I’m standing on a crowded train, trying to look like I’m not trying to read the smartphone screen of the woman sitting with her back to me. She’s looking at a series of pictures of men: Phil, 40 (a bit pudgy); Drew, 24 (a bit young for her); Alan, 45 (apparently pictured at his own wedding). As she dismisses each image with a swipe of her finger, a fat red ‘Nope’ stamp is branded across their faces as they disappear. Then she pauses. Mark, 37, is a lot dishier than the others, and according to the screen, shares two common interests with her (amazon.co.uk and films ? not exactly niche matches). This time, her finger swipes the opposite way ? Mark still disappears to be replaced by yet another potential beau, but this time the stamp is different: ‘Liked’. The woman doesn’t pause before continuing to sort all the men within a 5km radius into these two camps.
This is Tinder ? a matchmaking app which abbreviates internet dating into one question: hot or not? Users are presented with a fewphotographs of each potential date, plus a teaspoon-full of information, and decide whether they’re interested. That person does likewise, and if it’s a match, they then enter the app’s inbuilt messaging system, through which they can chat and potentially organise a date.
Except of course, Tinder isn’t just about dating. Many users are there for one thing: casual, no-strings-attached sex. The entirely visual matching system is a giveaway; like lonely hearts on the pull in a late-night bar, users are simply asking themselves the question ? would I go to bed with this person?
There’s a series of advertisements adorning London’s tube carriages at the moment, promoting faith-based dating website Christian Connection with slogans such as ‘Christians make better lovers’. It’s a bold claim, loosely backed up with a reference to 1 Corinthians 13 and the notion that love is central to the faith. When they launched at the start of the year, the ads attracted the attention of secular media, including The Huffington Post and The Daily Telegraph, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, some derision.
If the delivery is a little heavy-handed, the sentiment is familiar. It’s an idea that progressive Christian thought-leaders have been trotting out for a while now: that in a culture mired in sexualisation, pornography and family breakdown, the Church’s role is to model healthy, fulfilling, lifelong relationships. Sounds great. But is that really what we do? Does that message ever move from the Christian lifestyle magazine article to the Christian lifestyle? The fact that the divorce rate is the same inside the Church as out, suggests not. The legions of dysfunctional marriages, unsettled by issues as diverse as infidelity and misapplied headship, suggest not. Let’s not kid ourselves. Christians might make better lovers in theory, but in practice most of us are struggling to live up to the ideal.
So here we have two web-enabled dating services promoting very different messages about sexual fulfilment: one says it comes from faithfulness by the faithful, the other suggesting that it all rides (as it were) on initial visual attraction. So whose message wins? If the Church is going to challenge a Tinder worldview, we need to understand it, and then we have to genuinely stand for something better.
TURNING UP THE HEAT
I’ve had to do some challenging things for this column. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey was a particular lowlight. But writing about Tinder brings a whole different set of challenges. How exactly was I supposed to engage in a world that theoretically had the power to set fire to my family life? The answer ? you’ll probably be pleased to learn ? was to get only peripherally involved, and to wear plenty of fireproof clothing. Making myself accountable to both my editor and my wife, I set up a fake profile using a few stock photos. Women were essentially going to choose whether they wanted to date the man they use as a placeholder in John Lewis picture frames.
Tinder's own strapline 'It's like real life, but better' gives the game away
I wrote a few vanilla sentiments about this fictitious gentleman, and set my search radius (the distance you want to be from potential dates) and age bracket fairly wide. Immediately the app presented me with my first candidate ? Emma, a very pretty 28-year-old. Assuming I was interested, I had six pictures of Emma with which to make my decision. Taken from her Facebook profile, they showed her alternately smiling, gurning and hanging off the arm of a handsome man (FYI Emma: I can’t imagine that’s a smart move). Underneath the images, two redundant words ‘Love Life’. From this information, I could either stamp her with a ‘Like’ or a ‘Nope’. Picture Frame Guy was a good’un, I decided ? I gave Emma the swipe of approval. Another girl appeared, then another. Three-dimensional human beings with histories and passions and quirks and foibles, reduced to a couple of photographs screaming, ‘Please think I’m hot’
Then, because I hadn’t thought this through properly, I got a surprise. Tinder informed me that I had been matched with Abi, 34. She’d been swept off her feet by a picture of Picture Frame Guy at a graduation. The inbuilt messaging system, through which I could arrange a meeting, was now open to me. Panicked, I deleted my account, and my foray into Tinder was at an end. Abi must have been heartbroken.
As I reflected on it later, some part of me understood the appeal of Tinder perfectly. Here is an opportunity to screen all the women in my local area based on whether I found them attractive. Better still: if any of them were, by some sad quirk of eyesight, attracted to me, I’d not only find out, but open a conversation with them on those terms. If sex was a disposable commodity, if people were just empty, superficial bodies, Tinder would be the perfect way to meet a partner.
Tinder is huge, and growing fast. As its user numbers increase, so does its influence on culture. It’s ‘the app everyone’s talking about’ according to women’s magazine Marie Claire. The promise of easy hook-ups and no-strings sex is proving unsurprisinglyalluring for a generation that is used to quick-fire and superficial online interaction.
Launched in October 2012 at a university party in California, the Tinder app is now downloaded 100-200,000 times each day. While Tinder’s owners won’t reveal the exact number of users, they did announce back in July 2013 that the app had created more than 75 million matches. Out of those ? co-founder Sean Rad proudly revealed ? have come at least 50 engagements, although that’s a bit like celebrating when one person is immune to the plague that wipes out his whole village.
Tinder is both a marker of how far the sexual liberation of our culture has come, and ? along with its even more extreme cousins ? the groundbreaker that’s pushing it even further. Two similar apps, Blendr and Grindr focus directly on finding partners for sex, for members of the straight and gay communities respectively. Even so, I’d suggest that Christians need to move beyond a reaction of disgust, and instead seek to proactively challenge its underlying worldview.
Tinder’s own strapline ‘It’s like real life, but better’ gives the game away really. It’s selling something that isn’t real. It might make you think you can reduce people to what they look like, but you can’t.
Where Tinder essentially promotes people as sexual commodities whose value is intrinsically connected to their attractiveness, the Bible challenges that superficiality head-on. Every person is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, as Psalm 139 famously reminds us; intimately known and equally valued by God. Is this how we see people? Do our lives reflect that value in the way we treat others, not just in our romantic relationships, but in all our interactions? Do we search ourselves regularly to make sure we’re not favouring or spending more time with those we deem to be attractive ? in whatever sense? If so, then we stand in a position of strength to challenge superficiality.
Christians might make better lovers in theory, but in practice most of us are struggling to live up to the ideal
Tinder says sex is disposable. The hook-up replaces the loving relationship as the best context for physical connection. We believe something else. Our culture may be largely illiterate when it comes to the Bible, but many people are still familiar with those words from 1 Corinthians 13, used in what feels like every wedding service. While Paul is using them to describe the characteristics of God’s love, that is the model of love to which we should be aspiring as we seek to become more like Christ. Patience, kindness, humility, softness, tenderness ? do these words really characterise our relationships? As I reflect on that question in the light of my own marriage, I find I come up short. Yet if we’re going to be a voice into our culture that rejects and challenges Tinder values, we need to truly practise our own preaching when it comes to love. Do Christians really ‘make better lovers’? Unless they do, it’s hard to argue with all those Tinder users.
Kristen Lindquist is professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. According to The Financial Times, her research suggests that our brains give us a tiny chemical hit each time someone affirms us online. ‘We get a jolt of dopamine when someone “likes” our Facebook post or retweets our Twitter link,’ she says. ‘Over time, the effect on the reward centre in the brain is similar to what makes drug addicts go back for another line of cocaine.’ In the context of Tinder, where our self-esteem is naturally more exposed, the stakes are higher, and that ‘dopamine jolt’ is stronger. Tinder is addictive, and science can explain why.
There’s no point getting angry or upset. Christians don’t need to engage directly with Tinder, but we can offer a realistic alternative. If we could only be known for our relationships, for the way we love unconditionally, deeply and without prejudice; if we could only love one another to the degree that Christ loved the Church, then when people are burned by the Tinder culture, they might genuinely find themselves attracted to us. That’s quite a challenge. Like or Nope?
Tinder’s creators claim it’s more than just a dating tool; it can also facilitate all kinds of networking. Sure. Anyway, here are five phone-based programs that the world can definitely live without.
BABY CRY TRANSLATOR
Is your newborn infant making hard-to-understand moaning noises? Do not fear, your phone is here ? to make entirely randomconnections between that sound and a series of basic needs such as ‘hungry’ and ‘tired’. Slightly less useful than an invisible car.
I AM A MAN
Are you juggling multiple girlfriends? Finding it tough keeping on top of their movements, birthdays and ? ugh ? monthly cycles? You won’t have to worry any more with this password-protected polygamy app!
PROPOSAL ‘WILL YOU MARRY ME’
Want to show someone that you’d like to spend the rest of your life with them? Don’t go for one of those cheesy stadium half-time scoreboard proposals ? whip out your iPhone and display the big question on your tiny HD screen. NB: don’t expect them to say yes.
THE BOYFRIEND TRAINER
If you’re frustrated with your real-life boyfriend, this fun game will allow you to keep a virtual one in check by maceing or electrocuting him every time he steps out of line or leaves the loo seat up.
Test your powers of endurance by holding your finger down on a virtual button for as long as you can before losing the will to live. Genuinely, that’s all there is to it.