Turns Out It’s Pretty Good: Tinder

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Why are we so skeptical of the things right in front of us? “Turns Out It’s Pretty Good” is a series that examines the path from resisting the well-known to wholeheartedly endorsing it.

When I was 22, I downloaded Tinder and went on a date so bad I deleted the app and didn’t download it again for seven years.

I should have had some idea that the date wouldn’t be great right from the start, when we met at a restaurant called Spices and he asked me if the food was going to be spicy. And I should have known for sure when, after we sat down and scanned our menus, I looked up and he was holding a deck of playing cards. “Pick a card,” he instructed, then proceeded to perform not one, not two, but three magic tricks.

Mercifully, my date’s magic was interrupted by our spicy spicy food. At which point he looked me dead in the eyes and asked, “Do you know why I swiped on you?” I fluttered my lashes coquettishly, hopeful for a barrage of compliments. “Because I downloaded an extension that swipes right on everyone, so that way I can just see everyone who swiped on me. And then I copy and paste the same line to all of them and see who responds.” His answer proved what my initial swiping had led me to suspect: That some people weren’t using the apps to build relationships — they were instead playing a high-stakes alternative to Candy Crush.

That one date was pretty terrible. And it was just a tiny hint of the many awful experiences that could await one on Tinder, including a lot of insulting comments and harassment. But that bad date and these looming possibilities weren’t exactly why I got off the app and stayed away for so long. It was the whole premise of the thing.

Seven years ago, opening Tinder was very much a departure from OkCupid or other more essayistic dating platforms. Once I started swiping, I was kind of … shaken. It was like my tiny peanut brain was glimpsing the sheer mass of humanity. There was this ocean of people out there, and they all had names and backstories and vacation photos, and they all loved to laugh. They were all hanging out with groups of people who I knew nothing about, from places I had never been. I was overwhelmed with how big my city suddenly felt. I was reminded that the community I had made, the cool, fun image of myself that I had assiduously cultivated — it didn’t mean shit. This sea of new faces was entirely too much.

In 2013, when it seemed like all my friends were swiping, I’d wanted to give Tinder a chance. But that first date seemed designed to get me to find other ways to seek connections. I deleted the app and never tried Tinder again.

Until this year. After two months in quarantine, I was so lonely that I was holding my own hand to try to fall asleep at night — but it wasn’t only physical intimacy I missed. I hated that lockdown kept me in my own conversational echo chamber. One of the best parts of living in a city — one of the best things about a room full of people — is the particular gift of encounter. That feeling when an acquaintance of an acquaintance at a party tells you a story that resonates with you. Or a stranger at a bar recommends a book. Or you compliment someone’s outfit and they tell you about a clothing store you didn’t know about. Maybe you don’t strike up a friendship, you might not even get to know their name, but these little gifts chip away at the mold of People in Your Orbit. These encounters invite the new and unfamiliar, if only for a fleeting moment.

From March to May, my brain was circulating old air: same old thoughts, same books on my shelf, same view out of my window. I was enjoying talking to friends I hadn’t reached out to in years, friends in different states, friends in different countries. But all of them were friends. They were people I already knew. My friends were my sustenance and my nourishment. But sometimes in this life, you just want some dessert.

I wanted some sweet, easy human connection, and I definitely didn’t think I would find it on the cruel, vast, desolate landscape of Tinder. So I went to the alternatives. I tried Bumble, and I tried Hinge. I swiped a bit. But everyone on those platforms really seemed like they were really looking for someone to spend the rest of their lives with (or at least the rest of lockdown with). It felt high stakes and intense. Nothing felt fun and light and flirty like I wanted it to be. So for the first time since my one and only ill-fated Tinder date, I redownloaded the app.

This time, all the aspects that turned me off from Tinder in 2013 were revealed in a new light. The digital swarms of people were exhilarating. The novelty of unknown worlds full of unknown friends were intriguing. Even the game-like aspect just became fun — because I wasn’t using Tinder as a means to an end. I wasn’t trying to go on a lot of dates during COVID. I was treating Tinder as an experience itself, and I think a lot of other users were too. People seemed to genuinely want to engage in conversation. There were fewer monosyllabic responses — no one was just saying “hey.” I learned about what strangers were reading, what they were watching, what they were listening to. Suddenly it was all the thrill of flirting at a party or a bar. All the lonely people, and there I was nestled there among them. And sure, there are still jerks, and bad conversationalists, and people who ghost you and leave you hanging. But those are also people you could encounter in a crowded room on a Saturday night.

Turns Out It’s Pretty Good: Tinder