When the first printed newspapers appeared in the 1600’s, it wasn’t long before matrimonial services found their way into print circulation. At this point in history, young adults were all expected to be wed before they started into their 20s, so taking out a personal advertisement in a circulated newspaper was a necessary measure to take for some young adults at the time. Conceptually speaking, this was the first inception of what would eventually evolve into online dating.
Since the website Myspace.com was founded in 2003 after the dot.com bust of 2001-2002, social networking has been the most popular form of internet leisure in the world. Despite the fact that MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites are not designed specifically for the purpose of online dating, they paved the way for a mass adoption and cultural acceptance of the online personal advertisement.
Online dating is, at the core, an online personal advertisement, and the only difference between social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook and online dating sites like Match.com or OkCupid is the focus. Both types of websites are social networking sites in their purpose of advertising carefully constructed versions of ourselves for those who we interact with, but an online dating site is more direct in advertising their users’ desire for a relationship. Even the early iterations of Facebook had online dating-esque features like an “interested in” section of your profile and widespread use of the “poke” feature, which was essentially a flirting button. The most recent evolution in online dating is not even a website, but an app, and unless you’ve been living under a rock for past two years, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to: Tinder.
The Tinder dating app has revolutionized how people interact. Tinder has succeeded in removing the social stigma of online dating, which used to be thought of as a weird practice only reserved for awkward, anti-social individuals, and packaged it in an easy-to-use platform. With widespread mainstream media coverage of the app, Tinder has essentially made online dating omnipresent in the 18-27 demographic, and much of this has been achieved by a mockery of the app itself. Tinder is often discussed under a guise of irony or satire, with entire websites or blogs dedicated to funny or awful experiences users have experienced using the app. Yet, despite all of the mockery, the app has surged in popularity in the past two years, and Tinder was purchased by Interactive Media Corp. (IAC), who also own Expedia.ca, Collegehumor.com, and online dating giants Match.com and OkCupid. Clearly, the industry believes in the earning potential of Tinder.
As is the case with most free services, the features available to users leave more to be desired, and this situation creates demand for a premium service to be made available. Tinder is no exception; the app will be rolling out a premium service in 2015 with a variety of new features like an undo button to prevent erroneous swiping and a passport feature to place your signal location in various cities around the world.
Despite Tinder’s widespread adoption and use, is the app’s popularity due to user success or merely the byproduct of the addicting premise of stress-free social interaction? And is the app even an effective tool considering how many people are using it? Let’s first deconstruct the premise and function of Tinder to determine the answer to these questions and more.
How to Meet Thousands of People by Swiping Right
The premise of Tinder is simple: users are able to view other users based on their location, and can control factors such as sexual orientation, age, and the proximity that the app searches for other users, which extends up to 100 miles (or 160km). Users have two options: they can like or dislike a user based on their profile, which includes up to 6 pictures, a brief bio, and a list of mutual friends and interests (as the app itself is tethered to Facebook).
If one user likes another user, Tinder’s algorithm is designed to bump the former user’s profile to appear near the top of the deck in order to facilitate faster matching. However, for users who abuse the like system and simply like every user to generate a higher number of potential matches, Tinder’s algorithm is designed to discriminate against such users, and the top-decking factor is lessened. Some users even take it one step further and employ the use of one of several “auto-liker” apps that can instantaneously “like” hundreds if not thousands of profiles with the touch of screen, but again, Tinder’s matching algorithm is actually designed to discriminate against this type of usage.
As is the case with any online dating site now, the first impression you get of someone is from their appearance. The difference with Tinder is that there is no hope in messaging another user unless they also find you physically attractive. While it may be a great mode of pre-selection when compared to other dating sites, it can also hinder many users’ experiences due to the differences men and women perceive physical attractiveness.
A study of OkCupid users found that men rated women in a normally distributed curve of attraction; essentially, there were small percentages of very attractive and unattractive female users, and most were clumped around the middle, in the “average” attractiveness category. Women, on the other hand, rated 80% of men in the study as below average in terms of physical attractiveness, and almost none were given a perfect score. In other words, women are a lot more choosy when it comes to physical appearance than men are. Much of this is supported by research on human behaviour that has demonstrated that men are more likely to engage in a casual relationship than women are, so their scrutiny for physical appearance may be less intense as a result. Based on this trend, one can already see a problem for a method of online dating like Tinder that is so heavily invested in the user’s appearance. In relative terms, males will be a lot more liberal in who they find attractive, but will not get that same relative lack of scrutiny in return.
The Casual Paradox
One of Tinder’s greatest strengths is also one of it’s greatest weaknesses. The casual nature and simplicity of the app allows users to fly through hundreds of profiles just by swiping, but the problem with this design is that a match between users has no depth. Yes, you find each other attractive, but without any tangible topics or interests to talk about, the conversation will likely hit a snag very quickly.
Because of the casual nature, most users don’t invest that much time into a dating service that is essentially a game; the more invested individuals will likely go that extra mile and sign up for a legitimate dating site like Match.com or OkCupid. Therefore, it can be expected that the majority of users aren’t treating it all that seriously, and due to the sheer number of potential contacts, the app can be quite exhausting devoting that much time and energy towards, which is antithetical to the casual and simplistic nature of the app. Basically, because almost no one wants to put any effort in, most matches and interactions fall flat and fizzle out.
Then we have the whole issue that plagues online dating in the first place: the jump from virtual to real. Even if you matched with someone you really like and they managed to peak your interest long enough to trust them with having your phone number, the interaction has to retain that level of interest in the real world as well. One of the common criticisms of online dating is the lack of real social skills put into practice during communication with other users.
When you’re communicating with someone online, you can edit, filter, review, and even copy content to send to your crushes. The problem with this mode of communication is that real-life interaction isn’t like this at all, so the familiar situation of someone who is a great texter but a poor conversationalist comes into play. It’s more common nowadays because of how often we rely on texting and email for communication, and how we are fearful of using the phone or talking to someone in person. Due to the rampant fear of communicating with people in person that is prevalent in our society today thanks to the comfort that technology provides (especially in instances of potential sexual relationships), most interactions on Tinder are ultimately doomed to fail.
The Tinder Gamble
I would compare the addictive nature of Tinder to that of operating a slot machine. As is the case with all forms of gambling, a slot machine is statistically proven to provide the user with a net loss. The odds are stacked against a user, yet they continue to pump coins into the machine with the hope of winning. Hope is also what causes people to keep swiping right. Hope is what keeps us going out every Friday night despite the fact that the odds are stacked against you at a nightclub as well. Hope is “…the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.”
There are major parallels that exist between Tinder and gambling, specifically using a slot machine. Anderson and Brown (1984) describe compulsive gambling as the result of a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement; winning money is a form of positive reinforcement and the escape from negative emotional situations provided by playing the slots is a form of negative reinforcement.
Similar conclusions could be drawn from the main activities of Tinder. Getting a match is positive reinforcement and the “avoidance” of being lonely and single through use of the app is negative reinforcement.
McConaghy (1980) described the random ratio reinforcement schedule (RRRS) as being important for persistence in play. As per the RRRS, when an element of unpredictability exists related to whether or not the next trial will result in an award, persistence in play is maintained. Tinder operates under the same metric: you never know which user will appear next and if you’ll match with them, so an addicting situation of “just one more swipe” occurs. Many of the motivations to gamble – psychological arousal, avoidance of negative emotional states, altering one’s life, or overcoming boredom – are also common reasons people would use a dating app like Tinder.
So Tinder is addicting because it employs the same principles that slot machines do, but so what? After all, a successful app should be designed with addictive qualities to some degree; you do want people to use it after all. The problem is that for many people, using an app like Tinder is simply another form of avoidance. Instead of speaking to people in person and interacting with other potential partners in the classical sense, Tinder allows its users a form of escape and distraction. While many users may enjoy speaking to each other from the safety of their phones or iPad, the reality is, eventually the game has to end and you’ll need to meet up in real life, which is a scary notion for many people actively avoiding in-person social contact in the first place!
The online dating industry has continued to grow at an astonishing pace since the early 2000s due to many young peoples’ struggles with finding time to interact with strangers in person. Today more than ever, young, career-driven people can’t seem to meet strangers anywhere except at work or at a nightclub, which both present their own unique set of challenges. Our intimate relationships are ultimately rooted in our pursuit of happiness. All things we get out of them -whether it’s intimacy, sex, laughter, or learning- all provide us with some degree of fulfillment. As with almost everything, the more you invest in something, the more you stand to gain in terms of happiness or lose in terms of regret. The fact that the design of Tinder encourages a minimal input sets it up for failure; we simply don’t invest that much effort into the app, so any connection that results out of it is far less likely to provide us as much happiness as with a traditional interaction or even an online dating service that requires more user input and “work”.
Tinder’s focus on casual sex is also the reason why many of its users have a sense of misplaced happiness while using it. Simply put, we often mistakenly believe that an increased number sexual encounters correlates with an increase in happiness, not to mention that females experience a much higher rate of climaxing with a committed partner than with a casual one. One of the golden rules of statistics and data analysis is that correlation does not equal causation, and this scenario is no exception.
Many Tinder users are simply chasing an impossible reality: they use the app because they think sex will make them happy, but they aren’t having sex in the first place because of a host of other factors, and instead of addressing those parts of their life, they get stuck in the Tinder gamble. Much like gambling, you never really win unless you’re in the minority who can actually come out ahead, but the premise of instant success keeps you hooked. It’s like the people who invest way too much time in purchasing lottery tickets. Instead of recognizing that perhaps there are better ways to financial security and stability, they place their trust in a system that is designed to con them.
No one wants to be told that they can’t accomplish something, but the fact of the matter is that, for the majority of users, Tinder is simply not an effective method of dating. Either you aren’t going to be rated attractive enough, you won’t be interesting or witty enough to keep a match’s attention based on the limiting context of the app, or you simply won’t care enough to keep up with your interactions because you’re simply treating the app like a game or form of gambling.
The reason that Tinder is rolling out a premium service is first and foremost to make money, but is also a result of user feedback that the app is becoming stagnant; people are starting to wise up to the “game” of Tinder and they’re growing tired of the app. If you’ve had luck on Tinder meeting someone who genuinely makes you happy, then that’s great! The purpose of this article was to caution those who keep using it despite minimal returns. One can only hope that in the future, we seek more intuitive ways to satisfy our relationship needs, no matter how casual or serious our desires are.