Before the Internet, people met via family, friends, school, work and serendipitous public encounters. That still happens, but online dating is two decades old now, and is fast becoming the norm. New tools are also changing its nature. On old-school dating sites, you provide a lot of information and pore over the profiles of potential suitors with the hope of finding an ideal match. Most also require fees. Tinder, a free phone app that launched in 2012, greatly simplifies the process.
Using your phone's GPS and algorithms that take just a little Facebook and user selected data into account, Tinder finds and displays pictures of a nearby potential partners on your screen with a tiny bit of biographical information. Based on little else, you swipe left on the screen if you aren't interested and right if you are. You can accept or reject dozens — or even hundreds — of pictures a day, almost as a game, and never do anything else.
However, if two people both "swipe right" on each other, they are a match, and have the option to chat via text (and animated emojis) and decide where to go from there. The terms "swipe right" and "swipe left" have even crept into the vocabulary of popular culture to mean general approval or disapproval.
Tinder and similar apps are increasingly popular with young adults and are gaining traction with other demographics, as well. And they may do more than merely make it easier to find dates. Here are 10 ways a seemingly simple app is changing our world.
The dating app Grindr for gay and bisexual men actually launched three years earlier than Tinder, but Tinder brought the concept of mobile geo-location-based dating to a wider audience. Tinder reportedly has 9.6 million active daily users swiping 1.4 billion times a day [source: Carr]. And people can and do use more than one online dating method.
Many of the newer Tinder-like apps narrow down the number of choices offered to users. Both of the apps Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel select a limited number of potential matches per day from friends of your Facebook friends to weed out totally unconnected strangers. Happn presents you with users who have come within 800 feet (244 meters) of you in real life. JSwipe aims to help Jewish singles find love. Aside from Grindr, there are other LGBT specific apps, including Scruff, Jack'd, Her and Wing Ma'am.
Loveflutter aims to put personality before looks by displaying a personal fact before revealing a user's picture. Bumble — founded by former Tinder executive Whitney Wolfe — makes women initiate first contact with male matches, to remove the stigma of women making the first move and hopefully decrease harassment.
And then there are the racy apps, like 3nder for finding potential threesome participants and Mixxxer for meeting casual sex partners within a one-mile radius.
As far as dating apps go, Tinder tops the market in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and a few other places, but other apps dominate elsewhere around the globe, such as Badoo in many South American countries, Momo in China and YYC in Japan, to name a few [source: Maybin].
Traditional online dating sites like Match and EHarmony require you to set up complex profiles, and you have to make some effort to search for and contact potential matches. It can seem laborious compared to the quick and easy nature of Tinder, which in many ways is akin to playing a game.
After setup, which includes a few simple settings, you launch the app and a photo appears. Then you start the process of swiping left to pass or right to accept, and you can quickly swipe through a lot of pictures. If someone you accept also swipes right on you, you have a match and get the prize of being able to chat as we mentioned earlier, but you can also just add them to your collection — like a trading card.
And it can be addictive. Games, somewhat like drugs, stimulate the reward centers of our brains, leading to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine and an accompanying feeling of pleasure. The prospects and realities of finding love or sex are also tied into our reward system. The game-like aspects of Tinder just add new ways to get a dopamine high from dating. You never know when you're going to get a match, and not knowing when a reward will happen reportedly increases dopamine production.
As with addictive mobile games like Candy Crush, you hear of people deleting Tinder to get away from its lure, only to reinstall it later. There are also people who use the app but never actually set up dates. You can while away hours on apps like Tinder at the expense of all the stuff you meant to do instead.
A group of friends in Chicago infamously found another way to make a game of it. They competed to see who could get guys on Tinder to buy them a pizza first, and dubbed it "The Tinder Games" [source: Fowler].
Most of us know to take precautions when talking to or setting up dates with strangers online, including watching how much information we reveal, researching the other person ahead of time, meeting in well-lit and populated public places, and letting friends or relatives know where we're going. Self-defense training also isn't a bad idea.
But some groups have additional safety concerns. Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community face hostility, harassment and violence just for being themselves. LGBT youth are cut off or disowned by their own families at alarming rates. This adds layers of difficulty and danger to finding compatible dating partners. Sexual orientation and gender identity (with some exceptions) tend to be included as profile and preference settings in dating apps, making finding potential partners easier and safer. OKCupid even includes a feature to make your profile invisible to straight users.
Dating apps also open up a wider pool of dating possibilities nearby, which is especially useful for people in remote areas. Survey data indicates that around 3.5 percent of the population is gay, lesbian or bisexual and about 0.3 percent is transgendered [sources: Gates, Ward]. However, it's worth noting that higher percentages report same-sex sexual activity or attraction, and there are more orientations and identities than are covered above.
Among Tinder's competitors are apps specifically geared toward LGBT users, like Grindr, Scruff and Jack'd for men, and Her and Wing Ma'am for women. Online dating sites Mesh and Thurst, reportedly in beta, will have more gender identity choices than simple binary options, but phone dating apps catering to transgendered users are currently rare.
Most dating apps could use improvement regarding orientation and gender choices. Tinder and many others only allow a binary male/female gender choice, leaving users to state other gender identities and preferences in their profiles. Some Tinder users have reported transgendered users who've appeared in their feeds, sometimes getting them banned. The company says it's working on allowing more choices. How well each app filters based on preferences apparently varies, as well, and some resort to creating more than one profile to cover more bases.
LGBT people also use these apps to enable quietly finding dating prospects in areas where being open about their orientation or gender identity is extremely dangerous (or even against the law). But it can still be hazardous to use an app, however private it may seem. People have reportedly been targeted for assault, blackmail and even deportation after being identified by fake users through the apps. Scruff and some other apps include alerts for such areas.
Tinder's simple swipe to reject or accept functionality has applications beyond dating. One of those applications is politics.
After noticing that people were using the app to campaign for Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio (getting themselves reported and banned in the process), Tinder partnered with nonprofit Rock the Vote to introduce the "Swipe the Vote" poll in March 2016. The 10-question survey lets U.S. users swipe left or right on issues to match them with the presidential candidate whose policies they agree with most.
Tinder also partnered with British nonprofit Bite the Ballot to release a similar poll in the United Kingdom before the June 23, 2016 referendum on whether the U.K. should leave or remain in the European Union. It included true or false questions about the EU and Britain's relationship with it. Britain voted to leave the EU 52 percent to 48 percent, and the vote has since been dubbed "Brexit." Polling results suggest that 73 percent of voters 18 to 24 chose "remain" [source: Ashcroft].
In the same vein, the Voter app, launched in 2015, has users answer eight questions by swiping left or right. It returns the closest matching political party and presidential candidate. Users can go through additional questioning for more precise results, and enter their address to bring up local candidate matches. The information is drawn from databases containing candidates' public stances, speeches, voting records, endorsements and funding sources. All of the above apps also include a voter registration link.
Groups have also used dating apps to promote public health, albeit in ways that break the terms of service. During Men's Health Awareness Month in 2014, a Tumblr group set up a fake "Nurse Nicole" account on Tinder to encourage men to get prostate and other health exams. The Marin AIDS Project in California set up fake accounts on Grindr and other apps to encourage HIV testing.
Others set up fake accounts as social experiments. After getting some vulgar come-ons via Tinder, blogger Cristiana Wilcoxon set up an account for a sexy-talking female cheeseburger named Patty. Responses ranged from funny to, well, vulgar. Writer Joe Veix set up a fake account for a golden retriever named Hero that responded to people in barks. He got some jokey and annoyed responses when Hero was listed as male, but he got more matches, and more verbal harassment and sexual language, when he switched Hero's gender to female.
According to a study by comScore, in mid-2014, U.S. users were spending 60 percent of their digital media time on mobile devices instead of desktops, with 52 percent of that time devoted to mobile apps [sources: comScore, Perez].
Many of us practically live our lives on our smartphones, using them to read books, play games, engage with our friends and make new ones. We can even order up food and transportation. And now we can use them to find dating partners near us.
Tinder was created specifically for our smartphones. Its origins are rooted entirely in the tech world. Hatch Labs entered into a deal with InterActiveCorp, which owned Match.com and OkCupid, to act as a sort of skunkworks to develop innovative apps for the company. A prototype app called Matchbox was developed by Sean Rad and Joe Munoz during an internal Hatch hackathon. When more fully developed, the app was renamed Tinder and released to popular partygoers in the Los Angeles, California area for beta-testing. It was then targeted at big party colleges. The rest is history.
There never was a desktop version of Tinder. As such, it serves as evidence that a smartphone app doesn't need a desktop version to be successful. You can surf the web on your smartphone, so traditional dating site usage isn't out of the question via phone. But current trends being what they are, many dating sites have had the good sense to release their own apps, too.
Online dating apps allow users to connect with people they otherwise would never meet, and to thwart social norms without raising any eyebrows. In many cultures, men have traditionally been the instigators when it comes to heterosexual dating. But apps like Tinder give agency to both parties by requiring each to swipe right before a conversation can take place. This could help break the old stigma against women making the first move.
How the matched parties proceed afterward can still fall into old patterns, or new ones, like the unsolicited graphic sexual talk and harassment that are almost expected by women on the Internet at this point. Some apps such as Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel seek to cut down on unwanted verbal exchanges by matching people that run in the same social circles. Others, including Bumble, purposefully require the woman make the first verbal move (at least in the case of opposite-sex matches).
Tinder and similar apps also help tip the balance for shy and socially anxious people, who are at a bit of a disadvantage in traditional pick-up places like bars and clubs. For most, striking up an online conversation is less anxiety-inducing than talking to a stranger in person. And having already been accepted by a right swipe may lend a confidence boost.
Tinder and its ilk can't reverse people's attitudes and neuroses overnight, but they can be useful tools that gradually change the game. And some online dating data gives added incentive. An OkCupid study found that straight men initiated contact far more often than straight women, but that the women who did so were 2.5 more likely to get a response than men, and ended up talking to people who were on average considered more desirable [sources: OkCupid, Victor]. In other words, women who could get past traditional gender expectations fared better.
Tinder is also upping the text game of its users; people who excel at text conversations are likely to win dates. Some users even crowdsource their responses to see what their friends think they should say before responding, which isn't possible face to face. Although that sort of interaction doesn't always translate to good in-person conversation, you can only hope the text interactions will accurately gauge compatibility and break the ice for the first meeting.
There are no hard figures on this, but anecdotal evidence indicates that bars and restaurants are seeing differences in their traffic and revenue, reportedly due to dating apps like Tinder increasing the number of first dates. And they're making changes accordingly.
Food and beverage industry insiders have reported noticing more traffic during non-peak times and days. More traffic should be a boon, but some related trends seem designed to hurt their bottom line. Staff have noticed signs of first dates, like people taking up seats and not ordering while waiting for their dates, some ditching their dates after a short time (or worse, upon seeing them) and lots of long, sometimes awkward, conversations between people who are obviously just getting to know each other. These dates, whether they go well or not, seem to be more casual, and along with that, longer and cheaper. The couples are reportedly ordering less, sometimes only drinks, and not too many of those.
According to a 2015 survey by Match.com, 2.5 hours is the peak date length that makes a second date more likely [source: Fisher]. So it's good for daters if this happens, but not so good for bars and restaurants when their seats don't turn over to accommodate more paying customers. Some establishments are changing their layout and furnishings to accommodate more first dates, for instance adding more two-person tables so that daters aren't taking up four-tops, and replacing couches with chairs arranged for couples.
It's not all bad blood between restaurant staffers and daters. A bar in England posted a sign with the heading "Tinder Date Gone Wrong?" in the women's bathroom (and later the men's) to instruct patrons on how to notify the staff when they need to be rescued from a bad situation.
Tinder has a reputation as a hookup app (i.e. one used for finding casual sex partners). This reputation doesn't make the company happy, as was evidenced by a string of contrary Twitter comments in response to a 2015 Vanity Fair article entitled "Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse.'" The article includes tales of "Tinder Kings" who are adept at hooking up with scads of women, dubbed "Tinderellas," and of women saying that they find lots of matches wanting to hook up and few who want meaningful relationships.
The large number of potential matches served up with scant information might lend to that impression. Users have to slog through a lot of matches to find compatible people looking for the same things they are. There are stories of people finding serious partners through the app, and a survey conducted by Tinder suggested that 80 percent of users were looking for something more than a hookup [source: Carr]. But Tinder is a tool that will be used for whatever the individual users want, and they all want different things.
In 2014, researchers in the Netherlands surveyed Tinder users between 18 and 30 years old and identified six main reasons people were using the app: looking for love, looking for casual sex, meeting social communication needs, validating self-worth, seeking the thrill of excitement and following peer trends. The love motivation was reported more than casual sex, but men were more likely to use it for casual sex than women. And both love and casual sex were more often reported as motivations by older users [source: Sumter].
Despite stories of 20-somethings' hookup culture, there is evidence that "these kids today" don't have any more sex than previous generations. Two studies that compared data from the General Social Survey found that Millennials are having slightly less sex and slightly fewer sexual partners than previous generations after the Baby Boomers, although the study data ended the year Tinder began [sources: Dewey, Lehmiller, Singal].
There also may be regional differences. More women are graduating from college than men these days, and author Jon Birger sees a connection between the dating scene and the ratio of female to male college graduates in some areas. He states that people tend to date and marry others around their education level, points to studies showing that populations with more women than men tend to have more sex and fewer relationships, and compares a 33 percent marriage rate for young women in the 22 to 29 demographic in Silicon Valley (where female grads are outnumbered by their male counterparts) to a 13 percent rate in Manhattan (where the opposite is true) [sources: Birger, NCES, Uecker].
Aside from singles hooking up, there is speculation that Tinder helps people in supposedly committed relationships cheat. In the first quarter of 2015, research firm GlobalWebIndex used survey data to determine that 42 percent of Tinder users were NOT single, a figure disputed by Tinder [sources: McGrath, McHugh, Olson].
Some non-singles reportedly use Tinder for things other than finding extramarital sex partners, sometimes alongside their single friends or even their own partners, possibly out of curiosity, inclusion or the fun of the game. Couples have apparently been known to use it to find threesome participants (an activity for which competing app 3nder was created).
But we all know that people sometimes cheat on their partners. A survey by YouGov in 2015 found that 21 percent of male respondents and 19 percent of female respondents admitted to cheating, and 7 percent declined to answer the question [source: NPR]. Research has even found that when people have lots of choices of potential mating partners, they are more likely to divorce [sources: Cohen, McKinnish, South]. Tinder is a handy tool for finding people looking for love, sex, or both, which makes it likely that some non-single Tinder users, however many or few there are, use it to find cheating partners.
Like many online platforms before Tinder, it has also been reported that sex workers have used the app to get clients, although many of the apparent prostitutes are fake scam accounts. Illegal activity is not allowed on Tinder (or anywhere else, for that matter, but its very nature). But like cheating, it still happens, and technology helps it along.
Online dating is becoming the norm with younger generations. According Pew Research Center, in mid-2015, 15 percent of adults had used an online dating method and 29 percent knew someone who met a long-term partner that way. In the 18 to 24 age demographic, those numbers were higher, at 27 percent and 34 percent respectively. They also found that since early 2013, use of dating apps increased from 3 percent to 9 percent, with a much sharper increase of 5 percent to 22 percent in the 18 to 24 age demographic [sources: Smith, Smith].
Apps like Tinder change the pool of potential mates for anyone using them and take away some of the guesswork of finding a date. If you see someone on a dating app, there's a better chance that they are looking to meet someone than if you see them in public. And if you mutually select each other, that means you're already past one hurdle without having to have started an awkward conversation about their sign or college major.
Dates themselves are reportedly trending more casual, with people meeting for drinks to inexpensively see if they have any chemistry rather than the cliché dinner and a movie. App users have even touted the cost savings of getting to know potential dates via chat rather than spending money in clubs, bars and other similar places right off the bat.
As with any new and widely adopted technology, people have raised fears that dating apps may affect our psychological health. Some think the large number of choices might keep us from investing in our current relationships, since there will always be someone seemingly better a swipe away. There's also an idea that, as with social media "likes," we may take the external validation Tinder matches give us too seriously and become unhappy and anxious when similar validation doesn't occur in real life. Dating apps also seem to make us objectify and sell ourselves to other users via idealized images. Looks-based judgements have always been part of gauging attraction to potential mates, but this rapid rejection or acceptance of static-images takes it to a new level.
As of yet, there haven't been many studies showing negative consequences. Only time will tell if Tinder is the end of relationships as we know them, or just another tool that we'll adopt as an efficient way to play the dating game.
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At least two of my good friends met through online dating, and now have kids together. I also live on my phone, so although I don't partake of dating apps, I can totally see why it would go mobile. I am uncomfortable with the idea of selecting or rejecting people quickly based on a picture, though. I'm also an aging Gen-Xer who is probably better off not knowing how I'd fare in such an arena. But I know how addictive social and game apps can be, since I unconsciously open Facebook every time I pick up my phone, and I've deleted Candy Crush and Word Streak many times only to desperately redownload them. I can quit anytime! Just one more game.
Whether you want to find a spouse or a series of one-night hookups or want to play with the app for fun is no one's business (except maybe your date's or partner's). If it opens up your pool of potential mates, or just makes your social life more exciting, good for you. I'll keep myself busy with the voting polls.
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