What’s Really Motivating All Those Tinder Users?

Forget building a brand. Knowing the social role of your app is what gets traction–and few apps are as misunderstood as Tinder, the dating app that’s stormed the college set. Founder Sean Rad says Tinder acts as an intermediary that protects the feelings of both dating parties. “We now live in an environment in our digital world where you can shield yourself against rejection,” he says.


“Many, many times.”

That’s the answer Sean Rad gives me when I ask him if he’s ever been on a Tinder date. Rad is the CEO and cofounder–along with Justin Mateen, Jonathan Badeen, and Christopher Gulczynski–of Tinder, the six-month-old app that’s been slammed as “shallow,” “creepy,” and proof that kids today are getting “lazy” in making real connections. The most common gripe you’ll hear about Tinder is that it’s “Hot or Not” for the mobile age. And the detractors don’t mean that to be flattery.


Rad is 26 and smack in the middle of the age range in which Tinder has found its largest audience. But if Rad keeps going on “many, many” Tinder dates, doesn’t that seem to validate the argument that the app is a shallow haunt for serial hookups?

“It’s not that I’m not looking for a serious relationship,” Rad says. “I think most people in the twenty-first century aren’t necessarily looking for a serious relationship. I think those relationships just happen. You find the right person and it becomes serious naturally.”

But I mean, come on, blowing through 250 pictures of faces saying YES or NO? Isn’t that basically speed dating? “I would say the app emulates the way the real world works,” says Rad. “In the real world the first thing you notice about somebody is their looks.”

He’s got a point. While we all want to believe what our parents told us growing up–that we’re fine as we are, and looks don’t matter–well it’s just not true, is it? Looks do matter–especially when first impressions are concerned.

Shooting the Messenger

Perhaps that’s why Tinder gets dismissed as shallow: We all prefer to shoot the messenger that reminds us of painful realities. After all, if processing a random stream of people can reliably serve as a stand-in for the real first steps of dating, then it’s clear that yes, people are pretty superficial about this process. And that’s enough to nudge a person just a tiny bit more towards cynicism.


But Rad says that rather than force people to face the grim, superficial reality of first impressions, Tinder was born from the desire to eliminate that basic fear of rejection–starting with his own.

“Dating was a problem for me and a problem for a lot of my friends around me,” Rad says. “We now live in an environment in our digital world where you can shield yourself against rejection. Through Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn you can edit and curate what you’re doing and showing to people. You can edit who you are. In the real world curating who you are is more difficult. Everyone is still afraid to put themselves out there–and I don’t think that has to do with the type of person you are or the century we’re in. When it comes down to it, we are still human beings and everyone is afraid of rejection. Everyone wants validation. And what Tinder does effectively is it takes that element of fear away. It limits your conversations to people you’ve expressed an interest in and have expressed an interest back, so it boosts your level of confidence with everyone you’re approaching.”

Finding the Silver Lining

And since Tinder shows you matches that correlate to your Facebook likes and other information, it can actually help those who normally wouldn’t risk approaching an interest because they normally assume that person is “out of their league.”

I have a friend who you would never think would need to use an app like Tinder. She’s 26 and French and beautiful and has one of those accents that seem to drizzle over your body like warm butter when she speaks. But she frequently laments that many of her dates lead nowhere. After chatting with several of men through Tinder for a week she decided to meet up with one of them. He looked like a chump, but because of their matched Facebook interests and their subsequent chats in Tinder, she felt a connection.

“If he had just approached me on the street,” she told me, “I probably would have just dismissed him as another potential creep. But I got to know him through the app and then through real life.” As of yesterday, they’ve been on their fourth date.


“For the most part men are the pursuers and women are the pursued,” says Rad. “And sometimes that is overwhelming for both genders. For guys especially I think it’s a difficult thing because it leads to a lot of rejection, and for girls it’s a difficult thing because it leads to a lot of unwanted approaches. Tinder solves those issues with the way people interact safely through the app.”

Solving the Human Problem

The risk-aversion that Sean Rad and the other Tinder cofounders Justin Mateen, Jonathan Badeen, and Christopher Gulczynski felt they needed to address in a dating app seems counterintuitive to a software developer’s ethos of fail fast and fail often–something that is a virtual necessity for software entrepreneurs in their work lives. After all, these are four guys who show incredible resilience and bravery, taking on enormous responsibility (through partnerships with venture firms, their advisors, and their employees). You would think feeling the disinterest of a female isn’t a problem.

But as Rad points out, we’re all humans and our fears and priorities aren’t always rational. As individuals we can be strong and confident and thick-skinned in one area of our life but not in another. It’s what makes us human.

“That’s why Tinder’s taken off,” Rad says. “It solves that human problem.”

As for the “shallowness” complaints, the people at Tinder might want to take that as a compliment. It’s a rare feat for any app to mirror real life, but–and whether Tinder’s users want to admit it or not–the app does just that. But just like in real life, Tinder lets you dig deeper than the surface and connect with people based on common interests, and it’s that digging deeper that enables us to build the foundations of meaningful relationships.


[Image: Flickr user Harshit Sekhon]

About the author

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. You can read more about him at