Christopher Gulczynski co-founded Tinder in 2012 alongside Sean Rad, Justin Mateen, and Jonathan Badeen. When the app was first created, the founders needed a way for users to show interest in one another. What they landed on, the ability to swipe right or left on an endless stack of people, has become a defining feature in online dating over the past decade.
Gulczynski said he and the other founders never anticipated that the feature would become a cultural phenomenon when it was first introduced. He spoke with Protocol about how swiping came to be and reflected on its lasting effect on online dating.
Gulczynski's story, as told to Protocol, has been edited for clarity and brevity.
When we did the initial prototype, it looked like a stack of cards. There was a design system called skeumorphism, where things would actually look like real objects and you could make the background like leather or wood. So I made a group of people look like a stack of Polaroid photos. Beneath those were the “No” button, the “I” button for more information, then a green button for liking them. I took it back to some friends. One of them was trying to move the photo because it looked like a real stack. And I was like, “No, you’ve got to use the buttons.”
I took that feedback back to the group. I said, “My friend wanted to move a stack of photos.” Then Jon [Badeen] was like, “Well, I had this other flashcard app where you turn the phone landscape view then move flashcards into different piles. We could do that vertically.” We thought, “That sounds like a cool idea.” It was to address an actual problem. We didn't come up with it as a gimmicky thing. It was just in response to figuring out how people should interact.
John [Badeen] likes to tell some weird story about swiping away fog on a mirror and it revealed to him the UI convention. Sean [Rad] likes to tell some weird story about him and Justin being lonely hearts in college and they somehow intuited it through osmosis. But my story is how I recall, and it was all four of us.
In the beginning, people used to run out of people to swipe on all the time. Density was our No. 1 problem. We did a lot of marketing and would try and light up certain targeted areas. A lot of it was on college campuses; when those kids would go back for breaks or stuff, we could see them taking the app and starting to use it when they went home.
It was initially supposed to be a lighthearted flirting thing, but it's obviously taken on a life of its own when people started using it and the public defined what it's going to be. But it's a UI convention; it's a collection of ubiquitous solutions that make up unique attributes to that. And this just happened to be a good collection of ones that ping a lot of really cool psychology. You don't have to have a swiping kind of dating app. That's just that solution, right?
Swiping creates its own problems. If it's a “yes,” then you put them in the “yes” pile and try your chances and if it’s a match, you talk to them. If it doesn't, they go back to the “no” pile and the people you vote “no” on are forever “no’s.” It’s constantly creating this supply problem.
I think it triggered a lot of innate human psychology that you want to get to the bottom of the stack. And it was a never-ending stack. Every time you took one off, there was always more underneath it. So it was the right group of things at the right time.
We tried doing other features, different ways of making matches where you would suggest two of your Facebook friends and you could play matchmaker for them and send out a bunch of these matches to your friends. But in the end we realized that was cannibalizing the swipe feature, which we called the “game screen.” The original slogan was just to call it a flirting game. On the “game screen” we were like, “Don’t touch the core thing.” So we stopped making other features that competed with it.