Ripe for the swiping: Tinder’s success is right on the money

“So that’s what I was, huh? I was a guinea pig. Someone you could test your theories on? You used me to get ahead in your work. You arrogant, back-stabbing jerk!”

Scenes from Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey’s romcom How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days play out vividly in my mind as I download the location-based dating app Tinder to my phone. Only, in my life, the fight scene will not be followed by the “man chases woman through New York to stop her from boarding the plane” scene. It will end there.

The truth of the matter is: I’m happily married and intend to stay that way. But I’m joining Tinder for a 72-hour exploration of what makes it the world’s most popular dating app. And of how its parent company, Match Group, managed to raise $400-million on the day of its initial public offering on the Nasdaq last week. And how the app has amassed about 10-million active daily users, has a presence in almost 200 countries, and gets 1.6-billion “swipes” and 26-million matches every day.

Friday afternoon

The download is free and surprisingly painless. I expected to go through several security questions or some sort of triple login system to verify that I’m not a scam artist. Not so.

Tinder simply forces you to log in with your Facebook account, leaving all the “verifying” to its more estab- lished older cousin. It pulls your name, profile pic, age, friends list and interests from there, and uses this information to provide you with pos- sible compatibilities.

I have my “radius” set to the default – 80km – so I’m assured that I’ll be chatting to people in my own city or surrounds. My profile reads: “Thalia (31). Journalist from Jozi. On here to see what all the fuss is about.”

My plan is to be as straightforward as possible. Get a match, tell them I’m a journalist doing research and try to suss out their Tinder experi- ences. I have even posted a photo with my husband in my “gallery” for good measure.

But apparently that’s no big deal: some reports claim as many as 42% of Tinder users are already in a relationship, although others pitch it at a much lower 12%.

I start off by “swiping right” (or liking) a few profiles fairly indiscriminately. Within about as many minutes, there are four men firing up conversations. “Hey there … want to hear a very lame joke!!!” says a teacher from a local primary school.

“Hello beautiful Thalia,” says a former professional cyclist.

“Hi Thalia, how’s it going?” asks Jonathan coolly, a good-looking British guy who travels regularly between Jo’burg and London for work.

“Alright Thalia, let’s get down to business. How many camels do I have to give to your father to marry you?” a fourth guy uses as his opener.

Late Friday evening

Message notifications have been popping up on my phone all night, so I log back on to read them. But instead of taking me to my inbox where the new conversations are waiting, Tinder takes me back to the “playing board”, bringing up yet more matches with prompts telling me: “Steven has ‘SUPER LIKED’ you!”

My revised approach is not to swipe right on anyone new.

Those who have “super liked” me (an option that supposedly boosts your chance of getting a match by 300% and is only available with Tinder Plus – the cost for which increases with age from $9.99 to $19.99 – will get a like in return, and we’ll leave it at that.

I’m impressed by how successfully Tinder has introduced its paid product, considering it’s only been on the market since March.

The majority of my suitors are pay- ing users. Obviously, being allowed to swipe limitlessly, rewind a swipe and “super like” a match is deemed worth it. Match Group estimates that it will bring in $75-million in revenue this year. Since the launch of Tinder Plus, the app’s rankings have gone from num- ber 969 on iOS to 26.

Camel Man has taken two one- line responses from me as sufficient encouragement to put out an invite. He has already suggested we have children and not tell them we met on Tinder. Now it’s: “How about we discuss this over a cheeky drink. If I look worse than I do in my pictures, I’ll buy.”

When I assure him that I am really on here just for research, I don’t hear from him again.

By the end of the evening, I’m chat- ting to 16 different men. I add to my profile the line: “I’m writing a story about this for the newspaper!” and bid Jonathan good night at about 12.30am.

Saturday morning

I have five more intros waiting for me when I look at my phone after breakfast. Most of my matches are professionals within the 28- to 36-year-old bracket.

Jonathan is seemingly unperturbed by the fact that I am married, other than to pout: “So I’ve been played then? All in the name of research!” He continues to push for us to meet for coffee. He says he’ll provide an interview for my story, and interviews are better face to face. There’s no arguing with that, but I’m ambivalent.

Tinder is one of the most skilfully designed apps I have ever come across. The interface is so intuitive that I feel like I have been using it for years. And it surrealises the dating game to such an extent that there are very few negative emotions involved.

Every time there’s a match, the app gives you two options: you can either “send a message” to your match or “carry on playing”. The choice of the word “play” is incredibly telling. Tinder has artfully reduced love connections to a single photo, an age and a two-line bio. It has commodified the courting process to such an extent that you “play” at finding love like you would flick through a deck of cards in a game of snap.

This is “abject objectification”, as my friend Moipone (35) puts it. She used the app for a few months before deleting it. She got “nothing but some boredom relief” from the process. “I mean, I was flipping through a photo album.”

A 37-year-old divorcé with a seven-year-old daughter asks me early on in the conversation where I live. When I protest, he says: “What if I put on the charm and allure, only to find out you stay in the ‘sticks’ somewhere? Would you expect me to commute for you? I stay in Randpark Ridge.” Fair enough. I don’t tell him, though.

Saturday afternoon

The internet is awash with claims that Tinder is an app geared at precipitating casual sex, has contributed to a rise in sexual addiction and has eroded the ability of some to hang on to a long-term relationship.

I ask my new friends if they’re looking for hook-ups or relationships. The older ones (aged 31-plus) generally say they’re looking for something serious. “My hook-up days are behind me!” several say, and I can’t tell whether it’s rehearsed.

Jason (31) describes himself as “one of the few people here looking for a serious committed relationship”.

According to him, it’s an uphill battle. The younger girls “ask for data money” a lot, he says; others ask for cash. “Anyway, be thankful you have a partner because being single these days is one of the worst things ever.”

A few are fairly honest about their aims being more short-term. Jonathan, who is clearly smart, witty and successful professionally, says “definitely not relationships”.

“Okay … can I be honest and have you take it at face value?” he says. “I’m looking to meet interesting people who I relate to. Whether this develops into friendships or hook-ups, I like things to develop organically without predetermined parameters.”

A Frenchman who lives in Hong Kong and is also in South Africa for business admits that he uses it as a “sort of hook-up app” back at home, but to “chat to people when I am bored :D” when he travels.

So, he’s not trying to garner some casual sex here in South Africa? “Not really, I’m not that good. Women don’t love me at first sight,” he says with a smiley.

Tinder chief executive Sean Rad tries to distance the app from the sometimes unruly behaviour of its users. “If someone is rude, do you blame the restaurant where it happened, or civilisation as a whole? All we are doing is connecting people,” he said recently.

Jonathan’s pushing hard for us to meet. He claims to have a secret to share with me – “something that will add an interesting twist to your story” – but he’s only willing to share it in person. He’s clearly baiting me, but it’s working. Trying to figure out his secret is driving me mad.

Sunday morning

I’m up to 32 matches. It’s a little overwhelming. Apparently, the average Tinder user logs on 11 times a day and spends 77 minutes on the app. I’m sure I’m clocking at least that or more. I now completely ignore any new match options. There simply isn’t the time.

It occurs to me that Tinder is probably a cheaper way of courting than any real-life gig. Most of my matches tell me they have between one and four chats going at one time. The chat-to-meet ratio seems quite high.

Divesh, a chartered accountant, has had 30 matches since he joined and met about six, and he’s “quite discerning”. A West Rand daddy has met 10 of his 38 matches. Cecil, who says he is very shy, has had 10 matches in the past month and has met one of them.

Even if you’re paying the full R280 monthly fee, it’s probably cheaper than spending two nights a week pay- ing entrance fees to clubs and buy- ing drinks for yourself and women who are often only capitalising on the free booze.

I have had several requests to move on to WhatsApp, but I decline all, except Jonathan. We chat easily and he seems respectful of my boundaries. The many female users who complain about receiving unsolicited pictures of penises have obviously made the mistake of moving away from Tinder and on to a platform where that’s possible. In fact, not a single one of my suitors has said or done anything inappropriate.

My friend Ariel joined Tinder to find a new circle of friends after a nasty breakup. Despite encounter- ing some really vulgar characters – who would request naked photos and such – she said it was a posi- tive experience overall, from which she actually found some “really solid friends”. Perhaps some of my matches will turn out to be the same.

Monday morning

This is my last day on Tinder and, frankly, it will be a relief to leave. I’m getting more messages here than WhatsApps or emails, and ignoring them is making me feel guilty.

I finally agree to meet up with Jonathan. We have no friends in common, but I have done some background checks and he seems legitimate. We’ll meet in a public restaurant with plenty of people around.

My husband is fine (even somewhat amused) by it, as long as I let him know I am safe.

Jonathan has a confident, well-groomed air about him and his hair is perfectly coiffed. After some small talk, he drops it on me. He’s also married. He’s a swinger.

We spend the next hour discussing the sexual evolution of his marriage. How they started out just attending sex parties, and then “one day there were six people in a bed, and we were two of them!”

How he feels turned on rather than jealous if his wife sleeps with another partner. How he joined Tinder “to see what happened” while he was in South Africa. How he’s currently hunting for a male partner for a two-male (rather than their traditional two-female) threesome.

I show him a picture of my husband and he says he’s good-looking enough to be suitable. In the middle of this fairly surreal conversation, I glance down at my phone. “There are new super likes waiting for you!” a Tinder notification berates me.

Safe back home that night, Jonathan messages me. “It was lovely to finally meet you,” he says. “And if you or your husband are ever in London and need a warm bed …”

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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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