The week of May 24, 2015

What I learned from using Tinder around the world

By Jesse Hicks

“Tinder is how people meet. It’s like real life, but better,” the app’s website promises. If you’re somehow not familiar, here’s how Tinder works: You install it, select a few pictures from your linked Facebook profile, and (optionally) a few words about yourself. Soon you’ll be presented with a virtual stack of nearby users you can “like” or “pass” by swiping left or right, respectively. If someone likes you back, you can chat, and maybe even one day meet. This is real life, but better. “Any swipe can change your life,” goes another tagline.

Tinder’s often described as a dating app, though the official branding seems very coy about that characterization; perhaps the company’s avoiding the D-word so as not to not scare off its target audience of photogenic, 20-something Facebook users. Instead, it promises to connect you with “interesting people,” with whom you can do—whatever. As an example of “interesting people,” Tinder’s App Store page offers a picture of a woman standing in front of the Louvre Pyramid, pretending to squeeze it between her fingers as maybe a giant would. Sure, OK.

It’s a compelling promise if remarkably vague. Recently I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot, which seems like a perfect test for Tinder. I’d been using the app in my fortified compound outside Detroit for a while, with mixed results. But could it help me find interesting people in new cities, in a way that really was “like real life, but better?” And what did that actually mean, anyway?

• • •

I landed in Istanbul in late September 2014, after approximately 900 hours on Al-Italia. The in-flight entertainment seemed to be VHS bootlegs of ‘70s-era Italian soccer. I had a spotty cell connection for about three days, meaning minimal Tindering. That can be helpful; give everyone else a head start on “liking” you, and when you return, you might find an ego-boosting succession of matches, one after another. It’s an endorphin-boosting streak.

One afternoon, I got that series of quick hits, most of whom seemed to be college students or young professionals in the city. Most of the chats trailed off after a few messages—common with Tinder—though one match told me about protesting in Taksim Gezi Park that summer and being teargassed by the government. She seemed an interesting person, but she didn’t have time to meet before we left.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most interesting encounter I had in Istanbul was not facilitated by Tinder. I was walking through a fairly well-touristed area of the city when a man approached me on the street, swarthy and broken-toothed. In his hand he held a wooden box with small, plastic jars filled with what looked like paint. “Turkish?” he said, or maybe he started with, “Shine?” I didn’t recognize his purpose or what he had asked. He pointed to my boots—black Doc Martens dusty with dirt from the day before, which I’d spent traipsing through the woods around an abandoned monastery on Princes’ Island. He asked again and I said, “Oh, no,” as much about our lack of a common language as about whatever he’d proposed. He smiled uncomprehendingly, just as I had. Then he asked, “Arabic?” “No,” I replied. He pointed his free hand back to himself. “Syria,” he said, nodding. “Bom, bom,” he said, his hands clenched in front of him, opening with each “bom.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.” The United States had just the day before begun airstrikes in Syria, where the “bom, bom” had been exploding for more than three years. He smiled at me again, nodding vigorously, then said, “Mother, father.” He stopped and clasped his hands as though in prayer, placing them beside his face and tilting his head in a sign for not-sleep. “Oh god, I’m sorry,” I said. “Shine?” he asked again, signalling that it would be a good shine. “How much?” I asked, and he replied with a smile, “No problem,” kneeling, already reaching for his supplies, gesturing for me to put my foot on the wooden box he carried.

I did so, already embarrassed at the situation, and the knowledge that my country had been dropping bombs on his; that his parents very well could have been among the hundreds of thousands killed in the Syrian civil war, though likely not by U.S. airstrikes; that he was among the thousands of refugees flooding into neighboring countries (one Tinder match, hearing that I was near the Hagia Sophia, told me to be careful, as refugees had, by her thinking, made the area less safe); that he had conveyed this all with great casualness, perhaps as one variant of his usual patter.

While he worked, I dug into my pocket: two Turkish lira. Was that enough? What transaction was actually occurring? A shoe shine, or an offer to buy my way out of a guilt that previously was only vaguely sensed, a pervasive disappointment with my country’s actions throughout the world?

I picked up my bag and fished for more more change, finding three more euros. As I did, I caught the glance of another Turkish-looking man. He exhaled cigarette smoke and eyed me disdainfully, though for what I could not be sure. When the shine was finished, the first man popped to his feet, and I placed the coins into his hands. For unclear reasons I again felt apologetic, saying it was all the change I had, while looking down and seeing I had still more—a half-euro and what may have been a penny. I pushed those at him as well, saying, “Thank you,” while he remained silent.

I moved down the street, not looking back. I do not know what he did then, how he looked, or what he thought. Later, a similar scene played out near the Topkapı Palace. A man approached me with a binder filled with children’s photographs. He told me they had all been killed by American bombs in Afghanistan. He asked for money, but I could not give him enough to change the expression on his face.

• • •

About six months later, thanks to a Christmas website glitch, I was on a ridiculously cheap flight to Abu Dhabi. I stopped in New York City first, whiling away some hours swiping left and right. I’ve had previous matches from the Big Apple and stayed in contact with them; oddly, we matched when they were visiting Detroit.

For all the smart thinking it’s spawned, Tinder itself is really about as deep as a mirror.

In the United Arab Emirates, the expatriate population dwarfs that of the locals. Many are enticed by government jobs offering them better pay than they’d make in their home countries. Thanks to Couchsurfing, I stayed with an American schoolteacher who lived in a government-provided apartment and said she made twice what she could at home. She used Tinder, as did seemingly most of the somewhat insular expat community. (It took less than a day to hear about one man who’d earned himself a reputation among the Tinderites for using underwear shots in his profile and unsubtly trying to parlay Facebook friendships into extra sexual opportunities.)

In Abu Dhabi, the sound of construction was a constant. Like the rest of the UAE, the city is constantly building, as oil money gets transmuted into an ever-changing skyline. Much of that construction is accomplished with migrant labor, under conditions that some have compared to indentured servitude. Unsurprisingly, I did not see much of that population on Tinder. As elsewhere, this socioeconomic class was largely invisible, though I heard at least one horror story about a seized passport and months of unpaid salaries. On Tinder, though, the pictures were mostly of smiling expats, often hoisting a drink.

• • •

Finally, I went to Hawaii. There too, Tinder was filled with tourists or locals with profiles complaining about tourists. Over a week, I met one Tinderite for Mai Tais, and we had a fine time. We would both characterize the other as “interesting,” I think.

But again, my most unique experience happened through coincidence. At the community bulletin board at the hostel where I stayed, a German had left a Post-it note with his name and phone number, saying he wanted people to help him sail around the island. I volunteered with a friend, and soon we realized that the German was a sailor only slightly more experienced than us. We learned to sail on the fly, then stuffed into an overloaded kayak to get back to land.

That experience likely wouldn’t have happened thanks to Tinder—at least not on a first meeting. For all the smart thinking it’s spawned, Tinder itself is really about as deep as a mirror. Much like Facebook, its design pushes profiles toward a kind of bland conformity, and its “gamification”—those swipes and likes—offer an illusion of adventurousness, as though you’re really already out in the world meeting interesting strangers, and not just looking at your phone.

Can it work? Sure. I’ve met some fascinating people via Tinder, even while traveling, and I’ve stayed in touch with them. But like so much technology, its vision of a frictionless life is actually an incredibly beige one. Its “real life, but better” is real life with all of the unexpectedness sanded away. (Not to get all Max Frisch here, but “Technology [is] the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”)

As a dating app, this makes a degree of sense. Dating can be hard and exhausting, and people understandably want more control over who they spend their time talking to. That perhaps has to lead to a less adventurous, more predictable experience. Tinder is the opposite of adventurous, not because it has to be but because it’s chosen to be. Let’s not forget that the goal of Tinder is to keep playing (and paying) Tinder. When it comes to travel, though, I want more adventure, less certainty: I want less of Tinder’s bland ideas of interesting. I want less “real life, but better,” and more just real life.

Photo via Wikipedia | Remix by Max Fleishman