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9 questions about the dating app Hinge you were too embarrassed to ask

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Warning: jumping joyfully into pools is generally not a first date activity.
Warning: jumping joyfully into pools is generally not a first date activity.
Courtesy of Hinge

Note: this piece came out in March 2015 and since then Hinge has been totally overhauled, so much of what’s below is very outdated. For a more recent Hinge explainer, please read Kaitlyn Tiffany’s piece here.

Tinder — the massively popular smartphone app that has radically simplified the process of online dating — is becoming a household name. But it's not the only location-based dating app. Hinge, for example, is also on the rise. For now, it's much less popular than Tinder, but dominant social networks have been dislodged before, and Hinge's focus on making connections through people you already know could win out. "The best analogy is MySpace versus Facebook," Hinge founder and CEO Justin McLeod said on CNBC in February. That's a pretty rosy assessment, but the analogy is not all wrong. Hinge is growing fast, and it's worth getting to know it.

1) What is Hinge, in a sentence?

Hinge is a smartphone dating app, available for iPhones/iPads and Android devices, that's oriented toward relationships rather than hookups and tries to match you with people your friends know and can vouch for.

2) How does Hinge work?

The basics of Hinge are very similar to Tinder. When you sign up, you are presented with a list of fellow users according to criteria you specify (age, gender, physical proximity to you); if you like them and they like you back, you're matched and can message each other. In both apps, you build your profile by importing pictures and other personal information from Facebook.

But that's where the similarities end. While Tinder gives you a never-ending stream of nearby users, Hinge only provides a select list. Previous iterations of the app gave users new potential matches once a day, but now matches come in a regular trickle, like Tinder but with lower volume.

The main difference, though, is that Hinge focuses on matching you with people you share Facebook friends with, if you have a Facebook account. If nobody is friends with your friends — or if you've already made your way through all those potential matches — the app starts recommending more tangential connections, like people whose Facebook friends share Facebook friends with you. But the focus is on finding people who are somewhere in your social network. Tinder will tell you if a user happens to have mutual friends with you, but you can't screen to see those users first.

3) Okay, what does this look like in practice?

Here's a typical screen a Hinge user will see upon opening the app:

hinge home screen

(Courtesy of Hinge)

See the little dots to the left? Those represent how many matches you have to choose from at that moment. But you can't scroll through them — you have to click the heart (to like them) or the X (to pass) on the profile at the top before you can move on.

You can also pull up Ed W.'s profile for more info:

hinge profile

(Courtesy of Hinge)

You can see his height, his college and grad school, any friends you share, and a variety of self-descriptive tags that Hinge lets you choose from (including "country clubber," "bookworm," "joker," "smoker," and "midnight toker"). You can also swipe through any photos he's uploaded; users also have the option of adding a short "about me" section.

Compare this with Tinder's main screen:

tinder main screen

(Courtesy of Tinder)

That's not too different from Hinge's main screen; the main contrasts are that Tinder shows you shared interests and Hinge shows you the user's employer and/or school, which is potentially more illuminating. But pulling up a profile (like this one, which Jimmy Fallon and the staff of The Tonight Show cooked up for Britney Spears) looks quite different in Tinder:

britney spears tinder

(The Tonight Show)

You get to see all their pictures, how close they are to you, how recently they logged in, and a short "about me" section. If you share friends or likes on Facebook, you see that, too. (This is a good time to recommend that you like Vox on Facebook, thus enabling you to match other Vox fans on Tinder and keep the lineage of Vox fandom running for many generations.)

But overall, you get a lot less information than on Hinge. That's partially by design. Part of what's made Tinder successful is that it greatly reduces the amount of effort that goes into setting up an online profile; while sites like OKCupid require you to answer huge batteries of personal questions ("Do you own any dice with more than six sides?" "Do you know the first name of every person you've ever made out with?"), Tinder just requires you pick a few photos and maybe write a witty "about me" section if you feel like it. Hinge takes a middle ground: you don't have to answer questions, but you do get to include more information about yourself.

4) Is Hinge a location-based app, like Tinder?

Sort of? While you can specify that you want people close to you, there are limits; whereas Tinder lets you look for users within one mile of you, the lowest Hinge goes is 10 miles. The app also doesn't automatically update when you change locations. If you live in Boston and go on a day trip to New York City, Tinder will start showing you New York matches, while Hinge will keep serving up Bostonians unless you manually change your hometown in your profile.

The focus isn't on finding a quick hookup close by; it's on finding people you could actually date, whom you might ask out if you met at a mutual friend's party. "It's all friends of friends," McLeod said on CNBC. "It's quite hard to use it for casual encounters."

5) How popular is Hinge?

Hinge doesn't give user numbers, but spokeswoman Jean-Marie McGrath reports that 35,500 dates per week and 1,500 relationships happen because of the dating app. "In our major markets, one in five of your friends is on Hinge," she continues. "Our users can receive up to 20 potentials a day." If you're on the app, chances are a lot of your friends are, too; the average user has about 50 Facebook friends on Hinge. The gender ratio is 50-50, according to McGrath, and 90 percent of users are between 23 and 36, making the Hinge user base noticeably older than Tinder's. (An exact comparison isn't available, but 52 percent of Tinder users are between 18 and 24.)

As of March 2014, the app had made 1 million matches; by August it was up to 3 million, and over 8 million by late October. Those are impressive figures, and suggest the app is growing fast (it claims its user base grew fivefold in 2014), but they still pale in comparison to Tinder. As of January, Tinder had made 5 billion matches, and was making 21 million more every day. That's a difference of three orders of magnitude. Then again, Hinge currently is only available in 34 US cities and two foreign ones (London and Toronto), whereas Tinder is available worldwide, and given that Hinge appears to be experiencing exponential growth it's not totally implausible to think it could be a real competitor.

6) Let's take a break. Tinder's produced some pretty amazing memes. How about Hinge?

Not really, sadly. It's still hundreds of times smaller than Tinder, and it'll probably take some time for it to become enough of a cultural staple to produce Tumblrs and memes like Humanitarians of Tinder, Fishermen of Tinder, Tinder Guys with Tigers, Tinder in Brooklyn, and Hello Let's Date.

But Hinge's official blog is doing its damndest to try to close the gap, through stuff like its 30 Most Eligible in NYC list, which collects a group of the app's most socially connected and most frequently "liked" users in New York:

hinge most eligible

(Via Hinge)

It even ranked Wall Street firms based on how frequently their employees were liked versus rejected. Goldman Sachs won. Goldman Sachs always wins.

7) What's the appeal of Hinge over Tinder or OKCupid?

The danger of most dating sites and apps is that you have basically no idea whom you're being matched up with and whether they're safe to meet in person. Even now you'll hear concerns that your OKCupid date "could be a serial killer," which, while paranoid and hyperbolic, has a semblance of a point to it. There are a lot of horrible people in the world, and OKCupid and Match.com can't do all that much to keep you from going to dinner with them. Moreover, dating sites aimed at heterosexuals tend to feature a lot of male harassment of female users, sometimes to the point that women's inboxes become sufficiently clogged to render the service unusable.

Tinder got around those problems to a degree by requiring users to "like" each other to match before messaging. That eased the message onslaught, but the relative sparseness of Tinder profiles means you have nothing to go on besides your match's photos and messages to you, which doesn't do much to help you determine whether a stranger's safe to meet at a bar.

Hinge's focus on matching with people you share friends with means you can ask those friends to vet prospective dates. That's not a perfect defense, but it's something. "I’ve met up with someone on Hinge because you have mutual friends, so you can be 80 percent sure they’re not a full-on wacko," one user told the New York Times' Kristin Tice Sudeman. "Hinge cuts through the randomness of Tinder … I can take some comfort that she knows some of the same people I do," another told her. A Hinge fact sheet sent along by McGrath touts "No randos" as a key feature: "If Tinder feels like meeting a stranger at a bar, Hinge feels like getting warmly introduced at a cocktail party."

The mutual-friends aspect also let the process bleed into offline dating. Buzzfeed's Joseph Bernstein has an incisive piece on how dating apps are giving rise to "offline-online dating" in which people use "offline life as a discovery mechanism for online dating." Tinder has contributed to this to an extent, but as Bernstein says, Hinge "represents the collapse of the offline-online dating distinction better than any other dating app, because it shows users the very people they would be likely to meet through a friend."

You might meet someone at a mutual friend's party, hit it off but not exchange numbers or make plans, and then run into each other on Hinge (partially because of that mutual friend), giving you another shot. Or the app could provide a safe way to express interest in a friend-of-a-friend whom you're hesitant to approach in person; after all, they only find out you like them if they like you back.

McLeod told Bernstein this dynamic has major appeal to Hinge users. While the app stopped recommending actual Facebook friends to each other after users complained, friends-of-friends and friends-of-friends-of-friends are much likelier to match than people with no connection (which, despite Hinge's best efforts, sometimes happens). Users like 44 percent of friends-of-friends, 41 percent of friends-of-friends-of-friends, and a mere 28 percent of people with whom they lack any connection.

8) How fair is the "Hinge is Facebook, Tinder is MySpace" analogy?

Pretty fair, albeit not in ways that are entirely favorable to Hinge. The transition from MySpace to Facebook was, as the social media scholar danah boyd has argued, a case of digital "white flight." "Whites were more likely to leave or choose Facebook," boyd explains. "The educated were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave or choose Facebook."

In some sense, this was baked into Facebook's premise. It started among college students — in particular among Harvard students, and then students at other highly selective, elite colleges, and then students at all colleges, and so on. It grew out of an initial user base that was largely wealthy and white; gradually it became associated with the bourgeoisie and MySpace with the proletariat. Facebook may or may not have been intentionally exploiting these class dynamics, but those dynamics played a very real role in the site's development.

hinge finance

If you doubt Hinge is the dating app of the privileged, consider that it literally ranked financial institutions by the eligibility of their single employees. (Hinge)

Hinge, similarly, targets an elite demographic. It's only available in cities. Its users are 20-somethings and almost all went to college. "Hinge users are 99 percent college-educated, and the most popular industries include banking, consulting, media, and fashion," McGrath says. "We recently found 35,000 users attended Ivy League schools."

Classism and racism have always been problems in online dating. Christian Rudder, a cofounder of OKCupid, demonstrates in his book Dataclysm that in three major traditional dating sites — OKCupid, Match.com, and DateHookup — black women are consistently rated lower than women of other races. Buzzfeed's Anne Helen Petersen put together a Tinder simulation in which 799 participants (albeit non-randomly selected ones) each evaluated 30 fake profiles constructed using stock photos, and found that people's swipes depended strongly on the perceived class of the prospective match. " If a user self-identified as upper-middle-class and identified the male profile before him or her as 'working-class,' that user swiped 'yes' only 13 percent of the time," Petersen writes. But if they identified the profile as "middle-class," the swipe rate rose to 36 percent.

Hinge provides yet more tools for that kind of judging. You can see where potential matches went to college, or where they worked. Indeed, this kind of assortative mating — matching people of the same socioeconomic class with each other — is embedded into the app's algorithm. McLeod told Boston.com's Laura Reston the algorithm uses your past choices to predict future matches, and in practice your school and workplace, and social network in general, often serve as good predictors. "McLeod notes that a Harvard student, for example, might prefer other Ivy Leaguers," Reston writes. "The algorithm would then compose lists that include more people from Ivy League institutions."

Obviously, Hinge didn't invent this dynamic; as Reston notes, 71 percent of college graduates marry other college graduates, and certain elite schools are particularly good at matching up their alumni (over 10 percent of Dartmouth alums marry other Dartmouth alums). And the Hinge fact sheet frames this aspect of the algorithm as just another way in which the app resembles being set up by a friend:

Think of setting up your pickiest friend. First, you’d think of all the people you know who he/she might like to meet. Then you would prioritize those recommendations based on what you know about your friend (preference for doctors, dislike for lawyers, love for Ivy Leaguers etc). Finally, over time you would start to learn his/her tastes and refine your recommendations. That’s exactly how Hinge’s algorithm works.

There's the "Ivy Leaguers" example again. Hinge has carved out a niche as the dating app of the privileged, which helps garner media coverage from reporters who fit its demographics (like, uh, me) and lets it cultivate an elite image that could wind up taking users of all backgrounds from Tinder, much as the elite allure of Facebook eventually allowed it to defeat MySpace across the board.

9) What are some problems people have had with Hinge?

One major issue is you have to live in an urban area to use it, and in one of a relatively small number of areas at that. The current list is:

NYC, SF, L.A., DC, Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Philly, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Denver, Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Omaha, Phoenix, San Diego, Detroit, Portland, Charlotte, Raleigh, Pittsburgh, Columbus, New Orleans, Cleveland, Nashville, Albany, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Toronto, and London.

That leaves out some major cities, like San Antonio, Jacksonville, El Paso, and Memphis, not to mention people in rural areas, where dating pools are smaller and online dating is arguably more crucial. If you live outside the US and not in Toronto or London, you're also out of luck. Hinge explains, "We launch cities as soon as the waitlist has reached a critical mass such that they can sustain and grow." The idea is that dating apps only really work when there's a reasonably large base of users, so Hinge purposely doesn't expand to a city until it can expect that to materialize.

The app has also been criticized for poorly serving LGBT users. Tyler Coates at Flavorwire reported that the app had started matching him with straight men. When he asked what was going on, a Hinge representative explained, "Right now we have a relatively small number of gay Hinge members."

He quit, then rejoined a number of months later, but got four matches a day, rather than the 10 the app had promised based on the size of his social network. When he asked what was up, a Hinge representative replied, "As of yet, we’ve done a pretty poor job of attracting a gay userbase, so that’s most of the problem: we’re running low on people to recommend to you. I’m guessing we’ll try to reboot our gay market at some point, but it’s not on the docket just yet." (McGrath, the Hinge spokeswoman, says this comment was "misinformation stated by a new employee at the time. We are very focused on actively expanding all portions of our userbase, including our gay userbase.")

The app also requires users to identify as male or female and as looking for male and/or female partners, which excludes people who don't identify as one of those two genders. Initially, it didn't let users ask for matches from both men and women, limiting its usefulness for bi and queer people.

One comparatively trivial complaint with the app is that it doesn't let you reduce the number of photos pulled from Facebook below 16:

hinge 16 photos

You can reorder them, or choose a different set of 16 photos, but you can't only show five if there are more on your Facebook account. This is an intentional restriction, meant to prevent people from misrepresenting what they look like. McLeod explained in an interview with Business Insider: "You still have to have a minimum number of 16 photos that we pull from your Facebook profile photos, photos of you that have to be recent. That’s a big piece of us is we’re pretty vetted and transparent, we try to show the authentic you, you can’t just post three photos."

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