“Swiping right” has wedged itself into modern vernacular. Millennials are sometimes referred to as the “Tinder generation”, with couples having Tinder dates, then Tinder weddings and Tinder babies.
As many as a third of Australians have used online dating, a YouGov survey found, and this rises to half among Millennials. Western Sydney University sociologist Dr Jenna Condie says the main advantage of Tinder is its enormous user base. According to Tinder, the app has been downloaded 340 million times globally and it claims to be responsible for 1.5 million dates each week. “You might go into a pub and not know who is single, but you open the app and find 200 profiles you can look through,” Condie says.
Tinder has shouldered a hefty share of controversy, implicated in high-profile cases of sexual violence and disturbing stories of in-app harassment, often involving unwanted “dick pics” or crass messages for sex. Despite a growing number of competitors, such as Hinge, owned by the same parent company, and Bumble, where women make the first move, Tinder manages to remain dominant.
According to data obtained from analysts at App Annie, it continues to take the top spot among dating apps with the most active monthly users in Australia.
“It’s certainly, in the study we ran over the past couple of years, the most used app in Australia among almost all groups,” says Professor Kath Albury, a Swinburne University researcher.
“[But] it doesn’t mean everyone liked it,” she adds. When you’re the space everyone is in, Albury explains, you’re also the space that will have the highest volume of negative experiences.
The ‘hookup app’ label
A criticism that has followed Tinder is that it is a “hookup app”. Seidman, who has been at the helm of Tinder since 2018, points out that the app is built specifically for young people.
More than half of its users are aged 18-25. “How many 19-year-olds in Australia are thinking about getting married?” he asks.
“We’re really the only app that says, ‘hey, there’s this part of your life where things that don’t necessarily last still matter’,” Seidman says, “And I think anybody who has ever been in that phase of life says ‘yes, I totally resonate’.”
Samuel, a 21-year-old from Sydney, says that like most of his friends, he mainly uses Tinder. “It has the most amount of people on it, so it’s easier to find people.” He says most others his age aren’t looking for a serious relationship, which he acknowledges can lead to “rude or shallow” behaviour but says “that’s what Tinder is there for”.
Albury says when people refer to Tinder’s “hookup app” reputation, they aren’t necessarily criticising casual sex. Instead they usually mean there are sexually aggressive behaviours on the app.
“The concern is that hookup apps become the space where users don’t respect boundaries,” Albury says. Condie believes the visual nature of Tinder can be problematic. “It’s more like shopping for a new jumper.”
Jordan Walker, 25, from Brisbane, agrees. “Somebody just asked me the other night if I wanted to come over. We hadn’t had a single word of conversation.” Walker says she uses Tinder because it’s the best place to meet people but says she’s had “many bad experiences”. “I go onto dating apps to date and that doesn’t seem to be the intention of most people,” she says.
We’re really the only app that says, ‘hey, there’s this part of your life where things that don’t necessarily last still matter’.
Elie Seidman, Tinder CEO
But criticism isn’t strictly for Tinder users. Bec, a 27-year-old Melbourne woman, deleted Tinder a couple of years ago after getting fed up. She began using Hinge and Bumble, which are viewed as more serious, but she says she still gets disrespectful messages.
Gemma, 21, from Newcastle, has had enjoyable dates through all apps but has also received some “really mean and nasty” abuse or has been “ghosted” after sex.
All users spoken to raise pros and cons. Does this just reflect dating generally as the messy, imperfect riddle it always was? Sort of. Albury says the apps often cause “the kind of general tensions that people have when dating”. In the past, sleazy pickup lines in bars were rife and women were often wrongly assumed to be out for male company. But Albury says it’s possible that apps may lead people to feel “disinhibited” because they can’t see the shock or hurt in someone’s face.
For gay men, the experience of Tinder is often very positive, says 24-year-old Zachary Pittas. “For gays it’s kind of the only one that’s not gross … [whereas] Grindr is clearly for a hookup.” His main issue with dating apps is they feel shallow, but he blames users: “It’s our behaviour that needs to change.”
‘This is not an alternate universe’
Albury agrees that when it comes to poor behaviour on dating apps, it’s the users that are the problem as opposed to the apps.
That said, she believes apps also need to help people feel safer. Both Tinder and Bumble have a function that detects lewd messages, while Bumble introduced photo verification, with Tinder following. Measures for verifying identity, blocking users and reporting have helped, Albury says, but complaints should also be thoroughly investigated.
Then there are the infidelity claims, with one US survey of 550 undergraduate students finding that 8.9 per cent were physically intimate with someone from Tinder while in an exclusive relationship.
Overall, Seidman says Tinder is working hard to eliminate bad behaviour.
“But we also say to our members, at the end of the day, this is not an alternate universe. It’s a big community and … if society has problems, unfortunately those societal problems don’t just suspend themselves at the door.”
Walker would prefer to meet someone in real-life but she says “to have social interactions outside of people you know is rare… I just don’t know what the alternative is”.
Albury says dating in a pre-app era is often romanticised. She points out that establishing chemistry and navigating relationships is tricky, online or offline. “It takes time and it takes an element of experimentation,” she says.
“The meeting people part of dating is different because of the apps, but getting to know someone and being in a relationship or having sex, that’s still on you and the person — the app can’t do that for you.”
Albury says people shouldn’t see dating apps as intrinsically risky. “In our study, people had great benefits and wonderful experiences. There are people who said they felt more confident, that it was easier to meet people, that it helped their social anxiety.”
The reality is people are now more likely to meet their life partners online than through personal contacts. A 2017 Stanford University study of more than 3000 people found that about 40 per cent of heterosexual couples met their partner online, compared to 22 per cent in 2009.
Ashley Murray, 28, and husband, Ben, are among those who have benefited. The couple even gave Tinder a mention in their wedding ceremony, having met on the app in 2016.
Murray says she was messaged by her share of “creeps” but says overall her experience was positive. “Without Tinder, I think we would have never crossed paths.”
Entering the ‘second wave’
It’s clear that the dating apps aren’t going anywhere. And it’s why changing usage patterns during COVID-19 have been particularly interesting. In Australia, Tinder users have been connecting for longer online, with conversations up an average of 16 per cent.
Pittas says he has had lengthier chats on Tinder during COVID-19, finding people have been more open to talking. With one match, he had daily message exchanges, “paragraphs and paragraphs of conversation for 2-3 weeks”.
Seidman believes the pandemic has accelerated a shift towards virtual dating that was already brewing. He might be right. Just last year, Tinder launched Swipe Night, a live online adventure where users could meet new people. And Bumble introduced its video chat function in mid-2019. Bumble’s country lead for Australia, Lucille McCart, says it was originally introduced as a safety feature. During the pandemic, the number of video calls jumped by as much as 76 per cent.
“It’s taken on a whole new life as a product feature,” McCart says. “I really think this can become part of dating culture moving forward. It’s a really great way to test that connection. When you have a great back and forth over text, you don’t always know if that will translate to a face-to-face conversation. Video chat is a great stepping stone.”
Getting to know someone and being in a relationship or having sex, that’s still on you and the person — the app can’t do that for you.
Professor Kath Albury
Bec has enjoyed makeup-free video dates during the pandemic. “I might even do that moving forward… It makes me more comfortable to then meet them [in person].”
If dating culture of the past decade proves anything, it’s just how quickly we are willing to adapt. “Online dating is now just dating,” Seidman says, and he points out that for young people with years of experience of digital social media, going on a date virtually is not such a big step.
“The future is being pulled forward,” Seidman says. “If six months ago you wouldn’t have done a date on video, well, today you’ll try it.”
He says he has observed people hacking together digital experiences, for example, meeting on Tinder then going on a date in video game Animal Crossing or doing a cooking lesson.
Another shift is that more people use the apps just for non-romantic banter – Tinder’s international function and Bumble’s friend-finder are proof of that. Seidman believes this “digital hanging-out” will define the “second wave” of Tinder.“It’s not so much an if, it’s a matter of what and when,” he says. “Is it Zoom Bachelor, or trivia night or games? You’ll see us try a lot of things.”
The result, Seidman believes, will be better connections. And the Tinder babies? He expects there are many more to come.
Some surnames have been withheld
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Sophie is Deputy Lifestyle Editor for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.