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The rise of the Tinder penpal

The rise of the Tinder penpal


Tinder used to have two goals: love or sex. Now there’s a growing group of male users who don’t want either. If he still hasn’t suggested meeting up, maybe he never will…

It was during their second month of Tinder texting that Lucy, a 25-year-old publicity manager, began to question things with english teacher Greg. She knew so much about him that Wikipedia could have hired her to write his profile page. The only thing she didn’t know was what his face really looked like – or if she was ever going to see it in real life.
Yep, their interaction was more of an e-teraction, trapped in the Tinder-sphere. During weeks of meet-less messaging, date hints had trailed off like shooting stars. She soon blamed constant busy schedules, school holidays, weddings and hangovers. When she ran out of explanations for why they hadn’t met up, she presumed his continuing conversation was a polite prelude to a vanishing act.
But Greg wasn’t at all a ghoster – even though they were in a phantom-like relationship. Greg was a pen pal, like the faraway friends you’d write to as a child. Meeting up was not on his agenda. To him, Lucy was an attractive app-quaintance and their flirtation began and ended with a ‘sent’ notification. She was stuck in the electronic age’s version of the dreaded dating friend-zone and she is one of many women on the receiving end of the guys doing it.
“The most frustrating thing about Tinder is finding people who actually want to go on a date. Time-wasters will chat to you about nothing at all for ages – it now feels more effort trying to meet guys through Tinder,” admits Elena, 27. Lauren, a 29-year-old chef, agrees.
“Men chat for weeks without ever asking for your number. I’ve never actually managed to go on a date with one.”
After being strung along by a series of pen pals, Caroline, 32, has called time.
“I’ve got to the point where I’m like, so, James or Tim or whoever, it’s been nice telling you how I am every few days for three months, but, it’s over. I’m in my thirties and I’m not buying this sh*t.”
Tinder’s job description has become blurred. Traditional online dating wasn’t heaps of fun, but after spending three hours writing a profile, you wanted the reward of a date. Tinder, on the other hand, is so fun that it’s primary role as a service for singles has been eclipsed.
“The pretext is to hook-up but the real pleasure is derived from the Tindering process. It is nomophobia [fear of being out of mobile phone contact], Facebook-porn and Candy Crush Saga all in one,” describes social scientist Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (
He believes Tinder is part of a new Technosexual era, where the process of dating has been ‘gamified’ by technology. Years ago, guys would take turns on the Game Boy or PlayStation – now it’s Tinder.
“Swiping feels like a game. Guys will swipe right on women they think are out of their league on the off-chance they might be her type. When you get a hit,
it has that jackpot effect, like a slot machine. It’s addictive,” admits Josh, 28.
OTD (Obsessive Tindering Disorder) is so compulsive that Chris, 27, felt some withdrawal symptoms from not using the app even when he started dating the woman he’d been pursuing for months.
“I had to delete it because the temptation was too great – not to go on dates, but
to play the game. The game is really fun.”
It’s easy to think not meeting up is the equivalent of ‘he’s just not that into you’. The reality is that he’s just into the app.
It’s not just the game-like interface of Tinder that’s so appealing but the very act of communicating with a stranger. When Chatroulette, the site that paired strangers together for web-cam or text conversations, launched in November 2009 it had 500 visitors per day. In just four months, that grew to 1.5 million users Tinder-style location software so you can e-chat to people nearby. We might be writing on a touchpad instead of paper, but the pen pal concept is definitely back.
“Pen pals let us relate to other people on a pared-back emotional level without the distraction of surface characteristics, such as age, socioeconomic status or dress sense. It can feel safer to disclose personal feelings to someone we will never meet as there’s less risk of being judged,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson (
Steven, 30, admits that he joined Tinder with no intention of actually dating anyone he matched with. “I got the app as an ego boost. I’d been single for a while and just wanted to feel desired for a little bit,” he confesses.
Even if someone’s first reason for joining Tinder was motivated by self-esteem, if a great connection smacks you in the face (well, screen), why not meet each other?
“Men fear they won’t live up to the image they’ve created online and want to avoid the rejection that could go along with that,” says Dr Johnson. “They might be enjoying the online connection so much that they don’t want to burst that lovely bubble with reality.”
This is something that dating blogger Tinderella ( found when she eventually met up with her Tinder pen pal. “We spoke for weeks before my heavy hinting got through to him and he asked me out. But he was nothing like I’d expected,” she admits. “His ‘Tinder persona’ was witty and confident, but
in person he was so shy and nervous.”
The other explanation for a man’s reluctance to meet can be far less moral. “If the woman suggests a date and he refuses, this is suspicious,” says Max*, author of Tinder for Experts: How To Stop Losing Hot Matches, Wasting Time, And Getting Nowhere. “There’s something he’s hiding: perhaps his profile is exaggerated or his girlfriend would kill him if she found out he was snooping around on Tinder.”
Will, 24, admits many of his coupled-up friends are still regular Tinder users. “I’ve known, and seen, multiple guys using Tinder who have girlfriends. They have conversations to kill time but only when their girlfriends aren’t around. You’ll only hear from him when it’s convenient.”
And if men are treating Tinder like a game, a few are taking the practice element seriously. “When I first joined I’d message matches purely to improve my game. For example, I’d ask increasingly personal questions just to see how they worked out,” confesses Jamie, 27. “I had no intention of meeting any of them. The beautiful thing about Tinder is the sheer volume of matches to work with.”
But don’t be disheartened by this. If Tinder is now dating’s computer game, the trick is to hack it. Here’s how three women broke the code. And, yes, it’s easier than Benedict Cumberbatch found cracking Enigma in The Imitation Game.

Photo: Kelly Hammond/Bauer Media


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