I have something to confess: I love Tinder.
And, disclaimer (because it’s necessary): I’m not hooking up with anyone on it.
I used to think Tinder was an app that, once designed for a certain function, could no longer be subverted beyond it; an app that, once people learned of my presence on it, could only invite eyebrow-waggling and my own vague defensiveness in regards to privacy. But I won’t hide it anymore — the world is so big, and there are so many people, and there is so much to see; I’m not ashamed.
Tinder, as an app, brings me joy and laughter, curiosity and satisfaction. It’s a way to understand the different ways people see each other, the ways they interact with each other — and, at the end of the day, the different-same things that we want from one another. It’s been a long journey of months, during which I have swiped on potentially thousands of people, matched with probably hundreds, talked to maybe dozens, and physically met just a handful — but made brief connections with certainly more people around the world than I would have seen otherwise.
I made an account with friends as a sort of experiment on a trip to New York City because one of them wanted to see how the Tinder Social feature worked. It was a bit voyeuristic; I certainly hadn’t planned to interact with people. My friend’s profile had, I believe, a photo of a bagel on the ground, which eventually became supplemented with another photo of a banana peel on the asphalt. But one thing led to another, and soon enough we were swiping on the regular individual feature as well, just out of curiosity. So many profiles! Would they swipe right? So many photos and bios and then, soon enough, matches! They were real people, living in New York City, in what seemed to be a rough demographic representation of the population, right at your fingertips — it was exciting.
Then, about thirty minutes in, I got propositioned by two high schoolers for a threesome, which turned my excitement into a mild sort of panic from the sudden reality of the encounter. I’d individually matched with both of them because I was still eighteen at the time and I’d had my settings on to swipe on other eighteen year-olds, not realizing that a lot of them were probably still in high school. So people really were actually using the app to hook up — and they were doing it in creative ways, too. I was fazed for a bit, but ultimately undeterred.
I turned off Discovery as soon as I got back to Ithaca, because I didn’t want people to find out I was on Tinder. Being a fairly private person, I hated the idea of being seen by people on the app and having their eyebrow-waggling assumptions be the biggest, juiciest piece of information they knew about me.
But within a few days, I turned it on again — I wanted to see what kinds of people I would find in Ithaca, and whether I would see people I knew, too.
— Cornell frat and finance bros
— A lot of artists from Ithaca College
— (Shirtless) men holding large fish that they had caught
—A lot of my friends, who I would never have imagined as being on Tinder because they never talked about it, but I found that they also didn’t want assumptions or eyebrow-waggling being made about their love/sex life
— (These categories were not necessarily mutually exclusive.)
My sense was that you should swipe right if you knew the person, sort of as an act of common courtesy, because then you were basically acknowledging that you had seen them on Tinder, and if you matched, then it was this great equalizing factor. Neither of you could waggle your eyebrows about the other, because you had both done the same thing on the same app, and you never had to talk about it or acknowledge it in real life!
On my 19th birthday, an acquaintance messaged me happy birthday through the app — that was definitely weird, but I couldn’t decide how I felt beyond that.
And then my curiosity got the better of me: I met up with someone from Tinder in real life. Meeting with me the night before his stats final, and after a really awkward interaction, he said “pretty much everyone on Tinder is on it to hook up, so it’s maybe a bit misleading,” and then that made me feel almost guilty, as though I’d led him on, which wasn’t exactly a fair assessment. I wasn’t sure if I felt sorry, or if I just felt bad in general. To atone I turned the app off temporarily and resolved to never meet anyone again, but then I did, so I guess it means I’m not really sorry at all.
This makes it seem like an addiction, but one of the first things I did after landing in Incheon for the summer was to open Tinder. I wanted a taste of the local vibe! Small slices of life in Korea, beyond the specific people that I knew in my own bubble! What would the Tinder scene be like here, at home?
Initially, I was bewildered. Firstly, a really large proportion of the men were in the American military, even though my age range was from 19-21. I’d known about the military bases and presence in Korea, but this was a completely different type of knowledge — I could see that they were young, that Korea was foreign to them, and that they were still looking to meet people and women in particular. Then, there were a lot of foreigners looking for “a local to show them around.” There were also a fair number of Korean internationals who I had a lot of mutual friends with (and was therefore mildly frightened of), and Korean Americans back in the motherland for the summer looking for friends. There were a lot of complex transnational narratives manifesting in Korean Tinder, and while there weren’t many local Koreans on the app, those who were tended to say things like this in their profiles:
— “I speak English, Korean, and Chinese. Looking for language exchange”
— “Looking for a drinking buddy”
— “Looking for a workout buddy”
— and especially in the case of females: “NO HOOKUPS”
I realized that in Korea, Tinder wasn’t a good representation of the demographic population because it was a foreign app outside the Korean cultural mainstream. Even when it was used, it was employed differently for the most part, because of differences in Korean hookup culture being less open and much more hidden.
I also came across a lot of completely random profiles with fake names and no real information at all. These were truly experimental voyeurs, in a way I’d only briefly considered. Most of the people I talked to seemed interested in simply meeting new people and ambiguously taking things from there. Conversations were often just as ephemeral and banal as in New York, but I only got a lewd pick up line straight off the bat once or twice. Nobody propositioned me for a threesome. (Maybe I was a little disappointed.) People really were using the app differently because of where we were and where they were from.
After talking for a bit, I even went on two Tinder dates with Korean Americans, and neither of them veered off into hookup territory. We just had dinner, talked about music and movies, went through mutual connections we potentially had, and discussed about how it felt to be back in Korea while not being fully Korean. On one of them, we got drinks and then ice cream for a second and third round, and then argued in the street about portrayals of Asia in Hollywood film. It was nice, like meeting a stranger who wasn’t quite a stranger. One of those guys I never spoke to again, although we ran into each other quite awkwardly at a subway station the next week (and still did not talk), but the other I still talk to fairly frequently, almost four months later.
I also matched with a (white) American guy who I took summer classes with after the program ended. At school, we’d literally spoken once, but after matching on Tinder, we somehow started talking about world-ecology and Benedict Anderson for more than two hours. That should have been incredibly pretentious and disappointing, but it was actually almost refreshing because of the context. We bonded a lot over our shared excitement and interests, which I never would have known otherwise, and I got a lot of reading recommendations out of our back-and-forth, although he still hasn’t sent me the PDFs I was promised. (At this point I know deep down in my heart I will never receive them, but I don’t even mind, Dayne.)
Apps are obviously designed with a purpose, and that purpose is meant to be intuitive in the user experience. Tinder is, yes, in its common perception and usage, an app that people use to hook up. But in order to make the contact to hook up, you do have to first encounter and meet people — and now, after everything I’ve seen, I don’t believe you can just assume every individual’s motivations from shared context. We may all be meeting each other through the context of Tinder, and maybe that does mean something regarding expectations of the norm — but it doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone. We actually all come from different contexts, with different goals and different ideas of what it means to interact. And that’s what I want to know! Why should the far-flung creators get to decide how the common people should appropriate an independent creation? Relationships are often ambiguous, rarely slotted into platonic/romantic/sexual categories from the very beginning moment of meeting. I think we should consider these ambiguities as a site of potential.
Anyway, now that I’ve outed myself as a Tinder lover, you can waggle your eyebrows at me all you want — but don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. I thought my Discovery mode was safely turned off when I got back to Ithaca and Cornell, but it turns out that it’s been on this whole time, and after all this, maybe I should embrace it. Maybe I’ll see you there — maybe this could be the start of something beautiful.