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How the app is adapting to no in-person dates
Tinder and its parent company Match Group have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well, all things considered. User engagement is up, as is interest around new product features, like video calls. More than six years after its launch, Tinder is finally introducing a one-on-one video calling feature that it says will be heavily moderated for content and safety. At the same time, Tinder CEO Elie Seidman says he and his team are focusing on how to keep young people coming to the app and how they can build digital relationships inside of it, especially as in-person dates slow down.
Seidman joins Vergecast host Nilay Patel and Verge senior reporter Ashley Carman for a chat about the future of the platform, how it’ll keep people safe over video calls, and what happens to its Tinder U initiative that it’s focused on for years. Plus, he explains how Joe Exotic might be more important to a relationship than living near each other. Listen to the whole episode or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Nilay Patel: How have things changed for Tinder in the midst of all this?
Elie Seidman: It’s interesting. The high level is that now more than ever, people want connection. You’ve got physical isolation, but if you’re single and you’re alone, now is perhaps the most important time. So there’s some interesting sub=trends, but that’s probably the highest level thing that we’re seeing, a lot of engagement. [It] depends on where you are in the world, depends on whether you’re kind of in the peak of the crisis moment, the way Italy or Spain were or New York was a month ago. But the thing that’s really come through loud and clear is people want connection. Makes sense: when you get isolated, you want it even more.
NP: So you’re seeing increased usage of Tinder during all this?
Yeah, it’s kind of ebbed and flowed. It depends. We break it into two parts. There’s the business side of Tinder, the part of Tinder which is the financial engine. Then there’s the engagement side: the majority of people who are using Tinder in any given day, the majority of the community globally, is not paying for it. It’s basically an entirely free product for them, and a small subset of them are the paid members, people who are paying for premium features.
If you look at the engagement side, what is the entirety of the community doing there, yeah, you see very clear positives around engagement. Longer conversations, a lot more conversations.
We’ve seen big increases from young women, women 18 to 30 has been a big area of increase for us. So that’s been probably the big one. We reported earnings [in early May] or so and we talked about Q1 and Q2 a little bit there.
We have 6 million subs paying subs and that’s certainly a part of the business. It’s harder to predict given the financial component, but that part has held up pretty well all things considered.
Ashley Carman: Tinder is a huge global brand, and different parts of the world are in different stages of the pandemic. So what are you seeing as far as what’s going on in India right now versus what’s happening in the US versus Canada?
I think the simplest way to think of it is [that] it seems to follow the psychology of the moment. Both the actual substance of the crisis — so if you look at, for example, Italy, now a month ago, or in New York a month ago, you see real decreases, and I think that makes sense. You’ve got a significant crisis that’s happening in real time; people are distracted with something else that’s really much more important. But when that kind of subsides, you get a rebound back, and it seems to happen pretty quickly.
I don’t think we know perfectly how quickly but, okay, now the crisis is starting to pass, the psychology is easing, but I’m still home alone and I’d like some companionship, I’d like connection. We offer that. So you definitely see it rolling through. You see, now New York is rebounding as things have eased. California, certainly that’s been true.
We see that’s true in Germany. Germany has kind of been one of the earlier rebounds, and we saw that very clearly. So you could really follow the news and follow the correlated trend on Tinder.
Japan’s been very interesting. We have a big community in Japan and that’s been across the period of time more moderated and you see that. It’s had fewer peaks and valleys along the way in terms of engagement.
AC: So if the pandemic lets up, would that mean that you would have less engagement on the platform?
It’s hard to know. I think we’ll probably see a big rebound because all of the physical world stuff that comes with Tinder is easier. So I expect that we’ll see that part of the rebound of, “Oh, now [let’s] get out of the house and get back to our physical world social life.”
It’s interesting because there’s a bigger idea here. We span really two types of connection. One is the kind of connection we can have digitally — that’s really important. We’ve been thinking about that idea for a while.
We actually started early this year [working] on a feature that’s about to come out, which is Global Mode. Global Mode says, “Hey, I can get a connection from somebody who’s not a mile away or around the corner, five miles away. I can get that connection — and those connections are meaningful and validating, I’m seen in those connections — even though the person is 1,000 miles away.”
[That’s] actually an old story. It’s the story of the internet, which is, “How do I find my people?” It’s interesting when you apply that to Tinder, a big global community, and within that, there’s a set of people who say, “I want to be seen, I want to feel validated and valued — maybe I can’t find that person right around me, or maybe it doesn’t matter if they’re right around me.”
So that’s a part which I think is really interesting. We’ve been working on it for a while and thinking about it a lot. The other part is the physical world — I do want the person to be a mile away or two miles away.
AC: What’s the difference between Global Mode and Passport?
We started working on Global Mode early this year, before we actually understood that COVID was going to come, and that was on schedule to come out now. So that’s continued down the path.
In late February, early March, when we really realized what was happening and the scale of the pandemic, we said, hey, let’s take that idea of Global Mode — which is “I want to find connection from anywhere from around the globe” — let’s take the paid version, which is Passport, and let’s offer it for free.
What Passport is — you’ve probably heard these stories — I live in LA, I’m going to London, or I’m going to Paris on a trip. I want to kind of teleport myself into London or Paris, so that I can connect with somebody there who I’ll hang out with or they’ll be my tour guide. That’s the typical story you hear.
So you get that version; it’s a paid feature. A very small percentage of the total population of Tinder is using it. Global Mode is, I’m in LA, they’re in Paris, they’re in London. They’re wherever, they’re in Tokyo or Seoul, and we both opt-in to being shown to and being seen by people in this global community versus the people who say, “No, only show me to and I only want to see people who are in LA or in New York.”
It’s going to be a free feature when it comes out. Passport is a paid feature. So they’re related, but they’re actually different in some important ways.
NP: I always think of Tinder as a means to an end, and the end is companionship or meeting somebody in real life or some sort of interaction that happens outside the app. Right now, it seems like you want a lot of interaction to happen inside the app. You have Global Mode. I might be in London, that person might be in Seoul. We’ve connected. Now we’re going to say inside of Tinder, or do you expect there to still be some conversion to something else?
I think there’s a really interesting trend here.
In my view, there’s two waves of dating apps, and we’re actually entering the second wave. We’re coming out of the first wave.
The first wave is — go back to 2012. Tinder is launched on US college campuses. At the time, it’s very, very unusual — stigmatized, really, is the right word — for an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old to use an app, [or to] use a website, probably more likely, to meet new people, although the technology had existed for a long time.
It wasn’t a new idea from a technical perspective. It was a social, cultural stigma to doing it. At the time, [I] was probably in my late 20s in New York, and you would never have used a dating app to meet new people. It was very stigmatized. So the first wave is more and more people joining, [and] the social, cultural, stigmas falling. Falling in the US, for sure, but more broadly globally.
But we’re still using dating app[s] the way we met in the regular world, if friends would introduce you, [or] you met somebody in college, you met somebody at a party. You’d meet somebody, and then a week or two later, you’d hang out one on one. That’s kind of how we’ve used dating apps: you come to Tinder on a Sunday night, you find somebody, and the goal is to hang out with them a week or two later in the physical world.
What we’re seeing now, I think, is going to be a really interesting second wave which you actually come to the app, and you hang out in the app. You get to know them in the app. The thing that really brings this to life is a story we all know really well: You meet somebody on Tinder. You go out with them a week or two later, you get there, and four minutes into the conversation you’re like, “Wait, there’s no spark, there’s no chemistry. I need to press the eject button.”
People have concocted all kinds of fancy ways to get themselves out of these situations, [like] the emergency phone call 7PM on a Tuesday night — you have a sudden emergency. The problem was you didn’t develop rapport, you didn’t develop a connection with that person first.
This is a well-understood idea, and I think nobody’s really innovated here yet in a big way. So that’s the big idea, which is “Wait, if we hang out here and connect, what does that look like? How can Tinder as a product facilitate that?”
You get that digital connection, maybe it just stays in the digital world. For many people, it will want to go to the physical world when it connects. But for some, it will stay in the digital world. So to me, that’s the big second wave — how do we innovate here? How do we come to Tinder on a Sunday night, and hang out live, and connect live? Then some of those connections will then go and have a physical world connection as well.
AC: Why do you want people to hang out in Tinder?
Well, because I think it’s an interesting place to actually get to know — it’s much less intense than I swiped on you, I matched with you, and now the next step — this big jump — the next step is to be on a 1:1 physical date. What we see is this is not a new idea. I think this is a new idea if you’re maybe in your late 20s or your 30s. In a sense, the idea of hanging out is already happening with our Gen Z members.
The important backdrop is over the past 10 years, you’ve not only had the growth of dating apps, of course. You’ve had the growth of the entire social internet. That’s been a huge growth. We have now 3 billion people on the social internet. The social internet is the third one, after the commerce internet, and before that the information internet.
So information internet, commerce internet, social internet: you now have 3 billion people. Then specifically Gen Z — the 18-, 19-year-olds who arrive on Tinder today — they’ve grown up with the social internet. They’ve had that in their life from a very young age. So when they arrive, they’ve already hung out in digital environments. It might have been Fortnite; that could have been the place where they were hanging out with their friends. So the idea of hanging out and developing a relationship and developing a connection and letting it unfold in a digital environment is not a new idea.
I’ll actually give you an interesting anecdote here. We do a lot of talking to our young members and in one of the conversations, we kept referring to like “IRL, IRL, IRL” — in real life. One of the members we were talking to said, “You guys keep talking about digital experience and then IRL, as if IRL, the physical world is my real life. You don’t understand, my digital social experience is my real life. They’re both my real life.”
And that’s a really simple idea, but a profound one. So the idea that you can hang out on Tinder is already happening as a concept.
NP: Do you sit in strategy meetings, like, “Fortnite dating is coming, and we’ve got to be there?”
Are you worried about that? When you talk about Fortnite and other social places, there’s hanging out there, but it’s still a video game. They might have Travis Scott concerts, but they haven’t built the set of features or tools you might need to have a romantic relationship in Fortnite. Do you see that as an opportunity you need to create first, something that will happen organically, or an emergent behavior that’s already occurring and you’re just trying to catch it?
I think there’s two parts. Fortnite clearly has the contextual environment that makes it possible to hang out — that’s a game, specifically. There’s other contextual environments. Trivia night. Ashley, you wrote about this. That’s another contextual environment. There’s lots of different social communities out there.
The thing that’s very specific to Tinder is it’s young — 18 to 25 predominantly — it’s global, and everybody who’s here is looking for something more. That’s really important. You need that top-level intent, that top-level filter on why are you there in the first place.
When you come to Tinder, you don’t come for trivia specifically, you come to find somebody for something more, and then maybe trivia. There’s going to be many examples and ideas, some of which won’t work, and some of which will. We’re going to experiment a lot with these in the coming year. But the point is still to find something more with someone. That’s really the point. What’s the end and what’s the means?
NP: Once you find the something more, you probably don’t want to go back to an environment where everyone’s intent is to get to something more. Do you anticipate people are going to spend a long time in Tinder, that they’re going to come back to it again and again throughout their life, or is it once you make the connection, you move on?
We already see episodic behavior, which makes sense. If you find somebody, you get really connected to them, you date them, it’s maybe a long term relationship. We’re really the only app which says, “Just because it doesn’t last forever, doesn’t mean it’s not important.” It’s still important, and we’re very clear about that. We don’t think everything has to last to be important. As a result, we see very clearly episodic use.
People come, they come for a while, they leave, they come back. If that starts at 18, it’s a journey, and they spend their time on that journey. I don’t think this will change that. I very much hope and expect that people will still form important connections, even if they don’t last forever.
AC: What’s some of the work you’ve done on the interactive side to try to crack that code?
A few of the themes in COVID are… that you can see that your online dating life is your dating life. We understand — and we’re seeing — that you can develop connection through a screen, you can develop connection digitally. That’s a real connection, it’s a valid connection, we understand that. There’s kind of a bunch of really interesting hacks that are inspiring us. Whether it’s having a date in Animal Crossing, or [what] you’re seeing in Silicon Valley, like Zoom Bachelor. I think it’s quite funny.
We’re hacking together these social experiences, like having cooking class as part of a date, an online date. Those are the things we’re seeing right at this moment, in COVID, but they’re really, especially for our youngest members, a continuation of themes that we’ve been really interested in for a while. The thing we did last fall, which is an interactive experience called Swipe Night, it was an event. It was four Sunday nights in October in the US, and we built a first-person interactive adventure.
[That’s] literally a story we had pre-filmed. We’d filmed all the different components. You came to Tinder, the whole community at a certain time of the day on a Sunday night, and you engage in that experience, and you kind of chose your own adventure. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and then you talked to the people on Tinder who are also doing it, and now you have a shared live experience. You have shared context with those persons, you have a diversion, the context about which to talk about.
So that was the first major experiment. We had worked on that really throughout 2019, and it was inspired by these ideas, which is like, “Hey, you can hang out on Tinder, you can have the whole community come and have it be alive and have it be an experience with shared context.”
We’d use the metaphor of going to a concert or going to a festival. You’re all there together, of course you’re there live, everybody’s there at the same time. You’re having the same experience, and that’s important. It becomes a way in which you share, and a way you have the same experience and the same context to talk about. It makes it easier and lower pressure to connect with other people. So that’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing.
I think what you’re seeing right now with COVID is a broader number of people, especially perhaps people who are 18 and 19 years old, who are used to hang out on Fortnite. They’re getting exposed to “Oh, wow, this digital thing, this virtual experience thing, it’s real. I could totally understand it.” The big takeaway will be it will lower the cultural stigma, and like at the beginning of the first wave of dating online, where lowering cultural stigma was the big change, this is going to lower the cultural stigma. We don’t understand all of the ways it’ll play out. But I think for sure, we’re going to see a big change in our psychology around these things.
AC: A lot of your product innovation has been around university students. So you have Tinder U, which is specifically for people with a .edu [email] address. Then you made a spring break mode. You’ve done music festivals, all sorts of “IRL events.” Have you pivoted those teams now?
The short answer is yes. I was talking to somebody about this the other day — what does back to school look like when there’s no physical school?
We’ve referred to joining Tinder at 18 as a rite of passage, and it’s become that. It’s an important one. We’re an 18-plus app, we work very hard to keep people who aren’t 18 off the app. So when you turn 18, that’s a rite of passage and of course, we think of all the other rites of passage that relate to going to college, and Tinder U is solidly in there. So what can we do? How does that map over to the virtual world? What is the festival mode when the festival isn’t in the physical world, isn’t in real life? So yeah, we’ve migrated over there. It’s a really important area of our innovation, and the inspiration is the youngest members of Tinder.
AC: You also briefly experimented with Tinder Places, which was a feature that was supposed to allow you to see people who had kind of crossed your path and then match with those people. A lot of your features were oriented around geographical location, but it kind of sounds like you are totally pivoting away from that, and location doesn’t matter at all.
I think social cultural cues matter a lot more. Joe Exotic is a much more meaningful cultural cue than where you went to coffee. If this is the wave of the social Internet, and it certainly seems that way, a lot of what happens in culture is what happens in online culture. The advantage of online culture — this is kind of a broader idea — is that it’s democratized. A lot of the physical world stuff we tend to talk about — take a festival, we’ve had this conversation internally — it’s really expensive.
The number of people who can go to a music festival is small; it’s really the privileged few. So when we did Swipe Night, one of the ideas behind it was not just that we can have a live experience and a social experience in the context of Tinder, but it’s one that’s actually free for everyone. That’s really powerful. So I think when we think about the physical world versus the social digital world, one is just becoming more and more important in culture, and we’re a part of culture. Not just — we’re an important place to meet new people, but we’ve become, very fortunately, a really important brand in social culture, specifically in youth social culture. Those cues are in TikTok, TikTok videos, those are in what you’re watching on Netflix, those are in the memes that are circulating. So yeah, we’ve pivoted.
NP: I’m an old guy, and I married the girl who was assigned the dorm room next to mine before Tinder ever existed. So my simplistic view of Tinder is that it’s for hot people, and my understanding is the profiles aren’t built out with all of this cultural signaling. You’re not required to fill out a lengthy profile with your interests, your thoughts on Joe Exotic. It’s a very visual platform.
Are you trying to shift that so people are signaling more of their interests? They’re signaling more of their cultural alignments versus just photos of themselves?
The challenge is how do you make it easy to do. Because we’ve experimented a lot with this and it’s something that comes up. “Okay, well, how do I show off myself? How do I tell my story in a way that feels comfortable, but it’s also easy to do?”
So we’ve recently added conversation starters, and we’re prompting people on social cultural things. But it’s always focused — and I think this is something that we at Tinder have understood perhaps uniquely well — it’s not enough to try to give people things to add. It’s got to be easy to do. It’s got to be fluid.
Because talking about yourself is awkward, and people don’t like to do it. I’ve seen the thinking around, extensively seen the thinking around, “Okay, well, should we have them write 1,000-word essays about themselves?” No, no, you don’t want to do that because the number of people who can do that is very small. The number who will read that is very small.
One of the reasons, the inspirations behind the idea of hanging out on Tinder, is I think we can create ways in which, naturally, you can show more of yourself, and be seen more than just for the two-dimensional visual. But it’s still easy to do. It’s still natural to do, versus I think it’s very awkward to write 500 words about yourself.
NP: Is that where things like trivia come from, or other things where it’s just really quick hits to almost gamify that interaction?
Yeah, we think the activities you do can be a way in which you can naturally show who you are and actually, that emulates a lot more the college dorm room example that you gave. That is how, if you’re hanging out on a college campus and you’re meeting people, there isn’t going to be this one moment where you just “yes or no.” You’re going to get the opportunity to unfold a little bit more as a person, and be seen more as a person, but without having to write a 500-word essay that you then put on a piece of paper and slide under her door.
NP: Well, I was very dramatic in college.
A lot of what you’re talking about here, at a very simple level, boils down to user interface design. The key piece of Tinder that everyone knows is a swipe, a user interface innovation. It sounds like you’re trying to apply that thinking to all of these other spaces as well?
Yeah, I would say there’s two parts. Product design is super important. If you don’t get the product design right, I think the best idea just stays as an idea. So we’re proud of our ability to do that well. I think we do that really, really well. We take ideas and don’t just leave them on a piece of paper, they become product ideas that are elegant, that are simple, that are fun, that are delightful.
The other part, which is more complicated, but I think we understand pretty well, is how do you make these things acceptable in social culture? How is it okay to hang out on a Sunday night? And there you’ve got to tell the story in a way that’s fun and accessible and exciting, that people want to do it, that it’s not a chore. If you think about the first wave of dating websites, the early websites, they kind of felt like a job interview. It felt like work.
Here’s all these things you got to say about yourself. You’re like, “God, this is not fun at all.” Our members, more than half of them are 18 to 25, they’re in Gen Z. This is a fun time of life. It’s supposed to be a fun time of life. We want to facilitate that, not make it a job interview.
AC: One of the biggest product features you’ve announced is one-on-one video calling. That’s going to be coming soon. Was this a product you wanted to launch before the pandemic?
This was on the list, but it was lower on the list than the things we’ve been talking about, which are these broader themes of hanging out. We think this is an interesting feature. It’s coming. The first of our members will see it in June. So it’s been on the list. It just wasn’t at the very top of the list because the other areas which are the themes behind Swipe Night, for example, were higher on the list.
NP: Video chat is fraught for every company that launches it. It’s technically hard. It’s data-rich. If it looks bad, it’s not very worthwhile. Did you prioritize it lower because the technical challenges are harder, or because the big social changes that come to a platform like Tinder with video were difficult?
I think it was just less interesting to us than the other things we’ve talked about, more so than the technical side. I’ll tell you how we’ve done it, how we’re approaching it, and this will inform some of how you’re thinking about it.
The trust and safety team at Tinder is the team that’s building it because we want to ensure that it isn’t fraught with problems. That was very important. The trust and safety team has done our efforts on anti-harassment and on moderation at global scale, Tinder scale, and has done it really successfully. It’s been a big, big effort for the past three years, in particular.
I joined Tinder as the CEO two and a half years ago, it was on the list of things — there were a very small number. One of which was going global, the second of which [was] we have to make sure to be ahead of the curve technically, and how do you make the experience better and better for our participants. Without that, you don’t have a platform. You don’t have a community.
So that was really important, and I’m really proud of what the team has done. It’s really an incredible team. Very, very talented. So they’re the ones building this.
Very specifically, Tinder’s version of this is a mutual opt-in. If you think about Tinder, you both have to opt-in to match. So in order to be able to talk to each other at all, you have to match, and that’s a mutual decision.
Then further, in order to be able to use video, you have to specifically opt-in to agree to video with that person. Both of you have to [opt-in]. So it’s kind of like multiple layers removed, and then it’s being built by the trust and safety team who are just really, really deeply experienced in all of the issues that come with moderating a platform at global scale.
So I feel like we know how to do it. We don’t have all the answers, there’s going to be a lot of things that we learn, but we come to it with a pretty big foundation of knowledge.
AC: Is your trust and safety team just Tinder’s internal trust and safety team? You’re not pulling from the brain trust that’s Match Group?
We borrow lots of thinking across Match Group. There is a Match Group safety council that is across Match Group, it’s not just us. That’s a knowledge base that has external advisors, who are very, very accomplished in the domain. We definitely leverage that pretty extensively.
But then if you compound that by our scale, and the global component, which is not just US scale, but global scale for Tinder, we’re probably the most experienced in the group of doing this at scale.
There’s really three vectors. One is machine learning that is looking for problems. The second is a large human moderation team that is moderating what the computers can’t deal with, or need human intervention on. Then our members are a really, really critical part of how we get signal, how we get information about what’s happening. All of that is, kind of baseline, has to be in every feature we build. Any feature where there’s the potential for anything problematic, we build in all three of those.
NP: We spend a lot of time covering moderation at scale on other social platforms. We think about it a lot. One of the things we hear from, say, Facebook, is “We need to be this big in order to have effective moderation. We need to be Facebook size in order to build AI moderation capability, in order to have a scaled moderation team around the world.”
I don’t think Tinder is at Facebook size. I don’t think Match Group is at Facebook size. How do you think about the challenge of scaling a moderation team to support the world and then adding video? Are you growing your trust and safety team to meet that challenge? Is it big enough? Does it need to get bigger?
I can’t speak for how Facebook thinks about it.
NP: I can tell you. They’re just like, “We need to be huge.” That’s fundamentally their answer.
We’re big. We’re not Facebook scale at either Tinder or Match Group. I feel that we have sufficient scale, both in terms of signal from what’s happening to learn on — and not just in English, but across many languages. We’ve got sufficient financial resources to take the human moderation side as seriously as it can be taken. I’ll say, for us, we’re very specific. We are not a broad-based social community. We’re a social community with a very specific intent, which is to find that something more we were talking about. I feel very good about our ability to do it even though we don’t have the Facebook scale.
NP: Let’s say I’m 19, I’m on Tinder, I got through all the opt-ins. Someone wants to video chat with me. I want to video chat with them. I hit the button, and then that person does something bad or untoward or I don’t like it. Mechanically, what is the moderation step? Do I hit send? Is it recording in the background for someone else to review? How does that work?
Some of this is — you’re still getting me a month before launch, give or take, so there are still some of those very last details to be figured out, and there will be details we have to figure out with the first test groups that we get.
This experience is going to be quite far into an interaction between two people. We will through that path have had people opt-in and we remind them of all the policies around Tinder. So there’s a series of steps you have to get through.
I think that based on what you’re describing, my guess is, we probably get a report. Our members are very proactive about reporting. That probably becomes one of the signals. We’ll probably catch something with one of the machine learning models, especially as we get more scale in this specific scenario. Maybe one of our other machine learning models is able to pick it up. Maybe we need a specifically tuned one for this area.
NP: A machine learning model picking up something bad happening… usually, it looks like one thing. So are you saying, like, I’m in a video chat, someone whips out their dong, and an AI is like, “That’s a dong. I’m cutting off the video chat, and reporting you automatically”?
NP: To make that question less funny — you’re saying an AI is going to watch the video chat in real time?
Yeah, we’ve been pretty open that on the balance between safety and privacy, we balance in favor of safety.
And that’s a trade. So for example, if this was end-to-end encrypted and nobody else can see it and we can’t get in there, then we can’t see it. I think we’ve been very open that, broadly — not specific to video, it’s broadly true about the platform — because of what we do, safety is more important.
How it plays out exactly and specifically in all of the nuances around video — we’re really accomplished and experienced here. I don’t want to try to give you answers because I don’t yet know the answers and don’t yet know actually which are the real scenarios, but the one you described is easy to catch.
NP: I’m fascinated and taken with the idea of having a computer chaperone a video date.
NP: It sounds like that’s very much the way you’re going.
So that is something that I want us to be able to continue to do; it’s important and valuable. What’s right for our 18- and 19-year-old college campus students and what’s right in Delhi and what’s right in Seoul and Tokyo for 25- and 30-year-olds — there is no one-size-fits-all answer for this part of life. Nothing to do with harassment, nothing to deal with abuse, purely to do with how people want to live.
And that’s, I think, a wonderful thing and we’ve been, in so many different ways, supportive and encouraging. Whether it’s trying to do things that are better for our trans community, trying to support our LGBTQ community. These are important. One of the underlying values of Tinder is that we’re supportive of all the ways in which people show up when they’re looking for something more.
All that being said, there’s a big team that’s monitoring all the vectors for harassment, all the vectors for abuse.
NP: Let me push on that in one other way because it is philosophically fascinating. When you’re chatting with somebody or sending photos or doing whatever else you might do on Tinder, the chat platform, there is a mediated step where you hit send, and then a server can say, “Hey, we’re going to catch this.” There’s that act of transmission to a server, and the server declines to send it on. That’s built into that interaction model.
A video chat in real time with another person is not mediated by a server. So that’s an interaction design problem. That’s a user expectation problem. It also seems like a really computationally intensive problem because you’re monitoring however many video streams at a global scale all day long.
Is that the set of challenges for video chat that you’re facing and how are you solving particularly that computational one? Because that seems really hard.
I’ll give you a really concrete example of a place where we are clearly moderating text, let’s start there. We have a feature called “Does This Bother You?” where we actually have transmitted the text that we think there may be a problem, but there’s a lot of nuance where what is problematic for one may not be problematic for another. There’s lots of examples where that comes to mind.
So we say to the recipient, “Does this bother you?” And actually, many times the recipient says, “No, it doesn’t bother me. In this context, this is appropriate. I’m fine with this.” That gives you a sense of the complexity of what we’re dealing with in our specific environment, when you’re looking for something more with someone.
With video, it’s real time. Text is slow, relative to a real-time video, so it’s complex. It’s why we’re going to roll out in small steps and small phases, why it’s being built by the trust and safety team. It’s computationally intensive, you’re right, [but] we’ve got lots of technical chops to do it.
I think what we should do is — let’s come back in, not a month, that’s too soon, but like, in three months. Let’s come back and go deep on it and we’ll tell you all the things that we’ve learned. I think at that point, we will know — not everything. We’ll know a fraction of what there is to know, but we’ll know a lot.
I think all of the efforts to moderate large communities, to help make large communities as good as they possibly can be, it’s an ongoing effort and it’s probably an ongoing effort forever. So we’re coming at it with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, a lot of really critical foundational knowledge, but it’s the beginning. It’s something we’re taking super seriously.
AC: Why not just stay out of video calls entirely? FaceTime works great. Why do you want people to have video chats in Tinder?
I’ll give the broad answer. The thing that video does — video is not about video. Video is about live, and video is about the ability to get connection. It’s more broadly about this second wave of the evolution of dating apps, of connecting apps, of networks where you’re there to meet new people. So it’s a really important technical tool.
All of us are doing this now in our work environments, and we’re able to get a lot of what we get from a connection perspective and a signal perspective. So it’s a really powerful thing.
I think when we do it on Tinder, the positive side is we bring to bear all of our experience with safety. The things that are completely off-platform. We have, in most cases, zero ability to do anything about. They happen outside of our purview. So there are a lot of benefits.
The second thing, which I think is related to the idea of safety, is people often want a certain amount of privacy as they’re developing a relationship, as that relationship is forming, and they don’t know where it’s going to end up. They don’t know if it’s going to last. So giving out your FaceTime, your ID, your phone number, giving out your Snap handle, et cetera, giving out all these other things may not be what you want. You may want to be abstracted a little bit. Those are really more for people you know really well, your friends and family.
So I think we have a lot of roles to play, but the core place it starts is around human connection and the emotion of that, and video is powerful for that.
AC: This is a permanent feature for Tinder? It’s not just a thing you’re rolling out during the pandemic — you’re putting a lot of work in. You’re not going to be promoting it just for this period of time. This is a forever Tinder feature?
I would believe so, yeah. We’re very careful, as we look at all things COVID, to try to figure out what are the things that we believe are here forever. Maybe they’re accelerating things that were already true. They’re pulling the future forward, as somebody said. I thought that was a really elegant way to say it. Versus it’s just here today and gone. Because it’s a big, big, big effort and by the time we’d finish it, the crisis will be in a different place.
We believe that the idea of connecting emotionally in the community, on Tinder directly, is an important one and we believe that video is a powerful tool for that.
The way I frame it is, it’s not a matter of if people will hang out on Tinder and connect on Tinder in that way, and spend time on Tinder. It’s really the what and the when. The what is like, is it going to be trivia? Is it going to be some other activity that you do that helps you connect? Is it things like Swipe Night?
Then, the when. I think it’s going to be different if you’re 18 versus if you’re 35. For some people, it will be never. But for a lot of people, it’s going to be where they personally are on the adoption curve.
AC: Can you screenshot a video call?
We will do everything in our power to block screenshotting video calls.
NP: How does that work on the different platforms? Is that something you have to go to Apple and Google and ask for or is it something you just build? That seems like a very complicated thing to execute after you say it.
We have really, really good partners in both of those platforms. We work really closely with them. So whatever is technically possible — which is why I said it the way I said it, which is “We will do everything possible.“
I want to stop short of being like “it is impossible.” Obviously, you could take another phone and photograph the screen — like the old-school screenshots, if you’ve ever seen these contraptions for how they took screenshots in the ‘80s, they literally used a camera. So we’re experienced in this area. We have really, really helpful partners there. So let’s come back in three months’ time, and I’ll give you more and more specifics as we have them.
NP: You were previously the CEO of OkCupid. That seems like it has a different user journey than Tinder. We’d mentioned Match Group. It owns all the dating services. It’s my understanding that if you run a dating app, you probably work at Match Group.
As you think about Tinder and its role in people’s lives, and then you’ve got this other constellation of dating services, do you see people moving from one to the other? Do you see people leaving their long-standing OkCupid relationship and coming into the Tinder swiping ecosystem? How does that work out inside of a conglomerate of so many different brands?
Yeah, it’s a good question. I’ll frame it from the Tinder perspective. The CEO of OkCupid today is a very, very sharp guy, and he would want to be able to answer the OkCupid-specific questions. But I’ll frame it for how we think.
I think this is broadly true both within Match Group but really across the entire category, [Tinder is] the only one that is focused entirely, with all of our energy, on 18 to 25, on Gen Z, on how it shows up when you’re really young.
It doesn’t therefore mean that there aren’t members who are over 25 on Tinder. There are lots, but that’s the unique place we play.
Ashley, you were saying it with regards to Tinder U, there’s a reason why we do all the stuff we do for US college kids. That’s not the entirety of our audience. We’re much, much bigger than just the US college student population, but it’s a place where we derive a lot of inspiration for our innovation and that’s when we have in mind a member, we’re thinking about them.
When I was the CEO of OkCupid, that was not the member. Ariel [Charytan] as the CEO of OkCupid, he’d have to tell you how he thinks about it today. But having been in both roles at different times, I very much conceptualized who I was building for, who we as a team thought about, quite differently.
NP: Do you share resources across these groups? We just spoke to the CEO of Google. He has to operate Google and Alphabet. He resource-shares across the various Alphabet companies, but he wants to keep them very different. Is that how you think of Tinder inside of Match Group? I don’t think it gets enough attention that Match Group owns so many of the major dating services and manages to keep them somewhat independent. How does that roll up at the top when you decide to share resources?
Shar Dubey is the CEO of Match Group, and she and I have worked together closely now for four years. She’s fantastic, very, very brilliant, super experienced in all things dating online. She’s been doing this for a long time. She was at Match.com, running Match.com for many years. We’ve started to take sharing of specific knowledge bases more seriously.
Ashley, you were talking about trust and safety. It’s an area where we absolutely don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s really important that we take the knowledge developed at Tinder, or the knowledge developed at OkCupid, or at Match.com, and apply it for the benefit of all of our members, independent of which one of the communities they happen to be in anywhere in the world. There are other examples of that around that which start to get more technical.
There are technical resources where Tinder teams are working with OkCupid teams or other teams, Hinge teams, etc, to bring to bear very specific technical know-how. It tends to be in areas where the knowledge that you need is very specific to what we do versus very general computing knowledge., where honestly, the company that knows best is like AWS or Google Cloud, for example. When it’s specific to the world that we’re in, then the sharing is pretty significant.
I’ve been with Match for four years now. First at OkCupid — now at Tinder for two and a half years and OkCupid for one and a half before that, and I’ve seen us increase that a lot over that time, and that’s very intentional.
AC: Is there a world in which Tinder creates a Tinder haptic suit? Where is the limitation with tech and what do you think needs to happen in the future to make virtual dating maybe a true reality?
I think that this varies for everyone. My view personally, but our view more broadly as a team at Tinder, is that there is a limitation. There is only so far you can go — that we’re physical beings and that’s important and that’s wonderful and that’s been true for millennia and millennia, and it’s not going to change because of COVID. It’s not going to change. I think that’s going to be true. So the physical connection we get will remain important, and I don’t think we’ll build a haptic suit.
But look, the wonderful thing about all things internet and all things tech is somebody, somewhere will be inspired and will say, “This is important. It’s important to be able to hang out in Animal Crossing. Oh, that’s really interesting. People want to do that. Okay, that’s inspiring.”
I think the physical world has a really, really critical role to play. I can’t wait till my wife and I can go out to restaurants and bars and hang out in the physical world and have that experience. I’m eager for that to come back. So I think there’s a very important place to play for hanging out virtually, but I think there’s a very important place to play for the physical world.
We have a huge community, and so there will be parts of the community who say, look, “I’m very satisfied. I feel validated. I feel seen. I feel heard, and I get my connection without that.”
We’ll have a better sense in a year’s time of how this shakes out, what percentages are what, but I’m definitely betting on the physical world being very important and here to stay.
NP: I end all these conversations with CEOs by asking about how you manage your time and when you do work. I’m imagining running a team the size of Tinder across the world remotely is challenging. How have you structured your time? When do you get work done, and how are you adjusting to managing remotely?
One that I think a lot of people are seeing that I definitely started to see maybe 6, 7, 8 weeks ago, whenever this started — I do not do Zoom videoconferences all day long. I think it is draining in some very unique way, and I don’t like it.
I’ve moved a lot of the things that don’t need to be Zoom to phone calls or to asynchronous inside of Google Docs. I think to me, the big takeaway — which, I don’t know if it’s a direct answer to your question, but I think it’s a really interesting topic — is that recently, we assumed that the default number of days you needed to be in the office was five. I think that was broadly true.
There’s a lot of social cultural inertia around that idea. You work in the kind of work we do, it’s digital work, and you commute across the Bay Area or across Los Angeles or across New York — those are where our US offices are — and it takes you 60 minutes and you go sit at a desk, and then you do Google Docs and you do Slack. Occasionally, you go to a conference room, and you do that five days a week.
I think what this is teaching us for sure, is that the default of five doesn’t make sense. You don’t need five. I do think there’s a really important value of being in the office, that the physical space has certain jobs it does really well. I think that’s a big unlock.
I think in terms of my personal time, the things that I’m being very careful of is, do I need to do this live or not and how do I ensure that my day doesn’t end up spent just sitting all day.
The office actually brings with it lots of little breaks. I’m walking here, I’m walking there and I think that’s a more balanced version, versus just sitting at my desk here looking at the video screen 12 hours a day.
NP: When you say there’s stuff the office does well — Tinder’s a software company. As you kind of see the split of bigger companies, the companies that have a lot of hardware divisions are itching to go back. Pure software companies like Twitter, Square, are going to “work from home forever.” Are you thinking about the same split?
Yeah, the big thing will be that there’s an unlock from the inertia of “We just do it this way because we’ve always done it.” Especially for work that is a lot around information work.
Obviously, if you’re manufacturing something, most of this doesn’t apply. You’re physically manufacturing it in a physical space, but for the kind of work that we do, for sure, it’s software, it’s digital.
I don’t like the framing of it’s all or nothing. It’s like we’re going to work from home forever, there’s going to be no physical office — I think it’s the wrong framing.
I think it’s really a question of how many of those days a week do you want to have the office time. I think teams really benefit from that. Picking up off the conversation from before, the physical world is important and we get a lot from it. I know that I get a lot from our team interactions that are in the physical world. I miss it. I know a lot of our other leaders do. But you don’t need five days.
I actually think that a lot of hardware companies, people who are working more in the hardware world will also find that that’s a balance that makes sense for them, too, because a lot of their work is not physically with their hands on the hardware. It’s very often inside of a computer, in CAD or wherever it is.
NP: You have a lot of access to a lot of signal about when people are using Tinder and going on dates again around the world. What are the indicators you’re looking at around the world to say, “Okay, our team is going to start coming back now”?
It’s hard. We’re looking at two different things. We’re looking at after this is all over, what does the future of work look like? That’s a really interesting thought experiment. I think it’s hard to know exactly what it will be, but we can come up with some really good theories around it.
In terms of signal to come back, it’s hard. We’ve looked at this a lot. You’ve got density challenges. So even when you’re like, “Oh, things are getting better, yeah. Going to the park and going on a date in a park or going to the beach in LA, that seems pretty safe, seems pretty low risk,” in a dense office environment, you’ve got a lot of challenges.
We don’t have a good answer. I think what you’re seeing is a lot of tech companies, us included, are continuously pushing out the date, the come-back date. My guess is that as people work through all of the details of “How many people can you really have in the office and what would that actually look like?” and “What if you have one person who’s sick and how many people do they get sick?” the date keeps getting pushed out.
So where that’s led me personally is that I’m thinking more and more about what happens after versus trying to guess when do we come back. Because we’re seeing this now — if you’re in Seoul, South Korea, it’s a very different story. That’s probably the best case in the world at this point. If you’re in Germany, clearly better, but office work in Germany is still difficult because it’s a confined space.
Anyway, I don’t know that we have a better conclusion. We have lots of signal of how people are behaving, but they’re behaving that way in kind of outside areas or low-density areas, and office is very high density.
NP: You’re making a lot of moves right now for Tinder in what I would call the stay-at-home moment. You’re trying to make Tinder more social, inside of the app, inside of its community. At some point, [the pandemic] does wrap up, and people start to shift and hopefully see each other in person again.
What’s the main thing you want to hold on to as you pull through this moment? I think the phrase you used was “pulling the future forward.” What’s the thing that you see inside of Tinder as pulling the future forward?
I think it really relates to how the experience of our 18-, 19-, 20-year-old members looks. If we can create an experience that allows them to get to know somebody to hang out digitally, before they go into the physical world, and therefore what they do get in the physical world is more likely to be good, more likely to be vibing, to have a real connection, that’s the part that stays.
We were thinking that way, going back to late 2018. You see it in Swipe Night in the fall of last year. How do we make the community more alive as a place to come to, as a place to hang out? That was informed by the trends we were already seeing. COVID speeds it up, and it broadens the number of people who say, “Yeah, that’s relevant for me.”
The path you described of like, I swipe, I match, we text a few times and we say, “Hey, let’s find a date to go on in a week or two,” that’s not going away. These are not mutually exclusive. Both will be contained, but that’s the part that we’ll keep with us. The other part that I’m describing, is the part we’ll keep.
NP: It seems like you’re at an inflection point where you can accelerate the broader vision.
That’s exactly right. It’s an outside thing that gets a lot of people willing to try it. That’s a big deal that people are willing to try something new, whether that’s Instacart, or that is a Zoom meeting, or it’s hanging out on Tinder. It’s a moment in time where you get a lot more people who open their minds out of necessity, who are willing to expand what they think is, for lack of a better word, normal. That’s a big change. That’s a big deal.