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The girl who played with fire

Thursday 20th March 2014

I first encountered Tinder at a BYO in the middle of last year. My newly-single friend, an early adopter (aka the only person in our circle to own an iPad), showed it to my terminally-single friend. She gushed about its self-esteem-boosting properties, and its merits as a risk-free, no-commitment, sexy distraction.

I popped outside to make a phone call. By the time I returned to the table, my friend had downloaded the app, and the two of them were merrily swiping away between bites of mee goreng.

At the time I had a boyfriend, and as such I played the role of Smug Married to their single, scaly Bridget Joneses. But it’s so seedy! I exclaimed, barely bothering to conceal my glee at the fact that I was no longer on the market as they objectified every straight man within a 50-kilometre radius of Satay Kajang. If you’re that desperate, why not pop next door to Hope Bros? (I am also a real asshole and a terrible friend.)

Six months later, I found myself single, and assigned to write a trendpiece on “hookup culture”. All bets were off.

I downloaded Tinder on a Friday night, 10 days before my story was due. I selected a couple of pictures of myself, evenly split between blonde and brunette and depicting a wide range of scenes and activities (out in nature, wearing a Swanndri; with a rescue greyhound; double-fisting two glasses of wine) so as to maximise the appeal of my journalistic honeytrap.

I started swiping. I was terrified. The sheer number of men who were open to the concept of having sex with a woman in Wellington city was, frankly, alarming. Some were only two kilometres away from me. Maybe less.

The gravity with which I approached the first few profiles is, in hindsight, hilarious. I spent entire minutes agonising over which way to swipe on someone poring over the intricacies and inferences of their pictures, bio and shared interests, before – sometimes regrettably – settling for “Nope”, just to be on the safe side.

That passed when I realised that there were truly no consequences to the left-swipe. Or, for that matter, the right-swipe. For someone who has in the past prioritised “personality”, “shared interests”, and “connection” in her choice of partners like a real loser, it was liberating to so wilfully objectify the opposite sex and ngaf. I felt like Julius Caesar, directing a man’s fate with my thumb.

A screenshot of Elle'

I selected a couple of pictures of myself, evenly split between blonde and brunette... so as to maximise the appeal of my journalistic honeytrap.

I’ll never forget my first match. Mike, 30, was pictured feeding a wallaby, and said he was “Tinder fresh” in his bio. My profile showed me gleefully gesturing to tame eels, and said I was “only on Tinder to research a feature” (control the conversation). It was a match made, if not in Heaven, within a radius of two kilometres.

Though Mike obviously thought otherwise, as he didn’t message me. Seventy per cent of matches get taken to the chat window, but I chose not to take it to heart. Plenty more where that came from.

Jeremy, 29 (bio: “If live gives you melons, you may be dyslexic”), was more forthcoming. “Elle the eel tamer,  how’s your night tracking ? … Well how about you start by telling me on a scale of 1 to 10 how goos your night is going [sic] … Wow that’s not great stats. What’s dragging you down?”

I decided to leave it there.

I’d been warned about the pick-up lines, ranging from cheesy to seedy, but the worst opener I received was  “Ur certainly not the ugliest bird iv seen on here if u don’t mind me saying” [sic], with the more subtly subversive “Hey ‘Elle’” as runner-up. I was sort of disappointed. You’d hope, in their shoes, you’d get more mileage out of an eel pun.

On the whole, I was surprised by the sincerity with which those matches I did chat approached our conversations. Ben, 25, had flopped in a fishing competition last weekend. Andrew, 29, had just moved from Rotorua to Wellington to do youth work. Conor, 22, was a student majoring in film and philosophy. Surprisingly few referenced the feature I said in my bio I was writing, but those that did made for thoughtful and game interviewees. With a couple, the conversation flowed for a few days before petering out when they asked if I was “actually going to give Tinder a go”. If I hadn’t been so blatant a tourist, I could have seen it culminating in a drink IRL.

Because I was on Tinder partly ironically, and partly in the interests of public service journalism, I felt free to give everyone I knew a friendly thumbs-up. And there was a surprising number of people I knew: present colleagues; past pashes; close friends; uni acquaintances. Even my flatmate popped up, ostensibly a couple of kilometres away, but revealed by a thump on our adjoining wall to be in his room.

He wrestled my phone off me to right-swipe himself, thus relieving me of an awkward decision, but it reminded me of the potential pitfalls of the system. Tinder appeals because the swipe model is almost completely free of the risk of rejection. You don’t know if you haven’t matched with someone because they’ve not seen your profile yet, or because they’ve callously tossed you onto their “Nope” pile. They don’t know how you’ve rated them, either. In a village like New Zealand, any less transparent a system wouldn’t work.

The other, unexpected upside of this was pointed out to me by a friend whom I interviewed for my feature: that being on Tinder sends a social signal that you’re available. He’d matched with an acquaintance, and later gone on to have a casual thing with her. “Was it because of Tinder? Probably not, but that was probably one of the steps, one of the ingredients of the attraction.”

Tinder is both a reason and a means to flirt with people to whom you've already silently, historically, said “Would” to, without having to put yourself out there – and during the week, too, instead of having to wait until  Friday, or Saturday, or the earliest opportunity to get drunk. (Don’t act like you’re better.)

It was also fantastic conversation fodder. “Older coupled-up people love it at a social gathering if you bring out Tinder,” another interviewee had assured me. “It gives them a glimpse into the life they don’t know – I think they have a weird feeling of jealous and pity. I’m pretty sure I get invited to things just because of my Tinder stories. Tinder singles are like the modern-day dancing chimps.”

I saw what she meant while out fifth-wheeling for coffee with two couples, one week and 60 matches (I don’t intend this as a humblebrag; really, it’s not that hard) on. While Tinder is almost damningly mundane (“How’s your cyclone going?” was one young man’s icebreaker on the weekend of Lusi), people who haven’t used it seem to see it as a means of enabling GPS on genitalia. You know, like Grindr.

I was happy to dispel their preconceptions and share some of the openers I’d received, and the fact that I was using it for journalism (as I was continuing to insist) meant no one could even read my being sad and lonely into it. I felt very witty and au fait as I swiped through profiles to show them how it worked – up until the point I came across a dick pic.

I shrieked and threw my phone across the table, and in that moment, in the unforgiving morning sunshine, I saw myself as I’d looked at my friends at the BYO reflected in their eyes: a scary, scaly single person, talking to strangers through an app. (I might have been projecting.)

One rogue dick pic aside (seriously, did he set up a dummy Facebook profile?), my experience of Tinder ranged from boring to mildly interesting. Once the thrill of the match had worn off, and I’d lost interest in making an effort on the chat front, and I’d run out of straight men aged between 22 and 30 within 50 kilometres of Wellington city to rate (all of which happened in less than a week), Tinder became no more interesting to me than Candy Crush, another app that once had seemed like the most thrilling thing ever*.

It was sort of disappointing, really. I can’t imagine where I went wrong compared to the authors of all the other trendpieces on “hookup culture” and its hapless victims, robbed of their ability to love and form meaningful connections by texting, sexting, Snapchat, etc. How did they use it differently to how I did? Did I right-swipe a different crowd?

Of course I’m still on it. Anything for the story.

*For some reason I feel like that’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve said in this entire blog