Learning to Swipe Left

Thoughts on the digital hookup culture

I first downloaded Tinder at a party in my hometown. To my surprise, the app had a dedicated following among my friends, and it didn’t take long for them to win me over with stories of instant connections and improbable sex. My girlfriend and I had just split up, and Tinder seemed a perfect way of going beyond our shared friend group. I made my profile and searched for matches, unsure of what I was expecting but grateful for a distraction from the breakup.

Tinder soon became an enjoyable game. Getting matches and starting conversations with total strangers gave me a voyeuristic thrill. In those first days of casual swiping, Tinder was just a comfort, each match a boost to my confidence as I navigated the shaky terrain of single life for the first time since high school.

I went on my first Tinder date in Providence.  Once back on College Hill, the pressures of Brown’s hookup culture—which I was experiencing for the first time as a junior—turned Tinder from a game into a tool to be exploited. And though I was trying hard to ignore it, the breakup had left a persistent ache and emptiness in its wake. I was eager to distract myself by any means possible.

The first person I matched with was a girl I’ll call Amanda. We agreed to meet at a party on campus. What began with a trivial conversation about tattoos and our favorite weed ended in much the same way. There was no real chemistry. No spark besides the match we used to light our joints.

Though we had a good enough time together, it still felt like I had struck out. Relearning the rules of being single through Tinder was a jarring experience. Even minor setbacks felt like major failures. The app had just been reassuring amusement a few weeks before, but now I was using it to gauge my post-breakup progress.

It didn’t take long for my casual Tinder use to become a nervous habit.

At first I would be selective when swiping, but then I started to swipe right on almost everyone. I would start conversations with carefully thought-out comments to increase the chances of the other person finding me interesting. I told myself it was necessary practice, a way of getting back into the single game again. But this game took on a sense of importance that stressed me out and did little to help me get over the emotional baggage that led me to download Tinder in the first place.

I took a break from Tinder for a while, but then a new girl—let’s call her Bianca—rekindled my interest. We bonded over our love for Kubrick movies and agreed to watch A Clockwork Orange together at my place. I began to think that my troubles had just been the result of a bumpy start.

But the night came and went. She never showed up. I texted her, and she said she had decided to spend the weekend in New York instead. We didn’t talk again.

I spent quite a while asking myself what had gone wrong, in what ways had I screwed up. Of course, Tinder couldn’t show me the answers to those questions. My non-encounter with Bianca had undermined my trust in other Tinder users—I had no way of knowing if my attempts to go beyond the swipe-and-chat game would achieve any real results.

I thought of quitting then, but a new girl called Chloe popped up just as I was about to delete the app. In the span of 24 hours we went from chatting to her inviting me over at 2 a.m. I had a shot of rum before I left and two more at her place before we made our way to the bed. It was the first time I kept my eyes closed during sex. Some hours later I found myself fumbling around in the dark of an unknown room trying to find my boots, asking myself what had driven me to sleep with a complete stranger and realizing there was no answer. I did it just because I could.

Walking out of Chloe’s house, I had to face the truth of my Tinder use: I had no idea what I was looking for. I expected a sense of validation from people swiping right for me, but the matches and repetitive conversations only bored me or stressed me out. I was bypassing many of the more complex (and rewarding) nuances of social interaction. I would play the game, flirting and chatting, only to feel that none of it mattered once we put down our phones. Not even a one-night stand—the Tinder endgame for a lot of people—gave me any feeling of satisfaction.

For others Tinder can be a way to cross social boundaries, the perfect facilitator for casual hookups or dating beyond our small campus communities. For me it only exacerbated the difficulties of being single again. It presented seemingly endless opportunities for meeting new people, but lost all the depth of serious interaction in its wide scope. It teased the possibility of casual sex and consistent hookups, but kept me from thinking more deeply on whether or not that was what I was looking for in the first place. The fact that many people around me seemed to be having great Tinder experiences made me feel inadequate, as if my single friends had moved on to a new playing field and left me behind. I had thought of it as a measure of my post-breakup success. Instead it became a glaring reminder of how I was trying to find a replacement for what I no longer had.

A friend once told me that we all swipe left or right in our minds when we meet new people—Tinder just makes it more efficient. I would like to think that there’s more to the spark of first encounters than rote acceptance or denial. Tinder kept me swiping in hopes of finding a distraction from my breakup, but it didn’t offer the kind of encounter that would have made me feel truly comfortable being single again.