Tinder: the Silicon Valley Perspective

If you’ve spent enough time with me, you’ve no doubt heard my plans for doing my own online dating startup. Whenever I mention my plans, people chime in eagerly with advice and ideas of their own—and it’s not hard to see why. First, the online dating problem is important. Indeed, if the longest-running study of human happiness ever conducted can be believed, then “love is happiness. Full stop.” Second, it’s interesting. Grouping people into clusters of romantic compatibility based on analyses of everything from their taste in food to the sentence structure of their Facebook posts is a brass-tacks problem that spans pattern recognition, optimization, machine learning and natural-language processing. My own approach to solving it reduces the problem to hypergraph partitioning, an exceedingly difficult problem that is at least PSPACE-hard and that has been the subject of considerable research.

So whenever a credible new entrant arrives in the online dating space, I stand up and take notice—as do lots of others. And Tinder has definitely arrived. It has probably displaced OkCupid as the most talked-about free dating site, even if—unlike OKC—its name can’t be reduced to a cool TLA. We’ve got Tinder etiquette guides, lists of Tinder’s unwritten rules, and expansive reviews of Tinder from the other side of the Atlantic.

But what does Tinder do well and where does it break down? Let’s take the Silicon Valley perspective and look at Tinder as a product.

First, what is Tinder supposed to do? Fundamentally, it’s a service that connects the two parties of a deal, making it conceptually the same as eBay and Airbnb. Sites like this deliver value by connecting parties that wouldn’t normally be able to connect—and connecting them with minimal hassle. The value of eBay is that it connects you with someone who actually wants the avocado-green rotary phone you have in your garage. The value of Tinder is that connects you with someone else who’s single and who already thinks you’re cute. And easy, no-hassle connections is an arena in which Tinder excels. Why?

  • It’s built atop the Facebook platform. You don’t have to fill out a profile or specially prepare and upload photos or answer a bunch of questions. Tinder gets all of the data it needs from your Facebook profile. Unlike setting up an OKC account—which can require answering up to 5 essay questions—setting up a Tinder account is hassle-free and virtually instantaneous.
  • It mirrors the way attraction works in the real world. Tinder has taken some flak for being more-or-less completely visual. There are no essay questions or lists of favorite books and movies involved in the initial swipe interaction. But is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. When you flirt with someone at a concert, what made you start talking to them? I’m guessing it’s because you found them cute. What comes after the initial meeting may be all about personality and chemistry, but in the real world, looks usually drive the initial meeting—and so it is on Tinder.

That said, there are quite a few things Tinder doesn’t do so well, and they are the flip-sides of the positive points above. As I see it, the glaring Tinder problems are:

  • It’s built atop the Facebook platform. Given recent concerns about privacy, a lot of people are rethinking how much information they share on Facebook or even whether to maintain a Facebook account at all. If you’re in this crowd, you’ll be a little miffed to hear that a Facebook account is a prerequisite for a Tinder account. Without Facebook, there is no Tinder. Tinder uses Facebook for authentication and as its source of all photos and data.
  • It’s too simple. Tinder has done no-hassle setup and an intuitive, immediate, user experience better than anyone, but sacrificed a lot to get it. There is no semantic matching at all. Tinder doesn’t care about your education, interests, values, or politics. You see a list of photos, ordered by proximity, and you swipe left or right.
  • There is no open web interface. Tinder is an app—and that’s it. It runs on iOS and Android—and that’s it. If you use Windows Phone or a mobile flavor of Linux, you’re out of luck (though a Windows Phone version is rumored to be on its way). And this has implications beyond just Tinder’s availability. Tinder has become a cultural icon, albeit a small one. It would be nice if cultural icons tried to do the right thing by using open, device-independent and vendor-independent web standards instead of playing only within the walled gardens framed by Apple and Google.

What do you think?