For college students, sex by smartphone

The grandma of social networks, Facebook, was inspired by the freshman book of headshots that Harvard and many colleges offer first-year students. At my college, that freshman facebook looked innocuous, until you saw two or three of those booklets lying ravaged around the dorm, with sexy coeds circled and other faces defaced, hot-or-not-style.

The printed facebook, though, was just a manual. In those days, you were on your own when it came to making college social life happen, in real time and in real space. With Facebook.com, Mark Zuckerberg brought about a transfiguration that has defined the digital revolution. He turned a crude and static map of social life into a living, breathing form of social life itself.

Following Facebook’s lead, a host of new social services for the college set have appeared, and they sketch parameters for a brand new kind of social life. Facebook, you see, is now a site for actual grandmas and can’t meet the specific social cravings of the young and single. These new hookup apps, with names like Bang With Friends and Grindr and Pure, are way more frank and goal-oriented than Facebook. They’re about sex. And they are far from manuals. These things perform.

In the old college days, if you wanted sex, you pretended to be interested in love, or at least friendship. The new apps reject these pretenses. You sign up for the app only when you’re hell-bent on love (OKCupid, Zoosk, Plenty of Fish, eHarmony) or sex (Skout, Tingle, MeetMe, Swoon, Bang With Friends, Tinder, Pure).

The big, lumbering matchmaking services, with Match.com as the archetype, exist because there’s an age-old need for yenta-work, and computers have long proposed to make mathematics of assortative mating. The hookup apps, by contrast, exist because in every generation members of one clique or another decide that it’s their birthright — and theirs alone! — to have no-strings, zipless sex.

Tinder and Bang With Friends are the current leaders, but all of the hookup apps work roughly the same way. You scroll through stagey photos with minimal info (gender, orientation, willingness to travel or host) and choose some you like. If you get chosen back, you two mutual nonlovebirds get to chat, sext, discuss Dylan Thomas, you name it. You also get to set a date. And it’s up to you: Nervous 10 a.m. coffee? Stoned midnight disrobing? Sky’s the limit.

Unlike early computer-dating services that prided themselves on zillion-page questionnaires that they claimed would make perfect matches inevitable — I’m thinking even of the pre-Internet computer services, like Together, which started in 1974 and used punch cards — the apps for today’s libidinous kids scale the inputs way, way down. Those complications — favorite planet! politics! — are such a buzzkill. What’re you gonna do, talk monogamy next?

With the hookup apps the complexity is kept out of sight, with satellites that can now pinpoint and target the precise location of your sex-worthy body. Is hooking up using an app safe? What recourse would you have if injured or mistreated? And why in the world do you want to have sex with a complete stranger?

Come on. No more questions. We’re keeping it simple here!

As the manifesto of Pure, the hippest and most sophisticated of the hookup apps, puts it, “We would like it to be all about exploring different dynamics with different people — sexual, emotional, psychological and spiritual. Government, society, and religion have oppressed human sexuality in the past and continue to do so today. It’s time to make a radical change and give people back the freedom to enjoy a regular and diverse sex life.”

Regular and diverse. That sounds wholesome. I haven’t met anyone on a hookup app, as I am a monogamy buff who is contentedly in love with one person. But I hear from a few friends that the hookups they promote are exactly as hit-or-miss as hookups not facilitated by apps. So what’s the catch?


It’s this: There are too many of them. And this isn’t merely a catch; it’s a Catch-22. Because it’s the same catch as the one in the real world that makes it challenging to find friends and partners. Each app is a commitment to an aesthetic, a politics, a type, a modus vivendi:

If you choose Pure, and it’s anything like this video, you’re opting into a scene of polyamorous hipsters who like cheating, sleeping around and exposed brick.

If you choose Tinder, you’re in a brightly-lit meat market whose Facebook profile pictures — kissing whiskey bottles, faces lit up by iPhone flashes — are their come-ons.

If you choose Bang With Friends, you’re entering a violent-seeming world where the logo shows a man and woman in a rough-looking Kama-Sutra coupling. (Curious, I signed in to see what it was about, and the faces of every male Facebook friend of mine, including my relatives and noted gay Andy Cohen, appeared over the option “Down to Bang.”)

If you choose OKCupid or Match or eHarmony or any of the other dating services “the olds” are using, you’re admitting defeat in some way, choosing a sanitized, formal, prematurely mature scene.

You end up choosing a hookup app the way you choose most social acts, in other words. If you’re a hipster, try Pure. If you’re a sex addict, try Bang With Friends. If you’re a middle-of-the-road type, try Tinder. Find out what your friends are doing with social apps, and do that. At the same time, if you have friends, why not just get really old-fashioned and hook up with them? Just a thought.

Explore the entire Born Digital series from Yahoo News:

Teaching an old dog new tricks: College football coaches use social media to lure recruits
How to use social media to land--or lose--a college internship
No cell phones allowed: Some colleges ban modern-day gadgets
Born Digital: First person accounts of how technology is changing the college experience
Meet the next generation of college freshmen
The Silicon Valley tycoon who's telling young people to skip college
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