Courtney is swiping her smartphone, her thumb expertly flips between images on the screen. “No… Yes… Yes… Hm, maybe… No… Ugh, no way — he looks like a child molester,” she drawls between sips of coffee. She sounds like she’s shopping for clothes, but no, this is Tinder — she’s shopping for dates.
Suddenly, her eyes light up. “Look at him,” she says to friends gathered around her. But then, she takes a closer look, and her face falls. “‘Not interested in anything serious,'” she reads aloud. “That means he only wants to hook up.” She rolls her eyes, masking her disappointment, pretending she’s above it all.
“At least he’s honest about it,” a friend mutters.
Courtney just shrugs. She begins to swipe again. “There are plenty of fish in the sea,” she says. In the lenses of her hipster glasses, I can see the thumbnails of men waltzing past. And then, she gets a ping: one of her selections has shown mutual interest, and now they’re allowed to chat with one another.
“What’s up? Like your glasses,” reads his message.
Courtney smiles, and begins to type back. But just as she composes her message, she gets another notification — another Tinder match is interested, too. Laughing, she copies-and-pastes the message she had just sent. “I have to be careful, though,” she says. “Once I sent a message I copied but forgot to change the name.”
“You should just begin all your messages like, ‘Hey handsome,'” interjects her friend. “They think it’s cute… unless of course, he knows he’s not handsome.”
“You know, that’s a good idea,” Courtney says. “I’ll start doing that now.”
And with that, her phone pings again. It doesn’t surprise her — it’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday night, and people are looking for dates for the weekend.
“Which guy was I texting? I can’t remember,” she says, shaking her head. Then, she bends over her phone and types, “Hey handsome.”
Looking through 26-year-old Courtney’s phone, it’s easily see her as an alpha female whose milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, so to speak. Her contacts list is filled with entries like “John with sideburns, Tinder” or “Travis, Shoney’s Bar” or even “Guy with Nirvana t-shirt, Jenna’s karaoke bday party.” When her phone pings, it’s often with a notification from Tinder, or Match.com’s dating app, or even an old-fashioned text from one of her many suitors.
Yet Courtney doesn’t see herself as a player. “I’m having fun, but I am always looking out for ‘The One,'” she says. “I really do want a relationship. But I’m finding what my mom says is true: I have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the prince.”
But kissing frogs is a lot of work, Courtney says. For one, she’s “leaning in” at her job as a marketing executive, and she works and travels for her company. She simply doesn’t have time for a lot of the groundwork in dating: getting out there, mingling, getting to know people. So, like many others, she’s turned to apps such as Tinder and Lulu to give her a head start in the dating game.
“I’m in a bind,” Courtney says. “I want to put the time to develop my professional life, to travel and build up my career. And yet, I feel I need to put in the time to find a good partner for family and fulfillment later. But I only have so many hours free. The way I see it, apps and dating sites give me the maximum selection and a way to filter through them faster. It’s just increasing the odds.”
Her reason is logical, and she’s not the only one who thinks so: as of February 2014, Tinder users go through 750 million “swipes” a day, which lead to 10 million introductions — up from 5 million matches in December, according to CNN.
Tinder’s growth is astonishing. Sparked, in part, by maximizing the ease and distance of technology, the app makes it easy to find a date, but puts enough distance to minimize the sting of rejection. But dating on Tinder is giving rise to complications, including what many call “dating ADD” — an inundation of choice that is often counterproductive in making solid romantic connections.
Dating once required a significant outlay of time, energy and money. First, you’d meet potential dates at social gatherings, singles bars or events. Then, there was the process of getting that potential special someone to notice you — you’d either approach, or position yourself to be approached. Then, you had to summon up enough courage to ask someone out on a well-planned first date, where you’d make conversation and attempt to intrigue one another enough into a second date. Ideally, this would lead to a chain of dates that, along the way, would add up to a relationship.
But love and romance rarely run on its own logic, and dating never goes quite as planned. We don’t fall in love, or fall out of love — or fall in love with our best friend. We could invest all that time, energy and emotion, and still become disappointed.
Dating apps promise to ease the process on a number of counts. First, they gather a greater choice of mates. Then, they screen the pool of applicants — either by making it easy to search and filter or finesse algorithms that learn our preferences.
The result is an abundance of choice. Take Courtney, for example: she’s a pretty girl-next-door type, but she says she’s no model and actually a bit shy. “If it were the Stone Ages of just singles bars and blind dates, I wouldn’t nearly date as much as I do,” she says. “But Tinder lets me ‘meet’ people before I actually meet them, which raises my confidence a little. I already know we find each other attractive on some level, and that helps.” She also says app dating plays to her strengths. “I’m a witty writer,” she says, “but if you met me cold in real life, I’d probably be a little more reserved and not nearly as funny.”
Courtney also says she appreciates how Tinder levels the traditional gender dynamic in dating. “As a girl, you get a lot of contradictory advice, like, ‘Let him pursue you’ or ‘No, go ahead and call or text him.’ It’s really confusing to navigate,” she says. “But with Tinder, you’re kind of both the hunter and the prey. From a feminine perspective, you’re scrolling through and screening, kind of hunting in your way. But you can still leave it up to him to make the first move if that’s what you want. Or you can just contact him if you didn’t care about a relationship and just wanted to hook up.”
Part of the genius of the app is how it takes into account the odd dynamics of dating, according to Courtney, and accommodates all kinds of situations: hooking up, finding a relationship, hanging back or being proactive.
Courtney thinks Tinder is great for women, since no one can contact anyone unless both parties swipe “yes.” But men seem to love Tinder, as well. On another night, I notice a group of guys using the app and ask what they like about it. Taylor, who’s 25-year-old, is upfront about the appeal. “It’s a perfect hookup app,” he says. “It’s, like, end of the night and you need someone to hook up with, so you hit up Tinder and see who’s out there looking for the same.” Naturally, he has his phone in hand as he talks, periodically checking it to see if anyone’s pinged back.
But not all men use it for hookups, says his 28-year-old friend Walt. “I like it because it feels like a nice blend of traditional dating and online,” he adds. “It’s not like online dating, where you have to read all these profiles and then message back and forth and sometimes it feels like a job. [Tinder] is more akin to real life, where you see someone who catches your eye and you send up a smoke signal. Then it’s up to you to figure out where it can go.”
Tinder sounds like a dater’s dream, but is it really making the process of finding and connecting with “The One” — or just a date for the weekend — easier? Both Courtney and Walt say yes, on the surface. Both say it’s easy to meet people on Tinder, but they also admit app dating brings more problems.
Some of the problems are humorous. “I’ve seriously been on dates where the other person is sitting there over dinner, looking through Tinder or Match,” Courtney laughs. “It’s like, ‘Can’t you at least wait till we’re done with our date before you look for another one?'”
Other problems are more subtle and insidious. “I thought having more choices would make it easier to find someone, but it hasn’t,” Courtney admits. “I thought I would get a higher-quality yield, so to speak, from opening up the playing field more. But if anything, it’s made it more complicated, though not in the ways you’d expect.”
She turns thoughtful for a moment as the scene rages around her at the bar and her phone pings. “It’s not the guys — the guys themselves are for the most part great. I’ve met a few players here and there, but they’re kind of easy to spot, and if you stand firm and don’t put up with crappy behavior, they just fade in the background,” she says. “The problem is internal. It’s like I don’t want to decide — I can’t decide or commit. It’s this extreme restlessness and dissatisfaction.”
She tells me a story about Christopher, a man she met who she describes as kind, generous, sweet-natured, smart, funny, and oh yeah, cute as hell. “Solid job, outdoorsy guy, but maybe not the most adventurous person,” she says. “But we got along so well, and I felt like I could just completely be myself with him — maybe because I wasn’t immediately, like, dazzled by him. I didn’t feel like I had a lot at stake.”
While Courtney was dating Christopher, though, she also had “about five or six guys in circulation.” None of them were as “total of a package” as Christopher, but they all had other attributes that made them appealing. One guy was a daredevil, adventurous in the way Christopher wasn’t. Another had more of an intellectual spark Courtney found exciting, though she didn’t trust him as she did Christopher.
Christopher liked Courtney and sought out a more solid commitment from her, but she couldn’t bring herself to settle. “I always had the ‘What if?’ in the back of my head,” she says. “I kept wishing I could find a guy where I could graft this guy’s looks with this one’s humor and this one’s niceness, kind of like a Franken-lover. It was hard for me to accept someone fully, flaws and all. I liked Christopher a lot, but I couldn’t shake the sense that something was missing.”
Eventually, Christopher lost patience and moved on. When Courtney first talks about it, she shrugs it off and laughs, but as she discusses it more, she betrays a note of sadness. “I saw him out at a bar a few weekends ago, with another girl who was clearly his new girlfriend,” she says. “And I admit, it made me doubtful. Like, was there something I genuinely thought was missing with Christopher? Or did I just get distracted by these other guys, who were awesome in their own way but just not quite as solid as Christopher?”
“I know intellectually that there’s no perfect guy out there,” Courtney says, “But sometimes I think being on Tinder gives me the illusion that there could be. I know that’s not true, but it feels that way, simply because you can meet so many men so easily through it.”
Her nagging sense of dissatisfaction seemed to apply to the men I talked to who used Tinder, as well. “There’s always another girl you could meet,” Walt says. “You always think, ‘Well, she seems nice and cute, but maybe there’s an even hotter, funnier girl coming up the pike.’ And of course, that newer, hotter girl has issues, but the nice cute girl won’t talk to you anymore. That’s always the way it is. It’s just amped up with Tinder and online dating. You have more access to more dates, but more dates aren’t necessarily the right person still.”
Courtney and Walt are a perfect example of a strange twist of psychology: the more choices we have to choose from, the more paralyzed we are to make that choice. It’s what psychology Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice” in his seminal 2004 book of the same name.
Schwartz’s idea challenges a central idea to Western society: that freedom of choice is an absolutely good thing, especially for consumers. But his work uncovers the opposite: when faced with an overabundance of choices, we become anxious. We question the decisions before we even make them, raise our expectations unrealistically high and then blame ourselves when we fail. If this goes on too long, we become paralyzed.
The work studied decision-making in all kinds of contexts, ranging from buying jeans and salad dressing to speed-dating. In all situations, he discovered that despite the wide range of choices, our overall satisfaction actually lowers as our choices increase. Schwartz could even quantify the optimal number of choices — he and his researchers discovered in a speed-dating experiment that participants came away from the speed-dating event with more matches if they chose from only eight potential partners than from 20, according to Match.
The big danger of having too many options is how it raises our expectations. We get preoccupied with making a “perfect” choice, not just a “good one” — and then we blame ourselves when our so-called perfect choice doesn’t result in the enduring happiness we thought it promised. Having all those options at our fingertips also makes us wonder “What if?” in terms of the roads not taken — which saps away satisfaction from the choice we did make.
This mindset, according to some experts, has seeped into our romantic lives. Lori Gottlieb, author of the controversial bestseller “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” writes too many women “think I have to pick just the right one. Instead of wondering, ‘Am I happy?’ they wonder, ‘Is this the best I can do?'”
When I bring this idea up with both Courtney and Walt, they agree they see this dynamic in their experiences with online and Tinder dating. “I’ve been on lots of first dates that were great, but never heard from the guy ever again,” Courtney says. “And I’ve done the same, and it’s often because I was convinced the next guy would be even better. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it isn’t.”
Gottlieb’s book focused on women, but the “Can I do better?” mentality is also shared by men. But that leaves us often blind to the real advantages and gifts of the options right in front of us.
Despite its disadvantages, proponents aren’t likely to give up Tinder and its competitors so easily, perhaps for deeper reasons beyond the ease, access and choice they offer to daters. Modern dating is a strange blend: both men and women are coming out of a college hook-up culture where often participants — willing or reluctant — date and have sexual experiences without much emotional attachment. Yet not everyone transitions at the same time into a different dating model, in which people date and mate with an eye for a future marriage or lifelong commitment. And in between, of course, people date for adventure, for a good story to tell their future children, to explore and learn and simply have fun.
People often switch between different modes, depending on who they meet and where they are in life, but it’s tough to discern where potential mates are at in the spectrum. In this way, the “appification” of dating helps people navigate a confusing romantic landscape. “I do think people are more honest about what they really want,” Courtney says. “Once you’re been dating online and through apps, you start to parse out the hidden signals, like ‘just looking to have fun,’ or whatever.”
Online culture often demands openness and transparency, which can be an advantage when dating. “I’m upfront about not wanting anything serious,” Taylor says. “And I do make it a point not to respond to girls who clearly want more, even though they’re hot.” Taylor may be a player, but he’s honest — and apps like Tinder help him be that way without getting too deep or hurting anyone’s feelings.
Walt, though, says he wants a real girlfriend. “Tinder’s fun and helps me meet more people, but I’m diversifying to other services,” he adds, “I just joined eHarmony, actually.” Sites like eHarmony are more “work” than Tinder and require more time and attention, but Walt figures the women on there are more serious about commitment and align closer to what he wants.
Using apps like Tinder — or any other dating service — successfully demands an openness and honesty, not just with others, but with ourselves. “I do think it helps to know exactly what you want, to be completely honest with yourself about what you’re looking for,” Courtney says. “After the whole thing with Christopher, I realized I needed more experiences, just to figure out what it was I really, truly wanted in a potential partner. But that meant I needed to try to avoid guys who were dating to really settle down and seal the deal. I’m not in that space and I don’t want to hurt anyone who is.”
So Courtney is on a new road, where dating is an exploration and adventure of self-knowledge — and Tinder is a valuable, fun tool for her. She says she’s on the lookout for guys who are a little more “left-field, adventurous, off the beaten track. Just to see if that’s something that brings out the best in me.”
This also means going beyond Tinder, Match, Lulu and others, and trying to meet others in more adventurous settings. “I joined a wild foraging group,” she says. “There are a few promising guys in it.” If she wants someone adventurous, Courtney says, she needs to be more adventurous in her own life.
Courtney knows finding true love isn’t easy for everyone. “Dating is just confusing,” she says. “I don’t even really call it dating anymore. Dating is what older people do. I think I’m more, like, roaming and hunting, looking for that woolly mammoth to drag back to the cave.” She laughs. “Maybe I’m more of a player than I thought.” ♦