Two weeks ago, I watched Justin McLeod, founder of the dating app Hinge, give a talk on the future of dating. “The story of Hinge starts with Kate, my on-and-off college girlfriend,” he said, standing in front of a projector screen slide of a broken heart. The couple’s college relationship was so tumultuous that Kate transferred schools to avoid him. “By the time I’d graduated business school, I felt more together,” he said. “I reached out to her then, but she’d moved to London and a met a guy.”
That’s when, in 2012, McLeod founded Hinge. Initially, the app was very similar to Tinder except that it aimed to pair users with friends of Facebook friends. In 2015, McLeod read Nancy Jo Sales’s story in Vanity Fair about how Tinder had created a “dating apocalypse,” and he changed his vision for the product entirely. The article argued that Tinder and apps like it had destroyed daters’ ability to commit to any one person. Sales diagnosed what McLeod believed to be a real problem in the online dating industry. “We realized lots of people were looking for a serious relationship, but most apps aren’t designed for this,” McLeod said on stage.
When that dating apocalypse story went viral in 2015, I was a data scientist and engineer at OkCupid. In the two years that followed, dating companies vied to fill the niche of creating an app that would help millennials find not just hookups but relationships. Aiming to cast itself as younger and hipper than Match.com or eHarmony but less superficial than Tinder, OkCupid changed its slogan to “You’re more substance than just selfie.” Hinge nixed its Tinder-like swiping interface and relaunched, calling itself “the relationship app.”
McLeod ended his talk with a picture of a message he sent to Kate eight years after the last time he’d seen her in person: “Meet me for 15 minutes, coffee?” it read. “Just to say hi/goodbye?” At the time, Kate was living in London and was planning to marry her then-boyfriend. But McLeod persuaded Kate to call off the engagement, move back to New York and marry him — which she did this past February. Kate, who was in the audience at McLeod’s talk, stood up as the crowd erupted in applause.
The pair’s love story is cute — it even landed a spot in the New York Times’s Modern Love column. But what does it say about online dating that even the founder of a popular dating app didn’t need his own product? I sat down with McLeod and talked about his relationship, how to be authentic in a dating profile and the future of Hinge. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Washington Post: When I worked at OkCupid, I had access to an entire database of single guys, but I ended up dating my co-worker. You created a dating app but married your college sweetheart. Is there something in the back of your head that says: I could have optimized more?
Interesting. In a sense, no. I met Kate in college, and the types of people that end up going to college with you are already curated. But the other thing is, increasing people’s pool size to a point is very helpful. But past that, it becomes a paradox of choice. You could probably be happy with a lot of people, but how do you focus on having a real and authentic connection with one person? You worked with someone day after day. I went to college with Kate. You got to see a different side of your boyfriend and then you fell in … well, I don’t know … are you guys still dating?
So then you fell in love or whatever. Kate and I happened to meet in the so-called real world. But there’s no doubt Hinge works for a lot of people. By happenstance, I had already met my person.
But it wasn’t just that I saw a different side of my boyfriend offline than I would have through a dating app. It was also that spending so much time with him made me like him more.
Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, you can certainly be with the wrong people. But there’s probably a large pool of people that you can be very happy with, if you are forced to cut out the rest of your choices. Can we optimize and find that exact right person? I think you probably believe what I believe, which is that it’s a fool’s game. I’m not sure it’s possible and even if it were, it’s not necessary — it’s about finding someone who’s good for you and then nurturing your relationship.
Part of Hinge’s re-branding involved adding profile questions that would allow users to highlight their more authentic selves. How did you decide which questions would do that?
We optimize the Hinge profile questions over time to be the ones that people are both willing to answer and those that are likely to lead to a conversation. We found that most people don’t think some super-special algorithms that knows their Meyers-Briggs type and what type of ketchup they buy would be able to find their right person.
Really? People don’t believe in algorithms?
Yeah, they don’t. Instead, we try to bring forward as much as we can about a person. What we lack in precision, we make up for in volume: We can show you 20 people and let you figure out which ones resonate with you. So much of attraction is X factor — the particular way a person looks or the way they answered a question you thought was cute. Maybe this registers in the algorithm that runs in your brain which figures out whether you’re a good mate with someone. But in terms of a computer being able to represent this accurately, I don’t think we’re there yet.
What does it mean to be authentic on a dating profile?
It’s vulnerability. Not putting three Snapchat filtered photos and a simple tagline like: “Australian guy living in Montreal.” That’s not helpful. Authenticity is allowing a little bit of that vulnerability in the way we fill out our profiles and engage with people. It’s not authentic to just swipe right on someone’s face. I have no idea whether you’re swiping right on everyone, or if you’re really thoughtful. The new Hinge interface [which replaces swiping with a system that lets users comment on photos and profile essays] adds cognitive load that forces me to think: What do I like about this person and what do I want to say about it? That’s a signal to me that this person actually cares and is interested.
Speaking of swiping, a recent Hinge blog post reported that the distribution of likes on Hinge is pretty skewed, especially for heterosexual men: Only 15 percent of men receive more than half of all the likes. How do you handle that bottom tier of users who get fewer likes?
One of our key performance indicators is what percentage of our user base gets into a full conversation, not how many conversations happen per user on average. Our algorithm is designed to spread the love around as much as possible, without overexposing super-hot people. Ultimately, some users are going to get liked by every person that sees them and others by not as many … but by a few. And so we match those people up as best we can. We actually found in a previous study that this is actually a worse story for women, because men have more homogeneous taste than women do. Most men agree on what’s a hot girl and what’s not, whereas women don’t.
On that note: Do you think it’s better to be a man or a woman on a dating app?
It depends on which app and what your purpose is. It’s great to be a guy looking for hookups on Bumble, because you don’t have to do anything except swipe right on everyone. Women have to do the work to show they’re interested, which sounds like a great role for guys. I think it’s pretty good to be a woman on Hinge, because you have a much better filtering mechanism to figure out who liked your profile photo versus who was thoughtful enough to engage with one of the prompts you answered. That helps you figure out where you should focus your time.
It’s been a year since Hinge’s relaunch. Do you think we’re past the dating apocalypse?
Not past it yet. But I think the leading edge of innovation is moving away from it. Apps like Tinder and Bumble are still really big. But I don’t think that’s where the future is. There’s certainly a group of people who don’t like dating apps, and I’ve seen some data that says their antipathy toward dating services has only increased over time. Before, they thought, “not for me.” Now they’re like, “I would never touch that.” I hope we can make the technology more accessible by making the technology a bit more humane. If we can show that apps can help you find authentic connection even better than you can in the real world, maybe we pull some of those people back into it.