The online dating industry now pulls in about a billion and a half dollars a year. As more people use smartphones and location-based services, a number of companies have come out with mobile dating apps. But so far, Tinder has been the only app to gain a strong following with women.
At 9:30 on a Tuesday night, and 30-year-old Emily Johnson pulls up Tinder on her iPhone. Pictures of men pop up one at a time. She's set a filter: men, ages 28 to 45, within two miles of her Brooklyn apartment. She swipes her finger to the right if she likes the guy, left if she's not so into him. Johnson goes through the pictures quickly.
“No: weird yellow spiky hair. No: don't like sporty pics. Pink shorts? That's a no.” Then she pauses. “This one looks promising. We can give him a chance. He has a nice beard, nice bicycle.”
If Johnson likes a guy's profile, and he likes hers too, Tinder puts them in touch.
“So I actually just got a match,” she announces, “did you see that?”
She and the guy can message back and forth. And if that conversation goes well, they'll meet up.
“It's an easier, more convenient way to meet people than just say going to a bar,” Johnson says. “And it's essentially the same thing as going to a bar. You look at a person across the room and you're like, 'That person is attractive enough for me to talk to.' It's the same concept, but you get to do it from the comfort of your home.”
Johnson says Tinder's a lot easier than regular online dating. She just signed up using her Facebook profile. That Facebook connection has made Tinder more palatable for a lot of women. Tinder grounds its users with real online profiles. Past phone-based dating apps have emphasized anonymity. Take Grindr, for example, which is the meet-up site for gay men.
“With the success of Grindr,” says Jaime Woo, author of the book Meet Grindr, “one of the questions that the company was often asked is, ‘Is there a way for men and women who want to meet each other to have something similar?’”
Woo says Grindr introduced its offshoot for straight people, Blendr, in 2010.
“I think it became very obvious,” he says, “that women were not interested in using Blendr.”
Woo explains that Blendr had too much of Grindr's meat-market aesthetic. And the few women who did use it were overwhelmed by unsolicited messages from men.
“In Tinder,” Woo says, “you can't really contact someone until they've agreed that you're a match. So there's kind of this lottery feeling to it, because you don't know whether or not someone's going to respond to you. And that kind of stuff is really engaging to app users.”
Tinder now makes about 2 million “matches” a day. Normally, when something like Tinder suddenly strikes it big, you hear a lot of IPO buzz. But Tinder's already owned by IAC, the big media company that also has Match.com and OkCupid. Susan Etlinger is a tech industry analyst at Altimeter Group. She says Tinder's big payoff could come from its data. It knows a lot about its users.
“If you think about Tinder being for people who are young, who are single,” she says, “knowing where they go, what they do, who they like, is really helpful in terms of understanding how to sell to them.”
With that kind of data, Tinder could get quite personal.
“One thing that could happen over time,” says Etlinger, “is if they see that you are getting serious with somebody, they could offer a ring, they could offer a wedding dress ad.”
Invasive possibilities aside, Tinder users say the app's addictive. And Etlinger thinks IAC may be able to use that hype to drive people to Match.com and OkCupid. I asked Emily Johnson whether Tinder might lead her to try those other dating sites.
“I think it's increased my comfort level with the idea of meeting a person from the internet,” she says.
“Tinder just might be your gateway drug?” I ask her.
“Yeah,” she laughs. “Tinder might be my gateway drug.”