My first foray into Tinder was when I spent a semester abroad a few years ago and no, I was not experimenting in a foreign land. I had made plans to visit a friend who was studying in another city and we were going to attend a concert together. Unfortunately, she fell ill and was stuck in Singapore, where she had returned to during a semester break. My friend kindly allowed me to proceed with my plans by letting me stay in her vacant room. There was just one problem: I had an extra ticket now. I didn’t want it to go to waste and my parents didn’t approve of me attending a concert alone. I exhausted all my options but couldn’t find anyone who was available. Desperate to find a companion for a night (double entendre fully intended), I downloaded Tinder for the first time.
I set my preferences as interested in both males and females, and proceeded to swipe right on every single person. My only interaction was with one guy, whom I accidentally super-liked. He responded immediately, curious to know why I was so taken by his profile (I wasn’t). Then, he displayed more interest in hooking up than attending the concert together. When I stopped replying, he ended the conversation with a passive-aggressive “okay then”. I deleted the app within the hour for it seemed like a lost cause. No one else was responding anyway and I was too impatient to wait. The next day, I wound up attending the concert with a friend’s co-worker thanks to another social network, Facebook.
While I didn’t brood over it at that time, I was well-aware that I used my search for a fellow concert-goer not as motivation but as a cover for my motivation to download Tinder. When the app first rose to prominence in Singapore, I had long internalized the stigma that was once – or maybe still is, to a lesser extent – attached to online dating and generally possessed a wariness of strangers that was instilled in me by my protective parents. My only experience with Tinder was when I had swiped alongside my friend on her account when we were wine-drunk and bored. But at the back of my mind, I always wondered it would be like to own an account, which was why I jumped at the chance to do so when the opportunity presented itself.
A full year after my semester abroad, I suddenly recalled that I was briefly on Tinder and wondered if I could reactivate the account to see if anyone else had responded after I deleted the app. Of course, it was gone for good by then. I decided I was ready to use Tinder without having to justify why I wanted to get to know strangers on the internet.
At the start, I took the act of swiping very seriously, basing it on whether I could imagine myself having meaningful conversations with the individuals, making exceptions for those who were particularly attractive to me. I found bios amusing to read and made sure I read every single one before swiping. But the novelty quickly faded and swiping soon became laborious. I rarely swiped right so I had few matches and even fewer conversations.
The only match that almost amounted to anything at all was with a guy who had made a reference to a book that I was in the midst of reading in his bio. I excitedly started the conversation and soon after, he told me that he was deleting the app and asked to move the conversation to Telegram. I obliged and decided to delete the app from my phone (but not the account) as well because I wasn’t speaking to anyone else anyway.
We made plans to meet for an evening picnic at Botanic Gardens. He was tasked with bringing wine and I was going to grab some sushi and other finger food. I asked him for his preferences the day before and he told me to get whatever I felt like eating or looks pretty. To which I replied, “don’t deck me when I bring whole lemons.”
He didn’t respond till the next day, when he apologized and asked to take a rain check. When I saw his message, I wasn’t sure if he was joking. Was my joke about lemons too much? It turned out that he had contracted appendicitis and needed to get his appendix removed. He even sent a photo of his arm, hooked to a drip, as proof that he wasn’t lying. I was sympathetic but also found it hilarious that what would have been my first Tinder date had unraveled so spectacularly.
That weekend, I went to a gallery with my friend and was reminded of Lemon Boy when I saw a painting of a basket of lemons. I sent him a photograph of it and asked if he was feeling better. His texts were sporadic and he eventually stopped replying altogether. I deleted our chat, secretly relieved at how things unfolded. We didn’t have great chemistry and I suggested the date only because I was eager to take things off the app. After speaking to some friends, I conceded that a picnic might have been too much for a first date. While I was ready to take the chance on Lemon Boy, there was a possibility that we might have felt trapped by our deliberate setup. So I didn’t mind the way things ended. The encounter made for a good story, after all.
One Lab-Rat’s Public Display of Nonchalance
Weeks after deleting the app off my phone, I realized that Tinder was still available on my extra phone because my application downloads were synced across my devices. Unable to resist, I went to check my inbox. I had unread messages but it seemed rude to reply out of the blue. I started swiping again. Though it had been a few months since I first used the app, I recognized a couple of profiles, which indicated that the dating pool was limited. The worst part about returning to Tinder was how I would swipe mindlessly before bedtime; the faces and bios blurring before my eyes. Repulsed by this compulsion, I decided to delete the app and my account for good.
What I didn’t know then was that I had exhibited classic reward-seeking lab-rat behavior. Jia Tolentino explains this phenomenon in “The I in Internet”, the first piece in her essay collection, Trick Mirror. When placed in front of an unpredictable food dispenser, one with rare and irregular rewards, rats will never stop pressing it. By this logic, it is essential that Tinder is “mostly unsatisfying”. For that is what keeps me “scrolling, scrolling, pressing [my] lever over and over in the hopes of getting some fleeting sensation—some momentary rush of recognition, flattery, or rage.”
My greatest gripes with Tinder were the shallow conversations and the difficulty of moving past them. My first match was someone that I had accidentally swiped right on (once again) and he started the conversation with, “M&Ms or Skittles?” I truly couldn’t care less. At that point in time, I thought that such conversations were unavoidable because I was interacting with strangers. But the truth was that I, too, was complicit in facilitating superficial interactions.
Tinder did not have compulsory fields that required me to elaborate on who I am, my hobbies, pet-peeves etc. If there were, I wouldn’t be on the app anyway because it required a certain level of earnestness that I was reluctant to offer. I went with a description that you would find in a child’s report card, “[My name] is a joy to teach. She is conscientious, meticulous and goes the extra mile to help her classmates.” A joke in my bio was meant to show that I took the app lightly. But it was ultimately unhelpful in sparking worthwhile conversations beyond ice-breakers, pick-up lines and compliments— the very reward that I craved for.
Why did I engage in self-sabotage? Well, there is a certain vulnerability to being on a dating app. No matter what a person wants out of Tinder, their mere presence on it is a tacit admission that they wish to be desired in some way. In order to be desired, we first have to be desirable. I can’t speak for anyone else but this knowledge fuels my deep-seated need to display a certain level of nonchalance. To shy away from overly-emoting and being readily available. To play it casual in my replies, instead of responding in a way feels the most honest. To behave otherwise might suggest desperation and that was a bad look, one that was undesirable. Perhaps that is why we often assert, in one way or another, that we’re using Tinder for fun or out of boredom. It’s to convince others – and ourselves – that we are using the app by choice and not because we are undesirable.
It should come as no surprise that my second venture into Tinder ended up being my last. I never figured out how to strike a balance between playing it cool and being sufficiently vulnerable but maybe I don’t have to— this struggle felt pronounced precisely because the interactions occured in the digital realm. Our modern obsession with self-commodification induces us to package ourselves into something that someone else can understand at one glance, with one scroll. But this strips us of our complexity and obscures the gap between our online and offline selves. While abandoning my Tinder account probably lowered my chances of meeting someone new, I had grown tired of my enduring struggle for authenticity online and having one less platform to represent and misrepresent myself was ultimately worth the sacrifice.
For more articles like this, check out our Modern Love/Loneliness column.