Am I swiping right? How Tinder falls short for men and women

Digital Media

by Daniel Van Boom February 11, 2017 10:00 AM PST @dvanboom

As part of "It's Complicated," CNET's series about how tech is changing our relationships, we thought you might enjoy this story, originally published Oct. 26, 2016.

"If they had Tinder when I was single...," the guys say, imagining the possibilities.

"You're single? Have you not tried Tinder?" the gals ask incredulously.

People who have never used Tinder seem to think it's a gateway to instant connection or gratification. But those who have used the app will tell you it's not that simple. They say the digital road to romance can be a perilous one.

And now there's research to back them up.

Social media, happiness and you

Social media can impact self-esteem. A group of researchers in 2013 found that Facebook negatively impacted self-perception of young adults, while Denmark's Happiness Institute last year found that abstaining from the social network caused spikes in reported happiness. Earlier this year, the University of Pittsburgh showed Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat can be similarly pernicious.

But what about Tinder? The swipe-to-find-a-match dating app is certainly social. But like love itself, it's complicated.

The company says it does everything it can to protect the self-esteem of its users, but an August 2016 study from the University of North Texas indicates the app can be tough for some.

"Tinder users reported having lower levels of satisfaction with their faces and bodies and having lower levels of self-worth than the men and women who did not use Tinder," said Jessica Strübel, PhD and co-author of the study, presenting her research to the American Psychological Association.

The experiment examined a group of 1,044 women and 273 men, roughly 10 percent of whom were Tinder users. These users, the report said, were less likely to be satisfied with their body, looks and life.

While Tinder's in-house sociologist, Jessica Carbino, dismisses the study, saying the sample size was too small to gather "statistically significant results," Strübel found the research shocking. Not because it indicated Tinder could influence self-perception, but because it impacted men just as much as women.

"We thought females would most strongly, and adversely, be affected by using Tinder," research partner Trent Petrie added. "The fact that male and female Tinder users reported similar levels of psychological distress was surprising."

The anxiety of inactivity

Tinder doesn't release data on match percentages but, from best estimates, men get far fewer matches than women.

After a 2014 interview with Tinder CEO Sean Rad, the New York Times reported that men swiped right, or "liked", 46 percent of the time while women did so to 14 percent of profiles. Because men make up roughly 60 percent of Tinder's 50 million users, there are a lot less "likes" shared between the larger group of users.

In 2009, research conducted by dating site OKCupid on its users showed that women rate "80 percent of guys worse-looking than medium." It was also noted that "higher rated" men received 11 times as many messages from women as those on the lower end of the spectrum.

Kevin Lewis, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, notes a similar trend at Tinder, where "competition over the most attractive people" is encouraged, because there are "zero costs for aiming high." In other words, the bulk of the matches go to the top percentile of attractive users.

Tinder itself says there are 1.4 billion swipes made every day, with 26 million matches. That's a match rate of 1.8 per cent. "What are you doing tonight?" asks Tinder's website. With a strike rate like that, probably not getting a date through Tinder.

"Whenever I use Tinder, I feel my self confidence deteriorating by the second," said user Andrew (his name, like all other users here, has been changed). He's been using the app for a month, during which time he's made one match. She didn't reply to his message.

"I had a match once [after going weeks without one]," said Thomas. "She passed a comment [criticising] my guitar and, without waiting for my reply, she unmatched me."

In the ad for Tinder Plus, the app's subscription-based premium option, love is just a swipe away. But many men will have to swipe hundreds of times before ever getting a match.

"It's demoralising," said Professor Lewis. "Men [on Tinder and online dating] endlessly get their hopes up just to come up with nothing."

But while Tinder and online dating can chip away at a man's self confidence, it still doesn't compare to what some women have faced. If there's something far worse than no attention, it's bad attention.

Digital minefield

Earlier this year, Sydney woman Olivia Melville found herself Facebook infamous. Her Tinder profile, in which she cited raunchy lyrics from Nicki Minaj's song "Only," was screenshotted by another user, Chris Hall, and shared on Facebook. The post was seen by thousands.

"I was getting all these messages from people," she told ABC. "People were just bombarding me, abusing me and saying I was in the wrong."

One offender was Zane Alchin. He made numerous comments on the picture, including threats such as, "I'd rape you if you were better looking." Alchin was charged with using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend, and after appearing in court received 12 months probation.

It's notable someone was actually charged and convicted for their activity online, but these were comments made on the comparatively public domain of Facebook. A lot can happen behind the closed doors of personal messages, and these comments can feel just as, if not more, intimidating.

Women are more than twice as likely as men to receive online dating messages that make them feel "harassed or uncomfortable," according to a 2013 PEW report. The percentage of female e-daters who have experienced this is 42, the report said, compared to 17 percent of males.

"They were so gross," Justine, no longer on Tinder, recalls from her time using the app. "I'd get asked for pictures constantly, and if you didn't reply or said no, guys would be like 'OK f*** off s***.'"

These men weren't the majority, she said, but "there were a fair few." Another Tinder user, Kayla, said that these messages are frequent enough that they become white noise. "I expect it," she says.

What's behind inappropriate, overly-sexual messages? A lot of the time, it's misplaced desperation.

"Some men send messages like this in response to women not replying politely, or at all, to their more-respectful first volley," said Professor Lewis. "Other men might get rejected from women A, B, C and D and so 'pay forward' their animosity to unsuspecting woman E in a setting where he can get away with it.

"There is a certain, pretty disgusting symbolic violence to the whole thing."

You can see flagrant messages of this type at Bye Felipe, an Instagram page set up to call out "dudes who turn hostile when rejected." There you'll see how alarmingly quickly a conversation can go from amiable to abusive.

And while women may get more matches than men, many argue that doesn't necessarily mean they have any greater chance of finding a connection.

"If I got 10 matches, maybe two [initiate conversation]," said Christina, who said she's met two interesting men over a year on Tinder.

Alexandra, meanwhile, claims to be a meticulous swiper, only "liking" around 4 men out of 100. Of these, she said around 70 percent will send her a message, but notes that only "15 percent of those that do start talking are interesting."

The things we do for love

For all the sadness, negativity and abuse around Tinder, there are those positive moments people signed up for, too. Scores of people have found the service gave their outlook on life a real boost.

"I went on it when I came out of a pretty destructive relationship," Emily said. "It helped to remind me that there were nice single people out there. If anything, I gained confidence."

Similarly, Harriet calls herself one of the "lucky ones", saying she's "met some lovely guys and made some friends."

Tinder in-house sociologist Carbino reminds us it's about more than being nice, too. A third of Americans who married in the past year, she says, met online. Meanwhile, 59 percent of adults in the US consider online dating "a good way to meet people," according to PEW.

That includes Tinder -- you'll find stories everywhere about married couples who met on the app. I'd wager you know people in long term relationships, maybe even a marriage or two, who first encountered their partner in Tinder-profile form.

So the "hook up" app is a legitimate way to meet that someone special. And it is easy to use -- but finding real romantic connection is never easy.

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