooding with the morality of the self.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
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