Perfect Strangers: Tinder and 21st Century Fiction




Perfect Strangers: Tinder and 21st Century Fiction by August Brown

The sudden about-face in Millennial romance and sex

December 24th, 2013 reset - +

IT'S SEPTEMBER, sweater weather in the Hollywood Hills. I’m a little drunk and walking down Highland with a friend, feeling dreamy after M83’s starry-eyed synth-rock set at the Hollywood Bowl. Newly single after my longest relationship had just ended, I finally had something to tell my friend, who, happily married as well, takes a sporting interest in my dating life. If you’re single and under 40 in the autumn of 2013, talking about dating prospects means pulling out your phone and blazing through your latest Matches on Tinder. My friend had heard about Tinder — the casual encounter app that’s achieved urban ubiquity in just the last few months — from youngish colleagues, and he was excited to finally see it in the wild.

On the Red Line train to downtown Los Angeles, where we both live, I rifled through the profiles of women I’d been texting with on the app: a playwright in Los Feliz with outsized vintage eyeglasses; an SAT prep tutor in Echo Park mid-stride at a roller-skating rink; a French expat travel agent in Mid-City about to jump into a pool. I felt a little gauche and sultan-like, showing off a list of several dozen 22-to-35-year-olds who gave me the go-ahead to say hello. But as a 30-year-old, prematurely-balding, ectomorphic music journalist, this field of new potential was unprecedented enough to share. We both got a little giddy shuffling through smiling, hair-tossed selfies.

At the Wilshire-Vermont stop, the subway doors parted. There, nuzzling what was clearly a boyfriend of some seriousness, was that playwright from Los Feliz with the giant eyeglasses, the same one we’d been debating the ideal date-setup message for, just a minute ago. She and I had a moment of mutual, startled, the-internet-broke-the-fourth-wall panic. With a tiny shake of her head, she signaled for me to shut the fuck up. We weren’t supposed to have seen each other in the flesh. My friend kicked my feet under the subway seat and whispered. “That girl just gave you the weirdest look. Do you know her?

Yes and no. Mostly no. But I know she takes acting classes a couple nights a week, loves Kieślowski movies, owns a (presumably ironic) My Little Pony T-shirt, and at least briefly held out hope that some decent fellows are using this new dating app. So, definitely a little bit yes.

That subway platform glance was an atypical glitch in the clean, friendly, frictionless modern dating ecosystem of Tinder. To judge by its late-summer 2013 rout of urban romantic life, Tinder has finally squared the circle of hooking up online. It’s a low-stakes, non-creepy, genuinely fun way to meet new people near you at any time of day (or, let’s be fair, when you’re kind of drunk on a Netflix gauntlet at 3 a.m.). Michel Houellebecq may have coined the term “friendly tourism” in his 2011 novel Platform as the euphemistic motto for a sex-centric third-world travel firm, but it actually suits Tinder very well: casually drop in, meet the locals, strike up a conversation, and — wink, nudge — you crazy kids take it from there, if you want. There are no expectations.

If nothing else, Tinder is a corrective to the dignity-abattoir of modern dating depicted by contemporary young novelists like Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, and Adelle Waldman (of which more later). In many of these books, tech-stunted millennials take to bed as an outlet for low-dose socipathery or weapons-grade narcissism. For all the culture’s fears about young people’s internet nihilism — teenage girls sending irrevocable nude pictures to scummy revenge-porning boyfriends; guys spending nights on the outer orbits of Reddit looking at unspeakable things — Tinder feels wholesome, easy, and empowering, We’ve finally hit the event horizon of online dating — a perfect marketplace that doesn’t feel like one, with the golden ratio of new-partner potential and ego-preserving distance. But what does romance feel like when stripped of every last bloodletting, bourbon-downing, Billie Holiday–requiring inefficiency?

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Tinder was first released in September 2012 by Hatch Labs, a Los Angeles–based development firm that got off the ground with investments from Barry Diller’s entertainment firm IAC (the company is now independent). The app’s first asset is how quickly it pulls you into its orbit. Older web-based services like Match.com or OKCupid require an evening’s investment in answering scores of personality-defining questions, designed to pair likely partners by running profiles through a set of internal algorithms. Until recently, logging on to those dating services meant sitting at your laptop, cracking a bottle of wine, and dealing with yet another internet pursuit that demands focused attention, whose mechanics ultimately felt like office work. (Both those services have apps now, but they haven’t had as much success with them.) Online dating was done alone, at home, in the indifferent glow of a computer monitor, which is precisely the worst scenario for pondering your unwanted singledom.

Part of Tinder’s elegance is the way it caters to users who have been performing their identities on the internet their whole lives. After scraping some basic data from your Facebook page — first name, age, a few photos, a briskly representative collection of quotes, and a comb-through of your friends and “likes” — the app creates a cheerful, minimalist profile for you. Then you simply select who you’re looking for (men or women or both, a general age range and geographic distance) and it sends you on a virtual roulette wheel where you give up-or-down opinions on other users. If that flicker of interest is shared by another user, you’re “Matched” and can begin to exchange text messages.

If on the internet, as the classic New Yorker cartoon put it, no one knows you’re a dog, then Tinder doesn’t make you go through the rigmarole of pretending to be a human. This is actually pretty liberating: there’s no need to spend nights crafting the perfectly quirky list of high and lowbrow interests, revealing yet totally casual. Tinder’s interface is usefully shallow, and almost completely visual. There’s barely any writing about yourself on Tinder, and given the caliber of autobiographical prose on most dating sites, that’s a good thing: it’s refreshing to not have to go through the jiu-jitsu of composing a flirty but still genuine depiction of yourself.

But the true genius of Tinder is how it makes the act of pursuing romance online — once a shameful refuge for clock-ticking thirtysomethings or earnest Christians seeking same — into something genuinely social and downright fun. Users have their own vocabulary: people don’t “sign up” or “go on,” they “play” Tinder. The randomized Matches and swipe-left-or-swipe-right physicality of the interface makes it feel more like a video game than a life pursuit, and you can knock out a few rounds while waiting in line at the grocery store. It’s so easy to pull out your phone, pass it around a crowded bar table and come up with drinking games for people you see (a shot for every guy who quotes Fight Club; finish your beer for every profile whose lead photo features a more-attractive friend in the shot). Tinder’s low stakes take the panicked edge off of online dating, and make it feel more like scoping out prospects in a fun, crowded new bar. And once you Match with someone, if your text-message conversations take a turn for the worse, you can block them again with a single click. This sense of constant control, crucially, makes Tinder a safe and rewarding app for women to use. Close to half the app’s users are women, and they behave roughly the same as the men on it. Both genders give out about a 70/30 ratio of rejections to acceptances. The fact that only confirmed Matches can send messages to one another means most of the unwanted creeper riffraff get shunted.

The fact that one’s Tinder profile is relatively unrevealing, and its interface so game-like, also makes the app less emotionally damaging to try out. You never see who rejected you, and the turnover rate is so high that you never get your hopes up for a Match with any one particular person. Even the small letdowns of an unreturned text from a promising Match can be quickly forgotten with a new round of playing Tinder.

Other apps like Blendr and OKCupid Locals have tried to thread this particular needle of making a safe, easy online dating space for straight women to meet straight men. Millions of gay men have enjoyed the similar-styled Grindr since 2009, and it’s practically become a prerequisite part of the urban coming-out experience. But Grindr is designed for casual sex. The ability to send photos, and the app’s hyper-specific, down-to-the-foot location mapping makes it work more like sexual X-ray spex (the superpower to know who wants to sleep with you at any time, in any place) than a traditional heteronormative dating app would permit. I have friends who use Grindr at the gym to pinpoint exactly which guy on which adjacent treadmill is game to meet up after their workout. The comedian Aziz Ansari has a great riff where he imagines the heterosexual inverse of Grindr: an app for straight women showing all the guys who want to sleep with her, circling mere feet away. It would be creepy as hell.

If you want to use Tinder for geo-located hookups, you can certainly try. It can narrow your search options down to within a mile and within whatever age range you’re looking for (up to 50, for now). Maybe this is an example of my middle-class-media-professional water finding its own level, but my months on Tinder have been shockingly nice. I could almost imagine getting kind of tipsy with my mom over a Christmas holiday and after installing it on her phone, we’d groan over which Floridian silver foxes she should steer clear of. I’m sure plenty of people have had much greater success at casual sex on Tinder than a guy regularly mistaken for Moby at nightclubs could ever aspire to. But with the exception of the girl who changed our meet-up bar at the last minute because she was coming off a recent DUI and couldn’t drive to our date, the women I’ve met up with were uniformly kind, accomplished, altogether composed people I’m glad to spent a few hours with at various Eastside cocktail lounges. Most orbited the general axis of the entertainment business, working either as assistant producers or social media coordinators or screenwriters or aspirant artists of one sort or another, and the dates all seemed very adult and measured. Bar hookups always walk a knife’s edge of awkwardness and regret, while going out with friends-of-friends comes with the baggage of potential future embarrassment. Tinder operates at the perfect atmospheric level of shared proximity, a vague online connection and the reassurance that nothing important or permanent is at stake.

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Tinder is so perfectly calibrated to today’s expectations of dating that it’s almost an inoculation against the heartsickness that most contemporary novels about romance depend on. After using Tinder for a few months, I am ready to swear that it’s really not as bad out there in the dating pool as a lot of recent fiction makes it out to be. Perhaps the main characters in recent novels by Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, and Adelle Waldman — all writers covering the urban-millennial-dating waterfront — would have done themselves favors by getting on it. The sterile roteness of the prose in Lin’s Taipei and the Eli Roth–worthy emotional horror show of Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life aim to lay bare the experience of millennial romance and sex. After the scrubbed-up, perpetually-hopeful world of Tinder, Lin’s barrage of overmedicated mundanities and Calloway’s willful, almost gleeful self-abuse feel more fantastical by comparison. It’s a rare instance where a generation’s real dating life is actually more optimistic and rewarding than its representation in fiction.

In Taipei, Lin takes an almost autistic approach, using data to describe romantic relationships. This tactic has a certain obsessive repetition that feels true to our always-on, tech-addled youth culture. Take his habit of introducing every character by their age. Here’s the book’s first sentence: “It began raining a little from a hazy, cloudless-seeming sky as Paul, 26, and Michelle, 21, walked toward Chelsea to attend a magazine-release party at an art gallery.” That sentence does the same thing — listing age, location, general career, and artistic proclivities — that a Tinder profile might, with a similar absence of any actually revealing language.

Here, a few pages later, is a pretty good summary of the way conversations among lovers go in Taipei:

Michelle lowered her hand to her side. “What are you doing?” she said, somewhat defensively.

“What do you mean?”

“Aren’t you going back to the party?”

“Yeah, I said I was.”

“Fine,” said Michelle.

Paul felt passively committed to not moving.

“Why are you standing here?”

“Passively committed to not moving.” That’s a fantastically droll phrase, but to judge from Lin’s other writing (and his general online persona), it was probably meant as a damning generational diagnosis. Taipei’s apparent aim is to evoke complete soul-deyhdration and to fetishize awkwardness — the kind of combative stylistic choice that David Foster Wallace was experimenting with in The Pale King, before his suicide.

Reading Taipei does feel like that moment on Tinder when the initial rush of its novelty, and the endorphin hit of new Matches, wears off for good. On Tinder, starting so many new conversations with so many different people leads to a certain Tao-Lin-esque repetition in your pickup lines. How many ways are there to say “So, what brought you out to LA?” to total strangers? Everyone on Tinder is juggling a dozen different conversations that would take on more individual significance with a couple drinks in an Atwater Village dive bar. Here, they all look like spreadsheets, ones you’re passively committed to not scrolling through. Tao Lin would probably find that interesting.

Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life, meanwhile, reads like a parent’s darkest fears of what their post-collegiate kids are up to on the internet. Calloway’s most infamous story, “Adrien Brody,” was first published on Lin’s online magazine Muumuu House, and it details in clipped, Didion-esque sentences an exquisitely unrewarding sexual encounter with a sketchbag older writer. The book’s spare, haunting portraits of feminine self-negation are supposed to feel very contemporary, and they do. “I need money for BareMinerals Foundation and MAC lipstick and soy lattes and pizza,” Calloway writes in “sex work experience three”:

I will be a commodity, and I will be in demand and valuable. I am so beautiful and young that men will pay three hundred dollars to have sex with me; sex work will reify my youth and beauty. I have no friends and nothing and nothing to do except school and this will give me something to do and a way to study other people besides through the internet.

There’s some hard sarcasm and self-aware wisdom buried in that paragraph, and a few of Calloway’s stories have similar spine-chilling moments of isolation, ones so deep that their narrator doesn’t seem to want autonomy over her own body. Calloway’s ultra-honed language, stripped of active verbs and full of brand names and dollar figures, serves its alienating purpose well. But anyone who would put themselves through situations like those in what purpose did i serve in your life and go back for more must need that self-flagellation in order to feel interesting (or to get material for a book). If Calloway’s characters really wanted to get out from under those psycho-sexual nightmares, they could now be at a bar with friends blazing through Tinder, and have a much less devastating night out.

Fiction has always had a problem keeping up with contemporary tech culture, though. The past year has seen a shift from Facebook to Tinder among young hook-uppers that already rendered Calloway’s book (which is rife with excerpted Facebook chats and photos) a bit quaint in its details. Calloway has a real talent, but one wonders if using social media as a metaphor for human connection is a sucker’s game, especially when the real thing is now so perfectly designed to help us avoid the shitty situations depicted in her book.

Only Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. seems to thoroughly nail this particular moment in big-city romantic life. The book’s been rightly praised for Waldman’s acute first-person gender-reversal in the narration: she writes brilliantly as the newly lothario-ish novelist and book reviewer Nathaniel Piven as he trawls through a wake of disappointed Brooklyn women. You’d be hard pressed to find a millennial guy with bookish pretensions who wouldn’t leave this novel without feeling totally, nakedly found out. Here’s Nate assessing whether or not a potential conquest will do justice to his (clearly fragile) self-perception:

She was nice-looking, sort of striking an appealing at certain moments, when her expression was animated, but there was something about the stark line of her eyebrows and the pointiness of her features that wasn’t exactly pretty. […] If Hannah had been more obviously hot, he was pretty sure that he would have given her more thought before the other night, when she had been the only woman present who was at all a viable candidate for his interest. That had to mean something, although Nate wasn’t sure what exactly.

This, in short, is exactly how Tinder wants you to behave. A hit of new attraction, but one full of creeping doubt, and with one eye leering to see if there are any more ego-validating options nearby. It makes you want to keep playing the game.

That’s certainly not a new human phenomenon; Tinder, however, gives it an actual coded architecture. Tinder is a safe, unaccountable space that encourages quick, visceral evaluations of people. Just wait until you find yourself quietly denying a potential Match who might have made great conversation, because you know that someone with radiant hair and an enticingly-unbuttoned flannel shirt is just a thumb-swipe away. Waldman’s Nathaniel P. would have a fantastic time on Tinder. He’s a Sad Young Literary Man, yet also, at heart, a bit of a bro. A self-aware bro, to be sure, but a bro whose new ability to date objectively beautiful women hides some obvious self-loathing that can only be balmed by a cute girl’s approval. “When he met up with Elisa at the end of a workday, he felt like he’d clawed his way out of a Morlockian underworld,” Waldman writes. “With her, he was treated differently at restaurants […] Even among his circle of friends and acquaintances, his stock rose subtly.” Regardless of your gender or sexual orientation, you get that exact same status-affirming rush on Tinder.

It’s true that, however female-friendly and popular among women Tinder may be, there’s a subliminal dude-liness to the app’s unflinching logic and efficient reward systems. Tinder’s tech-bro worldview is intrinsic: the whole idea that romance can be “solved,” especially by an app designed to keep you constantly looking for someone hotter, feels like a shortcut solution to what remains a richly intractable problem. Tinder can feel absolutely joyful at first blush, yet, after a few weeks in its system, the perpetual motion and game-ification can make you feel like an exhausted (and exhausting) Nate Piven. There’s an insecurity to always wondering if something better is around the corner, and Tinder ensures that new corners are as close as your phone. For beating a slump, meeting entirely new people off your social orbit, or just for kicks with friends at a bar, Tinder is indispensible, and probably here to stay (for a while). Then again, sometimes inefficiency is another word for actually giving a shit. May we all still have a few pulse-stopping subway staredowns in our future. 

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August Brown covers pop music for the Los Angeles Times. He lives and works in downtown Los Angeles. 

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