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Love in the Time of Tinder

News & Features | February 19, 2013

“Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, you can have my number, don’t catfish me baby.” And so begins a typical conversation on Tinder, the  Smartphone app launched last September that allows users to connect with strangers instantly based on little more than a picture, first name, and age. Harkening back to the days of AOL crush calculators, and (maybe) hyperbolically hailed by Barstool as “the latest and greatest app to get you laid,” the widely popular service accomplishes what meddling mutual friends used to be for: letting you know if someone likes you (but only if you admit to liking them, too).

Like all great iPhone apps, the process is simple, clever, and instantaneous. Tinder pulls users’ most basic information from Facebook and shows it to all other users within about a 50 mile  radius. It’s essentially the “straight” version of Grindr, the famously popular hook up site for LGBTQ people, though Tinder also includes an option to select a gender preference. There are few real life equivalents to the flippant process of tapping yes or no on each smiling face in a never-ending slideshow of people in your area. According to Tinder, it’s “all anonymous until someone you like, likes you back.” The addictive experience peaks each time you get a match (!). For some, this brief high of connection and compliment is enough and the game ends there. For others, a private chat opens up and you can choose to pursue or ignore your new flame. It promises all reward and no risk, without the stigma of being a college student on a more serious dating site like eHarmony or Match.com.

“It’s a pretty solid idea for our generation,” sophomore Nikki Blank said. Creator of the popular #JumboSwag blog, a ‘whatshouldwecallme’ made especially for Tufts, Blank started another Tumblr, “Tinderactions,” when she and her friends thought the conversations they were having through the app were too funny not to share. The entire site contains screenshots of the silly, funny, and sometimes downright uncomfortable world that is Tinder. Blank attributes the app’s popularity to its “fast-paced, noncommittal, and often just hilarious” nature.

Unlike other instant gratification apps like the ever-popular Snapchat, the inherent appeal of an app like Tinder is its ability to connect users with people they might otherwise never meet. In an ever-shrinking world where networking is everything and expanding one’s social circle is a constant process, using simple technology to break down normal social barriers seems like a win-win. For a generation that grew up with a barrage of Internet safety lessons about not meeting up with that dreamy boy or girl you’ve been talking to online in a remote location, apps like Tinder have a strange offering of both the forbidden and the safe. It’s getting hit on at a bar without the other person ever seeing your visible reaction; it’s also letting as many strangers in your area as you like have immediate access to you—or at least to your iPhone.

Spin-off apps have popped up on the market, like the bluntly named Bang Your Friends, which promises to help you “anonymously find friends who are down for the night.” This app uses a rating system similar to Tinder and also utilizes Facebook—with the potentially uncomfortable caveat that instead of allowing you to hook up with strangers, it limits your pool to your Facebook friends, with few filters. The implications of this are exactly what you’d think they are—though you may have 900 Facebook friends, you may still have the unpleasant experience of being able to rate your dad or your middle school math teacher that awkwardly added you that one time.

Do these services really connect people in meaningful, or at least casually sexual ways, or are they just amusing diversions for the bored and the voyeuristic? The creators of Bang Your Friends claim to have hooked up over 10,000 couples, and Tinder CEO Sean Rad says that Tinder leads to a “meaningful conversation” 70% of the time. He also noted that aside from San Francisco, Boston is one of the top Tinder-using cities, especially and specifically among college students.

Senior Ben Barad has never actually met anyone through the app, but when asked whether others do, he said, “Probably more than you’d think. I’ve had multiple conversations where the girl just randomly gave me her number.” He added, “Tinder is already weird though. A Tinder date would be awkward.” Many college students seem to share this sentiment, yet it hasn’t stopped 1 billion people—to date—from downloading the application. Part of Tinder’s appeal may be its use of Facebook profile pictures—offering a comforting sense of trust in a digital age where not having a Facebook can make someone seem less legitimate. Tinder will also show you if you have mutual Facebook friends with another user, making it easier to deduce if he or she goes to a nearby school, or even your own. This ideally helps users meet people that are close enough in their circle to have things in common with, but far enough away that they haven’t had a chance to connect yet.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rad said, “helping people meet new people is in my opinion the biggest, most untapped opportunity that exists today when it comes to social . Facebook has done a phenomenal job to help you manage relationships with people you know. The Holy Grail, though, is how to solve that natural human loneliness problem.”

In an effort to better understand the phenomenon, I downloaded the app and began flipping through profiles in my area. As Alyssa, a Georgetown student, so aptly told a DC paper, Tinder “is a narcissist’s dream. You just sit there waiting for someone else to think you’re hot.” In the same vein, not getting any matches could make a user feel pretty discouraged, which is exactly what happened to me, until I realized a glitch in the app had caused my profile to claim that I was a 12-year-old boy (users are technically supposed to be 17 and up).

After fixing the false advertising problem—and getting a slew of matches resulting in conversations that were mostly reflections on varying stages of creepy—I realized the app was, in fact, not at all like meeting someone in a bar or at a party. Gauging the varying levels of attractiveness of the other people in your area does not put you in a room with said people, and tapping a heart next to someone’s carefully selected picture is not equivalent to the electricity of locking eyes with someone across a room. Social technology in its nascent stage may attempt to recreate the universally thrilling experience of attraction and connection, and perhaps for the bold who are willing to put the phones down and go find one another, it does. But the end result still involves two people meeting face to face. Our generation is no stranger to craving instant gratification, but we often fail to recognize how to achieve it. Tinder and apps like it may light the spark, but it’s still up to us, and frankly, still worth it, to create fire.