The Latest Software Update Wipes Tears, Swipes Right
Reflections on the New Fantasies of Love
You first make an OkCupid in the spring of 2013, at the high-pitched communal insistence of your six female roommates. You are a senior in college living in a coastal beach town slowly crumbling into the Pacific, a sort of sloppy, sun-drenched Dionysian utopia, where a guy in your poetry workshop regularly shows up to class half zipped into his wet suit, shirtless and spackled with salt water, surfboard tucked under his tan arm. As freshmen, you wandered drunkenly from your dorm on campus across the bluffs and past the lagoon into the patchwork of sand-crusted streets perpetually throbbing with bass, weaving your way through throngs of people into whatever house party was large and loud enough not to care that you didn’t know anyone.
There were never any adults in Isla Vista, save for a few families on the outskirts of town who sold tamales door to door in the late afternoons, and the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, whose sole purpose was to dutifully fill the drunk tank each night, and it was never quiet, except very early on crisp Sunday mornings when it felt like the whole town was holding its breath. You would sometimes walk home barefoot, high heels dangling from your hands, passing house after house crammed with sleeping young bodies, just out of reach of the wide yawn of the Pacific.
It was a phantasmagoria of paradise, a high schooler’s wet dream of pretend adulthood. There were no rules. You try to go to class. You try to cook dinner. You go skinny-dipping. You shovel nachos into your mouth at three AM. A family friend once asked your parents how they could let you go to such a “party school.” You dance on balconies. You dance in the streets. You do keg stands. You meet people everywhere. Every weekend is ripe with possibility, every street pulsing with parties, every party filled with drugs and Jungle Juice, the dumb hunger of recklessness. You learn not to fuck people on the beach, or in bathrooms, or in narrow dorm room bunk beds. You use your phone to call and text and that’s it. The guy you hook up with on and off for a year doesn’t even have one. He just knocks on your door at one in the morning.
This is all to say that you had no need for an OkCupid in the spring of 2013, because Isla Vista was crawling with boys. They were everywhere: frat boys perpetually in the throes of beer pong on their front lawns, lit majors blushing as they hold the door to the library open, friends of friends who roll into town for a weekend and end up sleeping on your dirty couch for weeks. These boys flitted in and out of your life in a daydreamy, drunken haze, with a consistency that kept you in constant flux, seesawing between vaguely smitten and vaguely frustrated. This was around the time you first began to hear a few sordid whispers about online dating, which resulted in you making an account one night after a few glasses of whatever bottom shelf shit-wine you drank when you were twenty-one, loudly justifying it by saying you would write about it (that well-worn excuse). You post an oversaturated photo of yourself, scroll for a week, power hungry and drunk off possibility, and promptly meet a blonde boy in real life, at a friend’s party that weekend. After a few electric hours of clumsily making fun of each other, you go home with him, and the next morning, he runs down the street after you, yelling your name, and asks if he can give you a ride home. You stay together for four years.
Three months ago, standing in the scorched earth of your break up, which dragged on and on until it collapsed in on itself like emotional road kill, a single thought cuts wildly through the numbed static of your mind: I guess I have to make a Tinder now. Gutted with sadness and unable to sleep at three in the morning, you log into your old OkCupid, feeling like you are harboring a terrible secret. Although the app has tracked and updated your own age, your location and age preferences remain untouched, frozen in time, preserving the halcyon spring of your senior year of college in liquid amber. You watch in horror as message after message filters in from twenty year olds in Isla Vista, tan and broad-shouldered and impossibly young, shirtless and shot-gunning and shaka-ing, tethering you to your past with invisible threads, a (pointedly personal) reminder of all the different ways your life could have turned out, all the ghost ships that could have carried you somewhere else but didn’t.
Don’t worry: I’m getting better. Since I sat down to write this, I have checked Tinder eight times, now with the same mechanical detachment I reserve for my work email and Instagram in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Sometimes I play a game with myself where I don’t let myself stop swiping until I find someone to say yes to, then immediately close the app with a sense of relief. There are an estimated 50 million active users on Tinder, 10 million of which are active daily users, who spend an average of 35 minutes a day on the app. Every day, there are an estimated 26 million matches, and an average of 1.5 million dates per week borne of a mutual right swipe. Those numbers are gargantuan, nearly impossible to comprehend. I imagine 50 million heartbeats blaring with loneliness like a whale call. I imagine 1.5 million women texting their friends from the bar bathroom, nailing down an escape plan, just in case. I listen with scientific precision to each Tinder horror story (forgot his wallet after racking up a $100 tab, showed up wasted, barely spoke until his third drink, turned out to be doing research for his own dating app, turned out to be married, turned out to be an ex-heroin addict with a penis piercing, etc), grimly analyzing what they have in common, taking field notes. I took down a photo of myself wearing a hat because a guy friend told me, his face gravely serious, that I didn’t want to be known as a “hat girl.” One guy complimented a cupcake in one of my pictures and then asks me out to get cupcakes, which felt too easy, like it was somehow a trap. Last week I literally passed out in the midst of swiping, the rhythmic flick of the wrist (to the left, sorry) lulling me gently to sleep, no doubt dreaming of alarmingly close up selfies and romantic opening lines like, “We’re boarding a space ship tomorrow for a beautiful galaxy far, far away…but here’s the catch: we can only bring one kind of booze and snack for the whole journey. What’s it gonna be?” (The answer is tequila and veggie chips, but I haven’t yet decided if I’m comfortable with what that says about me as a person. I ask my roommate, “What’s a cute snack?”) I ask a friend if she has a go-to opening line. “I always ask them what they’re obsessed with lately. It weeds out the boring ones right away.” I ask a guy friend, who met his long-term girlfriend on Tinder, the same question. He says he didn’t use any one-liners, just said hey and came up with something witty based on their photos. But an hour later he texts me back: “Vampire or werewolf.”
The appeal of Tinder lies in unraveling its many layered and overlapping dichotomies, a spiraling Venn diagram of ego and sex and loneliness and social anxiety and desire for love and fear of commitment. It’s a highly effective distraction disguised as a productivity hack (swipe enough and you might be able to cross “pick up the shambled pieces of my love life” off your to do list). It somehow manages to both merge and separate the digital and the physical, creating a bizarre hybrid of fantasy and reality that exists at the crossroads of scintillating and soothing. You can match with someone, meet up that weekend, hit it off and date for years, lying to everyone about how you met, or you can project an entire relationship onto their six photos and one line bio without ever even speaking to them. You can talk to five people at once, flipping between your matches like daytime TV channels, and feel like you’re not actually talking to anyone. Constant communication doesn’t require a connection. You can live in the in-between, softly straddling fantasy and reality, drawing out the time after you become aware of their existence and before they prove their inevitable flawed humanity. You can ask light, careful, pseudo-disinterested questions about snacks and music and weekend plans, all designed to slowly reconstruct the fantasy onto the scaffolding of a real live person, yet you won’t know what their laugh sounds like or how quickly they walk or what words they pronounce weirdly or what they smell like. It’s as much about you, your own bloated insecurities and warped sense of self, as it is about the schmucks that you match with. It’s a red flag that the artist-who-surfs-in-his-free-time that I’ve been chatting with for a week has yet to ask me a single question about my life, but is it a bigger red flag that I’m still talking to him?
Love in the time of Tinder (or Bumble or Hinge or Coffee Meets Bagel) is still love, messy and euphoric and unexplainable and riddled with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, but the road we take to get there has been irrevocably changed. 79% of Tinder users are millenials, and about a third of couples admit to having met online. This dovetails with a slow yet staggering decline in millennial marriage, with just 20% of 18-30 year olds tying the knot. Every article I read about it was quick to counteract the statistics by saying that millenials still want to get married, they’re just waiting longer than ever before to do it, choosing instead to cohabitate and explore alternative relationships. The suburban dream of your late twenties may be evolving from a white picket fence and 2.5 kids to living together in a Spanish-style bungalow in Mount Washington with a cat and a corgi and exploring an open relationship. Marriage and children are not the universal indicator of a happy ending they once were, but love certainly hasn’t slipped a spot.
Tinder tempts with the siren song of intimacy, of connection, of that one friend you know who fell madly in love with their third match ever, but tempers it, flooding your feed with infinite options, an imperceptible “don’t settle” underscoring each time it asks if you want to keep swiping or send a message to your new match. At its core, Tinder is a game, a single-player video game that feeds our tactile and ever-evolving addiction to technology, to swiping and scrolling and stroking our own egos, but the rules are unclear and winning means something different to everyone. For some, it means reaching the promised land of a relationship and getting off the app once and for all, for others, it means a Friday afternoon match that turns into a Friday night booty call. For many people, it’s about nothing more than cashing in on the soft spike of dopamine that accompanies a new match. I read somewhere that the most right-swiped careers for men and women in Los Angeles are, respectively, a recruiter and a talent agent. A guy friend laments the amount of women who are just looking for new Instagram followers (you’ve got to respect that hustle). For the first few weeks after my break up, while I was busying myself with wine-soaked self care and remembering my worth, Tinder served as nothing more than a quick reminder of that grandmotherly adage about there being plenty more fish in the sea. It’s the thrill of the chase, mechanized and sanitized, all from the comfort of your couch. The stakes are as low as you want them to be. If things get weird, you unmatch and move along. There’s always someone else to swipe on. You remain detached, even as the hint of potential sex keeps you coming back for more. There’s no such thing as crushes on Tinder. Banter doesn’t translate well to text. It’s difficult to get butterflies from a message saying “hey heyy.”
“What about the twinkle in their eye?” my dad laments, when I call to ask his thoughts on online dating. “How can you know if you’re attracted to someone without seeing that?” He goes on to tell a long-winded story about how, when he was my age, he went to what was called a dating agency, which he calls “retro Tinder” but essentially sounds like the nineties version of a matchmaker, with binders of women for him to look through and a courtesy call from the agency after a few weeks to make sure you’d actually gone through with the date. As he rambles, I marvel at humanity’s enduring dedication to successfully outsource falling in love, before returning to his point about the twinkle, about the bodily language of desire, the imperceptible dance of physical attraction. What kids these days call vibes: the unexplainable pull of energy between two people. I don’t believe in soul mates, but I do believe in serendipity, in luck, in being the right person in the right place at the right time. Every relationship I’ve had has begun with a chance encounter; some unwitting and organic choice we both made that drew us together. Fate is a slippery fish, but it when it aligns, there is a powerful sense of the otherworldly. I also believe in pheromones, because I believe in science with the religious fervor of someone who has never understood it, and also I don’t know how else to explain my weird affinity for the way my ex smelled when he was sweaty. As we spend more and more time on our phones, drawing further into ourselves and away from the world around us, what becomes of serendipity? Tinder is ultimately an attempt to streamline it, replacing the fickle hand of fate with algorithms that master your preferences, but it doesn’t account for locking eyes with someone across a room and feeling every neuron in your brain lighting up like a Christmas tree, or that longing feeling of not knowing when you’ll see someone again and when you do it’s like all the polar ice caps in Antarctica crack down the middle at the same time and somehow you can feel it in your chest.
Some might argue that the new fantasy of love (of everything, really) is convenience, endless options at your fingertips, being able to strike up a relationship with the lazy ease of ordering food for delivery when you’re hung-over. You can get everything you need (and then some) with next day delivery via Amazon, and most of the time that brings me an odd sense of awed comfort, but sometimes I find myself missing the feeling of going to a store and tracking something down myself, interacting with the world instead of just my phone. It doesn’t feel real or earned, and more often than not I forget what I order by the time it arrives, anesthetized into forgetfulness, five new items already filling my cart. Maybe the same is true of love. Maybe our attempt to automate the dating process ends up wringing dry what makes it both unbearable and magical. Maybe that doesn’t matter if it’s helping to end the epidemic of pelagic loneliness wreaking havoc on our society. Maybe I need to spend less time thinking and more time swiping. Maybe someday this strange part of my life, standing half in and half out of love, my heart caught between beat and break, will feel like a game, like a ghost ship, like I had the whole world at my fingertips and all I had to do was decide which direction to move.
Chantal Peñalosa is an artist based in Tecate, Mexico. Peñalosa’s research based practice stems from small gestures and interventions in everyday life, which are meant to expound upon notions of labour, waiting and delay.
"While in Tecate, Baja California, I took a photograph of a cloud and thought about how that same cloud would look from Tecate, California. So I crossed the border to take a picture from the other side. It was interesting for me to think about not just a contrast, but a certain mutability, of whether the same thing looks different or not from one side or the other.” -Chantal Peñalosa
Written by Alison Green