When you think about what matters in a good relationship, you probably think about shared values, or inside jokes, or fun road trips. But picture-driven dating apps like Tinder may be confirming a suspicion many of us do our best to push aside: that all that really matters, at least at first, is looks.

In a piece over at the New York Times, Nick Bilton reports on a recent trip to Tinder's West Hollywood offices where he learns, among other things, that Tinder Has It All Figured Out. For one, they are super popular: Conventional dating sites can't touch the magnetism and allure of Tinder, which is rumored to have 50 million active users. Bilton writes:

Tinder's engagement is staggering. The company said that, on average, people log into the app 11 times a day. Women spend as much as 8.5 minutes swiping left and right during a single session; men spend 7.2 minutes. All of this can add up to 90 minutes each day.

While conventional online dating sites have been around longer, they haven't come close to the popularity of Tinder. Scientists and relationship specialists who study online dating suggest it isn't what Tinder is doing correctly, but rather what earlier dating sites have gotten wrong.

As suspected, Match.com and eHarmony and any site posturing about its secret relationship algorithms and ability to help lock down your one true soulmate are full of shit, in so many words. The first thing, and thus the most important thing in many ways, is your looks.

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This is not exactly groundbreaking for anyone who has been alive at a freshman mixer. Romantic attraction hinges on attraction, which usually hinges on at least some quality of your physical form. In short, no matter what ideas the world of Her has shucked our way, you're going to need some physical bones to size up before you want to jump them, and that's just a fact.

This doesn't mean that success in relationships relies on great symmetry or a photogenic face. Tinder really wants to get the word out that scanning pictures only is not the hedonistic popularity contest it appears to be. For one thing, what people may be looking for in the picture is not conventional attractiveness but the attraction that comes from a composite of other qualities. Bilton spoke with Jessica Carbino, a dating/relationship expert who was brought on by Tinder to help decipher the "visual cues" in Tinder profiles.

She discovered that Tinder users decoded an array of subtle and not-so-subtle traits before deciding which way to swipe. For example, the style of clothing, the pucker of the lips and even the posture, Ms. Carbino said, tell us a lot about their social circle, if they like to party and their level of confidence.

The instant, subconscious communication of a Tinder picture may actually convey much more than the "proprietary algorithms" of other dating sites. Maybe this instinct is more important than a formula that tries to predict and measure our whimsical, poorly considered likes and interests. After all, most of us know that looks matter more than words to get anything off the ground, and that all the ostensible compatibility in the world isn't a guarantee of anything.

What makes a relationship work, anyway? I think it goes:

1. Looks

2. Words

3. Seeming Compatibility

4. Actual Compatibility

5. Unseen Forces

Actual compatibility can't be predicted. And unseen forces? Please. It takes getting in there and doing the time. That is an art that is far murkier than Tinder or anyone could ever know or predict.

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So yes, of course, looks mean a lot—and what you glean from a person's looks often goes beneath the surface. But after that? It's the Wild West. No one has quantified what really makes a relationship last for any two individuals. Not Tinder, not eHarmony, not Match.com, not your grandma.

But picture-driven apps still have something going for them: They're way more efficient. And the process is more equalizing than you'd think. Writes Bilton:

Earlier this year Paul W. Eastwick, an assistant professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, and Lucy L. Hunt, a graduate student, published a paper noting that a person's unique looks are what is most important when trying to find a mate.

"There isn't a consensus about who is attractive and who isn't," Mr. Eastwick said in an interview. "Someone that you think is especially attractive might not be to me. That's true with photos, too." Tinder's data team echoed this, noting that there isn't a cliquey, high school mentality on the site, where one group of users get the share of "like" swipes.

In Tinder, maybe, as in real life: Everyone grows up, and everyone moves on, and everybody gets an equal chance at the crapshoot of romance.

Gif by Tara Jacoby, Image by Albrecht Dürer.