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The Real Reason Tinder Is So Popular

Tinder isn't really a dating app. It's a vanity machine.

Posted on July 24, 2013, at 5:20 p.m. ET

Graphic by Chris Ritter

Last week, Tinder, the "Hot or Not"-style dating app in which users swipe through potential dates' minimalist, picture-based profiles, launched on Android. The launch comes months after the iPhone app was released last year; the company reports deciding to expand after receiving nearly a million requests to do so. There are already millions (likely into the tens of millions, with over 75 million matches reported as of earlier this month) people using Tinder for iPhone.

When Tinder first launched, BuzzFeed wondered whether the app's bare-bones style and broadly defined "matching" methods made it too superficial to succeed. (If all you know about a potential date is an age, a city, and the way he or she looks in a handful of pictures, can you know enough to know it's worth meeting in real life?) But Tinder's growing popularity — coupled with a few other internet-isms, like an increasing acceptance toward posting selfies — suggest that the practicality of the app as a matchmaking service might matter less than our desire to know the answer to a very superficial (and very human) question: Does anyone think we look cute?

If social media has always incorporated an element of self-portraiture, we've more recently been provided with a surplus of ways to put our best faces — or, in the case of the popular MTV show Catfish, someone else's best faces — forward: Instagram (and its new video feature), Vine, and Snapchat find many of us holding our phones up to ourselves and sending the pictures we take not only to groups of friends, but to the wider internet at large. Pages on Reddit dedicated to the presentation and evaluation of selfies — like the hopeful Am I Sexy or the more pessimistic Am I Ugly — draw tens of thousands of subscribers.

It's strange, at first (and maybe second) glance, to imagine asking so many strangers what they think of your appearance, but it's quite common that our selfie audiences include a number of people we haven't even met in person. In some ways, that distance makes selfie culture a logical by-product of social media: If the internet allows us to "meet" and make friends with potentially dozens of people (or more) in far-reaching parts of the country and/or the world, giving them some idea of what we look like makes us feel we know them in a way a little closer to real life. Science supports the Snapchatters: Putting faces to people helps us remember things about them, and therefore helps us know them better.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen

Geraldo Rivera posts a selfie.

Of course, what we see in snaps and online dating profiles is rarely a full, true picture; the CEO of Pixtr, essentially a Photoshop app for iPhone, recently said that "a large portion" of the app's users were enhancing their photos specifically for use on Tinder. As mentioned, Catfish depicts stories of people falling in (sometimes under-informed) love with people over the internet, most of whom use misleading or totally plagiarized images in their presentations of themselves. It's hard not to ask, over and over: What do they (and Tinder users sculpting their faces and bodies with Pixtr) think is going to happen when they meet in person?

Catfish is an extreme, but it exists on the same spectrum as Tinder and Snapchat and Instagram — there is us, and then there is the version of us we'll show the internet. These are largely fleeting decisions, sent in hopes of positive feedback (whether admitted or not, whether that means compliments or "likes" or just some sense of being known). Long-term implications are rarely considered. Most of the time (if you are not in politics), there aren't any, or at least none that seem in that moment to outweigh the sudden and acute desire to show your friends (and maybe everyone else) what you, Geraldo Rivera, look like.

Tinder, for all its "matches," has not yet been proven to get people on more real-life first dates than any other internet dating service, and it seems unlikely it could do better getting anyone to a second date. But for the tens of millions of people on it, posting pictures of themselves and rendering instant verdicts on other people's pictures of themselves, maybe that isn't really the point.