Justin McLeod invented the dating app Hinge twice: once for smartphones, and once more for romantics. He talks about why being open to change is the best path to true love.
Six years ago, the online dating service Hinge threw all its money into a launch party before its app was even approved by the Apple store. Four years ago, its CEO Justin McLeod threw away his shame when he flew to Zurich to win back his engaged college girlfriend. Both moves worked out.
In 2015, a well-circulated article about the dating apocalypse was breaking hearts around the world. Hinge was in it, painted in colours McLeod never wanted to wear. “We were pretty heavily featured in Vanity Fair, and it was a reflection that this wasn’t what I wanted to build.”
He tore down Hinge and rebooted it, creating the ‘dating app designed to be deleted’; that’s the tagline. Balancing romanticism with pragmatism is a trait of McLeod’s that underpins the Hinge philosophy. He wants us to find a long-term connection on Hinge, but also thinks that’s best done by planting as many seeds as possible.
“I think some people don’t have success on dating apps because they’re sort of passive about the experience,” he said. “They believe it should just happen. But by having discipline about logging in each day and sending ten likes, you’re way more likely to find your person than if you wait for them to send one to you.”
While love is great, he’s not sure our time is best spent looking for a soulmate. “I was looking for ‘the one’ and was perpetually single for eight years. I think [‘the one] is a damaging belief, which I know sounds ironic from someone with this love story. Although McLeod and his wife’s story was featured on the Amazon Prime series Modern Love, they have different takes on the topic.
“Kate believes in ‘the one,’ but I don’t. I believe you make the one.”
To McLeod, love is as much a practice as a feeling. “It’s partially about landing on the right person for you, but it’s also as much or more about the attitude and skills you bring: skills of intimacy and connection, how to listen, how to stay open, and how to connect with someone.”
If you’re not finding love, you’re probably not practising hard enough. “If you find it’s a constant trend that you just don’t have a spark with anyone, it might be worth examining your skills at connection and intimacy.”
And it might be time to take a good hard look in the mirror, he says. “Right now on Hinge, about three out of every four dates people say they want to go on a second date. This is a pretty high hit rate, so if you meet ten people in a row and none of them are your type or you’re not clicking, then maybe you’re just super picky, or maybe it’s the skillset.”
It’s easy to blame the apps, which can seem to throw up anthropomorphic Holden Commodores more often than Prince Charmings, for giving us bad options.
“We’re learning your tastes, and it definitely takes a couple of weeks. I think some people wait back for likes to come to them, and that’s a very slow way for us to learn. It’s really important that you’re sending likes for us to start learning your taste.”
Hinge uses the Gale-Shapley algorithm, invented to solve the stable marriage problem. The machine learning AI uses this problem-solving technique to spit out your daily ‘best match’ who, if you’re not teaching the app your preferences, could suck.
“It’s not necessarily the person we think is going to be the most attractive to you. We could definitely show you people we think are really attractive to you, but they may not like you back. You were the two people that we would pair up so that neither of you would want to trade with someone who would also want to trade their person.”
That sounds like a grim assessment of the practicalities of heterosexual monogamy. Is Hinge a last digital stand for traditional romance? Is it grasping too tightly to the dying doctrines of marriage and monogamy?
McLeod is married, but says Hinge isn’t made for that purpose. He sees serial monogamy as a more likely option for its users. “I won’t say it’s the app for people who want to get married right now. I think it’s the app for people who want to find authentic connections and get off dating apps, even just for a few months.”
He believes the desire for an authentic connection is something we’ll always crave, no matter what form that comes in. “Whether that means we stay a society that puts long term monogamous marriage at the centre of society or not, what people can’t survive on is endless validation and superficial connection and moving from one person to the next super fast. That actually feels really empty over time.”
To avoid the emptiness of meeting people you’re not bonding with over and over, McLeod suggests app users spend time creating detailed, inviting profiles that others will want to connect with on a deeper level.
“Putting six hot selfies in a row just doesn’t give people a way to start a conversation with you. It should be something a little bit quirky or showing your interests; something that begs a question or a comment.”
More importantly, he has some choice words for those who want out; don’t ghost. “When you think about it, it’s kind of egotistical to think that you’re crushing someone by letting them know you’re not that interested. They’re probably going to be OK.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.