Simulacra and Stimulation: My Weekend on Tinder

A married man downloads the world’s shallowest dating app.

Photo courtesy of Niklas Morberg

On the Tinder home screen, a picture of my face is sending out pink pulsing radar waves in every direction. I’ve set the distance to ten miles and the age cap to 35. I’ve selected two photos of myself, the only two photos I’ve ever uploaded to Facebook: one is sepia toned and one is black and white. In the black-and-white photo, the photo I’ve set as my default, I am standing in the snow drinking coffee out of a Waffle House mug. I have written a brief bio: Copywriter, Book Reader, Netflix Watcher. My wife is sitting next to me reading Orange Is the New Black. We’re drinking coffee on the couch because it’s Saturday morning.

This whole thing started when our intern Gabby told me she’d met her boyfriend on Tinder, and I started wondering what dating was like now, in 2014, seven years since the thought of dating has even crossed my mind. I wondered how things had changed.

I met my wife at a party in 2007, when I was 19 years old. Internet dating was around back then, of course. It’s been around for basically as long as the internet. Kiss.com was registered in 1994 and Match.com was registered just a year later by the same guy. Sixteen more dating sites were launched in 1996, and by 2007 internet dating had become the second-largest paid content industry online, just behind porn. Last year Americans spent $1.2 billion dating each other online. One stat I found said 41 million Americans have tried internet dating — more or less every eligible person in the country.

The problem with online dating, the people at my office said, is that it isn’t real. You can present any version of yourself you want. I thought that was a strange criticism since we’re always presenting versions of ourselves whether we’re online or not.

I ask my wife to help me with my profile. I’m not getting any matches. I should be reading Middlemarch for the Victorian literature class I’m taking, but instead I’m looking through pictures of eligible single women aged 18-35 within a ten-mile radius of my apartment. I don’t know why I’m doing this. My wife changes my bio to: Animals Trust Me. She says I need to make women laugh.

My wife thinks this is hilarious.

And even though I think it’s hilarious too, even though I tell myself I’m only doing this as an experiment, there’s still like 5% of me that is taking this seriously. There is still 5% of me that is actually considering what it would be like to date these women. Women like Katelyn, 22, who has a picture of herself kissing a puppy next to a picture of herself pole dancing in a warehouse. Katelyn lives in Plano, two miles away from me. Or Lindsey, 29, whose bio says: “Send me a picture of your penis. It will win me over instantly.” I can’t tell if Lindsey is kidding. Her profile picture shows her in a field smelling sunflowers. Or Amanda, 25, whose bio reads, simply: Virgin.

The unique thing about Tinder, I think, is how little you know about the people you’re looking at. There are no algorithms, no surveys, no Myers-Briggs personality profiles. You get a photo, a two- or three-line bio, a location (in miles), and an age. It’s almost no different than meeting someone in real life. Nobody knows anything about anyone.

After an hour I still have no matches and I’m starting to feel bad about myself. I’m starting to wonder what’s wrong with me. I should have used different pictures, spent longer on my bio, said something suggestive. I was being picky at first about who I liked but now I’m liking everybody. I like one hundred women in less than a minute. I swipe through women so fast the app has to pause to find me more. I see the picture of myself again, in the middle of the map, sending out radar waves. This graphic makes me look desperate. I don’t like it.

The hard thing about dating is admitting that you want to be with someone. Online dating just makes you admit it up front.

When I do get a match, my phone vibrates and my heart flutters a little bit. I feel a little bit excited and a little bit relieved. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with me after all. Maybe I’m attractive. Maybe I’m okay. I remember having these exact same feelings back in high school. I remember being desperate for them. My match’s name is Christine and she’s kind of cute. She’s wearing a Dr. Dog t-shirt and I swear to God those are Warby Parker sunglasses. And here’s the thing: This feels real. I mean the way my heart did that little stutter step thing, the way I felt accepted and approved and okay — that felt real. If online dating is an imitation of reality it’s a damn good imitation.

I hand the phone to my wife because I feel guilty now. The thrill felt real and the guilt feels real too. I ask my wife to please send Christine a message because I don’t want to do it and I don’t know what to say. My wife tells Christine she looks like a model in a magazine, which turns out to be a great thing to say because Christine writes back immediately with two smiley faces and asks me what’s going on. My wife hands me the phone and says she thinks I can handle it from here. I write back to Christine: “Nothing, how are you?” which turns out to be the wrong thing to say because I never hear from Christine again.

This is where Tinder and real life are different. To be successful on Tinder you need to know how to condense your entire personality into two or three lines of a text message. You need to be charming, relatable, mysterious, persistent, and ultimately persuasive. If you’re going to turn a match into a date you need to be a good writer.

I get ten matches over the weekend and none of them message with me more than twice. I keep losing them. I keep asking them how they’re doing, which I don’t think is something people ask each other anymore. When I go into work on Monday morning I ask Gabby how she chose her boyfriend from the ten or twenty matches — what did he say to win her over? — and she says ten or twenty? I had over a hundred.

So now I know that if anything ever happens to my wife I will spend the rest of my life alone. I know now that I will hole myself up in my apartment and finally beat Grand Theft Auto III. I will finally read all the Malcolm Gladwell books I’ve claimed to have read. But I will not date. Dating is too hard. And I don’t think that will ever change.

I delete Tinder Monday night. I have two new matches but what’s the point. It feels good deleting it. I go to my Victorian literature class and sit in a room full of eligible single women age 18-35. I wonder if any of them would have matched with me. I wonder if it would have felt weird sitting in the same room with them now. Another difference between Tinder and real life is that in real life you never know what’s going on and nobody ever tells you how they feel.

I’m not sure which reality is better.

It’s cold when I leave class. My phone says it’s 37 degrees and it feels like 37 degrees. At midnight it’s supposed to rain. I can see the clouds moving in over the parking lot. I can feel the pressure changing in my teeth. I stop at Albertson’s on my way home and buy my wife a rose. She likes roses. And even though she was in on the Tinder thing the whole time I feel a little bit like I cheated on her this weekend. She’s asleep when I get home so I leave the rose on the counter and write a note on the Magna Doodle. I erase my note and write it again. I erase my note and write it again. I drink a glass of Knob Creek. It’s impossible to be a real person, I think. Even in real life.

Michael Nagel is a writer and editor. He and his wife live in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter.