Tutorial: Tinder is only as scary as you make it

It’s come to my attention that you need a Tinder tutorial. Don’t pretend you don’t use it, but don’t feel bad either. Tinder is surprisingly ubiquitous given its bad rap. People say they don’t use it because they don’t want to seem promiscuous or superficial, but it’s really no different from what we do in a bar. You scan the room and decide if you want to flirt with anyone. Or if you’re less outgoing, perhaps you set your sights on making someone flirt with you. Or you just stare. But you select potential mates all the same, with your eyes rather than your index finger.

To state my credentials, I’ve used Tinder for a year and met four people — three in the context of dates (the fourth helped me join a swim team) and two that I continued seeing for several months. I have never been harassed or received unwanted attention.

I should qualify that by Tinder, I mean Tinder, OkCupid, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge, etc., but I have the most experience with Tinder and would venture to say it’s the most popular of these options. As I’ve only seriously used it seeking men, I can’t comment specifically on men seeking men, women seeking women or men seeking women. Furthermore, I recognize that each dating app has its own culture, so what I have to say may be completely inapplicable. However, learning to discern who’s interesting and who’s creepy via minimal profiles is useful not only for dating, but also in our increasingly digital experience as well.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the profile pictures are not a representation of who these people are — they’re what that person thinks is attractive. An image of someone physically fit posing in a swimsuit says not that they are hot necessarily but that they rely on their hotness. That one may be obvious, but let’s take another common image — selfie with cat. Selfie with cat says not that they have a cat or that they like cats, but that they align themselves with cats as a culture — cat videos, cuteness, hipness, the internet, the perceived values of the other hoards of people who pose in pictures with cats. They’re showing you they identify as cat people, and they think it’s attractive that they do.

To discuss the implications of typical Tinder images would take volumes. Unfortunately, I only have 800 words, so I’ll give you a sample of how I swipe right. Let’s take Arthur. I came upon a picture of him Downtown at a bar, which tells me he either lives Downtown or was also at a bar. He has long, disheveled but healthy-looking hair, and his first photo pictures him in old-school coke-bottle glasses. He looks for all intents and purposes, like a molester.

But wait! No one at this age lacks the self-awareness to know ladies don’t go for the guy in pedophile glasses. Tell me more. He’s giving an animated speech at a wedding. He’s stoically brushing his teeth. Clad in a black suit, he seriously holds a red cup next to a potted plant. No selfies. His Instagram is linked to his profile — he’s an illustrator and he wants us to know it — and his bio says he can fit his fist in his mouth.

On the surface, nothing special. Everyone in L.A. is an artist or a producer or a writer. Everyone has long hair, takes quirky pictures and makes Mean Girls references. What gets me are the glasses — they change the whole bent of what he seems to be looking for. He is a good-looking guy, witty, artistic — but instead of using crowd-pleasers like hiking and sushi to broaden his appeal, he’s narrowing it. That’s exactly what I did when the initial thrill of new matches wore off. Lo and behold, two meaningful matches and a swim team. I like Arthur, swipe right. A few days later, great conversation about Wayne White and Matt Groening.

Tinder is only as sinister as you make it. It can be predatory and shallow if you use it that way — if it becomes uncritical online shopping without consideration of what your matches want you to see or what your preferences say about you. If you receive disgusting come-ons, it may be useful to see if those matches all have a shirtless gym selfie or say anything about Netflix. If everyone you match with is needy, it may be useful to see if they said something about sushi or cats. So much of life is online now — feeling out the patterns of representation is essential not just for dating, but also for knowing how platforms shape your social experience, and how a platform shapes you.

Rica Maestas is a senior majoring in cognitive science and narrative studies. Her column, “Cuffing Season,” runs on Wednesdays.