Tinder is only the tip of our vanity iceberg


Photo: Evan Walsh

As a social experiment, I spent 72 hours searching for dates without any intention of actually going on one, wearing a mud mask from the comfort of my own couch. This is all thanks to Tinder, the app that almost all of your 20-something friends already have. They have it because it has finally cracked the dating code — it tells you if the people you want to sleep with want to sleep with you.

The way it works is simple: Users peruse pictures of other singles within a given radius, swiping right if they’re into them and left if they’re not. A left swipe means never seeing their picture again,  and a right swipe—given they right swipe you as well — allows you to chat with them and presumably make plans to meet up. One of the bonuses of the app is that no one finds out about unrequited lust; you can only see if someone likes you if you like them first.

Crucially, the app has the appeal of no longer having to deal with the inherently awkward dating scene. Spending $10 on a drink for someone only to be rejected once the recipient has swallowed it is discouraging at best. Tinder has created a dating scene devoid of rejection and brimming with mutual admiration. 

But the excitement about this utopian dating scene began to die down when I spent 45 indecisive minutes picking the Facebook profile picture that would be the face of my Tinder identity. The sole focus on physical appearance made me realize the vainness of it all. 

For years, women have complained about being judged purely on their physical appearance, and yet here we are, doing the same thing to men and inviting them to do it to us. 

But this revelation became even more disappointing when I realized something bigger: Tinder isn’t about finding a casual hookup or love — it’s about feeling validated. This became relatively obvious when I noticed how many people randomly swiped yes and never proceeded to start a conversation. And while some do, the overwhelming majority of Tinder matches fail to spark a flame. After questioning numerous Tinder-using friends, it became evident that there are many people who swipe yes to every recommended user just to see how many people think they are attractive. And while this is certainly embarrassing to my whole generation, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

There is a science around online validation. Studies like the one by Kristen Lindquist, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, say social information feels intrinsically rewarding to people. “Likes” on Facebook and retweets on Twitter give users a jolt of dopamine, making them feel happier. Over time, the effect on the reward center in the brain is similar to that of drug addicts. There is even a formula (which I have seen many of my Facebook friends use) to creating a status that generates maximum likes. I have witnessed friends delete statuses and tweets because they have not received the amount of attention they had hoped. Tinder is just the latest example in our perpetual need for validation.

There are even people in relationships using Tinder, just to see if they’ve still got it.  One friend said she and her boyfriend go on the app together, browsing through the endless stream of faces, comparing who gets more likes. I’m sure we are on the brink of our first Tinder divorce. 

This is even more undignified than preliminary fears about Tinder — that it encourages us to value people solely on looks. Don’t worry, it does that too. But what’s really disappointing is that Tinder, which seemed like a promising app whose formula cracked the dating code, is just as vulnerable to superficial liars and cheaters as any other form of dating. You can create the most brilliant app, but what you can’t do is conquer old-fashioned vanity.