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One Hundred Years of Internet Solitude
Reflections on a decade of Tinder
There are only a handful of events for which I can vividly remember exactly where I was when they happened: 9/11, Obama’s election, the first time I saw people wearing masks for Covid, the riots on January 6th. The deaths of Amy Winehouse, Leonard Cohen, and, more embarrassingly, Steve Jobs. And, also, the first time I saw Tinder.
It was early 2013, and I was at a house party in Detroit; a guy I only loosely knew at the time told me about the app and then, seeing that I wasn’t quite getting it, took out his phone to give me a live demo. And it was as if I’d seen real magic. I saw the guy again recently and mentioned this moment to him and of course he didn’t remember it at all, but to me he’ll always be the person who showed me Tinder for the first time.
It’s hard to remember now that dating apps have become like plumbing, but back in those early days everything about the experience was inherently exciting—there was still something that felt just a little bit dangerous about the whole thing, and that feeling left even the most innocent messages tinged with a light eroticism. For that first six months or so you had to be at least a little bit in the know to have even heard about Tinder, and at least a little bit daring to be among the first of your friends to use it, and those two criteria made everyone you met at least a little bit interesting.
Or maybe they were just pretending to be. All dating has an element of performance, but there was something extra thrilling about who you could be when you were meeting a complete stranger, someone who didn’t know anyone you knew and who didn’t go to any of the same places you went, someone whose only pre-existing impression of you was the one you’d created for them. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.
Tinder, and the copycats that quickly followed, became an inescapable part of my life—of many of our lives—for much of the next decade. I met people I still think about and people I’ve forgotten about completely. I had one-night stands with people I wished I could’ve kept seeing, and I kept seeing people I should’ve left as one-night stands. I encountered people I never would have crossed paths with otherwise, some of whom I’m lucky to have met and some of whom I’d have been better off never knowing. I spent, I am pretty sure, over $10,000 at bars.
Yet for all those days spent swiping, for all the many times I have deleted and re-downloaded the many different apps, for all the hours spent worrying about messages from people I wouldn’t even recognize today, none of the most significant women in my life these past ten years have come from the internet. And so I find myself asking, as I approach the ten-year anniversary of that house party: is the problem Tinder? Is the problem me? Is there even a problem at all?
In a better world, Tinder itself would have a romantic origin story, a storybook founding tale to go with the storybook meet-cutes it claims to spark. In our own fallen world, however, Tinder has one of the least inspiring origin stories of any modern company.
In the best of these kinds of tales, a scrappy founder has a vision that’s important to them, and they take real risks, and make real sacrifices, to make that vision a reality. Tinder, on the other hand, was started from within an incubator where employees were paid six-figure salaries to toy around with new business ideas in comfort. The incubator was partly owned by Match Group, the company that now also owns OkCupid, Hinge, and 40+ other, more obscure dating platforms.
This ownership meant that Tinder was never really a “startup” in the traditional sense—it was, at least partially, the property of a large corporation from day one. Its creator, Sean Rad, repurposed a shopping rewards app as a dating tool, then recruited three additional cofounders to join him: Whitney Wolfe Heard and the confusingly-named Justin Mateen and Jonathan Bateen.
Everyone involved in Tinder’s early days has sued each other, sexually harassed each other, or both. First, Wolfe sued Mateen for sexual harassment, and Rad for pushing her out of the company instead of disciplining Mateen when she reported it. She used her settlement money to start Bumble, which Match Group then sued for stealing Tinder’s intellectual property. Rad was pushed out of Tinder after the harassment allegations, only to have the CEO who replaced him depart during his own sexual harassment scandal. Then Rad turned around and sued Match for underpaying him. He also gave an infamous interview to the Evening Standard where he bragged about being attracted to “ugly women” and misused the word “sodomy” in an almost too-ridiculous-to-be-real way. (“Apparently there’s a term for someone who gets turned on by intellectual stuff. You know, just talking. What’s the word? I want to say ‘sodomy’?”)
The Tinder backstory is especially egregious, but the truth is the best founders rarely start dating apps, since dating apps are an inherently flawed business: if they actually work, their users quickly stop being single, which means they quickly stop being users. This fact influences who builds dating apps, and how they’re designed, in a million little ways that I’m convinced have something to do with how shitty using them often feels, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.
All technologies eventually shift from magic to mundane, but Tinder made that move more rapidly than most. I’m still amazed by my iPhone on a regular basis, but I can’t remember the last time I didn’t take Tinder for granted.
A common criticism of dating apps is that they create a sense of unlimited possibility and, in doing so, make any individual person seem less special. But I’m not so sure this sense of the infinite is really coming from the apps. In mid-2010s Detroit, it was easy to get to the end of your Tinder queue. And thirty minutes in New York will dangle far more possibilities in front of you than an app ever could. Every time I take the subway I think, I could fall in love with half of the women on this train.
Or maybe I’m really just thinking about who I might become if I was with them. An old therapist once told me, explaining my attraction to artists, that sometimes we think we want to be with a person when really we just want to be them.
An unfortunate side effect of Tinder’s descent into the mundane is that these days complaining about “the apps” is almost as common as using them. Genuinely loving online dating is gauche, of course, but complaining about it all the time is even worse.
Whenever I hear these kinds of complaints, I’m reminded of the only good essay the new Gawker has published, Clare Coffey’s Failure to Cope “Under Capitalism,” about the trend towards seeing “capitalism” as an all-purpose bogeyman on which one can blame any and all of life’s difficulties:
There is a strain of discourse that insists an inability to cope in one’s day-to-day life is in almost all cases a political problem…Capitalism is the reason we sometimes tie our identities to material status objects. Capitalism is the reason we want to be paid for writing. It is capitalism that makes you feel bad you didn’t learn to bake sourdough during quarantine.
Tinder, too, has become something of a bogeyman. The thing is, love and relationships are inherently hard. They always have been, they always will be, and while new technologies may be able to make things a little bit better, or a little bit worse, they’ll always be confined to tinkering around the edges—at least, perhaps, until we can biohack our thoughts and feelings directly.
It’s often easier to blame “the apps” than to acknowledge that fundamental fact. If the problem is the apps, the solution is easy: we could just stop using them. But if we acknowledge that these difficulties—the anxiety, the confusion, the heartbreak, the sheer messiness of being a person in a world full of other people—are an inherent part of human relationships, then we’re denied the ability to imagine that a simpler, easier existence is right around the corner.
There are a few people whose profiles Tinder keeps showing me over and over, to the point where it’s almost started to feel like I know them. Alice, who never smiles and has a novel-length bio; Rebecca, whose photos all look like they came from a high-school yearbook; Emily, with a different dog in every picture and a profile listing all the ways she’s been hurt before. Each is unique in their specific malady, but they all have a desperation to them, a hard-to-quantify air of sadness. I’ll see them go by for the fifth or sixth or seventh time and think, there goes so-and-so, still single, still at it.
Then recently it occurred to me that there may be people out there for whom my profile is the one that constantly repeats. Am I someone’s Rebecca? Is there someone out there seeing my overly-familiar profile and thinking, jeez, there goes that guy again?
Mostly, I find the reoccurrence of these cursed profiles horrifying. But occasionally, I find it perversely inspiring. For all the disappointments that have come her way, Emily still believes. And I hope she finds what she’s looking for—even as I can’t swipe left on her fast enough.