Twenty years ago, the idea that almost everyone would be carrying a computer to find potential partners might have seemed shocking, or at least unlikely.
Then along came Tinder and taught us all to swipe.
Ten years since its inception, Tinder has people in 190 countries swiping left and right (saying yes or no) to singles in their vicinity.
“Tinder is the world’s most popular app for meeting new people,” is how the service is described by parent company Match Group, which also owns OkCupid, Hinge, Pairs, OurTime and is based in Dallas, Texas.
Since its launch in September of 2012, the app has been downloaded more than half a billion times and has led to more than 75 billion matches, the company says. Some 1.5 million people meet up for dates every week, it says, thanks to Tinder, available in more than 40 languages.
One of its biggest competitors is Bumble, a similar app differing only in the fact that mainly only women can start a chat after the match is made.
Lovoo is also a strong rival, with an icebreaker function that “is your chance to write to a special someone right away without having to wait for a match,” the company says. “With your Icebreaker, which needs to be original and personalized, you can literally break the ice between you.”
Before Tinder, apps like these were mainly used in the queer community, after Joel Simkhai came up with Grindr, the first dating app based on GPS data in 2009.
Grindr, mainly used by gay men and a portmanteau of “guy” and “finder,” based on the verb “to grind,” focused less on finding you a potential partner based on shared interests and more on who was nearby.
Simkhai tried to create Blendr, a similar app for the straight community in 2011, but it failed to take off.
Online dating only became a mass phenomenon beyond the queer community in 2012 when Tinder came along with its infamous swipe.
But how far is it helping us – or has swiping left and right on people’s faces made us all superficial?
“In terms of ‘openness,’ Tinder has certainly done a lot for straight people,” says Nicole von Wagner, who hosts a podcast about sex and relationships.
“Tinder has triggered the sexual revolution of eternal availability. All you have to do is swipe right on your phone and arrange to have sex.” Almost everyone there has several irons in the fire, seeking the best partner they can find.
That vast range of possibilities is also making many people superficial, according to author Nicole von Wagner. “We judge a person within seconds based on a photo and swipe left if we don’t like the nose.”
Women often contact her saying they are ashamed of dating online, feeling it’s a sign they are unable to attract a partner in real life. “They often feel devalued by those around them for doing so. As if a flirt at the supermarket checkout till is worth more than one online.”
Sociologist Thorsten Peetz, of Bamberg University in Germany, also takes a nuanced view of finding love online. “The cliché that it is a more superficial form of getting to know someone and an economization of intimate life does not do justice to the phenomenon.”
People are highly reflective when seeking a partner online, he says. “Many use tests and images to create whole stories, and spell out exactly what they want and don’t want.”
Peetz says looking for a partner online is not just like shopping for someone in a department store, as some imply. He is dismissive of reports of people who say they use Tinder like a catalogue to browse.
“There are a number of studies in which people describe how they feel Tinder is like a catalogue to flip through or even a meat market where you look and choose, but in reality, it isn’t like that,” says Peetz. “You can’t just want to have someone, and have that work out.”
The process is like a game where everyone tries to “bring their own intimate value to bear,” he says.
People on Tinder and other apps present a socially acceptable version of themselves, says Peetz. We all do that every day anyway, in terms of how we present ourselves, what we wear, how we look and move, he adds.
Dating apps present sophisticated challenges around identity and interpretation, he says. “The task at hand is to assess what kind of person you are looking at, beyond the screen. How do they fit into the game I want to play here? What kind of person can I actually expect to meet there real life one day?”
In other words, he says, Tinder is about way more than a quick hook-up.