To all the dating apps I’ve loved before: Stanford and the world of online dating

Dec. 27, 2022, 11:32 a.m.

Five sources have asked us to remain anonymous or only use first names due to the sensitive nature of their responses.

Most of us are too young to remember the OG dating algorithm. We’re not talking about OkCupid or Match.com. We’re talking about the matchmakers. You know, your parents who think you should date that nice young person in the neighborhood, or that old woman next door who sets you up on blind dates because she knows the perfect person for you. While matchmakers may be on the decline, and more commonly found in movies like “Fiddler on the Roof” (“Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match”), the influence of matchmaking has hardly gone away.

Instead of relying on the wisdom of a person who thinks they know best for you, the new, hip thing to do is to rely on the wisdom of a young, fresh algorithm that supposedly knows best for you.

“If you’re of a certain age, and you’re single, you better be online or have downloaded the latest app or it’s not going to happen for you, right? Because that’s where all the action is,” said Stephanie Tong, an associate professor of communication at Wayne State University.

This mindset seems to be true among Stanford students too. And yet, Stanford seems to be a place that should naturally lend itself to connection. If you are a student here, you were likely accepted to Stanford because of some passion or niche that made somebody in the admissions office go, “Wow! Now that seems like a person I’d like to know.”

Or, in the words of one mother of a Stanford student, “I don’t understand why students here use dating apps. You’re at Stanford for God’s sake! You meet so many cool and interesting people here — what do you even need those apps for?”

Setting the Scene

Here’s the thing, Mom: The dating scene at Stanford is… interesting. One anonymous student described Stanford dating as “pretty ass.”

Many people can attest to the challenges students here face in romantic relationships. According to Stanford lecturer and intimacy coach Alison Ash, “the biggest challenge — especially for Stanford students — is just that life is so intense and overwhelming and busy and the workload is so big.” 

Despite these hurdles, many young people want to get better at developing their relationship skills, particularly when it comes to setting boundaries and expressing vulnerability. This, Ash said, “is what creates intimacy and connection.”

Which raises the question: Are dating apps a way of letting us practice our intimacy skills, or do they let us skirt around deeper connections? Do dating apps actually improve romantic life for Stanford students? And what are students in our community longing for?

Turning to Tech

“I was a rather prolific Tinder user. That was my dorm superlative at the end of freshman year,” Maddy Fischer ’23 said. While the option to meet somebody organically always exists for Fischer, it was not always the most ideal scenario.

“I don’t want to date somebody in my department and then break up and then have to have a class with them, which, thankfully, has not yet happened,” Fischer said. “I have gone on, like, singular one to two dates with people in my department, who I have then later had classes with, and it’s always a little awkward, but generally not too bad.”

If you’re like Fischer and want to avoid awkward interactions with people in your department, then dating apps are a great solution.

Indeed, one of the greatest benefits Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Stanford, sees to the rise of dating apps is the bounty of choice they provide us.

“Anybody within a certain mile radius is anybody I could meet, and that’s pretty amazing because before it was who you went to school with or who you worked with,” Hancock said.

Talk about the ultimate networking opportunity, am I right?

But the apps do more than just expand one’s social networks and possibilities for potential matches. Stanford sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld said the apps give people the ability to circumvent their existing social networks, thereby offering a measure of privacy.

Oh, and did we mention the option to filter based on your preferences?

Only date people who are taller than six feet? Filter out your height preferences!

You’re a Sagittarius looking for a Libra or Gemini to match with? Filter based on astrological sign!

Have an overbearing Jewish mother who wants you to find a nice, Jewish boy? Filter your religious preferences!

With so many options, the results are endless. Who needs an old woman who knows a little too much about everyone to find you a match? (“Matchmaker, matchmaker, please take your time… find me no find, catch me no catch.”)

However, dating apps aren’t without their pitfalls — and the downsides of online dating are becoming more prominent.

“We are kind of moving now into another era where people are citing a sense of fatigue, a sense of burnout with dating apps,” Tong explained. “People who are using them are getting tired. It’s starting to feel literally like a part time job. Right? Like, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot, I gotta log on and look at my matches.’ It’s not fun anymore and people have this nostalgia to meet someone face-to-face.”

Striking the Balance

Stanford students aren’t usually known for having free time. Whether they are loading up on too many extracurriculars or packing their social calendars, students here struggle to find enough time for all the things they value. In dating, Stanford students are no different.

“Intimacy requires time,” said Ash. Blocking out enough time for intimate relationships can put pressure on students’ already packed schedules, causing a lot of students to flake on intimacy.

Not only do students struggle to find time for romantic relationships, but if you’re one of the few individuals with enough free units in your schedule for a romantic relationship, you might find yourself unable to find the type of romantic relationship you want to be in.

According to Dale ’24, “a lot of people here are really, really ambitious, driven and goal-oriented. So a lot of times you’re either siloed into hookup culture or the most committed form of relationship. I haven’t seen a big in-between.”

If you do decide to go for the long-term relationship, you may end up neglecting other priorities.

“I think it’s really easy to get sucked into a relationship on campus. And then you stop prioritizing your friends and the rest of your social life,” said Riley ’25. “It’s really hard to find that balance.”

In essence, if you’re looking to casually date and not get ghosted, you may have come to the wrong university.

Too Close for Comfort

By student accounts, another challenge with on-campus dating is the size of existing social networks between students.

“It’s a real seven degrees of Kevin Bacon situation. You know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody,” said Fischer. “Except instead of seven degrees, it’s more like three or less.”

Maria ’24 echoed Fischer’s sentiment.

“I feel like I pretty much know everybody, even though I really don’t. I see the same people,” she said. “Also, with the neighborhood system you see the same people pretty much every day.”

For some students, the dating pool gets even smaller depending on their sexuality.

“Being in the gay community, it’s a bit different because of how close-knit it is,” one sophomore told The Daily. “In a way, you know most of the gay people in your grade and a majority of them know you.”

So how do we fix this seven degrees of Kevin Bacon situation? The way we fix every problem at Stanford: create a start-up!

The Silicon Valley Effect

Stanford students may not be fluent in love, but they sure are fluent in C++.

Every school year, one or two new Stanford-specific dating start-ups seem to pop up. (We’re looking at you, Stanford Match.)

Some of them, like the famous Stanford Marriage Pact, stick around and spread their matchmaking algorithms to other campuses. Others, like Stanford Link, become fads and eventually die out (or have a major security breach).

An illustration of two anthropomorphic trees wearing shoes, one male and one female. The male on the life has orange leaves and is wearing sunglasses. The female on the right has a bow on and is green. A heart is drawn between them.
GRAPHIC: MICHELLE FU/The Stanford Daily

Some match you with crushes; others rank your compatibility with prospective partners; still others attempt to set you up on actual dates. Whatever the concept is, Stanford has seen this digital trend be exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. Stanford students have branched out from the comforts of VC work and into the terrain of digitally mediated romance.

One recent example is Stanford’s Love Is Blind: a spin-off of Netflix’s hit reality dating show of the same name.

On Love Is Blind Stanford, contestants spoke over the phone and participated in anonymous game show activities published on Instagram for the enjoyment of Stanford students across the globe.

“I saw that there was a need for more opportunities for people to connect during quarantine and COVID,” said Love Is Blind producer Kellen Vu ’23. “I saw things like Stanford Missed Connections [an Instagram page where students anonymously shared their crushes] and Marriage Pact and some startups that were trying to help people connect, and I thought Love Is Blind was another approach.”

Love Is Blind Stanford also aimed to help game show contestants once they left the competition. “We were glad that we had some relationships come out of it, whether it was with other contestants or the exposure that people got from being on the page,” Vu said. When Love Is Blind Stanford took off, contestants gained semi-celebrity status among the student body. Fans slid into contestants’ DMs, hoping to find a spark with those who left the dating show without a relationship.

But not all students are satisfied with campus’s cultural shift to tech.

“You can’t ever really know what someone’s like through a dating app, so your standards become different … When things form more organically, everything else kind of fades away, and it’s your connection that matters,” Nourya ’23 said. “But on dating apps, you’re gonna rule a lot of people out for the wrong reasons. And on top of that, once you do meet them, it’s so artificial because you’re looking to impress them, as opposed to meeting people naturally.”

To quote another Stanford mother after spending some time swiping on her child’s Tinder profile, “Those are your options?”

Multiple students expressed the desire for more on-campus, in-person events as a way to meet people organically. They stated that a reliance on social media to form connections may lead to lower-quality relationships or the formation of false impressions.

“We have a paradox where we’re supposed to be getting more connected. And we certainly are connected to more information,” said Jonah Willihnganz, a Stanford lecturer who has previously taught a class entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” “But people are feeling more and more lonely than ever before, particularly technology users.”

The paradox of online dating Willihnganz identified is not going away anytime soon. Even with its downsides, technology use in the world of dating is here to stay. So how do we live with this technological conundrum?

“If you think of every encounter we have as a kind of conversation, whether it’s with somebody you know or somebody you’re getting your Uber food from … every conversation is an opportunity to join, to understand something that you didn’t understand about someone else,” Willihnganz said. “What we can do is we can try to have more vulnerable conversations with one another, and to ask each other questions that we may be afraid to ask. I think that’s really where it begins.”

Or, if vulnerability seems like too big of a step, practice kindness.

“Try to do something unexpectedly kind every day,” Willihnganz said. “If you want love, be love. You don’t need to pine and strategize to get love. Just be it. And you will experience it.”

Carolyn Stein is a Desk Editor for Campus Life and a co-Audience Engagement Editor. She is double majoring in communications and East Asian studies. Her favorite activity is going on unnecessarily long walks. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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