IT’S lunchtime on LA’s Sunset Boulevard, and Justin Mateen is behind the wheel of his $230,000 Mercedes-Benz G-Class, attempting to make the two-minute drive to his favourite organic food spot a couple of blocks away. Things aren’t going well, however. After making a poorly executed U-turn across two lanes of traffic, his military-grade SUV is fully mounted on the kerb and pointing in the wrong direction. Horns are honking. The aircon is blasting. And I’m holding on to the grab handle near my head for dear life. “Don’t worry,” reassures the 28-year-old app mogul, who has thick dark hair, several days’ worth of stubble and a surfer-dude drawl that channels Keanu Reeves in Point Break. “This car can drive on the sidewalk …”
With a bellow from the Mercedes’ V8 we lurch forward, almost clipping a signpost, to screams of “No, Justin! No!” from the back seat. The source of the protest: Sean Rad, Justin’s childhood friend, business partner, and, you get the sense, the more grounded of the pair. The vehicle jerks to a halt. Justin shrugs, selects reverse, and then, with a heavy thunk, we’re back on the street. Such chaos is the norm these days for Justin and Sean, who have made several billion dollars each — if you believe the more breathless press reports — from a “hook-up” phone app named Tinder they launched just 18 months ago. Tinder has become a global phenomenon: a revolutionary delivery mechanism for sex that doesn’t involve pornography or prostitution.
With an estimated 10 million users worldwide (in Australia it drops in and out of the top 10 free apps), some claim the app is bringing about an era of casual promiscuity not seen since the days of legal acid and free love. According to Tinder, their users (average age: 27) log on 11 times a day. For some, it’s proving too hot to resist.
To the uninitiated — ie, married people — the concept of Tinder seems as simple as it does shallow. Using the GPS in your phone, the software allows you to flick through the profile pictures of other Tinder users within a 1-to-160km radius. Swipe left, and a “nope” sign is stamped over their forehead before they are tossed out in the ether, never to be seen again — and they remain none the wiser. If you fancy them, you swipe right to add them to your “liked” list. It’s a bit like the old “Hot or Not” website that took off towards the end of the 1990s, but with one big difference: the only way that anyone will ever know that you’ve right-swiped them on Tinder is if they right-swipe you in return. This is known as a “double opt-in”. When it happens, a “match” is made, and a live chat is initiated. After that … well, anything can happen.
From student union bars and private members’ clubs, to pubs and restaurants around the world, the app’s ubiquity is hard to overstate. “It’s how you meet people and set up dates these days,” says one advertising executive. “When I go to a bar we’ll all be on Tinder seeing who is out there.” If Hollywood ever makes a movie about Tinder — several users have already shot fake trailers and posted them on YouTube — it will be more Swingers than The Social Network. Justin and Sean, after all, are not exactly your average socially awkward nerds. They both come from wealthy Iranian Jewish families and don’t seem to have struggled when it comes to making friends or finding girls to go out with.
Tinder’s anti-geek credentials are bolstered by its location on a paparazzi-infested section of Sunset Boulevard. The 30-employee app maker will soon need more space, however, and plans to take over a whole floor of a nearby skyscraper. This is just as well, says Sean, because Tinder, unlike most companies, has groupies. “We have people drop by for all kinds of very awkward and weird reasons,” he says. “It ranges from, ‘Oh, hey, I lost my phone, can you help me find it?’ – they think we have a tracker, which we don’t — to people who just want to meet Justin.”
When I sit down with Justin and Sean in Tinder’s conference room, they seem almost like brothers. They dress in near-identical high-top trainers, finish each other’s sentences and occasionally kick each other under the table. Sean is the only one of the pair in a serious relationship. His girlfriend is Alexa Dell, the 20-year-old daughter of Michael, the billionaire founder of the computer company that bears his name. (It has been said that Sean’s views on the death of the PC don’t go down particularly well at Dell family gatherings.)
Fittingly, the story of the Tinder founders’ relationship began with the pursuit of a date. Or rather, Sean, then 14, made a clumsy play for Justin’s girlfriend, without realising they were an item. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, the two love rivals, who were at different high schools, became friends. Both later studied business at the University of Southern California, where Justin put his seemingly effortless popularity to good use by hosting and selling tickets to parties for college sororities.
Aside from the basics, such as finding a good venue, he realised that the key to a successful event was making sure that some of the best-looking and/or most socially connected girls showed up. If you did that, everything else followed. After graduating, Justin and Sean went their separate ways but they got together regularly to throw around business ideas. A frequent topic of conversation was Facebook, and how awkward it was to send “friend requests” to people you didn’t know very well — and how it was even more awkward to decline unwanted friend requests from others. “We realised that there’s an inherent tension that exists between people,” Sean explains. “You’re either going after a relationship, and you’re the aggressor, and you feel like you’re prone to rejection — or someone’s going after you, and you feel bombarded and annoyed, which means you have to do the rejecting yourself.”
Thus emerged the concept of the double opt-in, which eventually spawned the beta version of Tinder. To launch it, Justin organised one of his jam-packed social events — the 300 students who attended were suitably good-looking, and had to prove at the door that they’d downloaded the app — and then he set about promoting it at campuses across the country. At each university he hired one popular, trendsetting “Tinder ambassador”. Soon the app took on a life of its own. “It was cool when I first heard people saying, ‘I would swipe you right’ here in the US,” says Justin. “But then I was on a plane and someone told me that they were saying it in Brazil. That’s when I knew things had gone crazy.”
Eager to keep Tinder as safe as possible, Justin and Sean made it impossible to sign in without a Facebook account. “It keeps people authentic,” Sean explains. “We’re not trying to create an alternative reality here.”
“Typically, it’s best to focus on who you really are,” advises Justin, when asked about Tinder profile ploys that should be avoided at all costs. For women, he adds, a common pitfall is posing in large groups of more attractive friends — the aim being to achieve the so-called “cheerleader effect”, where the group looks more appealing than the individual would on her own. “Having five photos with a bunch of different people gets confusing,” says Justin, “and in the long run it won’t be effective.”
When a match is made, of course, another issue arises: how do you start a conversation with a total stranger after implicitly suggesting that you’d sleep with them? “People ask me, ‘What’s the best pick-up line?’” sighs Justin. “But there are no good pick-up lines. Pick-up lines don’t work in the real world and they don’t work on Tinder. The key is to take the time to look at the person’s profile and send them a personal message that intrigues them.” The idea that a match is some kind of closed deal, he adds, is nothing but a media-invented fantasy. “I’ve never matched with someone and thought, ‘Wow, now I can sleep with her’,” he says. “It’s more, like, ‘OK, she’s willing to talk to me … let’s see how things progress’.”
If Tinder has a dirty secret, it’s that it is not the pure start-up company that many of its users assume it to be. Instead, it is funded and controlled by IAC/InterActiveCorp, whose other divisions include the dating websites OkCupid and Match.com. Tinder also has a third founder — Jonathan Badeen, a 32-year-old iOS engineer — who keeps a lower profile than Justin and Sean. He helped create the app when all three were working for Hatch Labs, IAC’s mobile apps incubator, since shut down. Exactly what percentage of Tinder they all ended up with hasn’t been disclosed, although it’s substantial. Both Justin and Sean insist they don’t like to think about the huge sums they might have made in just under two years — an issue that was brought into sharp focus in February when Facebook bought the mobile messaging company WhatsApp for $21 billion.
“Justin and I do this because we saw a problem in the world that we have to solve, and we can’t sleep until we solve it,” says Sean, with an earnestness at odds with Tinder’s reputation as a fail-safe way to get laid. “If you start a company for a lifestyle choice, you’re going to fail, because shit gets hard, very hard, and you have to make massive sacrifices, and you’re not going to make those sacrifices unless you’re almost irrationally committed to the end result. When college kids come in to see me, the first question I ask is, ‘What is the problem you’re trying to solve and why?’ If I get that deer-in-the-headlights look, I think, ‘They saw The Social Network movie but didn’t understand it’.”
Tinder is desperate to avoid being classified as a dating company, because these are seen as low-growth businesses. After all, for every successful match that a dating company makes, it loses two customers. The more people a social network connects, on the other hand, the bigger it becomes.
All of which puts Justin and Sean in a tricky position. They don’t want to stop hyping Tinder as a way to find “love at first swipe”, but they also need to make the case that users are signing up for more than just sex. The upshot being that, in interviews, it often feels as though they’re trying to give you a wink and a nudge and a cold shower all at the same time.
There is, however, a good deal of truth in Tinder’s claim that most users sign up out of pure curiosity. When I download the app on to my phone I quickly discover the compulsive entertainment of flicking through people’s profiles, anonymously judging their pictures from afar. At the same time, browsing Tinder as a married man feels unequivocally dodgy — even with my wife looking over my shoulder. It’s not hard to see why Lily Allen’s debut on the app was greeted with (inaccurate, as it turned out) suggestions of an imminent divorce.
As for the perspective of Tinder’s intended demographic, I consult a 19-year-old student called Kristen. “For girls, it’s more of an ego boost than a casual sex thing,” she explains. “It makes us feel good about ourselves that all these guys think we’re attractive. For guys, it’s a way to get hook-ups — but usually they fail because they just sound creepy.” Kristen shows me a few come-ons from her matches, among them such duds as “You’re hot!” and “What y’doin?”
She also explains a Tinder dilemma: do you left- or right-swipe your male friends? In theory, they won’t know either way. But when you live in close proximity and everyone has the app … sooner or later, conclusions will be made. “I always left-swipe friends because it would be way too awkward if we ended up getting matched,” Kristen says. “Unless he’s a friend that I’m secretly interested in, of course. In that case, a right-swipe is a good, subtle way of letting him know you think he’s cute.”
Back at Tinder HQ, I ask Justin and Sean if — hypothetically — they’d be happy with their own daughters meeting men on Tinder. “I’ve thought a lot about what that would feel like,” replies Justin. “And I’d be comfortable with it. Because on Tinder you’re not being pursued by random people who you don’t want to engage with.” As for claims that hackers can break into Tinder’s software to determine users’ positions, Sean says: “There were some very sophisticated engineers who were able to demonstrate a way of identifying the last known location of a user — not their current location — and we fixed that within a very short amount of time.”
Later, when we’re at lunch, another thought occurs to me. Would it be possible, I ask, to take a screenshot of a user’s face, copy it into a facial recognition search engine, and then find out exactly who he or she is? Sean shrugs, takes out his phone, and gives it a go. The strikingly good-looking female he looks up is identified with just a few taps of his finger. “That particular person has a very public profile,” he says, a little sheepishly. “It wouldn’t work with everyone.” Then again, he adds, the fact that it’s so easy to check up on someone just proves that Tinder isn’t as shallow as people think it is. In fact, he says, users tend to judge each other more thoughtfully than drunk people in a bar.
Not that he denies, of course, that it all comes down to looks. “There’s a reason why it’s known as love at first sight,” he shrugs. “It’s not love after we’ve had a nice conversation and I’ve gone home to meet your family.”
Do you swipe here often?
SITTING in a bar and using a mobile phone app to scroll through pictures of pretty women or handsome men who happen to be nearby may seem a typically superficial approach to romance in the internet age. Yet dating apps based on looks and proximity, rather than personality, are closer to how we choose dates in the “real world”, experts say.
The way Tinder works is fundamentally different to most dating websites, which ask users
to fill in detailed personality questionnaires and match people with similar characters — a process that is “very rational and almost sterilises things,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychology professor at University College London. “It is almost like booking a holiday or a job application, as you try to customise your partner.” Tinder, he adds, “is more linked to impulse and emotions and focuses on looks, which is more realistic, even if it is a bit lazier. It replicates the traditional version of dating more closely than Match.com or eHarmony as it allows for more serendipity.” Mobile dating apps have “game-ified” online dating and removed the stigma, he explains.
Digital dating is now the second most common way of starting a relationship, after meeting through friends. Users spend an average of 11 minutes a day on mobile dating apps and Tinder has 750 million photos viewed and 10 million matches per day. Graham Jones, an internet psychologist, says: “It’s a more sociable activity that you can use with friends down the pub rather than sitting at home on your laptop on a dating website.” – Kaya Burgess