On the Dangers of Campus Tinder

Jodie Kahan

 Bailey Vehslage

Bailey Vehslage

Tinder appears innocuous at first, perhaps even empowering. In many ways, it represents a generational openness, an eagerness to meet new people with the swipe of a thumb, a willingness to propose sex without feelings of shame. It’s revolutionary. Its pink ombre flame logo draws users in, 38% of whom are aged 16-24. Considering this demographic breakdown, it may come as a surprise to hear Tinder listed as one of the best and most popular dating apps of 2018, with users citing its user friendly platform and effectiveness as evidence. But it’s effective at doing what, exactly? Is it a dating app? A meaningless sex generator? Or just a weapon for baby boomers to signal as further proof of cultural decay?

Like most apps that become cultural icons, Tinder is easy to use. The rules are simple: swipe right to like someone, swipe left to pass. If there is a mutual swipe right from both users, those people will “match.” After matching, the users are able to message each other. For some, the first message reads “hi.” For others, it’s a funny gif in response to something in the other party’s profile. And for the more straightforward, the first message simply asks, “wanna fuck?” Many matches result in no message at all, but only a resting knowledge that that cute person from your history lecture potentially thinks you’re cute, too.

From this angle, Tinder seems remarkably appealing: unlimited romantic possibility without the initial anxiety of rejection. And this may be true in a giant city where to pass the same person twice in a week might seem like a sign from the cosmos. With a pool of millions, a user would most likely swipe and never think about that person again. Now take Tinder and scale it down to the confines of Wesleyan’s campus, where 2700 students are learning, sleeping, and socializing in the same place. How does the platform change when users run into people they match with, or conspicuously don’t, 3 times a day in Usdan? What happens when you have to look at that person from History 212 in the eye every Monday and Wednesday, knowing full well they saw your Tinder message and did not respond?

The reality is that Tinder culture takes on a new dimension when used on a campus like Wesleyan. Like hookup culture in general, and as with any new system or institution adopted by the student body, there are a set of norms established, and an expectation that those norms are to be followed. Tinder comes with its own set of social rules and regulations, extending far beyond the items listed in its terms and conditions. But these norms obeyed on the app do not just implicate a world online. Tinder is in the business of connecting people in real life, in person, in intimate ways. This undoubtedly has an effect on real-life campus culture. What if Tinder, rather than facilitating, is actually inhibiting our social interactions?

Before the square pink app has finished downloading, a kind of self reassurance takes place. One’s ability to use Tinder successfully is often predicated on the ways one defines his or her individual relationship to the app. This is a very personal relationship, but it’s ultimately defined by social fears: what will people think about my hookup life if I use an app to spur relationships? As a result, to acknowledge that you use Tinder to hook up with people is almost taboo. Beyond this, to acknowledge that you care about who you matched with or didn’t, or who messaged you, is a process littered with shame.

In truth, these are all self imposed judgements, and the student body, I would argue, does not care about an individual’s relationship to Tinder, but that does not make these perceived judgments less powerful. Students can often instead be heard laughing about their own Tinder accounts. “I just think it’s fun,” people will say. Or, “I would never message anyone, it’s more just funny.”  This produces the first wave of Tinder Anxiety, defined by a constant need to seem “above it.” You have to be the “cool Tinder user,” not the kind of person labeled “desperate.” It is worth noting that not every Tinder user feels shame around their Tinder presence, but that in talking to students, I found a definite pattern where students were quick to diminish the app’s significance in their lives before speaking about it.  

This facade of a laid back attitude bleeds into the construction of a user’s Tinder profile, which consists of a series of six images and a short bio. Profile construction is a superficial process, something the app’s platform does not try to disguise. Like any social media app, judgments are made based on appearance. And while a bio may give the illusion of providing more substantial information, they are often similarly used as a means superficial categorization. Bios often work to let users know where people fall in the Wesleyan social scene. Wesleyan student’s bios may include “quiet side girl who studies in Exley,” for example. To a resident of Middletown, that is unintelligible. But for a Wesleyan student, a simple joke signals something about you. That person now has a pretty good idea of where you spend your weekend nights and the kinds of people you align yourself with.

After the profile is formed, the user is ready to swipe. For many, swiping on Tinder is like flipping through channels on a tv. It’s mindless and fast-paced, often just a manifestation of boredom. When talking to students, they described Tinder as a “low-stakes” platform. If you do not match with someone you swiped right on, it’s not something to stress about, seeing as the user probably spent little time considering a swipe left or right. Tinder recorded 800 million swipes a day in 2014. With numbers like that, it’s likely most students do not even remember the names and faces of the people they swipe on. Perhaps in this department there is little to lose and even something to gain in self-confidence. Matching on Tinder feels like someone you think is cute finally admitted they think you’re cute, too.

But maybe the stakes are higher than we’re willing to admit. Of those 800 million swipes, there were 10 million matches in 2014. What happens when a user messages another user and they do not respond? It’s fine, the stakes are low, right? But what happens when those students have to cross paths twice a day in the lines of Usdan? What happens when the students start stressing each time they walk into Usdan that they may just run into the person they messaged on Tinder last week? And it extends further.

For some, matches on Tinder make every day a more exciting and flirtatious environment. Every match becomes a potential “scheme.” It’s a reminder of the unlimited possibilities for your sexual or romantic exploration. Walking into the reading room in Olin to lock eyes with the new Tinder match charges study time with a flirtatious energy. For others, however, being confronted with evidence of sexual interest is an anxiety-inducing experience. Mixing studies with sex is a dangerous game, and one many do not want to play.

On this campus, Tinder results in more than the usual stomach flutters when someone sends a message. Tinder is the cause of Usdan Anxiety and Foss Neuroses, two ailments where Tinder users frantically scan public spaces on campus to ensure they do not run into a person they’ve either matched with, messaged, or hooked up with through the app. Some students struggle to interact with other students they’ve matched with on Tinder. For many, this is because the situation seems awkward. For others, it is a product of not wanting to seem sexually interested; after matching, sparking a conversation after bumping into each other gives the illusion you may be interested.

In other ways, a match on Tinder can result in a positive sexual experience for all. If you see someone you’ve matched with at a party, the fear of the initial move is somewhat removed. After all, if you matched that shows mutual interest. But does it really? If people are swiping mindlessly, a match on Tinder is not indicative of anything more than a bored flick of the thumb. This creates serious tension on a campus that boasts an enthusiastic consent model for hookup culture. A match is not a yes.

Like most things online, there’s something alluring about the pink app, something mystical. But just because Tinder exists in a space online does not prevent it from affecting our physical reality. Its impact exists in our daily interactions. So is that small confidence booster worth it? Is it worth the stress and anxiety that results from following Tinder etiquette? Our desire for connection and interaction has led us to privilege image over substance. The superficiality of “hookup culture” that many are quick to criticize might not stem from casual sex itself, but a desire to be perceived in a certain way, to remain collected and appear confident without making any real strides toward genuine confidence.