Why you should care
Because this woman is the brains behind Tinder’s buzz.
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One day, as I swiped my way through Tinder, a pithy line on someone’s profile gave me pause: “If I was looking for a relationship, I would be on OkCupid.” Every dating app has its own reputation: eHarmony for the older generation, Raya for celebrities, Bumble for women wanting to make the first move. For Tinder, now nearing release in 200 countries worldwide, “hookup app” persists as the unshakable reputation. But Jessica Carbino would like to add a bit of nuance to that perception.
The 30-year-old UCLA Ph.D. grad — Tinder’s in-house sociologist — is responsible for discovering what Tinder users want from the app by conducting research through surveys and focus groups. Chief data officer Dan Gould calls her work “critical” in informing the product team about new features. But her work has also turned outward, as she spins an Olivia Pope-worthy narrative meant to counteract Tinder’s cheap-hookup stereotype. Among her most widely circulated projects was a 2015 Tinder-generated survey reporting that out of more than 300,000 Tinder users, 80 percent are looking for “more than just a casual hookup.” The research was done via an opt-in survey in the app so Tinder users could provide their feedback, experiences, and perceptions of it.
While polls like that can help scrub up the reputation of the company, they also offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of modern millennial daters, and provide at least the first set of handholds to those of us trying to puzzle through the story of today’s dating landscape. Some of her findings might even help you up your swipe game. Recently, she found that users dressed in neutral colors fare worse than those in brighter colors. She also advises to avoid covering your face with a hat or sunglasses, even glasses you would normally wear. Tinder’s own social media channels have touted the tips along with numerous other media outlets.
Carbino, an articulate, petite brunette, began working at Tinder in October 2013 after she matched with Tinder founder and CEO Sean Rad on the app, which, yes, she was using for dating. But after a visit to Tinder HQ, Rad reportedly told her, “You know, Jess, you seem nice, but I’d really rather hire you.” (Neither Carbino nor Rad would confirm this quote with us, though Carbino shared it with California Sunday Magazine.) The Philadelphia native’s addition to the team couldn’t have come at a better time. By 2014, the app was growing at breakneck speed with more than 1 billion swipes per day and an average daily user session of an hour and a half.
But then things took a sharp turn, and not because of the technology. Allegations surfaced of sexual harassment by Rad’s co-founder, Justin Mateen, against Whitney Wolfe, the former vice president of marketing, who later founded Bumble. Wolfe sued Tinder and its parent company IAC, later settling. Rad was caught in a PR firestorm after screenshots of texts surfaced showing him asking for Wolfe to resign; he was removed as CEO but reinstated five months later. (Tinder’s VP of communications and branding, Rosette Pambakian, notes that he remained at the company as president and led all product initiatives during the interim, and the lawsuit was settled without any admission of wrongdoing by Tinder. Wolfe has not replied to requests for comment.) Against that seediness, Carbino stood out as a fresh face for the company, hailed as the “Dr. Ruth of the Swipe Right Generation” in a recent LA Weekly profile. And, of course, she’s a damn good spokesperson, notes online dating expert Julie Spira. For a company trading in such seeming frivolity, Carbino adds a level of credibility.
And yet the very thing that gives Tinder a shallow reputation among daters might give it a shallow reputation in the data world, too: Its users do not upload full-blown profiles in the vein of OkCupid, giving the company less information than traditional dating sites, says Eli J. Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. When asked, Carbino breezes by the question, asserting that Tinder’s information is “rich, if not richer” than other sources. The other experts aren’t entirely disparaging: Finkel, who penned an op-ed in the New York Times called “In Defense of Tinder,” says he’s not sure what Carbino’s finding on bright versus neutral colors would tell us about the human psyche, but he counts it as potentially interesting. He reminds us, however, to be “wary” of research paid for and published by for-profit companies, especially when used to substantiate a marketing claim. And nothing counts as scientific research unless it’s possible in principle for other scientists to conduct independent replications.
Of course, it’s less data and more reputation that impacts the bottom line of dating apps. Amid all the noise, dating startups are relying on branding to be their signal. A competitor, Hinge, recently rebranded, calling itself “The Relationship App” — which Carbino describes as a “clever marketing stunt” — something that perhaps indicates an unmet need in the market. (OZY reached out to all of the dating companies mentioned here; none replied to request for comment.)
Carbino’s not quite trying to make Tinder G-rated, however. It’s probably because Tinder’s popularity lies in one of its most controversial elements — it’s a game! Spira recalls that when Tinder was first released, the app would prompt “Keep playing?” each time a match appeared — a feature that was removed only recently. NYU Stern professor Vasant Dhar points out that “gamification is a positive thing; it leads to more engagement and more people playing games.” Carbino’s defense is a familiar one: Swiping right or left is just an app-embodied example of how we judge others in real life. And you don’t need a huge sample size to know that’s true.