Pando

The more we Tinder, the more things stay the same

By Kevin Kelleher , written on August 20, 2015

From The "You know, for kids" Desk

“There was just as much fucking going on then as now. Only now, it has a more perverted quality to it. Now, there's no love whatever included, you know. Then, there was your heart, a bit of heart in it.” - Henry Miller, Reds.

Shame on you, Tinderfolk. You curators of hookup culture.

Every time you connect with each other on Tinder you are - a magazine that, with a straight face, calls itself “Vanity Fair” avers - swiping away romance itself! Tinder, you see, is the Windex that clears the narcissist's fingerprints from the narcissist's mirror. It is the Raid spray that Kills Dating Dead!

In that light, Tinder is exactly what Henry Miller warned us about, the inclination of human sexuality to grow dehumanized over time. Except, of course, Miller – the great cartographer of the Land of Fuck, its ecstatic peaks and lonely valleys - said the above words as an old man in a movie released in 1981. And in 1981, I was still a virgin watching Reds in an air-conditioned movie theater and thinking, this guy is full of shit.

Not so much the first sentence of the quote, which is plainly true enough. But as can happen with Miller, the sense can bleed out the more he goes on. There is this weird, grass-is-browner thing about those who practice identity forgery through generational comparisons. Time between generations seems to take on clarity only once it's viewed downhill.

And lo, Generation X scoffed at the acedia of Millennials, just as the Baby Boomers labeled Generation X as lost. And the Baby Boomers were reviled by the so-called Greatest Generation. Every time the baton of contempt is passed on, sex almost always grows more heartless, and yet we always somehow bond into families that raise up the next generation worthy of our moral spite.

What stood out for me about the Vanity Fair piece wasn't so much anything the story said – it was pretty much the exceedingly well-worded but more than slightly off-the-mark profile I'd expect to find, circa 2015, inside a glossy magazine that smelled of three different colognes – but the tizzy fit Tinder threw on Twitter several days later. Nerves were struck, gauntlets were thrown.

One thing is clear: There is something going on here that was bigger than Match.com, or OkCupid, or maybe even that unholyanonymous mess that was (and still is) Craigslist personals. Is Tinder really resonating in a way that no dating site or app ever has? Is it to those same precursors what Facebook was to Friendster?

My sense is that Tinder is onto something, but it's no Facebook 2.0, for a couple of reasons. The first is the question of profits, which almost seems incongruous when discussing Tinder.

Tinder is often, and wrongly, considered a privately held unicorn. It's owned by a publicly held company, Interactive Corp., which also owns Match, and OkCupid, and chemistry.com and, soon, PlentyofFish, and several other dating sites.

Late last month, when IAC discussed its earnings, it spent a lot of time talking about its dating business. Here is Jeff Kip, an executive vice president of IAC who is leaving the company as it spins off its dating business into an IPO, on where Tinder stands inside its portfolio.

“OkCupid once was a small player that got big. It happened over 10 years... I think you've got this incredible outlier in Tinder that cracked this code. That grew, in two years, into the biggest dating product in the world. Nothing before or after has been able to replicate that DNA at all... Given that nothing came up like a rocket ship, like Tinder, you wouldn't expect some dramatic acceleration.”

And yet is Tinder able to add to IAC or Match's bottom line through ad revenue? Here is Greg Blatt, who will remain chairman of the Match Group (which really should be called the Tinder Group) after the spinoff:

...in a world of scarce resources, we opted not to develop meaningful time this year to developing the roadmap necessary to really maximize that ad business. I think that will come.”

In other words, not really. But maybe later! We've scared away younger users from older titles with our ads, and we won't scare them off Tinder unless we know what we're doing this time. 

The other reason I think Tinder is at once hugely promising and decidedly overrated: I went on there. Yes, middle-aged, married guy (and with full disclosure to my wife). I made myself as unpalatably real as I am in the dating marketplace, saying I signed on as a reporter - already taken, not looking for a relationship - only to get a better sense of Tinder. It still felt weird.

My initial impression: In college, the harder-core procrastinators of finals week used to collect in the cavernous entryway of the library and, trolling through the printed personals at the meaty rearend of the alt-weekly, mark an ink “X” on each personal ad at the very moment we decided to stop reading. Tinder, I thought, seemed a digital, and remarkably interactive, update to that ancient game. (The biggest difference was the classic “X” game was more easily shared across all sexual persuasions, with occasionally surprising results.)

Still, speaking as someone who must be the last guy on earth to get on Tinder, and therefore one of the least authoritative, I tried to speak with enough people who had spent ample time there to get a sense of why they stayed. None of them – you will not be shocked to hear this – were into the soulless, fucking-machine dystopia portrayed by a certain musk-scented, glossy mag.

Most, rather, were seeking the exact same thing they sought on all the other dating properties gobbled up by IAC. Someone who would chill the hell out with them at the end of the long workday. Someone they could share a sunset with, who would Instagram you as the surf wound around your ankles. Some compared it to the rock-concert scene in the 60s, or the bar scene in the 70s, which started with raw rutting and ended with amber-rayed fantasies of doing something - any-fucking-thing - else together.. Some wondered what they were doing wrong that they couldn't really connect with anyone. But no one I talked to was just about the hookup. If anything, a hookup was just a spark that could ignite a fire that endured through the night whose tone could grow black. Pitch black. For hours.

So here is my poor man's anthropological takeaway of Tinder as an outsider observer: Anyone who learns the customs can certainly hook up, but after a point one yearns for something new. As for Tinder the app and the subsidiary inside IAC, the company knows this. In the way Facebook moved from college students to their parents, Tinder will push from the hookup to the lasting connection. Or it will try. Facebook went from a college-age only thing to a thing that connected 1.5 billion people. Tinder won't ever do that, but that doesn't mean it can't go through the same process of maturation.

Hence the company's spiteful whingeing about the Vanity Fair story on Twitter. Yet take heart, Tinderfolk. The Vanity Fair story ended on a flat note, in which some some guy named Michael Falotico, supposedly just shy of 30, is described as “a Renaissance painting of Jesus, plus a nose ring.” The thrillingly illicit suggestion is that Jesus would be on Tinder!, except the writer also mentions he is also in a band called Monogold, a detail that would surely have been edited out of all four gospels of the New Testament because, Jesus wept, they sound like just another piece of dirt.

And yet, Falotico is given at least three full graphs for his male bravado, presumably because of his peacockish surname. Here he is, granted the windy kicker,

“And it’s just like, waking up in beds, I don’t even remember getting there, and having to get drunk to have a conversation with this person because we both know why we’re there but we have to go through these motions to get out of it. That’s a personal struggle, I guess, but online dating makes it happen that much more. Whereas I would just be sitting at home and playing guitar, now it’s ba-ding”—he makes the chirpy alert sound of a Tinder match—“and … ” He pauses, as if disgusted. “ … I’m fucking.”

I read that and thought, charitably, of the Vanity Fair editorial staff lapsing into a fine, Friday-afternoon bender because sometimes the story will write itself. 

And sometimes it won't. It's not just that this same anecdote appeared in the Observer a decade ago – only then, the drug of choice was a pill called Ambien, not an app called Tinder – it's that I've heard some version of Falotico's exploits burped across too many bars too many times over too many years. 

Nobody ever wants to hear their priapic, interminable anecdote followed by someone chirping that horrid 90s's slogan, Been there! Done that! I'm sorry Mr. Falotico, and Ms. Fair, Tinder or not, history is telling you exactly that. Take it from Mr. Miller, with heart. Or at least, a bit of heart.