[Editor’s note of caution: Tinder stories get saucy. Due to sensitive content, names have been changed.]
“Who doesn’t like to shop?” said Cara, 25 and doe-eyed, twisting her strawberry ringlets into braids before her date. “It’s Tinder, it’s easy.”
She dabbed her essential oil before scanning me, “and it’s been a while, I can tell. You need to open up your mind.”
Tinder was the faraway concept I’d bring up to win games of “Never Have I Ever.” It was the thing I’d complain about when friends would mindlessly swipe on contenders (rather than nod at my fascinating observations). But mostly, it was the stupid hookup app I avoided out of pure picky pride, especially around certain February holidays.
Yet, single we were and lazy I was. And Cara walked me through her app.
On the screen, there was a well-groomed dude with a mess of muscles glistening in Pa‘ia waves. I laughed like a cynical troll, witnessing a Gatorade-commercial of a man I’d never approach in real life. The picture displayed his name, age, and distance. She scrolled his other scenic selfies and concluded uncompellingly, “I mean, I wouldn’t normally, but I could… and I bet he could lift me like Dirty Dancing without a problem. Look at those arms.”
Cara clicked the guy’s information icon and browsed his bio.
It lacked substance: 6 feet 2 inches, loves travel and music, visiting Maui for a week, beach ball emoji.
“He’s not got much to say,” she started before pointing to the longevity of his stay. “And he’s here for a week. Typical. But I probably won’t awkwardly run into him at Mana much,” she said before weighing her options:
She could either swipe right to initiate a match, swipe left to file a rejection, or click a one-a-day “super like” button to megaphone an extra attraction.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said, shrugging and swiping right.
He swiped right on her too, almost immediately. It was a match.
Tinder, she said, was a sales funnel for suiters. Users modified their search radius for as local or long distance as they’d like to – up to 100 miles max – and then cast their nets to see who they’d catch. The app lets you filter users: How old do you want them? What gender? From there, users scan through leads on the island.
“Realistically, I swipe right on 40 percent, match with 35, communicate with 25, but only meet up with a small percent,” Cara said. “Maui doesn’t have much to play with and you end up seeing the same locals recirculate. Eventually, you just end up scanning heaps of vacationers you’ll never see again.”
She told me I could upgrade my Tinder app and swipe whatever distance or destination I’d like, for extended entertainment. But while Maui’s length runs 48 miles east to west, my dedication doesn’t extend past the road to Hana for coffee with a stranger.
When Cara arrived on the island without knowing any locals, she used Tinder to meet out-of-the-ordinary people and acquaint herself with the place.
“I had a lot of time on my hands and definitely used a lot of it on Tinder,” she admitted, chuckling. “It became rather addictive.”
She collected favorites. Kundalini top-bun guy for ecstatic dancing. Jersey dude for downing car bombs. WWOOFer for harvesting crops, and the like.
At the height of her Tinder days, when all her matches were within 10 miles of each other, things got invasive.
In Lahaina, she recognized (and dodged) a previous match while making her way to an arranged Tinder date the next bar over.
Another evening shortly after, Cara told me her paranoia of seeing separate Tinder-matches hanging out had materialized. It became clear that Front Street oozed with Tinder contenders, and she tried to avoid unintentional run-ins if she could. “On Front Street they’re everywhere, all the time, like little ants!” she told me.
Cara once stumbled into two separate Tinder matches playing giant-Jenga together at Dirty Monkey. She joined their game, toying with the strangeness of the occasion. Both greeted her with delight and she collected their overlapping advances while wondering when one would wisen up to the other’s identical Tinder swipe, “and that’s the social experiment of Tinder for you.”
(They both independently invited her out for drinks the following nights.)
Her lady pal Parker, 27, had the same luck of running into matches unexpectedly. She didn’t take Tinder very seriously until she started sighting its users everywhere.
The app was like window-shopping, she said. “I could Tinder whenever: on break, on the toilet, you name it. It was the Amazon Prime for admirers and I bought into it, bad.”
She said it felt particularly vain but self-esteem boosting at the same time.
“It’s different, hiding behind a screen to pick strangers out,” she started. Parker thought of the app as a game, a love-me, love-me-not petal pick of people who didn’t exist unless she wanted them to. “It reminded me of traffic, where with the windows rolled up I’d spew words to other cars I’d never say to another person in real life. Users were just pictures and short sentences until they’d land in front of me.”
But then they existed when she didn’t want them to, like witnessing her buying tampons at Safeway or something, “and all of a sudden, I’d realize I was now in their livestream, smelling like camping, and lacking any prepared dad-jokes or one-liners. It made the whole game of swiping right seem a bit more consequential.”
For a while before, Cara and Parker took the app as a joke, using it like a trial-and-error platform for puns and one-liners that they weren’t ready to debut to a physical person yet.
“I think we make ourselves weirder on Tinder so they’re not thrown off when we meet,” Cara said. They talked about the difference between people’s “Tinder-Self” and “Real-Self,” when a user’s bio was a gritty adventurer, confident scholar, and raunchy comedian, but their other self (the real one) was a duller blend of attributes that didn’t match the ad.
“We’re all just weirdos with phones trying to convince other weirdos we’re cool and collected,” Parker said, with Cara adding, “It’s important to note that everyone puts their best pictures on Tinder and those ‘best pictures’ are sometimes five years old and look nothing like the person looking for you at the host stand.”
Cara and Parker both took precautions before initially meeting up with matches. Cara always asked for direct Snapchats or Facetimes to verify her potential date’s identities and see them through a different medium. Tinder doesn’t have direct photo or audio features to initiate communication beyond text, so she worked around it.
When it comes time to meet, Cara and Parker both turn on their IPhone’s location services.
“Safety’s a must, especially when the majority of matches don’t live on island. I’ve met so many seemingly normal people who end up having an I-leave-tomorrow mentality for a Hawaiian vacation fling,” Parker said. “So I started putting ‘not looking for hookups’ on my bio just to filter out hungry hornballs on the prowl, because that’s just not what I’m into.”
Parker and Cara had moved to the island together. They initially spent mornings swiping Tinder over free Wi-Fi to hang out with other newbies to Maui. Tourists tended to want to do the same, well, touristy things. Locals were much more laid back, taking a lot longer to respond, but always had more interesting things to do.
The two lived in a rented van with two others (yes, four in a van) and equipped their bios with things like: “New to Maui and trying van-life with my three vanmates! Don’t be alarmed if you hear us yelling ‘get in our trunk’ if we pick you up.”
(That was Parker’s bio for a week before she got her own space.)
“Yes, we winged it and camped a lot when we first arrived,” Parker said, “and that made dating interesting to say the least. We definitely never ‘took anyone home’ in the traditional sense.”
They sometimes slept like sardines in the trunk of their Toyota Sienna when it was too rainy to set up hammocks or tents. For the most part though, Parker said, Tinder matches thought it was hilariously novel, like being on tour with her band of non-musical talents who slept by the beach.
Once, Cara said, she and her van-mate Tanner, 25 and Tarzan-haired, matched with a couple on Tinder who double-dated them in the sands beside the van. The other van dwellers were off on their own and the couple thought it’d be thrilling to christen the vehicle with the two of them, so they all did… it.
“I still talk to them today,” Tanner said, gazing off with a mischievous smirk.
Tanner, the not-so shy nude model and pick-up line artist, showed me the couple’s pictures and scrolled through their profile with me. He said they were his first ‘wife-swap,’ an activity that went down in the books. Tinder usually wasn’t that exhilarating, he said, but it proved to be a useful foundation for finding swingers.
He then averted my attention from their Tinder to his, where I saw his Speedo photo introduction.
“Oh, that. I wanted to stand out by putting something wild, abrasive, or maybe clumsy to break the ice.”
Tanner’s someone who considers himself an introvert because he liked playing Nintendo Switch and hard-to-get. He likes Tinder because it put the ocean of Maui women into the pond of his palm.
“It’s an excuse to kill time and hopefully get laid,” he told me, half-joking.
Tinder opened up a world of single people he could immediately swoop a clever line on, rather than wait at a bar to make sure the cute girl in front of him didn’t have a companion.
He nudged me and told me to give it a try,
“Perhaps, before Valentine’s Day hits, you’ll swipe right on the right one; whether right for a rump or right for a ring, who knows.” And whether or not he was right, Cara already downloaded the app on my phone, and the two of them were making me a bio.
Who knows, maybe you’ll be my internet Valentine.
Cover design by Albert Cortez