An Ode to Tinder

A Winklevossian tale of an invention whose time has come, and nearly left me behind.

April 15, 2013
Jonathan Libov

The ever-growing success of the matchmaking app Tinder should infuriate me. Not because I'm a curmudgeon, but because I thought of the dang thing first.

Tinder, if you're not already familiar with it, is not so different from the "Hot or Not?" online fad of yore. Like "Hot or Not", You browse through photos of men or women, according to your preference; You "heart" the ones you like and "dismiss" the ones you don't. What's new about this rendition of "Hot or Not?" is that if the people you're presented with are not only Facebook-verified — you're actually browsing their best Facebook photos — but they're local to wherever you are. The upshot: If a person you Hearted hearts you back, you're entered into a chat, presumably to find out if your superficial interest merits a real-world encounter.

As seniors at Vassar College in 2005, a friend and I conceived of the very same idea: What if you could use an application on your phone to approach a woman you had your eye on, but with no risk of embarrassment or rejection? I had dreams of making matches with women on campus; unlike the millions of other young, single people who would benefit from our app, I could introduce myself to my female counterpart with the most devastating of ice breakers: "Yeah, I invented this." We filed an ill-fated patent application, and called the product "Lasso".

Bear in mind that this was two years before the introduction of the iPhone. The Motorola Razr was the hottest phone on the market. Blackberry had yet to go mainstream. Our prototype was not only built on Windows CE, but it relied on Bluetooth, not GPS (back then, too kludgy and data-intensive!), to determine who was in your vicinity. A side-by-side comparison between an image from our patent application and the real Tinder app reveals why you're using Tinder today and not Lasso:

You know how this story goes. To paraphrase a dramatized Mark Zuckerburg, "If we were the inventors of Tinder, we'd have invented Tinder." This is the reason why my friend and I sit where we sit today, having just entered our 30's, while the twenty-something founders of Tinder are "matching" with models at parties during New York's Fashion Week.

Another turn of the screw

Lasso was a setback, but the future was still bright. The venture spawned my career in consumer tech. Today I find myself in the thick of an endlessly fascinating industry that is veritably "eating the world". On the personal side, I'm five years into a relationship with an amazing woman to whom I'll soon be married.

And there's the rub. My invention finally exists and it's thriving just as my life as a bachelor is coming to an end. At last count, billions of profiles have been rated on Tinder and over 35 million matches have been made. While I harbor no jealousy over the fact that the Lasso venture was a financial sinkhole and Tinder is now a social phenomenon, I can't even use the app to its logical end. At least the Winkelevoss twins can enjoy having a Facebook profile!

But here's a little secret I only revealed to my fiancée after writing this post: I do have a Tinder account and I took part in a few of those 35 million matches. Fortunately my fiancée is high-minded enough to know that my use of the app is goofy at worst and harmless at best. I'm glad, because Tinder is one of my favorite apps ever.

Oh Tinder, my Tinder

Even if I were just a regular consumer, I think I'd love this app. Since I do this for a living, I'm at least a little better equipped to identify why it's been such a success.

It's fun to use even if you're not planning to hook up with your matches

I'm not a gamer, and Tinder fills a need that games do for gamers:

  • Prolonged entertainment
  • Mindless, non-verbal engagement

I use Tinder while I'm waiting in line or killing time, when I don't have the mental CPU cycles to read Twitter or the patience to skip past baby photos among my thirty-something peers on Facebook. The exception to my gaming aversion was Angry Birds, and I use Tinder at the same time of day that I once played Angry Birds — waiting for the bus, lying in bed at the end of a long day.

Left to my own (mobile) devices, I could probably browse through Tinder photos for hours, dismissing the women who don't match my taste and Hearting the ones who do. I've never actually chatted with the women I matched with, but when I do make a match, it's a satisfying reward. Especially for a guy in his early 30's who frets in the bathroom mirror over his permanently furrowing brow and slightly graying beard.

It unbundles flirting from matchmaking

As soon as you open the app, you're already engaged. I don't mean that you have the tools to engage, I mean you're already engaged.

Tinder automagically pulls in a stack of profiles to act upon. As a male living in Tel Aviv, Tinder presented, from the very first use of the app, pictures of women in my age range in a 10-mile proximity of Tel Aviv. I Heart this one, I dismiss that one, I Heart this one and then another one. That's it. And that's what's so refreshing about it.

Seven years into the rise of social networking, I'm overloaded with sprawling, all-encompassing internet/mobile services. Tinder is smart in that they've eschewed an experience that requires any kind of investment in the app — it relies on my Facebook data to create my profile and doesn't burden me with building a network anew.

Badoo, in fact, offers the same functionality as Tinder, yet the investment you need to make to enjoy the more featured-laden service is discouraging. While there's a well-known psychological principle that the more labor you've poured into something, the more you value it, it's also a barrier to entry. Every additional second I spent setting up a Badoo profile (as a mobile product guy I do keep abreast of the latest, greatest apps) made me feel more guilty, given that I'm engaged to be married.

Will history favor the feature-first apps like Tinder? I think so, partly because I believe that the internet unbundles. As the app landscape and the race for attention grows ever more competitive, app makers engage in a sort of natural selection that favors the slim, feature-first app experience. In this case, Tinder has unbundled the act of flirting from the broader domain of "courtship", which helps illustrate why my fiancée would have a problem with me using Badoo, let alone or OkCupid, but not Tinder.

And this itself illustrates an important point about unbundling — you can carve out a feature from a larger swath of services without making your app more "niche". I mean, what's the market size for "people who like to flirt"? How many people are there on Earth again?

Tinder does a lot of magic behind-the-scenes

Creating a simple user experience isn't about making a simple app. In many ways, it's mostly the opposite. Putting aside the kind of discipline it takes not to add extraneous features (known as "feature creep") or to produce a pleasingly simple, spare design, a simple and straightforward user experience often requires deep, complicated algorithms. Like an athlete performing at an elite level, a lot of work goes in behind-the-scenes to make things look easy.

What's remarkable about Tinder, from a purely anecdotal perspective, is that most of the women presented to me in the app are at least modestly attractive. Maybe this speaks to the selection bias of people who own iPhones or the misleading nature of profile photos, but Tinder seems to be doing something to create a social world more aesthetically pleasing than the one I experience at a regular café or bar. And it's no secret that being surrounded by beautiful people makes one feel happy to be member of such a crowd.

I don't know enough about how the Tinder service is built to speak about this topic in-depth, but co-founder Sean Rad's interview with The Wall Street Journal gives some insight into the effort they've put in to match users with those they're likely to be interested in. In an era when personalization-via-your-social graph seems to frequently underwhelm, Tinder is exceedingly effective in leveraging Facebook profile data to carve out a relevant and appealing environment.

A very short list

It's strange to think look back and think that our patent application on Lasso was the only real leverage we had as we approached investors and "partners". If we had had the financial wherewithal to see the patent application through to its award, would we be suing Tinder right now? I'd like to think that we wouldn't, but the tens of thousand of dollars we'd have spent would been tough to swallow. In any case, now that I've seen both sides, I hope that a software-based "invention" like Lasso would have no grounds to prosecute a genuine innovator like Tinder.

I also like to think that back on the college quad, eight years ago, my friend and I had been keen enough to catch a glimpse of the future. That we were visionaries. But even back then we weren't the only ones with such an idea — "mutual social notification", as we called it. It was surely an idea long before we stumbled upon it, and today it's an idea whose time has come.

Meanwhile, as a guy who fawns over the latest, greatest mobile products, Tinder's on my short list of apps I admire. As a Tinder user, I'll keep Hearting the women whose appearance I like and dismissing those I don't. I'll get a small pleasure out of making a match, but out of respect for my relationship and my fiancée I'll refrain from entering any of those chats. Fortunately, now that she's been clued in on my use of Tinder, she's even sanctioned me to go ahead with a chat in a handful of circumstances.

Wish me luck that one of these circumstances, illustrated below, comes true.