clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tinder’s war with Vanity Fair, explained

360b /
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Since the world was new, humans have been trying to figure out a way — one that doesn't involve copious amounts of plastic surgery — to make dating, an important facet of human life, simpler and less painful. Tinder, we thought, was a way to do that. But after a massive meltdown last week, we can't look at the app in the same way again (though this isn't necessarily a bad thing).

Armed with a canary and a lantern, journalist Nancy Jo Sales spelunked into the depths of Tinder hell, discovered some pretty loathsome alleged humans, and, like a sadistic circus owner, displayed her findings in Vanity Fair as a freakshow. These terrifying people use terms like "Tinderellas" (women they meet on Tinder) and allegedly do things like send the pizza emoji to procure sex.

Tinder appreciated Sales's story as much as you would a kick to your liver, and responded with a gloriously unhinged 30-tweet meltdown. North Koreans were cited, as were a "shit ton" of Tinder marriages, and charges of shady journalism. Though Tinder's Twitter fit and Sales's article were both, in their own ways, delicious, the fight pointed to a bigger picture that involves us regular humans, our relationship to technology, and how we talk about dating culture — regardless of whether we're in the business of swiping left or right.

What the Vanity Fair article said about Tinder

The cruel warlock stole her soul after she touched his phone. (Stock-Asso via Shutterstock)

"Touch my phone," the cruel warlock said before capturing her soul. (Stock-Asso via Shutterstock)

The main thrust of Sales's Vanity Fair article is that Tinder is a horseman of the dating apocalypse. Sales points out that single humans are now at the point where they've left behind the restrained tradition of dating and graduated into the lurid world of hookup culture. And it's easy to see why Tinder is part of this ecosystem. Years of human assignations have chipped away at the stigma of sex, and suddenly we're not living by the rules that governed generations before ours, the idea of meeting people you're romantically interested in through your friends and family, or even in social situations.

The ardent guidelines of courtship have disintegrated, Sales argues. Instant gratification is now the impetus. And being able to dismiss (with a literal "X") potential romantic partners based on six photos they post on Facebook has reduced dating to child's play.

Sales's theorem isn't wrong. But hearing about this in theory is a lot different from actually seeing it happen. Think of a snake: You're told it eats other animals to stay alive. You understand the vague outline of this process, but it's a completely different experience to watch an animal unhinge its jaw, gorge itself, and eventually shit nightmares that make you develop a fear of snakes. Sales found some snakes to illustrate her case, like some guy who's referred to as Marty:

But Marty, who prefers Hinge to Tinder ("Hinge is my thing"), is no slouch at "racking up girls." He says he’s slept with 30 to 40 women in the last year: "I sort of play that I could be a boyfriend kind of guy," in order to win them over, "but then they start wanting me to care more … and I just don’t."

Or Alex:

"I always make a point of disclosing I’m not looking for anything serious. I just wanna hang out, be friends, see what happens … If I were ever in a court of law I could point to the transcript." But something about the whole scenario seems to bother him, despite all his mild-mannered bravado. "I think to an extent it is, like, sinister," he says, " ‘cause I know that the average girl will think that there’s a chance that she can turn the tables. If I were like, Hey, I just wanna bone, very few people would want to meet up with you …

But Sales's darkest discovery is a man whom she feels has punched above his weight when it comes to procuring sex:

Nick, with his lumbersexual beard and hipster clothes, as if plucked from the wardrobe closet of Girls, is, physically speaking, a modern male ideal. That he fulfills none of the requirements identified by evolutionary psychologists as what women supposedly look for in mates—he’s neither rich nor tall; he also lives with his mom—doesn’t seem to have any effect on his ability to get rampantly laid. In his iPhone, he has a list of more than 40 girls he has "had relations with, rated by [one to five] stars…. It empowers them," he jokes. "It’s a mix of how good they are in bed and how attractive they are."

Sales's story is like one of those terrifying Scandinavian fairy tales that existed before Disney got its hands on it — the kind where a lovely mermaid just wants to try out some legs, but using them feels like walking on broken glass, and it all eventually ends with her having to kill the one she loves. In this case, Sales shows us what living on the other side of that world is like. It means lying back and thinking of England while the openly mediocre Nick has his carnal way with you and then rates you in his phone or Marty thinking he's playing games with your heart. Suddenly, you realize that the mermaid may have had it easier.

Tinder's reaction is steeped in sex-shaming

(Vitabello1 via Shutterstock)

Anders never got a reply. (Vitabello1 via Shutterstock)

Sales didn't paint Tinder in a positive light, but I'm not entirely sure it was as harsh as Tinder thinks it was. Essentially, Tinder is the vehicle that helps these goons find their sexual conquests (the awful sea witch, if we're still running with the mermaid analogy). It obviously can't control its users, and it's more of a product that hookup culture begot than something that created hookup culture.

Nevertheless, in response, someone with access to Tinder's Twitter account went on a tirade against Vanity Fair and Sales:

Tinder's response centered on the idea that Tinder users aren't using it for casual sex but, rather, "meaningful" relationships:

Tinder didn't supply the raw data to these assertions.These connections, according to whomever is in control of Tinder's Twitter account, have resulted in a "shit ton" of marriages:

Tinder's view is that it, as opposed to what Sales reported, creates relationships that go beyond casual sex. And there's a sense that Tinder is embarrassed about its role in facilitating hookups. But the company's response raises the question: Why does it value marriages over casual sex? And further, are marriages really the goal that Tinder envisions for itself and its users?

Sure, garbage golems like "Nick" prowling Tinder for casual sex are embarrassing. But not everyone is Nick. And Sales did interview women who said they were open to casual sexual relationships, too — using Tinder to procure sex cuts across gender, sexual orientation, and whatever other social identifiers there are. Tinder willfully ignoring or being embarrassed by this component of its service — especially for an app that works by focusing on looks — is mind-boggling. It also underscores a sense of shame about sex.

To be clear, whether it's sex, dates, or marriage, as long as it doesn't involve harm and sobbing there's no "better" result when it comes to Tinder. There's no rule that every person has to treat casual sex the way Nick does, nor is there a rule that people who have found marriage via Tinder are somehow superior to the rest of the users. The sooner we come to realize that humans are silly, and will do silly things to find someone they're romantically compatible with — whether that results in sex, dates, or marriage — the better.

It's unclear to me why a company that is heavily reliant on single people meeting other single people is hoping to see people get married. That's just bad business.

Tinder expanded further — explaining how it's helped lonely North Koreans find meaningful connections with other North Koreans:

Please take a minute to realize that Tinder doesn't work without Facebook. Ergo, it's unclear how Tinder is bringing North Koreans together if Facebook is banned and the internet barely exists there. (Max Fisher has a more in-depth look at Tinder's claim.) But yet again, Tinder is reluctant to bring up casual sex — claiming instead that it's a vehicle for more allegedly wholesome human connections. Forgive me, but if I invented an app that allowed some of the most oppressed people in the world a wild romp here and there, I would be standing on the rooftops pounding my chest and screaming into the abyss. North Korean one-night stands would truly be a human rights achievement.

What Tinder could have and should have said

While Sales made more eloquent points than Tinder, her account isn't the end-all-be-all about the app. The biggest issue with her piece was that it relied on anecdotes and extrapolated those anecdotes to tell a bigger, sweeping story. Jesse Singal at New York magazine explains that Sales's story might be an accurate depiction of a certain type of user but isn't reliable enough to really paint a bigger picture:

Sales is talking to exactly the sorts of people you’d expect to use dating apps in a way that will help them find more people to sleep with, and then, having discovered that these promiscuous people use a promiscuity-enabling app to find other promiscuous people to have promiscuous sex with, reporting back to us that we’re in the midst of a promiscuity-fueled dating "revolution" in how people deal with romance and sex. This is known as confirmation bias.

Sales does cite a study that found millennials are having sex with fewer partners than previous generations. But she brushes it off in a parenthetical reference. She writes:

When I asked Jean Twenge and Ryne Sherman, two of the study’s authors, about their methodology, they said their analysis was based partly on projections derived from a statistical model, not entirely from direct side-by-side comparisons of numbers of sex partners reported by respondents. "All data and all studies are open to interpretation—that’s just the nature of research" Twenge said.

Twenge and Sherman's study shouldn't be brushed off, though. The findings of that study complement a 2011 study from researchers at University of Nebraska Lincoln titled "Talk About ‘Hooking Up:The Influence of College Student Social Networks on Non-Relationship Sex."

That study found that only 37 percent of the students they studied reported two or more hookups during the school year. But 90 percent of the participants thought a "typical" student had been involved in two or more hookups. Perception didn't match up with reality, and students thought there was more casual sex happening around them than there actually was:

Sales isn't definitively wrong, and these studies aren't definitively right. But there's a disconnect that needs to be resolved. If millennials, the people whom Sales interviewed, are having fewer partners and college students are hooking up less frequently than they think, a sweeping declaration that dating has now become a barren land of perpetual hookups might be overblown — especially when the 2011 study shows that there's a very real phenomenon of overestimating hookup culture.

Maybe these are just pre-Tinder days. Maybe there's a pool of promiscuous people who are having way more sex than everyone else. But what about the men and women who aren't having sex with multiple partners? What about the humans who would rather eat pizza and watch Netflix than hook up? What about the people on Tinder who never message you? It's like those people don't exist.

If people in college are completely off in their perception of sex around them, couldn't it be possible that we could be just as wrong about the people hooking up on Tinder?

Sales explained to Singal that the data in the Twenge/Sherman study didn't match up with her analysis. That's why, Singal asserts, she brushed it off.

"For example: It finds that, while millennials have more open and accepting attitudes about sex, they also have fewer sex partners. This didn’t make sense to me," she said. "Nor did it make sense that people who are waiting longer to marry (or not marrying at all, so far) — that is, millennials — would also have fewer sex partners than past generations, who married earlier."

But brushing off data because it doesn't fit your analysis isn't really sensible. Sometimes data doesn't make sense. Some, including the Republican Party itself, would argue that Donald Trump leading all other Republican presidential candidates doesn't make sense. Not covering his campaign because it doesn't make sense isn't an option. The same goes for a lot of less-sexed millennials.

Is Tinder going to ruin us all?


What's interesting in all of this is that what Tinder does — match someone based on physical appearances and location — is the same thing apps like Grindr and Scruff have been doing for much longer. Back in 2011, think piece after think piece was written about how Grindr — an app for gay men that connects them with potential suitors based on location — was destroying the gay bar. Those pieces are still running to this day, each time a little different:


The fact that these pieces are still being written today proves that gay culture and gay bars aren't some monolithic structure that's easily taken down by a wrecking ball.

The same goes for dating culture and Tinder.

No doubt things will get confusing and weird. Nick isn't the first human eggplant to get laid, and he certainly won't be the last. No matter how much Tinder wants to believe men like him don't exist, they will. And in its rush to defend itself, the dating app company might have missed a bigger point. Dating has always been, and always will be, a strange and awkward human behavior. Tinder can't kill that.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.