There is a by-election in the Ward 12 area of my hometown. A seat on city council, left vacant by a counsellor who rose to the ranks of federal MP, is currently being eyeballed by no less than 29 candidates. Among those who declared their intention to run is 22 year old Nicole Szymanowka, who has decided to draw attention to her campaign through the dubious assistance of the Tinder app.
In an interview with the Edmonton Journal, Szymanowka acknowledges that use of the app (which lets you find ready and willing mates close to your present location) might lead people to think that she isn’t serious. She assures people that she is indeed serious, and is using Tinder as a way of getting young people involved.
It’s clever, I suppose. It’s certainly funny, and I’m always on the lookout for a laugh.
But in terms of an election device, I can’t help but shake my head.
After all the social media flaps and scandals in the 2015 Alberta provincial election* and the 2015 Canadian federal election (oh the horror! Oh the hilarity!), one would think that aspiring politicians would be more careful in their choices regarding online behaviour.
It doesn’t look as though Szymanowka is behaving in any way that isn’t respectable, and like I said – using Tinder to draw attention is pretty clever. But her association with the app will affect some people’s view of her readiness to take on serious political work.
Szymanowka is playing an ethos game, one that all politicians and aspiring politicians must play. She is setting up her case for being elected due to (in part) virtue of character. Ethos is complicated. Character is built by everything from what you do to what you say, from who your parents are to what you studied in school to who you associate with, and more. Influences on our perception of someone’s character can be quite subconscious. We’re never going to build ethos that suits everybody, but we need to be very aware of what might be influencing others’ perception of us.
And Tinder has certain associations. It is most commonly seen as a hook-up act, a way of finding nearby tail. Maybe some people have found love while side-swiping profiles, but generally speaking it’s not the most respectable program on your smartphone. When someone chooses to use it, people will infer certain things about their character.
Although Szymanowka said that she hadn’t personally used it before launching her campaign, she’s choosing to associate with it now. This association will affect the views people have of her. Some will think it shows cleverness and an awareness of youth behaviour. Others may impose their own moral viewpoints on the use of that app. Others will question her judgement and the seriousness with which she is approaching her candidacy.
While McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” phrase is somewhat cliché, it is hugely appropriate in this situation. The use of Tinder as a medium will not only create its own message about Szymanowka, but might even overshadow the rest of her campaign. As someone who is deeply interested in the forces that affect what we say, how we say it, and how people interpret it, I have to admit deep skepticism as to her choice to use Tinder in this way.
My skepticism is partly due to my own initial, unfiltered thought reactions when I first saw the article about her Tinder campaign. It went something like this:
- Hey, that’s funny!
- Actually, it’s kind of clever.
- It’s a pretty flippant choice of medium, though. Seems like an attention grab.
- People are going to assume she uses it. Ick.
- This sounds like a stunt that would be used in a university Student Council election. She must be pretty young.
- (scans article) Yup, she’s 22.
- Good enthusiasm. Bad judgement. Is there any mention of a platform in the article?
- Attention grab.
This is an unfiltered summary of about 10 seconds of my thought process when I started reading the article. It is a reflection of my initial snap judgemets, the sort of snap judgements we make any time we see new information and before we have time to really process that info.
Those snap judgements matter in elections. They can make up people’s minds about who the candidate is and what we can expect from them before taking the time to actually investigate anything about them.
It is too early in the race to see if her platform will develop and gain legs or if she will remain The Tinder Candidate throughout the by-election. I sincerely hope that her actual platform does take centre stage instead of this gimmicky use of social media. She deserves that much, as she had the initiative to actually participate in the life of a city she cares about instead of staying on the sidelines.
Szymanowka’s choice to use Tinder in her campaign was an interesting one. It is certainly netting her a bit of attention. But was it a good choice? That remains to be seen – I’m not yet convinced.
*Deborah Drever has since worked hard to redeem her reputation and as an independent has brought forward important legislation supporting people escaping domestic violence. She’s since been welcomed back to the NDP caucus and I must say that I’m quite impressed with how she handled her reputation rehab.