Ride the underground in London and you will soon be confronted with the wallpaper of dating site adverts that adorn its filthy interior. ‘Katie and Ben met for a quick coffee in between the Monday morning meeting and the working lunch!’ these adverts scream. ‘Look at their beautiful yuppie faces, temporarily stretched from their usual expression of stress and fear into forced grins for the benefit of the camera! If you, too, are overworked and alone in your ridiculously overpriced Canary Wharf apartment, join now for a very reasonable fee. You can buy happiness.’
Such dating portals for young professionals living in the rat race have proliferated in the last few years. The stigma of online dating is dropping off as the generation who grew up embroiled in social media enter Real Adulthood (not the adulthood that technically exists between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one in university halls, but the kind incurring fast-paced jobs and H&M suits and perpetual loneliness.) Canadian-owned and astronomically successful free dating website PlentyofFish.com was launched in 2003 and by 2008 was being profiled in The New York Times, as journalists openly wondered how founder Markus Frind managed to purge 30 per cent of its customers for inactivity per year and yet double the number of members overall. As of May 2013, PlentyofFish had 3.3m daily users and, 70 per cent of its traffic was coming from mobile phones.
It’s no surprise that dating sites took to the app store like so many ducks (or plenty of fish) to water. Online dating had become its own PR man, rebranding itself from the bastion of middle-aged divorcee loneliness into the smart solution for fast-paced young lives.
If you’re a busy person – probably a 25 year old on an intern’s ‘expenses only’ wage – typing your fingers to the bone in the City every night, investing time in navigating an even slightly complicated website is too much. If you don’t want your passing employer to see tangible proof of your loneliness over your shoulder, you’ll also have to wait until you’re home at antisocial hours after a gruelling day. Reading likes and dislikes, movie tastes and music tastes, is time-consuming.
What’s even easier and more accessible? Scrolling through pictures on a smartphone. And this is exactly the idea behind Tinder, an app which works by connecting with your Facebook and displaying four (carefully chosen) photographs of you to potential suitors within a few miles’ radius. The GPS on your phone links you up with the users nearest to your location, and you click ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in response to whether you like or dislike what you see. Both clicked ‘Yes’? An inbox opens, and you’re allowed to message each other, potentially to set up a date or even, if you’re feeling edgy, a one-night intimate encounter. Often compared to gay hook-up app Grindr (because of its combined subject matter and GPS capabilities), Tinder carries the illusion of being a little bit safer because of the Facebook connection and a little bit more respectable because of the fact that both parties have to agree to contact.
Essentially, Tinder is shopping for partners. You can scroll through hundreds of faces as you procrastinate on your morning commute, or during a tedious lunch hour al desko. Purely in the interests of research, I have the app myself, and can testify that a depressing amount of men have the sentence ‘Let’s just say we met in a bar’ attached to their picture. If it’s not that – for there is a very small space for text, which hardly anyone ever uses – then it’s facile little idioms like ‘Life’s too short – do everything once!’ (I personally rejected two people making use of that quotation in one half hour ‘browsing’ session.)
Love is now a capitalist enterprise, and Tinder is the Tesco of the dating mall: cheap; convenient; predictable produce. Go on a Tinder date and chances are you’ll get what I got: one free drink and an evening with a man called Aristoteles who spoke in hipster-cliche speak as if he was a living dating profile (‘What brought you to London?’ ‘Curiosity.’ ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I work’) before attempting to kiss me as I stood unamusedly in a pile of abandoned McDonald’s fries on Essex Road. Men now post their height next to their photographs, so common is it for a woman’s first question to be ‘How tall are you?’ Gap year photos of recently graduated students with baby tigers abound (guilty.) And then there are the faintly misogynistic monologues that accompany some profiles – one man who was ‘matched’ with me had the following paragraph after a lengthy description of himself: ‘Don’t be one of those dullistas who finds it awkward to summarise her ‘personality’ in prose. You may be daddy’s little unique snowflake but saying that makes you sound inarticulate, not refreshingly honest about your ‘personality’.’ Why in both cases the word ‘personality’ was presented in inverted commas seemed to suggest that he wasn’t entirely convinced women had personalities at all.
For something which is intended to make lonely people less lonely, there’s something very depressing about Tinder – and it goes beyond the natural consternation an awkward-looking person naturally feels when realising that the only dating market they have time to enter is entirely looks-oriented. Something feels vaguely dystopian about its business model: created because of the underpaid and overworked alone-in-a-crowd masses; successful because it operates through the smartphone, itself an instrument of isolation; endlessly profitable because it’s tailored to a conglomerate’s vision of savvy urban twentysomethings who bid on boyfriends and collect girlfriends convenient to their lifestyle. And as Businessweek pointed out, Tinder is no start-up’s bright spark: it was crafted in a lab sponsored by IAC/InterActiveCorp, owners of Match.com and overall big boys of the ad-driven online dating playpen.
From a technological standpoint, it’s a nice app built mainly around existing APIs and smartly packaged up like a video game. This entertaining element has meant that people are more than willing to pass it around their friends on a Friday night; it’s undeniably fun, when you disconnect from the fact that the people are real. And it’s an undeniable social media accomplishment, when you ignore the fact that it lacks any great degree of technical innovation or creativity.
They say that the course of true love never runs smooth. The problem with Tinder is that once you’ve evened out all of those natural contours, it ceases to look like love at all.
Instead, it just looks like a big, iPhone-shaped marketing device tailored to a sad and uniquely (dis)connected generation.