The new HBO documentary, “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age” opens on a postcard-beautiful shot of Austin, followed by scenes of a house party held in town.
It’s the kind of party anyone who’s lived here in their 20s will find familiar; laid-back vibes, shirtless bros, a smoky BBQ grill, lots of beer in red Solo cups.
The appearance of a hovering drone shooting video footage breaks the spell, reminding you that the young people partying grew up on the internet, holding iPads and iPhones in their hands as children, and are now out on the dating scene, meeting and communicating with each other in ways that were hard to imagine just a generation ago.
That’s the overall thesis of filmmaker and journalist Nancy Jo Sales’s film, which casts a wide net over all the implications that dating apps, sexualized internet culture and on-demand hookups have created. In a phone interview, Sales, a well-known Vanity Fair writer (”The Bling Ring”), said she wanted to cover the topic of modern dating broadly, and from the perspective of people in multiple cities, including Austin.
“I thought it was important to cover a lot of the different things we were hearing from our subjects, who I wanted to be very diverse and intersectional,” she said. “The technology is being used by everyone. We found a lot of people coming at it from different places are experiencing the same thing, largely because of the conformity of these platforms.”
In addition to touching on topics ranging from race to body image to sexual assault to porn and sexting, the doc spends a lot of time addressing the impact of dating apps such as Tinder, OKCupid and Austin-based Bumble.
Bumble’s co-founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd is interviewed, explaining why her company’s approach to dating empowers women by flipping the script.
But just as soon as she offers this, it’s undercut by the opposing idea from a historian that women daters are given a familiar script of doing most of the relationship work with the app, an idea that Sales echoes in the interview.
“I think Bumble has excellent marketing,” Sales said. “You have to give them kudos for their marketing. If you look at the articles that have been written about Bumble, the popular notion about it is that it’s a feminist app and women are in control. What we heard from people who’ve used the app is that in many ways it’s not so different from the other ones. Bumble is so much like Tinder that Tinder is suing Bumble.”
Sales says she fell in love with Austin while researching material for a story about the sugar baby phenomenon and knew it was a place she could get great interviews for the documentary. She spotted subjects she would interview in places like Container Bar and Cheer Up Charlies, finding young people who were open about the dangers and opportunities they’re encountering in dating apps.
“We kept our crew really small and found such a great atmosphere. We had so much fun there,” Sales said. ”We had a great metaphor with that drone. Technology is hanging over all these young people as they’re talking about technology invading their most private space, sex and dating. We got really lucky with Austin as a movie set.”
While there are lots of fun moments in the documentary about dating foibles, breakups and newish terminology from that world (”Tinderella” and “Swolemates,” to name a few), there are plenty of dark turns in the feature. Sales says her biggest surprise in making the film was how common sexual violence has become in online dating and how flat-footed dating-app makers have been in protecting users, captured most damningly in an interview with Tinder co-founder Jonathan Badeen, who says he hasn’t heard directly about assault cases linked to the service.
“It’s shocking, disturbing, troubling and something we need to talk about,” Sales said. “There is a huge problem with online dating and sexual violence. It’s not something the dating industry wants us to talk about.”
“Swiped” airs 9 p.m. central time on Monday, Sept. 10 and will be available on HBO’s streaming platforms as well.