Tinder is now a verb, a recognised bar activity and a household name, so we all know how it works – it syncs with your Facebook account, and links you with other users based on your location, so you can look at potentially millions of profiles from your smartphone. If you like the look of someone, you swipe right. If they swipe right too, you can message, meet and fall in love. Or be in a taxi and on top of each other within half an hour.
Alternatively, as is becoming increasingly common, you could spend an afternoon sending each other lewd messages before you get bored and wander off, or find someone better.
Earlier this year, Tinder was valued at $5 billion dollars by Bloomberg. Other financial institutions have since refuted this, but to give you an idea of how significant it is, the rest of the entire online dating industry is believed to be worth $2 billion, and growing in turnover at a steady but respectable 3.5 per cent a year. How can we interpret these numbers? One reading is this – some of us want painstakingly crafted profiles, 90-per-cent compatibility ratings and a working knowledge of someone's favourite movies and childhood fears before we can commit to a coffee with them.
But the overwhelming majority of us are looking for a fast fuck. To be less crude, it's as if the internet finally figured out what we already knew. We need online dating to remove barriers to communication, instead of constructing them. And we're shallow. We need to like the look of someone's face before we decide to go any further.
The founders of Tinder are a fixture in any "30 Under 30" list. The app grew by 600 per cent in 12 months. According to Forbes, over 30 million people have registered globally, and they collectively go through 14,000 matches per second. Tinder isn't just a dating app, it's an influencer. Its founders recently hinted at plans to launch a premium, paid for service with additional features. They want to make as much money as possible, and our desire for love, sex and companionship is easy to monetise.
Tinder might appear to be the best way to meet people, as seemingly everyone in the world is on it, but it's not the only option.
Happn takes the Tinder model (linked through Facebook, works on your smartphone, uses GPS) and moves it along, linking you with other users that you've actually crossed paths with on the street. It's Tinder meets the Missed Connections column, and you can hook up with your commuter crushes without having to announce in the Metro that you spent the duration of your train journey staring at the cute brunette in the red hat.
Swinging site Mixxxer launched last month and was dubbed "Uber for sex" – so far over 100,000 users have signed up to meet people who are definitely down for whatever and don't want to go for dinner first. And people aren't abandoning the "traditional" profile-based sites. There's a dating service for every single person. Tech investor IAC, the majority shareholder in Tinder also owns match.com, currently valued at a healthy $856 million and formerly the giant of the dating world.
But for every Match, OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish, eHarmony and My Single Friend, there are at least 10 specialist sites for goths, clowns, the gluten-intolerant, people already in relationships, people looking for age-gap relationships, people who like the great outdoors and people who have or love moustaches.
EHarmony estimates that by 2040, 70 per cent of all couples will meet online. According to match.com, singles in America spend $82 billion a year on dating, and $239 a year per person on dating sites.
Jonathan Hunt, a financial planner and my single friend, tells me, "Practically, I can't think of a better investment, because it's not an industry that's going to be saturated – it's an ongoing emotional need. However, I find it infuriating. I've been hooked on Tinder since last summer, and I've signed up to Match, Soulmates and various other services. I've met some incredible women and I'm having a great time, but I have the odd dark night of the soul where I think, 'I can potentially meet millions of people, but where is The One? And as long as I'm looking for someone, Match and anyone else can make money out of my business, so maybe this is the worst way to look for the woman of my dreams.'"
Jonathan's words were revealing, and echoed a sentiment voiced by Harry, 32, an art editor. "Sometimes, I worry that online dating is bringing out the very worst in me. I think back to being a student, and how I dated then – I'd usually just go out with my friends, and women I got to know over a long period of time. I didn't go in with any expectations, I was just keen to meet girls that I fancied and got on with. I broke up with a long term girlfriend three years ago, and I thought that online dating sounded great. As far as I was concerned, there was no stigma, but it meant I could meet women that I genuinely shared interests with.
"But when you're spending £30 a month to meet, your expectations become unrealistic. I dumped a lot of great girls who weren't 'perfect'. I'm not even sure I knew what perfect was, but it started to feel less like dating and more like shopping. By the time Tinder came along, I felt like I was born to swipe. It's free and mindlessly addictive, and the first six months are great but it gets a bit boring. I've had a lot of sex, met some nice girls, but I'm starting to feel like I need something else. The trouble is that now I'm not even sure what that is, or how I would go about finding it."
So far, so chilling, especially when you consider that, according to research from Michigan State University, 32 per cent of couples who meet online will break up within a year, compared with 23 per cent who get together offline.
Gareth, a 29-year-old broker says that to him, internet dating can feel like a failed social experiment.
"When I ended things with a woman I'd met on OK Cupid, I felt really angry with myself and the internet. I thought that the site was supposed to provide me with a perfect match, so I had to think that either the system was flawed, or I was. You can't tell a single friend that they "just haven't met the right person" any more, because if they're dating online, they've met pretty much everyone."
When it seems like the whole world is connecting and it isn't happening for you, being alone is going to feel incredibly lonely. The idea of finding a match from an infinite database of potential partners could have been predicted by Aldous Huxley, and when it doesn't work out, it's hard to shake the feeling of being trapped in a dystopian present.
The other less than palatable part of our futuristic present is that when we look for love online, we leave a detailed digital footprint. The companies providing the services don't just want to get to our wallets, they want our data, which is much more valuable.
In his book Dataclysm, Christian Rudder, the founder of OK Cupid, one of the largest dating sites globally, explains that over time, his site was able to collate information on the interests and social behaviour of millions of users. "Eventually we were anaylsing enough information that larger trends became apparent, big patterns in the small ones."
Tinder CEO Sean Rad is also tracking us. "We look at a variety of things, who your friends are, what your common interests are, where you went to college…[and] we're looking at the frequency of the conversation, it's what we call the depth. We aren't looking at the semantics of the conversation," he told CNBC, citing a desire to "improve the user experience". Rad, Rudder and their contemporaries are providing a product.
In theory, they can use the collated data to give us exactly what we want and need. At the moment, the product can only ever be as good as the people using it, but the way the data is collected gives rise to some terrifying questions.
Can we still experience the emotional high of falling in love when corporations can remove every element of uncertainty within the process? Also, once we give a site our money, they can then use it to their advantage, not ours, and potentially sell it on. We could be back to Brave New World, with the government controlling our love lives in order to keep us compliant and profitable.
Harry says, "I've started to miss the uncertainty that comes with sex and dating. Pre-Tinder, being single could be frustrating, but it always felt like an adventure. I have a friend who works in finance who said that when he got his first big bonus, he couldn't think of a thing he wanted to buy with it because everything was suddenly within his reach. I know what he means."
When it's not prompting an existential crisis, there are all sorts of practical problems that come with online dating – and one very specific one if you're a woman. "Penis pictures!" cries my friend Hannah, 30, a video artist. "Oh my God! I'm not a prude, and sometimes it's funny – I mean, me and my friends used to get drunk and go on Chatroulette all the time. I'm not looking for a serious relationship, and I'm totally into hooking up on Tinder, but I do want a little flirting and fun first. I want to get to the penis eventually, but on my own terms."
Elle, 35, an actress, says, "One of my best guy-friends became single at the same time as me, and we signed up for similar stuff and compared experiences. He met so many stunning women, for dating and hook-ups. I found it much harder just to meet guys. They'd message endlessly, and then disappear. Also they were crude, and their expectations for sex seemed high – it was a bit 'Put out or get out."
Daniel, a 36-year-old banker confirms this. "If you're an articulate guy who wants to hang out with women on Tinder, you can clean up. Every woman I meet has horror stories, mainly dick pic-based. I don't know who these men are, but I'd like to thank them for making it easy for the rest of us."
Charly Lester, the founder of the UK Dating Awards, feels that Tinder has removed the stigma associated with online dating, but as it becomes more popular, an increasing number of people are using it as a game instead of a dedicated dating app. "By gamifying online dating, and managing to appeal to 'cooler', more sociable guys, Tinder got everyone talking about online dating. But an increasing number of people using the app aren't serious."
Andy, a 28-year-old teacher, admits to being part of the problem. "I'm not even single and I'm always playing on my mates' Tinder when I'm drunk. I'm messaging nonsense to these poor women, who have no idea what's going on, but I know girls who do it to guys, too. If I was single, and serious about meeting someone, I'd probably sign up to a dedicated dating site. Tinder is just part of pub culture. When you rely on it, it becomes problematic. There's a bloke at work who actually had a disciplinary meeting because he was Tindering during lessons. We're not supposed to be on our phones, but he said he just couldn't stop. He claimed he wasn't even sleeping properly because he'd just start swiping if he woke up in the night."
Psychologist Hilda Denton explains "That buzzing sensation when you get a match, it's your brain's nucleus accumbens, or pleasure centre, being activated. It's the part that controls and motivates addiction. You respond to a Tinder match in the same way that you might respond to a bump of cocaine."
Sociologist Oliver Payne feels that online dating is leading us towards a problematic future. "We managed to find partners for hundreds of years using reflexive thinking. We're over-indexing on the skills to live short and brutal lives because we've mechanised, medicated and farmed our way out of pretty much every challenge. Abstract knowledge is unable to provide the learning that personal experience gives us. And tech is evolving to anticipate our every romantic need, making the experience entirely frictionless and figuring out what we want before we know ourselves."
Futurologist Catie Lord says, "It makes so much sense to invest in dating tech right now, as it's one of the fastest growing industries out there. It's almost coming full circle – everything will be location-based and hyper local, with apps like Hinge combining location with the concept of existing connectedness. Basically we're still going to end up dating the boy or girl next door.
"The other big growth trends are virtual girlfriends and virtual reality porn, and we're going to have two separate strands: there'll be a growing group who use dating tech to enhance and vet human connections, and a sizeable minority who will be able to get everything they want from a relationship from tech, without actually meeting anyone."
Internet dating explores the very best and worst of our emotional intelligence, because it fuels our fascination with fantasy and possibility. Even more than that, though it exploits our fear of being alone.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all ways of passing the time that have shaved minutes of our attention spans, made us fidgety and unengaged dinner dates, but the net result of an addiction to these is overshare and a distorted sense of self, projected online. The stakes when applying this model to your love life are potentially much higher. Social media wouldn't work if everyone was happy to just write one post or share one picture. People have become addicted to newness, to more, to something else.
The right person for you might be out there and maybe you'll find them on the internet, but, thanks to online dating, it's looking increasingly likely that no one will ever really be sure that there isn't someone better just a swipe away.