As I walk into an inner Sydney gallery space, I’m greeted by a member of Tinder’s local PR team; we introduce ourselves, and swap a brief, wry smile in the moment where we’d usually shake hands. Another sticks her hand out blithely, and we make small talk about whether people are freaking out too much or not enough. (Because I am fun at social events, I find myself wincing and explaining the concept of herd immunity.) A few minutes later, someone else shakes my hand, and then there’s a beat, where we’re clearly both wondering if it was the right thing to do. Before the day is over, for exactly the reason you’re thinking, the thing they’re all there to promote will be cancelled.
Tinder launched Swipe Night, an interactive short-form series set during the last few hours before a comet hits the Earth, in the U.S. in October. Four five-minute, choose-your-own-adventure episodes were available on Sundays only, with users making narrative decisions for their unnamed POV characters by swiping right or left as they do with the main app’s dating profile cards; their choices were then displayed on their own profiles, so prospective dates could see whether you chose to save a dog over an (annoying) acquaintance, or cover for a cheating friend rather than tell his girlfriend the truth.
Sunday is the app’s busiest day, and Swipe Night capitalised on that, with Tinder’s parent company Match Group saying in a November earnings call that the event boosted matches by 30 percent.
The show’s first season was due to launch across multiple international markets this Saturday. The new version was to be available for longer (Saturday 10 a.m. until midnight on Sunday), and is also itself shorter, with the original four episodes’ worth of story threads cut down to a snappier three. (Representatives at the Sydney briefing couldn’t confirm whether the second season, slated for the U.S. summer, would be out at the same time worldwide.)
But Swipe Night’s international debut was cancelled on Monday night U.S. time, a decision “made at a global level.”
“Tinder was excited to bring this innovation to Australian members, but given the series’ apocalyptic theme, and because we are sensitive to the current events our members are experiencing, we felt it would be difficult to launch it in the right spirit,” the company’s PR firm told Mashable Australia on Tuesday afternoon.
In addition to Australia, which confirmed its 100th case of COVID-19 on Tuesday, Swipe Night was rolling out to users in the U.K., Brazil, Indonesia, and Sweden, as well as five of the ten worst-affected countries: South Korea, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. The latter country, which at over 9000 confirmed cases is home to the biggest outbreak outside of mainland China, is now under a nationwide lockdown.
Of course, the coronavirus outbreak, while very serious, is highly unlikely to be the actual end of the world. But playing a demo of the international version, hours before the cancellation, it was clear the apocalyptic premise hits different in March 2020.
With coronavirus panic inspiring aggressive toilet paper stockpiling, stock market plunges, racist aggression, and even violence in supermarkets aisles, it was hard not to watch the more chaotic street scenes in this story about the end of the world without finding it all a little less light-hearted than it’s supposed to be. The scenes show mostly Gen Z actors (50 percent of the app’s users are under 25) spilling out of their comet-watching parties, screaming, panicking, vomiting, and almost entirely out for themselves.
Asked to choose between making altruistic or selfish choices — picking up hitchhikers, giving someone my bodega-scavenged first aid kit, mugging a kind stranger for their phone when mine dies — I found myself genuinely concerned, even distressed, about what my choices might say about me, as if it were a test run for how I’ll act when I’m facing off with my neighbours for the last pack of hand soap in our local supermarket a month from now.
I felt this more than when I “played” Bandersnatch on Netflix, where the fascination of the medium was everything and the character choices, whatever their impact, didn’t feel like they were mine. I am an anxious person, basically well-intentioned and also constantly low-key terrified I’m actually a terrible person, and hours later, I’m still thinking about whether that desperate, screaming hitchhiker would have been OK after I chose to drive past her to protect my (deeply unlikable) fictional friends.
During October’s Swipe Night, people found the choices revealed on others’ profiles to be surprisingly helpful; plenty of people declared their utter lack of interest in anyone who chose to cover for the cheating friend, for instance. Until the cancellation, I was wondering if people more emotionally robust than I am might find themselves judging potential dates on other, more pragmatic criteria, like whether they took the first aid kit or the Cheetos from the looted bodega.
Some people are riding out the age of coronavirus anxiety by making memes about songs to wash your hands to or how much we touch our faces; others in more perverse ways, like watching Contagion, or playing Plague Inc. And it’s equally understandable if that anxiety manifests in wanting to find people to connect with, or conversely, in wanting to self-isolate even before the government tells you to.
Sydney, like most medium-sized cities in the world right now, seems a little unsure exactly how tightly we ought to be gripped by the clammy hand of panic; tens of thousands of Australians are still recovering from the summer’s bushfires, and many others seem more disturbed by the toilet paper freakouts than COVID-19 itself. Three deaths nationwide is undeniably a tragedy, though it doesn’t yet feel like a crisis.
But we’re in a moment of unprecedented global awareness and fear, where our ability to care for one another and deal collectively with something that could endanger us all is being tested, and that awareness ultimately made Swipe Night 2020 a distressing experience, even in a country hit less hard by this particular threat, at least for now. In Italy or the Republic of Korea, it would likely feel even more unnecessary.
Health experts, and Tinder itself, are advising users to swipe away but stay safe, possibly even opting for first dates over FaceTime. And if you want to break the ice by asking what they’d do if they had three hours to live, you don’t need a high-tech choose-your-own-adventure series for that.