Swipe Right So I Know It’s Real

It’s 2016 and if you sit in a college dining hall for five minutes, you’ll probably hear some combination of “swipe left” or “swipe right” or “slide into the DMs” if you listen closely enough while eavesdropping on that guy from your math class and his friends. If you’re a college student, it’s normal. You know what they’re talking about. If you haven’t been in college or the dating scene for awhile, you’re probably really, really confused. Also, why are you in a college dining hall?

Long gone are the days of calling an acquaintance, a friend, or even somebody that somebody’s sister’s friend set you up with to ask them on a date. Now, dating apps have taken over. College campuses are rampant with young adults finding potential matches virtually. Students swipe, swipe swipe away until they accumulate matches, then choose what to do next. If they hit it off on the app, they might exchange numbers and even meet up eventually. From there, the options are limitless. Or, they might exchange corny pickup lines, a couple of gifs, and call it a day.

I sat down with three college students to investigate different uses of dating apps. From the disappointed to the hopeful to the successful, each interviewee came with dating app experience to share.

Dating App Retirement

Cassie McCarthy, a 20 year old Boston College junior, is curled up on the couch with her laptop when I interview her. I caught her in the middle of working on her assignments for the week, juggling psychology coursework and a time-consuming research assistant position. She tells me she’s no longer on any dating apps after experimenting with them earlier this year.

“I just really don’t like it because I sometimes think I want it, and it’s fun for the first week, and then I get really bored of it because I’m not interested in talking to anyone on it,” she said. “I think I was just looking for attention because I didn’t really have any intent of meeting up with anyone from it.”

Cassie seemed disillusioned — perhaps with Tinder or perhaps with the dating scene in college as a whole. She said she thinks dating apps have enabled the so-called hookup culture on college campuses. “I think maybe they make people put less effort in the real world because they think finding hookups is easier on an app,” she said, “so what’s the point of making an effort to get to know someone or take them out on a date in real life?”

At one point, it seemed like Cassie saw meeting somebody “naturally” (AKA not on a dating app) as an ancient relic that would never make a comeback. “Maybe in the past guys would approach girls in their classes or in the dining hall or something,” she hypothesized, “but I feel like now they know that they can just go on an app when they’re drunk so they’re not really going to do that.”

Is Cassie right? Have apps like Tinder and Bumble killed the “how we met” story?

With one third of US marriages beginning with online dating, it seems like they’ve at least impacted it. It’s not that it’s quicker or less time-consuming — the average Tinder user spend 77 minutes per day looking at the app. Maybe we’ve been socialized into a connected disconnectedness in which we communicate and reveal ourselves online but lack in-person connections. Can we romanticize the Tinder app icon to feel the way we felt when we heard the story of how our grandparents met?

Cassie doesn’t seem to think so. “I would embarrassed to tell people that I met someone that I’m dating from [a dating app],” she said.”I think there’s kind of a stigma.” Still, she said her opinion of a couple would not change if she found out that they met via a dating app. “I feel like it so common now. It really doesn’t matter much.”

Cassie likely embodies a large portion of college students in terms of dating apps. They’re okay with the idea for other people, but when it comes to themselves they don’t see them working out.

High Hopes

Julia Birmingham is a 20 year old living in Millis, Massachusetts, working part-time while also taking night classes at Harvard towards a business degree. Being away from the typical college environment, where one can be surrounded with hundreds, even thousands, of potential suitors 24/7, Julia relies on dating apps to meet potential matches. I interviewed her over Facetime to discuss how she uses dating apps.

“I’m on Tinder, Bluble, Hinge, OkCupid, and Clover,” she explained. “Each one has a different experience. Bumble is cool because the girl has to match first, so you get a lot less unsolicited crappy pick-up lines and stuff like that.”

It seemed like we found the favorite — Bumble for its elements of control. She went on to explain her use of other dating apps. “Tinder is fun if you’re just bored. I don’t really use Tinder seriously,” she said, then moving onto Hinge (which I hadn’t heard of until this interview, actually): “Hinge is good for like if you want somebody who is actually going to be looking for a relationship.” Interesting.

In the dating app realm, more apps means more matches which means more potential love — or hookup — connections. Still, though, Julia hasn’t met “the one,” or really even come anywhere close to it. She told me she’s met up with some people that she met on dating apps in person, but the encounters never led to something deeper. “Meetups never really went anywhere. It was one or two dates and then you never talk to them again.”

Still, Julia searches her dating apps in hopes of finding something more. She said what stands out to her is authenticity, when a guy isn’t too focused on appearing a certain way. “A lot of the time, guys seem too focused on hooking up,” she explained, “or they’re too focused on being super, super nice. So the couple of guys that I have met up with are just actually nice and continue conversations.”

And for Julia, not all is lost if a love connection doesn’t end up working out. She’s continued friendships with some of the guys that she’s met on dating apps. “There was this one guy, his name was Gustavo,” she said, “We went out and he was just a super nice person, but I wasn’t into it,” she admitted. “But he’s a really nice guy. He was super nice to me. We still talk sometimes.”

So maybe there are nice people on dating apps — a notable contrast to Cassie’s mostly negative perception of them.

In Julia’s case, dating apps even served another purpose: networking. “I was talking to a guy and I told him that I was looking for work. We started talking about what I did for work, and eventually he offered me a job at the company he worked for,” she explained. Neither the job nor the relationship lasted, but Julia still considers it a positive experience from a dating app.

But Julia also confirmed one of my suspicions about dating apps — that there are a lot of creeps and negative experiences to be had in order to find the occasional positive ones. The first theme? Unsolicited nude or NSFW photos — and a lot of them.

“Bumble lets people send pictures. So I got a lot of inappropriate pictures as responses to my messages, which was weird,” Julia said. “Then Tinder used to have this thing called ‘Moments’ so for 24 hours people used to just always put dick pics up. For all their matches.”

Julia also clued me into a social media follow economy present on dating apps. “This one guy recently messaged me and he just said, ‘Oh, follow me on Instagram.’ That was the first thing he said to me. So I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to follow you on Instagram, we haven’t even met.’ He said, ‘You’re ugly as fuck. You’re just mad at the world.’ I went off.”

It’s striking how interest can turn to insults in a matter of a few words, or a missed follower opportunity. In this way, do dating apps enable an ugliness toward others when you don’t get what you want? It’s certainly possible. But Julia has not and will not let it get her down or lead her away from the dating app scene. “I actually kind of like that,” she told me. “I like shutting them down when they’re jerks like that.” Julia refuses to be a victim of the ugly side of dating apps. And she documents it, too: “I take screenshots.”

At the end of our interview, I got the sense that even Julia, an avid user and proponent of dating apps, felt there was something lacking. “A lot of people use dating apps when they get bored,” she lamented. “I don’t know, I think it’s cheapened it for everybody.”

Still, she idealizes real, commited relationships that began on dating apps. She said if she finds out a couple she knows met on a dating app, “it makes me more impressed with them that they made it through as a couple. Just because it’s so rare that that happens I know.” Perhaps dating app couples have more obstacles to tackle — and this makes them stronger. (Some studies have even proposed that meeting online leads to happier and longer marriages.)

Julia brought up an interesting point when she suggested that dating apps have different perceptions based on where you are in the country. “I have a friend who lives in Indiana, and she said she used to go to Tinder weddings all the time, so I know it’s different in other parts of the country,” she explained. Perhaps the Northeast is more rigid in terms of traditional dating styles and averse to online and app dating as a result. Could this be why people (like Cassie) on the east coast would be “embarrassed” to reveal the exigence of their dating app relationship?

Swiping Success

Ryan Connors is a 21 year old economics and communication major at BC. He’s gay and has been open about it since coming to college. He’s experimented with dating apps since freshman year both at BC and at home and had two serious relationships that started with swipes. In a lot of ways Ryan is an aficionado of gay dating apps.

“In the past, I’ve used Grindr, Tinder, Hornet…Bumble…I think that’s the main ones,” he confessed. He broke down distinctions between apps like Tinder and Bumble that are based on a selective swipe system versus Grindr, where a user can see all other users in the area at any given time.

“I think I like Tinder best. There are higher quality people, less weirdos.” (Something tells me that Ryan may have found his current bae on Tinder. Just a hunch.)

I asked Ryan about how many people approximately he’s met in person from dating apps.

“This is going to be anonymous, right?” he asked. I confirmed: “Yeah. I’ll change your name.”

“Thank God,” he said, laughing. “I would say between 20 and 30, if not more. A number of them turned into some type of friends with benefits, or some kind of dating, and then also, two serious relationships.” At this point, it became clear to me that the gay community might use dating apps in a different way.

I tried getting at this idea by asking Ryan about his current relationship. Ryan met his current boyfriend Brett on Tinder in late August when he moved back to BC. They started as friends, began dating casually, and have now been in an exclusive relationship for a couple of months. He says that he doesn’t think the fact that they met on a dating app affects their relationship.

“I think particularly in the gay community versus the straight community, it’s hard to meet people otherwise, because a lot of times you don’t know, you can’t tell,” Ryan explained. “It’s hard to find [other gay people]. Dating apps are a lot more normalized in the gay community. I don’t think it really has mattered for us because I think that’s how so many gay couples have met.”

At the same time, Ryan’s motivations for using dating apps seemed to match up with those of straight users — goals ranging from casual hookups to more serious relationships, depending on the situation, person, and frame of mind.

Ryan also talked strategy, and what he thinks is the best way to communicate his interests to matches. “I think it depends on what both people are looking for. If you do it in a more deliberate way like, ‘I’m more interested in a relationship. I’d rather just get coffee with you and not hook up with you’… Then you’re more likely to be able to transition it into something.”

Although Ryan’s dating app experiences have been more numerous and largely more successful than those of Cassie and Julia, he’s had his share of negative experiences too. He told me a story about a scary stalker situation that started with a dating app meetup.

“The most frightening one, I guess, there was someone that I met, we just went and got ice cream or something, and that was basically it. That was the extent of it,” he began. “It basically developed into a stalker type thing where they were calling non-stop, wouldn’t stop calling, texting, threatening messages. The police ended up getting involved in it. It was a really scary situation.”

Ryan went on to emphasize an important truth — and caveat — of dating apps. “It’s someone that seems normal online, and even in person, when you first meet them, they turn out to be some super psycho freak.” It’s true that the people on dating apps are not always what they appear. Dating apps make it easier to hide even the scariest of quirks. “It was definitely scary, and definitely would deter me in the future.”

Dating App Deliberation

Ryan pointed out that Grindr was one of the first dating apps on the scene — the gay community were pioneers in the swipe economy. “It was pretty much exclusively for the gay community. I think it was always something that was pretty normal there. Then it’s kind of expanded. Now a lot of straight people use it, and it’s common on college campuses for a lot of college kids to have Tinder regardless of their sexual orientations,” Ryan observed. “I think it is becoming the more normalized way to meet people. I think a lot of people just use it for hookups, but I think there is possibilities to use it beyond that.”

So maybe dating apps aren’t the end of the world. Yes, they enable a certain hookup culture that hides insecurities behind an iPhone home button and exudes digital confidence decorated with pickup lines, dick pics, and — if you’re lucky — a nice back and forth with a stranger whom you have a mutual attraction for. Not all is lost, and Ryan’s story gives hope to the romantics out there who believe in love. So if you’re on Tinder, or Bumble, or Hinge, or Grindr, or any other dating app don’t get stuck in a rut that you’re looking for love in all the wrong places. They might just be the place you find the one.

(If you’re in the market for a dating app, check out this video of my roommate Alexis downloading Tinder for the first time. She deleted the app 30 seconds after I finished filming, but it was fun while it lasted.)