Online Dating

How Tinder Changed Dating: To Swipe or not to Swipe?

11 minutes to read
Imke Spapens

In our modern-day society, offline, face-to-face interaction has been rapidly replaced in many domains of life by online communications. This is not only the case for professional or platonic relationships, but also for romantic ones. This is where Tinder comes in: an online social platform/dating app that perfectly fits our growing need for instant gratification. With quick and easy connections it lessens the stress of needing to make difficult decisions. So, how has Tinder changed dating and relationships? Is this change something we should be cheering on, or is it something we should be skeptical of?

What is Tinder and how does its algorithm work?

Tinder is an online dating app popular with any and all ages, but especially with millennials (see demographics below). Tinder shows its users profiles of other users in the form of big profile pictures, with a text about the potential match written by the person themselves, called a bio, (sometimes) underneath . If interested, the user can view the entire profile and make a decision based on this. If the user is not interested, they swipe left. If they are, however, they swipe right, which is the same as liking the profile. If the person in the profile swipes right as well, there is a “match” between the users and they can start messaging within the app. This could lead to nothing, but it could also lead to a date, which is what happens for 1.5 million users on a weekly basis.

Tinder's Demographics

But, aside from this basic description, there is much more that goes into this online dating giant. With ten million active daily users and their fifty million users in total, Tinder has to find a way of making a selection of potential matches based on factors other than proximity and gender. To do this, Tinder utilizes an ELO score for all of its users.

To put it briefly, the ELO score shows and compares each user’s level of desirability (with Tinder itself placing a strong emphasis on desirability - not attractiveness). The score is based on a complicated algorithm and is named after Arpád Elo, who developed a similar system to rank chess players in numbers based on their strength in the game. While its exact nature is kept strictly secret by Tinder representatives, educated guesses and personal experiences allow for some insight into what factors matter for the ELO score.

What is known is that the ELO score is composed of more than the number of times a user’s profile is liked. For example: if a user with a high ELO score likes a profile, that profile’s score gets a boost. This is somewhat comparable to someone getting a popularity boost because the popular kids like them. Contrary to what is automatically assumed, not all of this appears to be based on one's looks. Tinder can only see whether someone swiped right or left. Therefore, it is impossible to know whether this was because of good looks or because of a funny bio. So, while Tinder can still easily be perceived as quite a superficial platform, personality can still be factored into it in some way.

It does, however, pose the question of how much personal data about dating preferences users are comfortable revealing to the online dating giant

Other factors are: how picky the user is: does he/she like everybody or almost no-one? (Both are negative for the score.), whether the user messages their matches (it is positive to send messages, because most users would like there to be more than simply swiping), and how active the user is on Tinder (Tinder rewards active users).  

The people a user sees while on Tinder are mostly those with a similar ELO score to theirs. This way, people get to see others with the same level of desirability assigned to them and thus are "swiping in their own league." Therefore Tinder meticulously selects people for users and does not just show them every user in their area. This algorithm does not exist for Tinder to know how attractive its users are, but simply so it can propose realistic matches, and thus increase the number of matches making Tinder a more efficient platform. It does, however, raise the question of how much personal data about dating preferences users are comfortable revealing to the online dating giant, and whether it is acceptable or not that they cannot adjust settings to facilitate their preferred level of privacy.

Connectedness vs Connectivity 

Another important aspect about this, though, is how it brings up the interesting discussion of human connectedness versus automated connectivity, as well as how it distinguishes Tinder as a mediator rather than an intermediary. According to José van Dijck in The Culture of Connectivity; A Critical History of Social Media (2013), in online contexts the meaning of 'social' can be split into two separate ones: (human) connectedness and automated connectivity.

Human (personal) connectedness refers to the fact that people generally use social media platforms to enhance human networks – either to keep up with each other, to share ideas, values, and tastes, or to influence what individuals do and think. In the case of Tinder, it is to expand one's network by meeting new people. Automated connectivity, on the other hand, emphasizes the fact that social media platforms are still operated by machines and algorithms, which engineer and manipulate connections (e.g., the ELO score), while also deciding who and what we get to see. 

This explains another statement by van Dijck (2013: 12) that illustrates the concept 'social' very well in this context: “making the Web social” in reality means “making sociality technical”, since sociality in our everyday lives, through social media platforms, is engineered by technical entities. Therefore, as van Dijck (2013: 13) points out, the term “connective media” would be preferable over “social media.” Social suggests purely human input, while “connective media” more accurately describes the situation where human input is shaped by computed output and vice versa. This is very much the case with Tinder, since its algorithm couples people up, and as such influences its users’ romantic decisions, making it a connective platform.

A basic idea of Tinder's lay-out.

Intermediary vs. Mediator

Due to its algorithmic sorting of information for users, Tinder can be characterized as a mediator rather than an intermediary, as it shapes the performance of social acts, as opposed to merely facilitating them (van Dijck 2013: 29). In other words, platforms shape the way the user experiences them, instead of just showing everything they have to offer.

Most social platforms have selective algorithms (again, the ELO score) which, according to a set of strict rules, show the user what it thinks might be most appropriate to them. Because of this, they are mediators and not intermediaries: they are not objectively showing data to the user, but rather creating a personalized experience.

Besides this, each platform can be connected to other platforms, and thus they shape/influence each other - online communication often happens over multiple platforms in what van Dijck (2013: 21) calls the ecosystem of connective media. Like other social platforms, by showing users potential matches with the same level of desirability, Tinder becomes a mediator instead of an intermediary.

How Tinder has changed the norm

With new times come new customs and traditions. This is also the case with online dating and Tinder. The norms for dating and relationships have changed drastically since the 2000s. These changes, and especially the ones created by Tinder, cannot be described as inherently good or bad, but they can definitely be discussed.

The first change that Tinder caused within the world of online dating is the speed with which connections are made. Previously, a much more detailed and lengthy assessment of someone’s profile was necessary before deciding if there was an interest in that person. There was also no guarantee these feelings of interest were reciprocated: the only way to find out was through a message. With Tinder, this problem no longer exists: Tinder guarantees quick connections and it does most of the work for its users. Now, only a quick scan of someone’s profile and a swipe is necessary to find out if there are mutual feelings of attraction. As a result, the pressure of sending the first message is much lower.

The first impression is based on outer beauty; inner beauty (and personality) only becomes important much later in the process.

With Tinder, however, and in spite of what I said above, the emphasis is still very heavily on one's physical looks. It is a platform which is designed to generate quick connections, so it does not leave much time for in-depth personality analysis. This shows again in Tinder's design and mode of operation as a mediator in encouraging certain behaviors, by for example showing users' profile pictures much bigger on the screen than their bio. Users are much more likely to swipe right on someone without a bio than on someone without a profile picture.

The first impression is based on outer beauty; inner beauty (and personality) only becomes important much later in the process. So, when a user swipes right on someone, but it doesn’t end up as a match, this rejection could cause self-esteem issues. Being rejected based on appearance can be a heavy blow in the modern-day environment where good looks have almost become a currency. While rejection like this has happened for ages, it can be much harsher online, because of the faceless and more frequent nature of it.

A counter-argument for this is the fact that when looked at properly, Tinder mimics offline dating quite well. When a person approaches someone in a bar, they don’t know the personality of the person they are approaching. Yet this first step to potentially dating someone is also based entirely on looks.

Romance is dead?

Tinder does in any case remove most of the romanticism from this first connection. The question is whether this is a problem or not, as present-day romanticism is heavily influenced and run by consumer culture anyway. If it were not for the big Valentine’s day advertisements of teddy bears, chocolates and flowers, romantic gestures like this would be made much less often. Time and efficiency are also becoming increasingly important. So, is it acceptable to trade some romance for a much more efficient love life? The ever-increasing popularity of Tinder would suggest that most people would answer this question with a “yes”.

Besides that, a romantic relationship might not be the point of Tinder at all. The app has not only gamified dating but also sexualized it. To elaborate: Tinder has gamified dating, as people often use the app just for fun or whenever they feel bored and want something they can do without too much mental investment, like a game. Tinder is also a common place to go for people who do not want a long-term relationship at all, but who are more more interested in short-term involvement. This was more of a taboo and did not happen as often - or at least with such clear and blatant intentions - before online dating apps were popularized. As a result, it can be suggested that Tinder has contributed to an increased sexualization of dating.

Apps that might seem silly and unimportant can leave a real imprint on human culture that will be visible for years to come.

Interestingly, even though Tinder has popularized and accelerated the pace of dating, marriage has become much less important. In the US, for instance, the marriage rate among 18-to-64-year-olds dipped to a record low of 48.6 percent in 2016. And teens are starting to become less sexually active as well as later in life: It was found that 44 percent of teenage girls had lost their virginity compared to the 58 percent who had 25 years ago, while 47 percent of boys are having sex as teens, compared to 69 percent in their parents’ generation.

The internet (with Tinder) plays a role in this, as much of what teens are looking for in a relationship can now be found online. Not just pornography, but also Tinder enables teens to flirt, converse and even sext online, have lowered the rush of getting into a relationship enormously. Bluntly put, the internet and with it Tinder can be claimed to have had a considereable influence on romance for this generation. Of course, this is a gross generalization, and is certainly not true for everyone. But it remains an intriguing aspect of this topic to consider nonetheless. 

Online Romance

The solution?

As mentioned above, these developments are not a simple matter of black and white: there is much room for discussion on whether these are negative or positive developments. The fact is, however, that the world is constantly changing and developing, and trying to put an end to this is a lost cause. So, instead of trying to solve the "problem" of Tinder, a smarter thing to do would be to embrace and observe to see why this has become so popular. What is it about the app that attracts teens and millennials, and is it something that should and could be used in other aspects of our life?

What we do know for sure is the increasing importance of digital culture in day-to-day life. Apps that might seem silly and unimportant can leave a real imprint on human culture that will be visible for years to come. Therefore looking critically at these apps should not be forgotten, and we should register their influence to determine how we came to a certain point of development, in this case of dating culture. 

All in all, Tinder is much more than a simple dating app, and it has caused real changes in relationships and dating. Almost every aspect of digital culture has an influence on offline culture, and it is therefore important that these aspects are regarded as such so it is possible to keep up with understanding our society, and thus the proper functioning of it.


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