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In Defense of Tinder in College

The first day I got Tinder, a month into my freshman year of college, I ran out of swipes. Sitting on our dorm room floor, my roommate and I sped through profile after profile, quickly analyzing each user as one would apples in a grocery store. Joe says he’s an “entrepreneur,” which is Tinder code for unemployed. Swipe left. All of Tom’s pictures are with his fraternity brothers, so it’s impossible to tell who he is. Swipe left. Levi has a nicely written profile that explains he likes hiking and encourages you to message him with a pun. Swipe right?

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The addictive nature of Tinder swiping, coupled with gripes about its superficiality and purported promotion of “hook-up culture” on college campuses, have led critics to decry the loss of the simpler, more authentic days of dating in college. In 2015, Vanity Fair characterized this as the “Dating Apocalypse.”

On Tuesday, Tinder stoked the fire of frustration over its supposed destruction of the good old days of college dating by announcing “Tinder U,” a version of the platform that is only available to college students. Harkening back to the Zuckerberg dorm-room days of Facebook, users will have to register with a .edu email address and have to be physically located on the college campus.

In response, some non-college student and/or non-Tinder users expressed bafflement as to why this would be necessary. “U don’t need an app to date in college!!!!” the Verge’s Ashley Carman tweeted.

Carman is right: College students don’t need an app to date in college. But some of us want one.

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In high school, my graduating class was about 20 people. So, when I enrolled in Arizona State University, one of the largest universities in the U.S., Tinder helped me find my way in an otherwise-overwhelming dating pool of more than 71,000 students across five campuses. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Sure, using Tinder came with some mildly negative and not-so-mildly awkward experiences. But freshman year, I also met my first college boyfriend on the app. Before I set off to meet him for coffee, I used my phone to share my location with my roommate and made an offhanded comment about what she should do if I didn’t come back. We ended up dating for a year and a half. Because we were afraid people (read: our families) would judge us when we told them we met on Tinder, which is often generalized as an app “just for hook-ups,” we made up a lame story about meeting in the library through mutual friends. (Surprise, mom!)

One of the biggest criticisms of Tinder, and one of the most resounding reasons people question its use, centers around the platform’s superficiality. It’s exhausting and weird to evaluate a human being so quickly and with such little information. And it also feels a little degrading knowing that you’re being evaluated that way.

But, to be fair, this consumption-oriented, superficial college dating didn’t begin with Tinder. Especially at large schools, it’s hard to get to know people in college. Deciding whether to sit next to someone in your econ lecture or whether to talk to a stranger by the cooler at a party also involves superficial judgement, and often with even fewer data points than one would have on Tinder. At least when you use an app, you might find that Jim studies biology and enjoys watching Netflix before even deciding to talk to him. And at least on most apps, there’s an easy way to report Jim if you end up needing to. For those of us who feel lost in unfamiliar social situations, that can mean a lot.

In its Tuesday announcement, Tinder U bills itself as the ticket to a “study buddy,” “coffee date on the quad,” or “the coolest crowd on campus.” These are lofty promises. But delivering users with a smaller pool of potential matches could help them find a partner with more shared experiences, and it could help weed out some of the swiping clutter: If you know you want to seek out someone from your school, you’ll spend less time mindlessly swiping through the hundreds of profiles in your geographic area that don’t meet that requirement. Plus, verifying through a .edu email address and campus location that a user really does go to a particular university is a small but meaningful safeguard against users who, on the original platform, could easily lie about details like their school or job.

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Of course, we should not defend Tinder blindly, nor wholeheartedly. The app and others like it—Bumble, Hinge, Grindr—are cesspools for all of the vilest parts of college dating culture: harassment, objectification, discrimination, misogyny. But what if, rather than using these problems to bolster the argument that dating apps are the downfall of 21st-century social interaction, we instead made meaningful efforts—both on and offline—to try to address them?