“Here at Harvard I have had no experience offline dating,” says Linda Trujano ’15. Despite the wind and chill of a brutal winter day, Trujano radiates an easygoing warmth, with her wavy, highlighted hair perfectly coiffed, cheeks bright pink from the cold. “Harvard’s dating scene is almost nonexistent, so I was sad about it and that’s why I decided to join [DateMySchool],” she explains. Since joining the online dating site, Trujano has gone on multiple dates with students from MIT and Harvard’s graduate schools, much to the envy of her friends and, it would appear, Harvard at large.
Trujano is one of an increasing number of college students who use online dating tools to enhance their sexual and romantic relationships. From 1999 to 2009, the percentage of couples who met online surged from 10.9 percent to 23.2 percent nationally, according to a study from the University of Rochester. And the phenomenon is no longer limited to older adults: Over the past few years, websites such as DateMySchool and IvyDate emerged as online dating sites specifically for college students.
“DateMySchool is responsible for over 50 percent of the dates that happen at Columbia and NYU. We get success stories every single day,” says DateMySchool public relations director Melanie J. Wallner, who has surveyed hundreds of students from both universities. Although the students who participate in online dating on campus maintain a low profile, according to Wallner, one in five students across Harvard University uses DateMySchool.
The rise of college-oriented online dating sites, some students say, is symptomatic of a student population that is frustrated with the social options on campus. Currently, many Harvard students are disappointed with the existing dating scene on campus, which they often categorize as a polarized landscape of committed relationships and casual one-night hookups. “It seems to me that you either have two extremes,” says Jacob D. Roberts ’13-’14, an inactive Crimson News editor and former OkCupid user. “People are in long-term relationships or people hook up a few times and then it’s over, and there’s really no in-between.”
Whether in response to a limited dating scene or simply as a means of meeting people outside the Harvard bubble, Harvard students are increasingly turning to online dating as an alternative—a way to supplement their sexual and romantic lives. Online dating provides students with the opportunity to look beyond the physical Harvard campus for everything from a one-night stand to a long, dreamy courtship. Whether dating across campuses or meeting young professionals, students find that these tools have proved invaluable in enlarging their social networks. Love online is still far from perfect, but there seems to be a trend towards a social lifestyle that involves both online and offline dating.
A Stigmatized Practice
Although the use of online dating tools is on the rise, there is still a significant social stigma attached to its use that prevents a meaningful dialogue on campus. The stereotype of online daters as social recluses eating fast food as they hunch over a computer monitor and talk to strangers thousands of miles away still lingers in the public eye.
The history of online dating plays a large role in the development of this negative perception of the practice. “Online dating was basically dominated by geeks,” says Sam A. Yagan ’99, recalling its early days.
Yagan, founder and CEO of OkCupid, and now the CEO of Match.com, was an applied math concentrator at Harvard. He continues, “Think about it: The only people on the Internet in 1993 were geeks....If you were single in the 90s, you were cool, and you probably didn’t use the Internet or online date.”
Additionally, there exists an expectation that finding a significant other should be relatively easy in a college environment, where one is constantly surrounded by one’s peers. “Online dating here has become a sign of desperation. You’re still young, you’re still in college,” says Michael Hughes ’15, who is in a long-term relationship with a student he did not meet online.
And yet, meeting new people can often become more difficult as one progresses through college.
“People usually forget that once you’ve joined various clubs and activities, there’s going to be a bit of stasis in your lives,” says Paul W. Eastwick, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the psychology of romantic relationships and online dating.
On Campus: Dating, Hook-Ups, and Frustrations
In addition to this stasis that Eastwick mentions, some posit that Harvard students especially tend not to prioritize dating. “It’s hard to actually meet people, especially in a community like Harvard, where everyone is so busy and no one stops to get to know each other,” says Jake, a gay freshman from California who has used OkCupid. Jake was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he wanted to keep his sexual orientation private.
“We just seem to not have time to go out to the North End, or go to a nice restaurant, or take a walk through the park,” says Hughes, echoing Jake’s sentiment. According to The Crimson’s senior survey of the Class of 2012, 48.6 percent of women and 49.4 percent of men reported having dated zero to one person at Harvard.
The lack of dating at Harvard may not only be a function of time constraints, but also one of space constraints. “There’s probably less social spaces to meet people. It seems classes or extracurriculars are your only option, while other universities have more of a common meeting area,” remarks Earle J. Bensing ’14, treasurer of the Harvard Computer Society, which oversees the ubiquitous Valentine’s Day matching program Datamatch.
Some believe that “hookups,” on the other hand, are far more common on Harvard’s campus. Sociologist Lisa Wade, who spoke at Harvard’s 2012 Sex Week, defines a hook-up as “casual sexual contact between non-dating partners without an (expressed or acknowledged) expectation of forming a committed relationship.”
“We definitely don’t go on dates like my mom’s generation did, and we definitely hook up a lot faster,” says Blair as she looks quickly around CGIS cafe. Blair, a sophomore concentrating in Social Studies and a Tinder user, was granted anonymity by The Crimson because she did not want others to know that she goes online for dating.
“[Students] are away from their parents for the first time—they’re going to explore their sexuality and they’re not going to stay with one person and have sex with one person only,” says Tai, a sophomore OkCupid and Grindr user who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson because he wanted to keep the details of his dating life private. “Which is not to say that there aren’t exceptions, but I’m just saying that that was my experience when I was a freshman. Most people are here to sort of find out what the market is like.”
Despite this perception, according to The Crimson’s Class of 2012 senior survey, 80.3 percent of women and 66.7 percent of men have had sex with fewer than five people, which means at most one new sexual partner each year. Harvard also falls below the national average among other colleges in terms of its hookup count: The average number of hookups for a graduating college senior nationally is seven. Around 25 percent of college students do not hook up at all, according to a study conducted by Paula England, a sociology professor at Stanford University.
Online Dating: The Low Down
For some Harvard students who aren’t looking to participate in the hookup culture on campus, and are dissatisfied with the dating scene, sites like OkCupid or DateMySchool seem to be a natural option to pursue. Trujano decided to make her DateMySchool account after one of her friends went on several dates from the site.
“I’ve mostly gone out on dates with MIT grad students—I guess because there’s not a lot of girls over there,” she says, chuckling as she quickly tucks a wavy strand of hair behind her ear. “I remember when one my friends saw that in one week I had five dates, she was like, ‘Whoa, I want to join.’”
Online dating sites can set up dates across campuses as well as help forge connections here at Harvard. “OkCupid could be a real functional tool to connect people who otherwise could float through their Harvard career and never meet each other,” Roberts says. “Datamatch only gets you so far.”
As students begin to go on dates obtained through these sites, they find the stigma associated with online dating to be unfounded. “The whole point of online dating is for it to transition to real life dating,” says Philip de Sa e Silva ’13, who used OkCupid in the past but has temporarily disabled his account.
Even so, online dating is not something participants typically discuss on campus. “It’s not something you wear on your sleeve or advertise. When you tell most people they laugh and treat it as a joke, but after having had a good experience, I do take it seriously,” Roberts says.
Although it is intended to describe a unique type of interaction, the term “dating” is incredibly broad. Sites such as OkCupid highlight the diversity and nuances of the word. Users can search these websites to find friends, “activity partners” to watch a movie or go hiking with, and DateMySchool even has an option for “cuddling.”
Additionally, in a world that seems to shrink as technology expands, meeting someone completely new has become a novelty in and of itself. “It’s interesting to be Facebook friends with someone I’ve met online and see that we have no friends in common at all. There’s no chain of connection, and that’s neat,” Silva says.
“I’ve had fantastic dates outside of campus with people who are adults and do things other than meet in dining halls and go over to each other’s dorms,” says Tai, waving his hand and gesturing towards his own dorm. “You’d be surprised how much easier it is to arrange for a group of people who are not in school to go out together than to get a bunch of your own friends [together].”
And for students who find themselves in totally new environments—either during the summer, or after graduation—the geocentric function of the sites allow these students to make new connections. “I actually created a profile because this summer I was in the Hamptons trying to start a business,” says Roberts. “I was working out there full time, so during the week I wanted to find a way to meet people, to meet girls, and just going to bars wasn’t cutting it, and so I joined.” Roberts did meet someone in the Hamptons using OkCupid, although he doesn’t think he’ll marry her.
Gay on Grindr
While sites like Match.com and OkCupid were originally created for the purpose of connecting people for dates, newer mobile applications like Grindr have burst onto the scene with more explicit purposes. Harvard students have taken advantage of this technology as a quick and convenient way to find sexual satisfaction, bypassing dating, flirting, and other time-consuming interactions.
Joel Simkhai, a graduate of Tufts University, founded Grindr in 2009 as a geosocial app to connect gay males in real time. “For me, what I really wanted to make happen was to make it easier for gay men to meet each other,” says Simkhai, whose app has over four million users. They come from every country in the world, except for two small island nations in the South Pacific.
Grindr is used primarily for casual sex, and Simkhai is unapologetic about its function. “Part of what happens when you meet someone that you’re attracted to is that you want to have sex with them. That’s just natural behavior,” Simkhai explains. “If that’s how our users want to use the product, as long as we’re giving them a good service, we’re happy with that,” he says matter-of-factly.
While Simkhai has no qualms about the popularity of his product, the unprecedented accessibility the app allows for has elicited significant criticism for enabling promiscuity. “I think some people don’t like the notion that we are letting people meet faster and more conveniently,” notes Simkhai. “People worry that we’re making it too easy."
Unlike most online dating apps and sites, Grindr allows users to see exactly how far away they are from the person they’re talking to. “It’s like a real gaydar. It’s an infallible gaydar,” Jake explains, smiling and cocking his head to the side.
The app’s networking capabilities help students locate potential partners, which is particularly helpful for gay males who don’t consider themselves to be active members of the gay community. As Jake puts it, “Not every person attends QSA meetings.”
When asked how many messages he receives a day from Grindr, Bryan, a student at the College who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he wants to keep the details of his sexual life private, laughs and says, “If it’s [a picture] of my abs, I’ll get quite a few, and it also depends on location. I was abroad this winter and just in one day I literally got like 40 [messages].” Since downloading Grindr this past summer, Bryan has slept with eight men he met on the app, and his encounters range from casual sex with a 27-year-old graduate school student, to a threesome over winter break.
Grindr allows for meetings to occur beyond the typical going-out nights of the weekend. “It’s not about not being able to do a party hookup, it’s about whatever’s easier and more convenient,” Tai says.
Bryan argues that hooking up through Grindr may even be preferable to what occurs on campus. “The hook-up culture is drug-fueled. There’s alcohol involved to ease the tension and the awkwardness of sex, whereas with these online applications it’s not. You’re entering into a contract sober,” Bryan says, choosing his words carefully. “I think there’s more of an openness and honesty that is important when entering into sexual relations.” The digital barrier doubles as a physical barrier until participants decide to meet in person.
When asked if casual sex is more acceptable than before—perhaps as a result of the advent of dating apps like Grindr—Tai responds: “No, I don’t think people’s values have changed,” he says. “If you’re the kind [of person] that would take someone home from a party, or follow someone home from a party, then there really shouldn’t be an issue with Grindr.”
For all the criticism directed at Grindr, the application has proved increasingly popular in the gay male community—it was only a matter of time before another geosocial phone application emerged that enables both heterosexual and homosexual users to contact each other.
Blair, a sophomore, giggles as she swipes her thumb up and down her iPhone. Pictures of men come and go across the screen. She recognizes some of them, like the boy from her tutorial. Others are strangers.
This app, Tinder, was launched in October 2012 and has captivated Blair, along with the rest of the Harvard community. Part of Tinder’s intrigue is its simplicity, as well as the general assumption that users need not hook-up, or even meet. Tinder members can only adjust two settings: sexual preference and geographic range. They then rate each other as “hot” or “not.” Users are only matched when they approve each other, which subsequently allows them to chat.
Unlike the way students typically use Grindr—for casual sexual encounters—most users have adopted a more playful relationship with Tinder, counting how many matches they have rather than following up with these contacts.
“There’s no effort to get it up and running,” says Roberts, referring to Tinder, which connects automatically to users’ Facebook accounts. “With an OkCupid profile, I know I slaved over my profile, acutely aware of how it might be perceived by others.”
“It’s really funny because I’ll be in class, and I’ll see people on Tinder. Or at dinner I’ll see people on Tinder, and you never really know if people are doing it seriously,” Blair says.
The app’s popularity has even led to Tinder parties on campus. “The Pudding freshman members decided to have a party in which guests are invited using Tinder,” recalls Patrick, a member of the Hasty Pudding Club who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he did not want it known that he had violated the club’s policy against speaking to Crimson reporters.
“There were zero Harvard girls [invited]. There was one person who had brought their whole sorority, so there were many, many girls who decided to come after [virtually] meeting a stranger,” Patrick says of the party. Hasty Pudding Club president Thomas J. Hanson '13 originally declined to comment on the party, then later wrote in an email that it was not a Hasty Pudding Club party. However, one other Club member and two attendees confirmed that the Tinder party happened.
For Patrick and his friends, the gesture was light-hearted, rooted in novelty and convenience as opposed to a serious desire to meet new people. “It’s generally more awkward to hook up with people from school because you know you’re going to see those same people for the next four years,” he says. Patrick concludes, “It’s hard to be totally casual [on campus]. On Tinder, there’s more anonymity that allows you be more casual.”
However, such an easygoing attitude means that current Tinder users may not stick around for long. Blair, who originally created her account as a joke, laughs it off. “I think it’s a one-hit wonder,” she says. “It’s kind of fun to sit there and do it, but [only] for a couple days.”
Roberts echoes Blair’s thoughts about Tinder. “I’ve downloaded it, I’ve been fucking around with it, but it’ll never blossom into anything. I bet that everyone will be deleting it after a month—I really do think it’s a very temporary phenomenon,” he says.
Bryan theorizes that while a hookup app works for gay men, it may not achieve the same level of popularity in the heterosexual community. “Grindr has more of a sexualized aspect to it, and that’s because of a culture that has emerged in the gay community in which sex is treated more liberally and also as a response to the stigmatization of sexuality within the greater society—so you had bathhouses and whatever—so this is, just for me, a new form of [that] for the gay community,” he explains quickly. “Straight people have easier access to sex than gay people [do].’’
A Perfect System?
Despite the multitude of online dating options that exist—OkCupid, Grindr, Tinder, or even Harvard’s very own Datamatch—these platforms are far from the end-all, be-all of dating on campus. Online dating, like many other forms of social interaction, retains its own set of inherent limitations. Vibrant debate about the effectiveness of online dating’s methodology and efficiency continues.
College Fellow in Statistics Cassandra W. Pattanayak ’06, who teaches a course at Harvard titled “Real-Life Statistics,” has doubts about the effectiveness of online dating’s survey questions. “The information that they’re gathering is based on survey questions that may not be worded well, so the information is useless, or you’re going to get matches that aren’t good matches,” Pattanayak says. She poses the hypothetical question “How many people have you dated in the past?” and points out that terms like “dated” or “past” aren’t strictly defined, thus calling into question the statistical validity of users’ answers.
Eastwick, the professor who has studied the differences between traditional and online dating, has another hesitation about online dating: user generated profiles. “Profiles are a terrible way to determine how you could get along with someone,” he says. “Profiles may even raise your expectations and dash them when you meet face to face.”
Eastwick is also unsure of the validity of the algorithms used by dating sites. “We have strong reason to believe that algorithms cannot work in principle. Science does suggest that there is very little you can learn about how a relationship will go before two people meet.” He points out that the algorithms created by sites like eHarmony are not published or peer reviewed, which has caused the scientific community to doubt their efficacy.
Kendall L. Sherman ’15, who created a matching algorithm for her CS50 final project, argues that human attraction cannot be boiled down to an exact science. “I don’t think that you can explain why you like someone. Those sites are asking ‘Oh, do you like walking outdoors?’ and then assuming that if I like walking outdoors, then I’ll like guys that do.”
Taking the Chance
The success of online dating may not be solely dependent on the success of lines of code or mathematical algorithms though. College-age users may simply benefit from meeting people beyond their houses or clubs and find something worthwhile in the opportunity to meet someone new, to take a risk.
Every Valentine’s Day, the Harvard Computer Society invites all students to take that risk with Datamatch, the university’s very own version of online dating. Created in 1993, the program uses a computer-generated matching algorithm to produce a list of 10 possible soulmates on campus.
Saagar Desphande ’14, president of the Harvard Computer Society, explains that Datamatch was originally created “as a joke...[with] questions about things that occurred recently, some nerdy jokes, and some things that we just think would be generally appealing.” The program continues to reflect its lighthearted origins, with questions ranging from the “kinkiest thing you own” to “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila...”
Perhaps as a result of Datamatch’s comical nature, many students view the program as merely amusing and highly non-committal, resulting in very few people meeting, or even contacting, their computer-generated matches. However, last year the program attracted over a third of Harvard College students, according to HCS, signalling that while online dating may carry a social stigma, people are indeed reaching out through digital platforms.
And for all its seemingly random questions, Datamatch has successfully programmed romance at Harvard. “I got the results and I didn’t know anyone on the list,” recalls Andrew Q. Blinkinsop ‘13, who participated in Datamatch 2011. “But a couple of days after I got the results, I got an email from this girl I had been matched with.”
Blinkinsop’s email, sent by Elizabeth A. Horton ’13 read: “No pressure, but why do Datamatch if you’re not trying to meet new people from it?” The two had never spoken before, but Blinkinsop was intrigued.
“The fact that she took the initiative and reached out to me and emailed me—that’s a quality I admire,” he says. Blinkinsop and Horton decided to go on a first date: ice-cream at JP Licks, followed by a walk along the river. Second-semester juniors at the time, they had many mutual friends and had even been in the same Expos class.
About a month after their first date, the two began a relationship and are currently approaching their one-year anniversary. “I spent Thanksgiving with her family and then she came down to Palm Springs over J-Term and went with me to my family reunion,” Blinkinsop says.
While Blinkinsop likely would not have met Horton otherwise, he questions the validity of Datamatch’s methodology. “The questions were completely irrelevant to what I consider my ideal partner would be. They’re silly questions,” he jokes.
Nonetheless, Blinkinsop doesn’t write off Datamatch: “I think there’s something to be said for taking a risk on something that might seem random at first.” He gushes as he offers advice for future Datamatchers, “It’s worked out better than I could have ever imagined. Be bold and take risks."
Users of OkCupid, DateMySchool, Grindr, and other online dating or hookup applications have also found that, at the end of the day, online dating just makes sense. “The argument will go that in college you’re constantly interacting with so many people that you don’t really need these websites,” says Tai. “But the way I see it, there’s really no harm in expanding your horizons and casting your net wider.”
For Yagan, the transition from online dating to offline dating is seamless: “It’s not about online dating or offline dating—people want to date and if you’re single and you want to date, it makes sense to date in a variety of ways,” Yagan says. “You shouldn’t just be an online dater or an offline dater. You should just date.”
Michelle Denise L. Ferreol contributed to the reporting of this article.