How desirable are you on Tinder? You might not realize it, but anyone who’s used the popular dating app is assigned an internal rating: a score calculated by the company that ranks the most (and least) desirable people swiping on the service. The scores are not available to the public, but Tinder recently granted me access to my own—and I’ve regretted learning it ever since.
Referred to inside the company as an “Elo score,” a term the chess world uses to rank player skill levels, Tinder’s rating system helps it parse its user base in order to facilitate better matches. Using the system, Tinder could, say, surface more potential dates based on score compatibility. But to me, and likely most Tinder users, it’s hard not to perceive the rating as a definitive scoring of our attractiveness, a supercharged Hot or Not-style algorithm culled from thousands and thousands of signals. Should Tinder make your score available to you? And if the company did, would you even want to know it?
Tinder CEO Sean Rad confirmed the scoring system to me while I was reporting Fast Company’s recent profile of the company. Rad, who tells me his Elo score is “above average,” stresses that the rating is technically not a measure of attractiveness, but a measure of “desirability,” in part because it’s not determined simply by your profile photo. “It’s not just how many people swipe right on you,” Rad explains. “It’s very complicated. It took us two and a half months just to build the algorithm because a lot of factors go into it.”
He doesn’t go into too much detail, but it’s easy to imagine how many data points could make up your “desirability” score. How many people who you swipe right on, swipe right too? How many don’t? Do you include education and career information in your profile? And so on. Jonathan Badeen, Tinder’s VP of product, compares it to the video game Warcraft. “I used to play a long time ago, and whenever you play somebody with a really high score, you end up gaining more points than if you played someone with a lower score,” he says. “It’s a way of essentially matching people and ranking them more quickly and accurately based on who they are being matched up against.”
Still, as nuanced as Tinder’s algorithm may be, it ultimately comes down to what Tinder data analyst Chris Dumler calls a “vast voting system.” Every time you swipe right on one person and left on another, you’re fundamentally saying, “This person is more desirable than this other person,” says Dumler. “Every swipe is in a way casting a vote: I find this person more desirable than this person, whatever motivated you to swipe right. It might be because of attractiveness, or it might be because they had a really good profile.” Tinder’s engineers tell me they can use this information to study what profiles are considered most alluring in aggregate.
But it’s more of a “generic” beat on what Tinder’s community finds desirable. “People are really polarized on even just a photographic level: Some people really favor facial hair, while some do not. Same thing with tattoos, photos with pets or children, excessive outdoors shots, or photos of you with a tiger,” says Tinder data engineer Tor Solli-Nowlan. In that sense, a photo showing you skydiving may be alluring (or not) for different reasons; some may like that you’re an adventurous thrill seeker, while some might simply be intrigued by how you look. “This [Elo score] isn’t a universal attractiveness,” Solli-Nowlan says.
It’s not uncommon for technology companies to give its users ratings these days, and for good reason. In the gig economy, both customers and service providers now score each other with review systems that help platforms like Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and Lyft weed out bad actors. Drivers on Uber, for example, rate their passengers on a scale of one to five, a rating the ride-sharing company recently made accessible to its users. It can be jarring to look up your own score, as if it’s a proxy for how friendly or polite you are (a friend who learned that her score was below 4.7 recently wondered aloud to me whether this meant she was an asshole).
Looking up your score on Tinder is even more jarring. Rad teased me about it several times over dinner one evening, gauging what my score might be as he swiped through a slew of Tinder profiles on my phone. It was one thing to know my Uber rating, but did I really want to know my Elo score on Tinder? When I asked whether he could look up my rating, Rad responded, “Do you want me to do it now?” All he needed was my email address.
At Tinder headquarters, my handler brings me over to the company’s analytics team. I ask them if the data they’re about to show me will scar my ego. The beauty of Tinder, after all, is that rejection has been removed entirely from the process, since you have no idea who dismissed your profile. Now, in an instant, I’d learn exactly how I ranked on Tinder. “Do you want to see it? I don’t know . . . ” Solli-Nowlan says forbiddingly as he punches in my account information on his computer. “It’s one thing to look up your personal information. You know how many people you swiped on, but this also includes things like what other people have done, like how many people have swiped left on you.”
I started having second thoughts, but it was too late. The team did a drum roll, and for a brief second I thought by a fluke I’d turn out to be the No. 1 ranked Tinder user—a narcissistic notion not dissimilar to how I felt when I left the SATs in high school, having guessed my way through the final section yet still believing I’d somehow get a perfect score. Then—ta-da—Solli-Nowlan revealed my score. “It’s 946,” he said. What does that mean? “It’s on the upper end of average.” It’s a vague number to process, but I knew I didn’t like hearing it. Something about “upper end of average” didn’t exactly do wonders for my ego.
I leaned into the screen to see the data up close, but Solli-Nowlan threw his hand up to block my sight.
“Don’t go staring at my screen,” he joked. There was information listed there, he assured me, that I wouldn’t want to see.