Tinder’s Appeal Lies in Ambiguous Use

CJ Blair, Columnist

Nothing captures the vexing emotional landscape of college better than Tinder. It’s an app that’s elegant in its simplicity, but its effects are totally scattershot. It is awkwardly situated between the realms of online dating and hookup culture and it never settles on either side. Maybe this ambiguity is what draws over 50 million people to swipe left and right incessantly, looking for anything from gratification to a long-term relationship. Tinder’s wide range of purposes and the disparate goals of those who swipe ensure it stays an emblem of the millennial college experience. This, I believe, is what makes it so popular.

Tinder is an app where you make a profile with several pictures of yourself and a short bio saying whatever you like. Once you’ve made your profile, you enter a pool of other users and can view their profiles one by one. If you like what you see, you swipe right; otherwise, you go left. “Swipe left” and “swipe right” have practically become idioms in this generation, and the ubiquity of these phrases hints at how much can happen as a result of a swipe.

It takes no mental exertion to swipe on Tinder. I doubt many Obies could really put into words why they swipe the way they do, beyond saying, “They were cute.” What happens next is harder. Should two people swipe right on each other and match, the passive act of swiping creates the potential for interaction. This can range from starting a boring conversation to asking for a date to flat-out soliciting sex. Whatever the pair decides to do, the fact that they’ve matched reveals the turning point where Tinder sheds its passivity and attempts to force its algorithms on the nuance of romance.

This is what I realized when I started using Tinder myself. I was newly single in my first year at Oberlin, and it sounded like Tinder was the new way to express your romantic interests. After I made an account and began swiping, I started to get matches. Then I froze —I had no idea what to do next. Now I could start conversations, but what could I say when our only commonality was swiping right to pictures of each other?

This led me to my first impression of Tinder: It’s a shortcut to awkward eye contact with strangers. When I saw a match in public, I was less inclined to talk to them than I might have been otherwise. With only a few exceptions, this has been my experience with Tinder. Above all else, I became uncertain of my footing in the real world as I continued to meddle in a virtual one. A couple of friends told me it has led to hookups, and some even have had successful relationships, but most of the people I’ve spoken to saw results like mine.

If many people on Tinder are stockpiling matches with no clear purpose, then why bother joining? I would say it’s due to Tinder’s ability to create a false sense of connection between its users. In the most literal sense, Tinder puts a face to a person’s desire. You can get lost in a slew of headshots and feel like seeking romance isn’t such a lonely endeavor. The variety of effects that Tinder can have also lets you keep your intention unclear, though this illusion is shattered, of course, when you get a match and realize that talking to someone you find attractive is a solo effort.

Tinder is nothing if not ambiguous, and this ambiguity can be quite appealing to college students. I was certainly enticed by a potential avenue for romance that could be both cryptic and effective. If the goal of users is to explore the possibilities of romance by accruing matches, perhaps Tinder fits the bill. Yet for all the unique desires it can fulfill, Tinder will never replace old-fashioned fumbling interactions with your crush. Maybe it represents new expectations for social interaction, and perhaps it’s important for my generation to explore the boundaries of a brand-name romance fixated on ambiguity. As for me, I think I’ll return to something more vintage.