A few weeks ago, three Brigham Young University college students ran a social media experiment using the online dating app Tinder. The service lets users select potential matches who live nearby based exclusively on their profile photos and their age. If you indicate that you like someone and they like you too, it’s a match, and users can start messaging each other.

In the experiment, the students set up a fake account for a 21-year-old girl named “Sammy,” using photos of Miss Teen USA Kendall Fein. “Sammy” then “liked” every guy that flashed up on her screen and, to no surprise, most of them “liked” her back. She then messaged all the matches suggesting that they meet her at a nearby frozen yogurt shop. At the appointed date and time, more than 70 hopeful guys showed up.

It’s easy to laugh and label these guys sketchy, or horny, or totally clueless. It’s even easier to see Tinder as the latest, creepiest experiment in online dating that only attracts desperately shallow men and women. But a closer look at Tinder and similar online dating services reveals that the apps can make us a lot more confident, flexible, and ultimately successful in our romantic lives.

Plenty of Fish? Online Opportunities

While online dating has been around for years now, Tinder is an example of a newer (usually mobile-enabled) service that makes the process quicker and, potentially, more superficial. Tinder users sign in through Facebook (all information is kept within Tinder). They indicate their gender and who they’re interested in meeting, and how close (geographically) their match should be right now. Then they swipe through a series of photos of potential matches until they see one (or a hundred) that strike their fancy. Tinder’s not alone; popular online dating site OkCupid recently launched “Quickmatch,” letting users breeze through photos of potential matches without having to navigate any other information.

Some say apps like Tinder have taken superficiality and laziness to a new, digital extreme. In January, Dan Slater published a highly controversial article in The Atlantic arguing that online dating deceives people, especially guys, into believing there’s always someone better out there. One can only imagine what Slater, and similar-minded critics, would have to say about an app like Tinder. Surely these apps turn men and women into even more replaceable commodities. (Don’t like this guy? Swipe left to see a new option just like him, but better!)

But what if the point of an app like Tinder is precisely to show us how many options there are out there? The app reminds us that if it doesn’t work out with “John, 25,” it might just work out with “Matt, 26” or “Joe, 30,” or any of the other hundreds of eligible bachelors (or bachelorettes) waiting patiently inside your smartphone.

For someone who has a problem committing, Tinder might not be the most effective dating tool, and maybe Tinder’s impact depends on the specific person using it. But I’d argue that, for many people, Tinder provides a sense of hope and confidence that doesn’t come from going through old Facebook photos of you and your ex.

As for Tinder as social experiment, none of those 70 guys are losers or idiots. “Sammy” might not have been real, but there are plenty of actual Sammys who would want to snag fro-yo (and likewise, plenty of “Sams” looking for dates, too). The men who showed up to that yogurt shop put themselves out there and opened themselves up to the possibility of rejection. But for each one of those guys, the date was also a chance to find out someone was interested in them, a chance they might not have had if not for the thousands of opportunities Tinder provides.

The Takeaway

This all leads to a bigger question about the reason we date at all. Do we date to develop our own self-image and self-confidence? Or, alternatively, is dating a waste of time if we don’t meet “the One” after just a few dinners and drinks?

I downloaded Tinder for research purposes while writing this article, and ended up getting “matched” with a nice-looking 30-year-old man. We’ve yet to exchange messages or arrange to meet, but I can’t forget that little, grade-school-crush thrill I felt when I found out he’d “liked” me, too. Maybe after getting a few of these matches, these small bursts of confidence, we feel more motivated to approach someone in person. That possiblity makes a little superficiality seem worth it.

Have you used Tinder or another similar dating app? Share your stories in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.

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