I am getting pretty good at explaining the internet to people. Most of the time, these are older relatives, like my parents and grandparents. “Facebook is mutual,” I tell them. “Twitter is one-way. Tumblr is a like if Facebook and Twitter had a baby. A gay baby.”
But last year, I was hanging out with a couple I’m close with, two hip, engaged-in-the-world 30-somethings with burgeoning digital presences of their own, when my friend asked, “How does Tinder work?”
I looked at her suspiciously. “Is that a trick question?” I asked.
My friend, Teresa, is married, works as a photographer, and is a minor Pinterest celebrity. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure I could explain Pinterest to you). She and her husband met eight years ago and have been married for four, so they’ve been off the market since the waning days of the George W. Bush presidency. Neither of them ever had a need for OKCupid, much less Tinder.
In the moment, I had to remind myself how Tinder worked: You attach the app to your Facebook account, tell it what kind of genitalia you’re interested in, throw in an age range, and limit how far away a potential match can be. Then the app lines up the people that fit the bill—I assume using some sort of mathscience to order them—and presents them like targets at a phenomenally boring shooting gallery.
“Can I try?” Teresa asked.
Anyone who has used Tinder will probably be able to relate to the soul-crushing stupor you can enter when you use it—face after face getting flicked mostly to the left, occasionally to the right. At some point, it starts to feel like a war of attrition. Why would anyone want to try it?
I handed my phone to Teresa somewhat nervously, and she took to her task with relish. Even as I attempted to watch over her shoulder, I felt what I realized was an important sense of control over my Tinder matches slipping away. “No, no, no…” she said, her finger sliding left with a newbie’s deliberateness.
“This guy is a lawyer… and he lives in town!” Teresa said, referencing a deep, ill-fated entanglement with a bartender I’d recently matched with while traveling. To Teresa’s mind, that guy’s biggest flaw was that he’d lived so dang far away. She swiped right on the lawyer. “Oooh, it’s a match!” she said, showing me the victorious match screen.
I somewhat rudely snatched my phone back and examined the solicitor’s profile. I knew almost instantly I would not have chosen him. He was alright-looking, just not my type. As I held the phone in my hands, it buzzed—he’d already sent me a message.
What if this whole time, I’ve just been doing it wrong? It’s much easier to wander for 40 years in the desert if you know that there’s a promised land of milk and honey at the end of the trail.
Teresa was not alone among my becoupled friends whose curiosity about Tinder was earnest and well-meaning, yet exposed large, gaping holes in my own sense of well-being. At that point, I’d already had several friends in LTRs—mostly heterosexual women, though that might just be because most of my friends are hetero ladies—ask questions about Tinder that felt gastrointestinal in their intimacy.
Of course, I can understand their fascination: Tinder and the other swipe-apps have become a cultural touchstone that is ethically inaccessible to the happily committed. Tinder offers its users thousands of faces and potential partners, while my couple friends have settled on one face that, the understanding is, will be it. To put it in cruder terms: They’ve got an app that shows them the same face over and over, that they constantly need to swipe right on. To someone who has chosen their person, Tinder must represent a kind of strange, forbidden playground that, for the most part, they have no real interest in, but still wouldn’t mind checking out.
The disconnect seems to be in this idea that single people like being on the swipey dating apps. While I imagine there are those power users who derive pleasure from the experience, I feel that the lion’s share of us Tinderers would just as soon not be on it if we didn’t need to be. (If I had a nickel for every profile that starts with “Looking for someone who’ll give me a reason to delete this app,” well… I’d have a roll or two of nickels, at least). And though I can’t deny the neurochemical high I get when I match with someone—especially an attractive someone—that dopamine dump seems rooted in the desperation of the entire exercise. Will this guy be the one that presages the end of singledom?
I know how the logic goes: The single—especially the chronically single, like yours truly—must just be not choosing right. Outsource the task to a friend (or even a computer), and they can choose a quality partner that we would have otherwise overlooked, clouded as we are by such petty considerations as attraction.
Maybe that’s where my knee-jerk nausea originated: handing over control of my Tinder was equivalent to admitting that I couldn’t trust my own sense of attraction, that quickening of the heart, the fuzzy tendrils that radiate out from the chest, the head-to-toe sweep of goosebumps you get when you really like someone. But without the starry-eyed thrill, what’s the goddamned point?
On a purely practical level, there’s another problem with letting my friend guest-swipe on my Tinder: The same way that a friend borrowing my Netflix login skewed my recommendation algorithm by binge-watching several seasons of Pretty Little Liars, Teresa’s swiping had the potential to confuse the impersonal math equation Tinder uses to select my matches. Unlike the algorithms used by services like OKCupid, which try to use common interests to match people, the swipey apps use our instant hot-or-not reaction to their photos—which is apparently how good matches are made.
Maybe in the end, it all boils down to the same primal, emotional place I go to whenever someone offers dating advice: Don’t tell me how I’m failing. Partly because they don’t know how hard it is to not only be failing at dating, but to still be failing at dating. When they’re done hypothetically and dispassionately swiping for me, they get to crawl into bed with their person.
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And partly because… what if they’re right? What if this whole time, I’ve just been doing it wrong? It’s much easier to wander for 40 years in the desert if you know that there’s a promised land of milk and honey at the end of the trail.
Still, the swiping continues, not because I think it’s a good way to meet people, so much as it feels like one of the only ways to meet people. And though I am living for the day when I can hit the X over the jiggling app icon because I’ve met (and locked down) the man of my dreams, I wonder if that final click might be 10 percent bitter to the 90 percent sweet. As one friend who has recently left singledom for a guy she met on Tinder said to me the other day, “I finally deleted Tinder last night, and it felt kind of sad.”
After a moment, though, she reconsidered.
“No, not sad… what am I saying?” she said. “I guess I mean it felt sort of like a strange end of an era.”
For a couple of weeks following Teresa’s guest appearance on my Tinder, I kept matching with guys I had no memory of swiping on. I felt bad about ignoring them—though that seemed kinder than explaining the situation. Besides, there’s a kind of horrible usefulness to the rhetoric of silence on dating apps. In fact, years of using these apps have taught me something like a new language—and maybe that was the at the core of the problem: Teresa didn’t speak it.
I suppose I find myself locked in a strange symbiosis with Tinder, hating it, but also feeling ownership over it. Still, I keep swiping, hoping that with every flick of the finger, I’m bringing myself just a bit closer to the end of this strange, strange era.