She enters my life like the dozen women who came before her and the hundreds who will follow: in the palm of my hand, flickering on the touchscreen of my phone. Her name is Michelle (no it isn’t) and she is 26. Being nearly a decade older, I find her youth a bit distressing. Being a man, I find it a bit enticing. Further stoking my curiosity is the knowledge that Michelle is three miles from here, which has the effect of making her seem more real than the catalog model she resembles, blurring the line between fantasy and reality, pixel and potential. But mainly what I’m drawn to in Michelle is her looks: brown hair blown straight, white jeans that seem to have found their way onto her slender frame via skin graft, a face punctuated by the sort of vaguely suggestive grin made culturally ubiquitous by the selfie. “She looks like fun,” I think, and so I press my thumb onto the screen and swipe her to the right, a gesture that passes for flirtation here in the peculiar world of Tinder, the mobile app responsible for “introducing” us. With that, the word liked flares up in green, a virtual stamp denoting my interest, and Michelle vanishes into the digitized ether as quickly as she first appeared.
Will she like me back?
I contemplate this for about a second, then forget Michelle entirely, distracted now by Christine, the 36-year-old in a sequined evening gown who has taken Michelle’s place. Christine seems nice. Certainly more age-appropriate, but she is 28 miles away and, more to the point, doesn’t inspire the sort of fun thoughts Michelle did. I swipe Christine to the left, watching the word nope flash across the screen in glib orange lettering. Nope, nope, liked, nope, liked, liked, nope: This is what romance looks like on Tinder, the fastest-growing mobile dating service in the nation, and either the most unapologetically superficial one to be invented or the one most honest about the primal instincts that have been drawing strangers to each other since the beginning of time. Using the magic of GPS, Tinder finds potential mates nearby and presents them to you. Should two people independently like each other, a “match” is made, prompting a private text-message box to open up, and leading to the fiery, 21st-century beginnings of… hold that thought. For all I know, Michelle, the first woman I’ve liked, has already gone and given me the nope.
It takes about 10 seconds to understand Tinder’s cleverness: a dating service designed to never explicitly feel like a dating service. After the initial download, you’re forced to link Tinder to your Facebook account, with the thin assurance that your Facebook friends won’t know you’re using it – at least until they stumble across you on Tinder. The effect is that instead of feeling like another lovelorn castaway handing the reins of your heart over to the algorithm of, say, Match.com, you have the sense that you’re merely putting a minor addition to the same social network you already share with a billion people. Indeed, a few minutes into the experiment and I’ve already forgotten how under ordinary circumstances, Tinder is exactly the sort of digital-age phenomenon that makes me want to move to a yurt and learn to spearfish.
But these are not ordinary circumstances. Thirty-four years old, newly single for the first time in years, I have dealt with the breakup by impulsively moving from New York to New Orleans, where I know next to no one. I have not been out with a woman in months. I am at one of those disorienting life junctures where you find yourself hunched over your phone entertaining the idea that maybe 50 years from now your grandchildren will gather around the holographic fire to hear the story about how you and Granny met on Tinder. Or, if not that, then perhaps sex, an act you have fond but increasingly dim memories of enjoying, will be involved. That, you think, would not be so bad.
“Congratulations! You have a new match!”
So reads the message that appears on my phone the next morning. And not just a new match, but three! There’s Michelle, as well as 33-year-old Ashley, and Lori, a 22-year-old whom I felt vaguely creepy for liking in the first place. While this is not as thrilling as catching a stranger returning your nervous smile from across a room, my ego swells at the thought of these women deeming me worthy of a rightward swipe. Michelle has gone ahead and taken the initiative, writing me a message that reads, in its hieroglyphic entirety: “hi :).” I delete five drafts before settling on a response (“Hi there. Good morning”) and feel, as I hit send, like a ninth grader who’s just passed a note to the cheerleader in algebra class.
Things get weird fast. While waiting for Michelle to respond, I instigate conversations with both Ashley and Lori. This is the digital equivalent of hitting on a woman at a bar while the woman you’ve been hitting on is in the bathroom, a tightrope walk the analog me would never attempt.
“Nice forearm stand,” I write to Ashley, a woman of striking cheekbones and auburn hair, who in one photo is doing the classic yoga pose, a cup of tea by her side, the newspaper spread before her, as if to convey that this is how she spends most mornings.
Will she be impressed by my observational prowess? Who cares! I’ve already turned my attention to Lori. But Michelle messages me back: “Just got online… crazy week! But I’m feeling naughty! So what’s up… Want to have some fun? ;)”
Well, that was quick. While Tinder has been called “Grindr for straight people,” a reference to the app that has become a staple for gay men looking for no-strings-attached sex, I find Michelle’s overt randiness more suspicious than titillating. I try to steer us into more innocent terrain: “What part of the city are you in?”
The question doesn’t seem to register with Michelle: “I want a guy that can make me cum….” she replies. “Have u ever made a chick orgasm?? Haha.”
As it sinks in that Michelle is probably an enterprising 15-year-old boy in Bangalore, earning pennies to direct me to a pay site, both Ashley and Lori get back to me. Ashley is a yoga instructor working on her Ph.D. in political science – an appealing combo, since I’ve taken up yoga and pretend to be interested in politics; Lori, meanwhile, informs me that she has just graduated from LSU and, having “fallen in love with the Ebola virus,” plans to attend medical school in a year. In fact, Ashley and I have been getting along so well in 2-D (or is it 4-D?) that we decide to meet up in 3-D, making plans to have drinks the following night.
Because Tinder is purposely casual, rendering indistinguishable the boundaries between those looking to hang out, hook up, and get hitched, I’m not even sure, as I leave to meet Ashley, if I should think of this as a “date.” Whatever it is, I wish I could report that it turns out to be life-changing, and that, as I write this sentence, Ashley is in the next room, reading the paper in a forearm stand, wearing nothing but lingerie and trusting that I’ll accurately convey the glories that have bloomed between us. But the truth is, the moment I see Ashley at the bar of a dimly lit restaurant in the French Quarter, I know exactly where this is going. Namely, nowhere.
It isn’t that she isn’t beautiful, but physical attraction is a beguiling force: instantaneous, pheromonal, one no amount of digital chemistry can will into existence. Making our maybe-date more awkward is the fact that Ashley and I have already covered, via text, the most time-honored icebreakers. So what we mainly talk about is Tinder, rationalizing why we’re “on it,” trying to convey to the other that we’re not really “Tinder types.”
Over a six-week period, most of my Tinder-to-reality experiences follow this narrative arc: the excitement of digitized potential fading the moment it’s actualized. One particularly disillusioning moment comes while I’m on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, when I end up chatting with Maya. She’s 26, with a scalpel-sharp wit, and her photos approximate my real-world tastes more than any Tinder woman so far. She tells me to meet her in a club that night, and as I wait, I try to keep my expectations in check, reminding myself that . . . holy shit! Look at her! Wearing a gauzy tank top, a tiny vintage skirt, and scuffed leather boots, Maya exudes the sort of arty cool that a certain type of man (i.e., me) is predisposed to crush on. She sidles right up next to me and wraps her arm around my waist (good sign!) and asks for a shot of whiskey (better sign!). I’m confident this is going to be the night that converts me into a Tinder proselytizer. But the moment Maya takes her shot, a friend materializes out of nowhere, grabbing her arm and yanking her into the crowd. I hang around, repeatedly texting her through Tinder (“Hey, were you real or an acid flashback?”), before realizing she had a system rigged to let her friend know if she needed rescuing from the “Tinder dude.”
I spend two weeks in New York, hoping it will prove to be an especially fertile ground to get my Tinder on. It does not disappoint. Within two days, I’ve been matched with more than 60 women. One night I meet up with Nicole, a 34-year-old designer of throw pillows, and when it’s clear that neither of us is really feeling it, I log on to Tinder and set up a date with Casey, a 28-year-old who works at Google, whom I meet at a bar up the block an hour later for… a repeat of the same experience! Two days later, things take a promising turn when I find myself at a Brooklyn taco joint with Meg, a 29-year-old fashion exec I’d exchanged a flurry of messages with. Our conversation is effortless and flirty, and we don’t realize we’re the last ones in the restaurant until the waiter politely tells us they’re trying to close. Still, as the evening progresses, I can’t shake the disquieting impression that Meg isn’t interested in me so much as whatever fantasy she’s concocted based on my Tinder profile. She keeps telling me how she can’t wait to take a ride on my motorcycle, a reference to one of my Tinder photos, in which I am straddling a Triumph, one I admittedly put up to look cooler than I am. When I confess to Meg that the bike isn’t mine and that the photo was taken during the first and only time I’d ridden one, she doesn’t seem to hear me. As we kiss on a street corner at the end of the night, she whispers, “Next time, pick me up on the bike.”
By the time I return to New Orleans, the novelty has worn off. Once a salve to post-breakup loneliness, my Tinder usage has begun to foster a deeper, more existential kind. But just as I’m about to delete the app, I hear from Lori, the 22-year-old aspiring doctor, which keeps me tethered to the app for a bit longer. We’ve stayed in touch, though I wouldn’t describe any of our exchanges as even bordering on flirtatious, which is what makes this particular message so jolting: It’s a Friday night, and Lori wants my phone number so she can “drunk text” me throughout the evening. I give her my number, and soon enough…she’s sending photos! Nothing tawdry, but since I‘m at a stuffy dinner party, these glimpses into the life of a sorta-stranger are an entertaining diversion.
As it gets later, however, Lori’s messages take a blunt turn. “I want to fuck you,” she writes, a message I find more jarring than flattering. Can you truly “want” someone who exists solely on a phone? Over the next few days, her photos get more and more explicit: Here she is in a bikini, here she is out of the bikini. She is indisputably sexy, but if I’m turned on, it’s more by the bizarre context of these exchanges than their lurid content. Feeling a kinship with Anthony Weiner was not something I’d expected from this whole endeavor. Every so often, I get a disarming reminder that to Lori what’s transpiring between us is nothing more than, like, a totally normal form of courtship. For instance, at one point when I ask her for another photo of her in a bikini – a seemingly within-bounds request, given that by now she has sent me dozens – we have the following exchange.
Lori: “Hey, is this just about sex for you?”
Me: “I’m confused.”
Lori: “It’s just that I was talking to my dad about you the other day, and he said I should be careful, that someone your age would only be interested in me for sex.”
Her dad? Just as I’m about to respond to Lori with a cultural polemic about the distorting effects of hyperconnectivity, I realize there’s no point. Lori’s memory doesn’t extend beyond the Myspace era. For her, there are no lines separating the real from the digital, the world of the screen and the world at large. It doesn’t matter to her that we’ve never spoken; in her eyes (eyes I have never seen), we’ve been dating all this time.
I’m puzzled. What is the etiquette for breaking up with someone you’ve never met? But before I can formulate a plan, Lori texts me, at midnight: “Hey, what’s your addy? I’m driving to your house right now. I’m 22, remember? I still do stupid shit.”
An hour later, an SUV pulls up, and as Lori steps onto the street I’m reminded of a long-dormant fantasy in which it was possible to flip through Playboy fast enough to cause the centerfold to step out of the magazine and into your bedroom. Forgive me if I don’t go into detail about what happens next – the awesomeness of the awkwardness, the thrill of the unfamiliar morphing into the intimate – but thanks to Tinder, I now know what it’s like to have a one-night stand with someone I’ve been dating for weeks.
Still, maybe it’s where I am in life, too frayed from a breakup to get into this sort of thing, or maybe it’s who I am, someone who finds real life just fine as it is. But even after the Lori Experience I am officially worn out by Tinder. The buzzy pleasure of the swipe has lost all potency, the notifications alerting me to new matches have become interchangeable with those reminding me my credit card bill is due, and, in the end, I can’t let go of the old-fashioned belief that it’s better to be liked by one person for the right reasons than “liked” by hundreds for the wrong ones, a worldview that clashes with the one that has made Tinder a phenomenon.
So I delete the app. I resume my old routine: working, cooking, meandering through the city, and spending a disproportionate amount of time at the yoga studio, where the act of contorting myself proves to be a more sustainable way of combating loneliness than swiping images of women on my phone. At class one Saturday, I notice a woman in the back row whom I’ve seen a few times over the past three months but have been too shy to approach. Then, as the session ends, I find myself wondering if she is on Tinder. Maybe, I think, I should download the app again, give it one more shot, and swipe and swipe and swipe until I find her . . . except, wait a second! She’s right there. I have found her. But does she want to be found? That’s always the question, and there is only one way to find out.
“Hey, there,” I say.