Very little remains of the taboo around online dating these days. One in five couples meet on the Internet. Sites like Lavalife, once dismissed as last resorts for singles too weird to make conversation in a bar, are now used openly. So too, it seems, is Tinder, a matchmaking app developed by American entrepreneurs Justin Mateen and Sean Rad in 2012. Modelled loosely after the popular gay dating app Grindr (founded by Joel Simkhai in 2009), Tinder uses geolocation, as well as personal Facebook information, to match users by proximity. If you download the app on your phone, you’re matched with thousands of singles in your area, whose faces appear individually in simulated-Polaroid-photograph form on your touchscreen. If you like a user’s photo, you swipe right; if you don’t, you swipe left. It’s like a technological nightclub: faces flash before your eyes and you rarely learn a person’s name. There is no rejection on Tinder. You only have messaging privileges if a match is mutual (i.e. if the person you swipe swipes you favourably in return). “It’s like shopping,” says Erica, a 24-year-old Toronto makeup artist and Tinder user who didn’t want to use her last name. “It gives people a chance to sift through thousands of people and choose who they want to have sex with.”
An unapologetic preoccupation with no-strings-attached sex is what sets Tinder apart from its predecessors, many of which tout lifelong marital bliss more than casual encounters. Since its conception the app has exploded with the under-25 crowd, perpetuating the phenomenon of “hook-up culture” that college administrators and Globe and Mail editorialists so often lament. Approximately two million people use Tinder. “Some people on there are looking for relationships,” says Erica, “but most people are looking to hook up.” Erica, who moved to Toronto recently, says the app is particularly helpful for finding sex and romance in a big city. Her first and only Tinder fling recently came to an end. “We had a love affair that lasted 16 days,” she says. “And then he was gone. It was perfect.”
Tinder, one could argue, has enabled straight young people to adopt the blasé attitude to casual sex that gay men have always had—with one major difference. It requires users to sign up for its service through Facebook. “Because Tinder requires your real name and publicly shared photos,” says Travis Myers, a Toronto writer and Grindr user, “it doesn’t have the [same] level of anonymity as Grindr—an app that has become synonymous with a nameless-headless-torso asking for the dimensions of your penis.”
Thanks to the app’s embedded locator tools and Facebook connection, it’s extremely common for people to see friends, coworkers and relatives on Tinder. The impulse isn’t to cower, though. When Jen Rose, a 31-year-old illustrator and Tinder user living in Toronto, sees people she knows on the app, she “hearts them” (she swipes right, in other words). “If I have their number, I’ll screenshot [their profile] and send it to them.” There’s no taboo, she says. “A virtual existence is not a thing that we do. It’s what we are.”
Given the lack of anonymity, the sexual candour of male users is remarkable. Anthony Wiener isn’t the only man prone to sending so-called “dick pics.” Many of my close single, female friends use Tinder, and most have received unsolicited genitalia photos via text message from men they began talking to—sometimes minutes before—on Tinder. One friend retaliated with a snapshot she was sure would quell the culprit’s passion. She sent him a hi-res picture of a piece of roasted chicken breast that had been sitting in her fridge since the Jewish New Year. “Nice,” he texted 30 seconds later. “Gotnymore?”
One may wonder then, why the thousands of single Tinder-savvy women seeking more than a one-night stand bother with the app. Erica says she isn’t looking primarily for sex, but traditional dating sites like Match.com both bore and embarrass her. She views the longwinded profiles and hobby lists as overly earnest. Perhaps Tinder’s non-committal vibe, however sleazy, gives us something that is missing from the world of online dating: a little mystery.