Tinder, matches, but no fire

Does Tinder blur the lines between game and reality?

The mobile ‘dating’ app Tinder was launched in the US in September 2012 and rolled out to the UK just over a year later. It works by taking information from your Facebook profile, such as your age, location and interests, to find potential matches for you. What makes Tinder unusual is that it uses GPS to match you with people currently in your vicinity. It does this in the following way: an image of the person Tinder has selected for you will appear on your screen. If you like the look of that person, you swipe Yes; if not, you swipe No. At the same time, this person will be presented with your image and given the same choice. If either person swipes No the process ends, with the person who’s been rejected never finding out (although common sense dictates that if you’ve swiped Yes to somebody and you haven’t been matched with that person, it’s obvious what’s happened). If you both swipe Yes, Tinder will send you both a message which reads ‘It’s a Match!’ and then give you the option to ‘Send a Message’ or ‘Keep Playing’. The word choice is intentional: Tinder blurs the boundaries between ‘game’ and ‘reality’. On one hand, what you’re doing on the app clearly is a sort of game. But once you leave the game and contact one of your matches, will you start thinking of it as real life? Or are you still in game mentality?

Technology tries to make our lives less messy. Less time-consuming, less complicated. Tinder’s tagline – ‘It’s like real life, but better’ – makes this explicit. Tinder operates as a kind of filtering mechanism for reality. As Justin Mateen, Tinder’s co-founder and CMO, explained to me: ‘Tinder bypasses both the physical and emotional barriers associated with meeting new people and connects users in an efficient and fun way’. The operative word here, I believe, is efficient. Tinder cuts out everything that makes looking for love, or just for sex, frustrating in the real world. It’s similar to real life: you make choices which correspond to those you would make in everyday reality. However, in everyday life these choices are more like preferences: you see a guy/girl you like the look of, but what are you going to do then? You’re unlikely to just walk up to them and ask for their number. So you probably never see each other again. Tinder puts a framework around that interior decision-making process. More importantly, it gives you an opportunity to do something about it.

The first thing Tinder offers is an enlarged field of vision. Chances are you have not physically seen the people it presents to you. Depending on how you set the distance algorithm, they could be up to 100 miles away. On its own this would be meaningless, even counterproductive. If you saw somebody you liked the look of just three miles away, it’s less likely you’d approach them as a) you’d have to make an effort to go there and b) they’d probably have disappeared by the time you arrived. What Tinder does on top of this enlarged vision is quite astonishing. It creates a scenario where it is perfectly acceptable to walk up to that person and start a conversation. Tinder removes certain social conventions and confidence issues which prevent most people from approaching a person they find attractive. It also alleviates anxieties on the receiving person’s end. They won’t wonder what your agenda is, because they know you’ve signed up to something they’ve signed up to. Finally, and this is what makes Tinder’s streamlined imitation of reality so appealing, the person you approach is going to be somebody who finds you attractive. The feeling is mutual.

Tinder is more exciting than dating websites because it plays directly into a modern cultural sensibility of instantaneity. With dating websites, responses can take a few days, and don’t even get started on their technological predecessor, the personal ad. What makes Tinder borderline genius is that it harnesses various existing technologies (social media, GPS, instant messaging) to manipulate basic human nature: everybody likes the thought of somebody else finding them attractive, and everybody likes (admit it) to evaluate people based on their sexual appeal. When this happens fast, in a controlled and socially-accepted environment, it’s even better. David Wygant, a journalist who tried the app, stated, crudely but rather perceptively, ‘It’s like cocaine for the mind’. (Cocaine is also cocaine for the mind, but you get what he means.) It’s quite possible that Tinder’s very nature – or, more accurately, its design – encourages you to ‘Keep Playing’ for as long as possible, so as to stay in this heady, rushy, godlike state. The user becomes addicted.

From a business point of view this is great news – it simply means that more people are using the app for longer. But from the user’s point of view, maybe this isn’t so great. To go back to the theme of game vs. reality: how much image-flicking does it take before the user stops thinking of what they’re doing as relating in any way to real life? Put yourself in this scenario. You’ve done nothing but swipe Yes or No to pictures of potential matches for the past couple of days. Do you still consider these images as representing actual human beings? In a sense, this issue is nothing new – we’ve had social media profiles for years now – but there’s something different about this, because you essentially have to judge each person based on a few pictures and a short bio. Sure, they may never find out about it if your judgement is negative, but you’ve still judged them. Based on extremely limited criteria.

It’s worth mentioning that none of the people I’ve spoken to who use the app blame any weird experiences they’ve had on the app itself – the way it makes you think and behave – but rather on the individuals using it. I have no doubt that a lot of weird people use Tinder, but what nobody seems to acknowledge is that Tinder’s format, Tinder’s whole premise, draws out these sides of people: the most base, primitive aspects of the human psyche. If you feel that the guy you initially found cute but who is now messaging you obsessively isn’t treating you like a human being, that could be because Tinder encourages you to treat your ‘matches’ not as human beings, but as a sort of ego-booster.

Cultural conservatives argue that modern society has practically hardwired us to avoid anything difficult, in favour of instant gratifications and ‘experiences’ (which means the same thing). Whether they’re right about the broader picture, Tinder seems to be doing something remarkably similar to what they’re describing with regard to sex, relationships and love. Tinder’s creators wouldn’t disagree that the app simplifies and codifies reality in order to make things as convenient for the user as possible. What I’ve tried to show is that filtering reality in this way limits rather than enhances it, even if it is a lot easier to move around within that limited space. Tinder’s ‘improved’ reality creates a game mentality that might be difficult to get out of, even for people who are just using the app for sex. Because these people too are someday going to want a relationship, and what’s to say they’re not going to apply the same principles to it? My fear here is not that Tinder’s creating some new breed of sexual predator. It’s actually the opposite. My fear is that, by taking the pain out of attraction, and the embarrassment (sometimes even humiliation) out of approaching someone, by making the whole thing too easy, too commonplace, too mundane even, we’re going to end up superficial, passionless automatons when it comes to the most serious of all human undertakings: love.

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