Tinder, the wildly popular dating app, is back in the news thanks to a blockbuster sex discrimination lawsuit brought against the company by cofounder Whitney Wolfe in which she alleges she was called a "whore" by company executives and stripped of her cofounder status on the theory that the presence of a young woman on the founding team "devalues" the company. An investigation into the company by Nick Summers at Businessweek finds widespread lewd and borderline racist conduct from the company's key executives, and argues that Wolfe's early contributions to the business really were crucial.
But if you're not an app junky or haven't been in the dating market for a while, you may wonder what the fuss is all about.
1) What is Tinder?
Tinder is an app for iOS (iPhone, iPod Touches, iPads, etc.) and Android devices meant to make it easy to meet new people. The app is designed to emulate how meeting people in real life works, cofounder Sean Rad told Fast Company's Mark Wilson, by making user profiles more image-focused than text-focused and placing people's faces front and center. "What we do on Tinder is no different than what we already do," Rad said. "You see somebody. You start with their face. If you find a connection, you continue to understand, 'what are our common interests, our social groups?'"
While often referred to as a "hookup app," Tinder's developers deny that's its intended purpose, saying that their own research indicates that only six percent of users see it as such. Indeed, a survey by marketing firm SessionM found that less than 20 percent of Tinder users state that they use the app primarily because they're "looking for a quick hookup," an answer beaten by "I'm just curious," "it's entertaining," and "looking for a relationship."
Users build profiles by importing photos and interests from their Facebook accounts, and tell the app the genders, age range, and geographic radius they want to get matches from, and then the app starts producing matches fitting the search criteria. Matches with whom you share Facebook friends or interests show up earlier.
At any given moment, the main page of a given Tinder will show a potential match, whose images, interests, mutual friends, and description one can browse. Each match appears looking initially like the picture below on the left, from which one can pull up profile details, which display like the screen on the right:
User have two options when presented with a potential match: swipe right on the phone/tablet's touch screen (or, alternately, press the button with a heart on it) to signal interest in meeting the match; or swipe left (or press the button with a red X on it) if not interested. If both users swipe right / click the heart, then Tinder opens up a chat thread for the two of them.
2) How many people use Tinder?
The company is fairly tight-lipped about Tinder's total user count, but in February Tinder's creator said that it makes 10 million matches (that is, users who've liked each other) a day, and in March confirmed that it had passed 1 billion total matches made. For comparison, it had only hit 500 million matches in December, and hit 1 million in January 2013. In little over a year, the number of matches made had grown a thousand-fold.
A Pew survey last year found that 1 percent of Americans who had used a cell phone dating app had tried Tinder; by comparison, 27 percent had used Plenty of Fish, 20 percent had used OK Cupid, and 10 percent had used Match.com. But that data is from October, and, at the rate Tinder is growing, somewhat obsolete. Moreover, the app is also finding an audience overseas. As of January, about 1.2 million people in the Netherlands alone were on Tinder — 7 percent of the whole Dutch population. As of November, the app had millions of users in the UK and Brazil, and was growing by about 2 percent in those countries every day.
3) What kinds of people use Tinder?
"Early on, over 90 percent of our user base was aged between 18 and 24. Today, that number is about 51 percent," Justin Mateen of Tinder said in February. "13-17 year-olds are now over 7 percent, 25-32 year-olds are about 32 percent, 35-44 is about 6.5 percent, and the remainder are older than 45." That 51 percent includes many college students, and a number of observers have argued that Tinder is noticeably changing the dynamics of college dating at a number of campuses.
4) What are problems that people have had with Tinder?
Probably the funniest problem Tinder's run into is that it's become so popular with celebrities that they've had to implement verification for notable users, so that, say, Lindsay Lohan (a confirmed Tinder user) doesn't have to convince matches that she is, in fact, Lindsay Lohan.
As with most social networking sites of any scale, Tinder has been embraced by marketers, perhaps most prevalently nude webcam performers and other sex workers trying to drum up business. Even mainstream brands have taken to using Tinder, with Mindy Lahiri and Danny Castellano from FOX's The Mindy Project showing up on people's accounts this past January as part of a "strategic partnership" between the show and Tinder. Disturbingly, scam artists seem to have taken a liking to the platform.
But by far Tinder's biggest problems to date have had to do with cybersecurity. One vulnerability, present for about two months last year, allowed hackers to triangulate a Tinder user's location to within 100 feet. Last summer, a similar vulnerability, which left user data such as Facebook IDs and most recent locations open for hackers to claim, emerged. A third hack allowed users to engineer matches with users who rejected them, and then see those users's emails. Tinder claims all problems have been dealt with, but three security problems in one year is kind of a lot.
5) Is Tinder like the straight version of Grindr?
Not really, no. If you log onto Grindr, you get an array of user pics for guys geographically near to you. Their distance is expressed in terms of feet rather than miles. You can message anyone, regardless of whether they display interest in you or not.
This system works, more or less, when you're not dealing with big societal power differentials between the genders you're matching. But when matching men and women, the potential for an app to become a serious safety risk for women is pretty high. On Tinder, Jezebel's Kate Dries notes, "The fact that the only people who can message you are people you want to get messages from is especially appealing, given how dating sites like OkCupid let anyone contact you, upping the creep factor." The Tinder approach (which is hardly new, and existed in some form before the internet through forums like speed dating) allows women to control who is allowed to message them, providing some protection against wackos lurking on the app.
Dating apps designed for heterosexuals also have to deal with the "message onslaught" problem, as Ann Friedman noted for New York magazine. Women tend to get messaged much more frequently than men on online dating services, and if their inboxes are so full as to be actually unmanageable, the service becomes worthless. Being able to control who sends you messages means Tinder evades that problem.
6) This has to have produced some awesome Tumblrs, right?
Has it ever! The most famous of these is probably Humanitarians of Tinder, which collects images of Tinder users whose photos portray them interacting with poor residents of developing countries, presumably in an attempt to show off their own empathy for the less fortunate.
But my personal favorite is Adam Langlois's Hello Let's Date, where he manages to turn Tinder into a platform for dark, vaguely surrealist jokes, mostly at his own expense. It's so good, you guys:
7) I've heard Tinder is worth $5 billion! Is it?
Nope - that was based on an erroneous report that a 10 percent stake had been sold for $500 million, when the real sale price was much lower. There are some strong reasons to be skeptical it'll ever be worth that much. As Forbes's Jeff Bercovici notes, there's some reason to believe that the whole online dating sector is only worth about $5 to 6 billion:
The entire U.S. online dating industry generated about $2.1 billion in revenues in 2013, according to IBISWorld. IAC is by far the biggest player, controlling nearly one-third of the total market. The Match Group accounts for about 28% of IAC’s revenues. Therefore you could very roughly say its value is about $1.5 billion. Since it’s a higher-growth business than some of IAC’s other units, let’s say it’s worth more like $2 billion. That would mean the entire U.S. dating industry is worth no more than $5 billion to $6 billion.
That said, one shouldn't rule Tinder out too quickly. There's always the possibility that companies with no revenue but millions and millions of users can become profitable by parlaying that user base into ad money. Google and Facebook have done exactly that, after all. And with Tinder has showing interest in advertising arrangements like the deal with The Mindy Project, it could be gearing up to attempt exactly that move.
8) I heard something about sexual harassment.
Right. Back in late June/early July, Whitney Wolfe, a former vice president at Tinder, sued the company for sexual harassment and discrimination. Wolfe named Tinder's chief executive Sean Rad in the lawsuit. Wolfe alleged that Tinder fired her because she was a woman, that Rad and fellow co-founder Justin Mateen sexually harassed her, and that when she brought this up to Rad, he ignored her complaints. This was settled out of court in September without Rad or anyone at Tinder admitting guilt.
9) Was there any fallout from the lawsuit?
Yes. According to Forbes, Tinder CEO and founder Sean Rad is stepping down from the company because of pressure from IAC, Tinder's largest stakeholder. Though Rad did not admit guilt during the lawsuit, IAC saw it as a red flag and possibly a sign that Rad was a liability:
A source close to the case said that Wolfe walked away with just over $1 million, a fraction of what her lawyers were initially seeking…
… IAC was not about to watch its new potential cash machine get derailed by more amateur mistakes. Rad had the title of founder, but he didn't have control over his own fate at the company.
Forbes reports that Rad will stay on until the company finds a new CEO.