A photo of a smiling and nattily dressed man in his 30s comes up on Emily Wright's phone. "Now this guy is hot, I'm going to say yes to him," she says, as she presses the button on her smartphone screen marked with a green tick. "But, oh God, no. Put your shirt on, mate." The next one who has appeared bare-chested has been unceremoniously pushed to the "no thanks" pile on the left. The 32-year-old businesswoman from London, is on Tinder, a smartphone dating app which in a few months has become a sensation among Britain's singletons. Technology experts say it could revolutionise the way we meet people for love just as internet dating did over the last decade.
"It's the most fun I've ever had," says Emily, in between judging men entirely on their looks. "I've got my housemate doing it as well. We have sat there for more than an hour trawling through single men and saying, 'No; no; oh yeah; yeah to him too.' I go on it several times a day – everywhere and anywhere. This morning I met a guy on it before I got out of bed."
Tinder launched in the US in September last year, and made its way over here three months ago. Globally, there are more than 2 million members using it every day with more than 10% of those in Britain. In 12 weeks, it has become a household name for young Britons and the number of UK users is growing by more than 2% every day – on a single Saturday a few weeks ago it had an increase of 12%.
Its simplicity is its strength. It shows a series of photographs of the gender that you are interested in, within a maximum distance that you set. It is also connected to your Facebook profile so uses photographs from that account. Other than the age of your match, the only information that you have about them is whether you have any mutual Facebook friends and interests. If you find their photo attractive, you either press the green button or swipe their photo to the right on the screen. If you don't like the look of them, it's the big red cross or bin to the left. And if you both swipe right, you straight away start instant messaging through the application.
Then it's a short step to talking on the phone, and a meeting in real life. If you have set your maximum distance to one mile, you know they are just around the corner andyou can meet in a few minutes at the nearest bar. If you don't hit it off you say goodbye and get on with your day.
The speed of the interaction is rewriting the rules of the dating game. It is now common in metropolitan bars to see friends laughing as they crowd around a phone to decide whether the picture displayed is attractive enough to swipe right. Turning dating into a social activity in this way is a huge step on from using dating websites alone in one's bedroom – and a new stage in the evolution of meeting people for love.
Some have criticised Tinder as inherently shallow because initial contact is based entirely on looks. But, as Emily says: "The primary way we make a first decision on somebody is looks, and there's no point pretending otherwise. I don't care if our personalities match: if he's 5ft 4in personality doesn't matter."
Once you are physically attracted to someone, the thought goes, you can start inquiring if you both like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.
Justin Mateen, a co-founder of Tinder, says the app fulfils a basic human need. "As humans we have this innate need and desire to meet people," he explains. "In the past, social networks were concerned with connecting you with distant members of your network of friends. Tinder is all about connecting you with new people. And we find that valuable, especially because we're constantly running around and don't have time to slow down and meet people."
What made Tinder possible is the move from computers to smartphones as the main method of complex communication. But what makes it so successful is that it gives Tinderers a short, sharp "hit" of excitement as they get matched with people they fancy.
Tom, a 27-year-old television producer, recalls how he started using it: "I've got a couple of mates that have it and they were showing me how it works. You say, 'I quite like her' and oh! You've got a match. That's great – a nice little confidence-booster. I think it's a horrible thing going 'no, no, yes' but it is horrendously addictive. And it's in your pocket at all times."
Comparisons to addictive experiences such as gambling or drugs are not a complete exaggeration: the average user checks the app 11 times per day for seven minutes at a time.
There is an argument that Tinder empowers women by dispelling the myth that few of them are primarily motivated by looks. As Ann Friedman of New York Magazine writes: "There was that old trope that, unlike superficial men, women need more detailed information on a guy before they decide they're interested. This … is disproved by Tinder."
Women's behaviour on Tinder is, in fact, much the same as men's: swiping left – not good-looking enough – 70% of the time.
The fact that you are told of mutual Facebook friends also adds a layer of social recommendation that makes women less apprehensive about meeting a stranger. Tinder's vice-president, Whitney Wolfe, says: "In real life, women are constantly being approached and bombarded. On Tinder, no one can approach you unless you give them the green light to do so."
It's time to try it myself. I sign up and 90 seconds later I'm chatting to Anne. She seems nice but there's no spark. Two minutes later I'm on to Cecilia, a Swedish graphic designer in London. She's also a laugh so our first date is set for 48 hours after we see each other's photo. This is real speed-dating.
Yes, flicking all these photographs of real people to the left feels throwaway. The women who came and went after a five minute chat on the instant messaging service or by phone passed into my vision then out again and I didn't think of them again. But really if you meet some friends in a bar, and there are some members of the opposite (or same) sex, you will spend a few minutes talking to them and nine times out of 10 you will say goodbye and never again wonder how they are.
Dr Bernie Hogan of Oxford University has studied dating sites. He sees Tinder as the natural progression for dating in a commercial world. "What we are seeing with dating sites and Tinder is a change to something which is more individualising and personalising," he says. "They are different from earlier forms of evaluating people where you would think 'what does my mother think?' or 'what do my friends think?' Now it's about your taste – and with Tinder it's like shopping: you can choose someone between 5ft 7in and 5ft 10in who likes jazz and is less than a mile away."
He is curious about what will come next. He suspects that we will soon be asking for feedback from other "users" before going on a date. He says: "One way forward would be to turn dating into a marketised and socially evaluated situation – that would mean rating dates and reading reviews before you go out with someone."
If Tinder is the future, not everyone is happy about that. Doug Haines, co-founder of the London School of Attraction, which trains men and women in how to meet people, isn't keen. "Tinder is a fun, hooky, interactive experience," he says. "You can do it on the bus and get some matches in 10 minutes. But the problem with anything that comes easy is that people don't value it so much."
He believes it is all about turning romance into a business. And the social cost is not built into the equation. He says: "Commercially it makes sense because people want easy solutions to difficult problems. But it's part of an overall trend that the ease of meeting people in these ways means people are getting further and further apart, as technology makes meeting people in conventional ways more difficult."
It doesn't work out between me and Cecilia, but that's OK because it began and ended so casually. On my way home from saying goodnight to her, Lorna appears on my screen. I can see we have a mutual friend, Sarah. I call Sarah and she tells me she thinks Lorna and I might be good together, so I start chatting with Lorna. And so it continues.
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image: © Ashley