Tinder Has an In-House Sociologist and Her Job Is to Figure Out What You Want

Jessica Carbino studies the vexing question of what factors into that left or right swipe

Kismet” is the word Jessica Carbino likes to use. She joined Tinder in October 2013, about a year after it launched in Los Angeles. Carbino was 27 and “looking.” She was also a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA, writing her thesis on online dating. An undergraduate student had tipped her off about the free app, explaining how it pulls up an endless scroll of photos of people around you, displaying minimal, if any, biographical details about them. If you “like” someone, she was told, you swipe right; if you don’t, go left. A chat box appears only when both parties are into each other.

Her interest piqued, Carbino gave the app a spin. One of the photos she swiped right on was of a twentysomething with short dark hair and a stare intense enough to knock down walls. He swiped right on her, too. The guy, it turned out, was the company CEO, Sean Rad. Instead of a date, Carbino landed a job as the start-up’s in-house sociologist.

Close to three years later she’s leading me through Tinder’s headquarters several stories above the Sunset Strip. Tinder moved here last October, and the space still has a just-out-of-the-box vibe. The building belongs to Barry Diller’s IAC, a media conglomerate that owns four dozen dating sites, including OkCupid, Match.com, and PlentyOfFish as well as a controlling stake in Tinder. Yet those holdings constitute only a tiny fraction of the nearly 4,000 sites that make up the $2.2 billion online dating market. You can bet more will be emerging. Because as much as computers and smartphones have changed the dating game, what hasn’t changed is the central challenge everyone contends with: how to lock in a better match.

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To a large degree the sector has staked its success on algorithms—proprietary math formulas that use a combination of profile information and online behaviors—to come up with the answers. For end users, though, providing the data to feed those algorithms can feel like a drag, what with the tedious profiles, the Psych 101 personality tests, and the interminable questionnaires (eHarmony’s has more than 150 questions). The payoff isn’t always there, either. “Chemistry [needs to] kick in, and that’s the toughest area—how to know someone’s going to have a good pheromones effect,” says Mark Brooks, president of New York-based Courtland Brooks, a consulting firm that has worked with many dating sites.

With Tinder, Rad has seemingly bypassed all that stuff and focused on one underlying premise: Attraction, at least with that initial spark, might really only be skin deep. Four years and 10 billion right swipes later, more than three-quarters of the app’s users are between 18 and 34 years old, a traditionally elusive demographic for the dating industry. Now Tinder is pushing for growth and revenue by adding extra features. It launched a tiered subscription service early last year, charging those over 30 a $20 monthly fee (and those younger, $10) for the privilege of undoing an accidental left swipe and the ability to search for prospects in other cities. In November the app started allowing users to include their employment and education information to provide a slightly more complete, as in more right-swipable, snapshot of themselves.

That’s where Carbino’s work comes in: to find out what users want and what they don’t know they want. “I think Tinder is far more complex than simply physical attractiveness,” she says. “With photos, people are not simply looking at whether someone has a nice smile or a nice face per se. They are looking at other factors related to that individual’s attributes—like socioenomic status, whether they think they are kind, nice, or mean.” We’re standing at her workstation by the marketing department, which at 10:30 a.m. (early by tech standards) has yet to clock in. Her portion of the cubicle consists of a chair, a desk, and a PC. That’s all the hardware Carbino, a petite and fast-talking 30-year-old brunet, needs to do her job, which entails running focus groups, creating surveys for Tinder and non-Tinder users, and filtering loads of data through the lens of social behaviors.

One project she spent seven months on involved poring over 12,000 images of Tinder users in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, cataloging in minute detail the visual qualities users deem “attractive” and taking the definition beyond hot or not. The analysis draws on a long-established concept in psychology called “thin slicing,” which has to do with the vast amount of nonverbal cues first impressions can give us about a stranger. For instance, men with a softer jawline are generally perceived by women as kinder than, say, a guy with a Christian Bale thing going on. Carbino has also found that the selfie is the most common type of photo on the app, that women with makeup tend to get swiped right more by men, that a group shot should never be someone’s first photo, and that men in L.A. are more clean-shaven than those in other cities. There’s also this: About 80 percent of Tinder users are seeking long-term relationships, according to Carbino’s research.

All of her findings make their way into marketing pitches and tip sheets for users, but they are being used as well to refine the “product,” including its algorithm. Yes, even Tinder uses one. Called “Elo,” a chess reference, the formula assigns an undisclosed rating to each profile based on the frequency of right swipes. It’s one variable the app uses to determine which profiles someone sees (not that people at Tinder will say anything else about it).

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The challenge Tinder faces is how to retain its photocentric simplicity while adapting to an ever-evolving marketplace. Pleasing those on the hunt for one-night stands is easy (like Grindr, the gay hookup app, Tinder gets flak for encouraging promiscuity—despite the fact that Carbino’s research shows otherwise). But it’s considerably harder to sell users who are interested in something longer term on looks alone. One competitor, the League, follows the tried-and-true route of exclusivity by focusing on ambitious professionals. (“You’ll never have to wonder if that Harvard hottie is too good to be true on The League” is one of its pitch lines.) With another app, the Bumble, women have to make the first move to connect.

“Photos are very important but very limited,” says Brooks, the dating industry consultant. “Character is not being communicated there. I think Tinder will prompt us to think differently about how to match-make behind the scenes. And that’s important because that’s the evolution required for the industry to really reach its potential.”

Brooks’s expertise is tech-based dating, but what he’s pointing to are the limitations that Katie Chen capitalizes on. “Everyone online looks kind of similar, especially in the L.A. metro area. Everyone’s going to dress nice, they all work out, they all hike, they all love dining, love having good friends and traveling,” says Chen, who cofounded the Pico-Robertson-based Catch Matchmaking, which offers what Tinder doesn’t: personalized service. “You would think that online dating and matchmaking would grow in different directions, almost like if online dating is popular, matchmaking would go away,” she says. But the opposite is true. Too many choices can overwhelm a shopper. Catch’s clients are “busy professionals” in their late twenties through seventies, who are willing to shell out for a more tailor-made experience that includes pointers on how to dress and how to take a better photo. Sometimes they even get an honest talking-to about attitude and expectation. “They really are sick of online dating and app dating,” says Chen. “They’re like, ‘I’ll just hire you because if one more girl shows up and she doesn’t look like her photo…’ or ‘I’m not good at writing my profile’ or ‘I am not good at texting.’ They’d rather outsource it.”

Of course a matchmaker can cost thousands, which is partly why online dating cropped up in the first place. About 15 percent of American adults have used a dating site or app, according to a Pew study conducted earlier this year. The scholarly view of online dating is that it emerged because of socioeconomic forces: As people move around for jobs and school, they leave behind the network of family and friends that has traditionally helped them meet their other half. With those connections far away, the Internet became the most viable option.

It’s a phenomenon ripe for examination. Carbino certainly isn’t the first academic to be lured by the dating industry. Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who works for Match, famously created a personality test for Chemistry.com, another IAC property. And the now-defunct Perfectmatch.com was built on an algorithm developed by sociologist Pepper Schwartz. But every generation needs its interpreters. “I am a young sociologist, and it’s a young company,” Carbino says. “I think that’s my unique standpoint in the field.”

She became intrigued by online dating after starting her graduate program at UCLA, where she knew “not a soul.” Carbino figured that joining JDate, the Jewish singles site, was her best bet for meeting someone. “I went on one good date and saw the person on and off for a while,” she says. “I also went on many bad dates.” She quickly moved on to Ok-Cupid, Match.com, Jswipe, Hinge, and Coffee Meets Bagel. The more she browsed, the more curious she became. “The thing that was interesting to me is how people presented themselves. No one was studying that at the time,” she says.

As for her personal relationship with online dating, she called it quits long ago. A month after she started at Tinder the company, she met her boyfriend on Tinder the app. The couple have lived together for nearly two years with a pair of Maltipoos they rescued as puppies. Their names are Bonnie and Clyde.

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