Tinder, created 10 years ago by Sean Rad, an American businessman in his twenties, revolutionized sexual relationships by opening online dating to a broader audience. A few years earlier, Grindr, created in 2009, had contributed to normalizing online contact among men who have sex with men. And Tinder introduced this recipe for success among the rest of the population. In the midst of an explosion of new platforms – Instagram was launched in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011 –, the Californian app combined the burgeoning interest in connecting with other people through the internet with the search for partners.
“Tinder has been the biggest disruptor of online dating in over a decade,” says Damona Hoffman, a dating expert and writer. “It offered its users ease of use and reduced the stigma that online dating is for losers.”
Andrea, a 23-year-old university student from A Coruña in Spain, does not entirely agree. At the beginning of 2020, she downloaded the application for the first time. Although she did it just to entertain herself, as with any other social network, she ended up finding her current partner in November of that same year. “We matched on Tinder, we started talking, and I stopped answering him because I wasn’t interested or I didn’t see the message,” says Andrea. “But he spoke to me again.” Her friends accepted the virtual crush without problems, but with her parents the story changed. “I didn’t tell my parents that I met him on Tinder,” says Andrea. “They would not see my partner in the same way if I told them that I met him on Tinder as if I told them that I met him at a party or on Instagram.”
For Michael Roselfeld, a sociology professor at Stanford University and an expert in dating and social networks, this is due more to a generational gap than to a stigma associated with Tinder. “Young people may feel that grandma doesn’t have to know all the details of her personal life,” says Rosenfeld. “Among their peers, I don’t see that young people have the slightest reticence about ‘I met him on Tinder.’” In fact, in 2016 almost 60% of Americans thought that online dating was a good way to meet people, according to the Pew Research Center.
In addition to normalizing online dating, Tinder has affected the way we flirt. According to a 2019 study co-authored by Michael Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico who is an expert in social media and interpersonal relationships, in 2013, the number of couples who met online exceeded those who met through friends. Thanks to Tinder, the sociocultural margins associated with our interpersonal relationships have widened, expanding social circles and democratizing sexual-affective relationships.
“I have planned to get a drink with people that I never would have met, because they were from Boadilla del Monte [a wealthy area in the Madrid region] and attended a private school and university, and I attended the public one all my life, living in Parla [a municipality in the Madrid region] in the lower-middle class area,” says Sarahi, 25. An NGO worker, she downloaded Tinder for the first time in 2014. She used it until she met her current partner in April last year. “My friendship groups are mostly girls, so if I was looking for boys, it was super limited. I lived in Parla, where everyone knew each other.”
For queer people, Tinder fills in the missing codes that have defined same-sex relationships for centuries. “In the case of relationships between girls, we don’t have many references, because we haven’t been building a narrative since we were young,” says J., 28-year-old author of the Tinder Report newsletter. Among people of different sexes, flirting in a bar or a nightclub is part of a ritual with clear and shared norms, something that, except in purely queer spaces, does not happen in the LGBTQ+ community – not to mention the risk involved in assuming that a person is not heterosexual. “When you are part of our group, there are two rejections. One is that they tell you ‘I’m straight,’ and second whether they are interested. This way you take away at least one,” adds J, who downloaded Tinder in 2017.
This situation favors a greater use of dating apps among the queer community, as demonstrated by a study by Spain’s University of Zaragoza published in 2020. According to the results, a person who belongs to a sexual minority is three times as likely to have used a dating app than a straight person. “They are a very good resource used by sexual minorities,” the authors write.
Despite people complaining about apps and digital exhaustion, the rate of couples who met online will continue to riseReuben J. Thomas, sociology professor at the University of New Mexico
In addition, as a social network, Tinder also serves to connect people beyond sexual interest. In many groups of queer friends, it is common for several to have met through Tinder. It could be said that the app has ended up supplanting gay bars as a space for socializing. Juansa, a 48-year-old salesperson in London, even found an apartment thanks to the advice of a girl she met on Tinder. “I find myself in a situation that I would never have imagined in my entire life, and that is that I own an apartment in London, and it all started because I met someone on Tinder.”
However, these 10 years have also served to reveal the less friendly face of today’s matchmaker par excellence. Like other social networks, Tinder is based on the exchange of likes, small doses of validation that keep its users spending time on the app. The possibility of liking people and getting matches is what hooks us on Tinder, says psychologist Jone Martínez Bacaicoa. “A lot of people use Tinder as a way to escape.” Although it is seen as a dating app, many users only use it as a personal reinforcement, with no real interest in meeting potential partners or having sex.
By hiding behind the semi-anonymity of the platform, Tinder has also amplified negative patterns that, in the analog world, would incur a higher social cost. As Bacaicoa affirms, toxic attitudes such as ghosting or breadcrumbing were already present in society, but technology facilitates them. Although emotional responsibility has always been a rare commodity, you probably wouldn’t have left last night’s date on read if you had met them through a mutual friend.
“I’ve come across people I’ve been sexting with and they never called or wrote to me again,” says María, a 39-year-old journalist. “It’s one after another after another. I already know that there’s nothing wrong with me, but it’s hard.”
And for those from racial minorities, Tinder can expose them to rejection or exoticization by other users. As a Black woman, Sarahi has frequently confronted men who had only matched her because they had never been with a person of another race. “It was super violent that I had to accept that kind of sexualization and racism,” says Sarahi. Although, as Reuben J. Thomas explains, online dating has contributed to the rise of interracial couples in the United States, it has also increased hate speech. “Exposing people to more dating options increases the chances of facing racism in the online world compared to social circles,” says the sociologist.
After a decade of swipes, relationships, flops and last-minute stand-ups, will Tinder survive in the competitive world of social media? Its dominance is clear: according to BusinessofApps, 72% of dating app users used Tinder at the beginning of 2022. But platforms like Bumble and Hinge are gaining more and more ground, and new apps like Raya or Feeld fragment their users into subcommunities. One thing is clear in the midst of so much uncertainty: as much as mothers believe that you met your new crush thanks to a friend from high school, online dating will continue to be the main way to meet people.
“Despite people complaining about apps and digital exhaustion, the rate of couples who met online will continue to rise,” says Thomas. “Without a strong analog alternative, that’s where people will continue to look for love.”
I haven’t used Tinder in months. The procession of faces looking at the camera, some hugging a puppy, others surrounded by plants in a room of exposed brick, seemed identical to me. I got tired of repeating the same predetermined phrases over and over again, trying to avoid ending up buried in an endless list of matches and stalking Instagram profiles to see if a guy was really as interesting as he projected on his profile. I tried Hinge, “the app that allows its users to find lasting relationships.” I even downloaded Thursday, which brings together single people in bars. Despite the money wasted and the guys who were slowly disappearing – I call it soft ghosting – I know that if I want to meet people, I will go to the “Lifestyle” section of the App Store. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “there is no alternative.”
“I went on a speed dating date and it was pretty awful. I walked out of there and was like ‘ugh, Tinder is better; at least I do it from my sofa,’” says María. However, “for a successful woman like me, not finding a partner using online applications creates a lot of frustration. It makes you feel like a failure. You have to have really good mental health to sustain that.”