Last Night, Hookup Culture Panic Met Tech Utopianism and Everybody Lost


A few days ago, Vanity Fair published veteran correspondent Nancy Jo Sales’ report on Tinder, a dispatch from the seedy underbelly of twentysomething New York life that can best be summed up as “kids these days!” The piece was initially met with mild amusement; after all, hookup culture panic peaked more than two years ago with reports like the New York Times’ “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too”, and the subsequent revelation that hookup culture might not even exist. Sales’ report wasn’t an irritating new form of millennial panic, but the swansong of an old one.

But then Tinder, as is the tech company’s wont, decided to step in it. Seemingly unaware that he or she was joining a proud tradition of Nancy Jo Sales subjects flying off the handle, someone took to the company’s official Twitter account to respond to the piece. Amid complaints that Sales didn’t reach out to them for comment, the company made an increasingly heated case for why it’s not, in fact, turning the youth of today into loveless automatons on the permanent hunt for a more attractive sex person. To its credit, Tinder has yet to pull a Josh Trank; the tweets remain online, right under this meme about Oreos.

If Tinder had merely waited a few hours, they could have pointed Sales to this more measured takedown from The Science of Us, which points to yet another study indicating there’s nothing to indicate this generation of youngs has an unusually high number of sexual partners. Instead, the app decided to make some rather grandiose claims about its social impact, seasoned with emoji and swears.

Not only have couples who #SwipedRight (yes, that’s an actual hashtag, and Tinder is actually trying to make it happen) resulted in a “shit ton of marriages”—Tinder’s also helping persecuted gay people in Pakistan, fostering freedom under oppressive regimes in China and North Korea, and generally creating “meaningful connections,” not one-night stands that leave participants—though mostly women, in Sales’ view—feeling empty inside.

As with so many contemporary tech gaffes, it’s impossible to read Tinder’s screed and not think of Silicon Valley, in which every CEO talks about their startup like it’s a nonprofit and Google Hooli head Gavin Belson fears that other companies might “make the world a better place better than we do.” Just like no trend piece about kids today can admit that everything’s probably going to work out just fine, no tech company can admit it’s anything less than a force for social change.

The reality, as anyone who’s ever used Tinder or encountered other humans can guess, is that an app isn’t intrinsically good or evil. It’s a company that ultimately wants to make money, not destroy marriages or restructure our society or gather a representative sampling of the world’s population on a hilltop in a powerful moment of connection/consumption. And in the process of making money, it sometimes enables humanity’s baser instincts. (I’m talking, of course, not about consensual hookups, but the scourge of inept, unsolicited sexts that is engulfing us all.)

Before this minor Internet spectacle disappears from our Twitter feeds for good, it’s worth appreciating Vanity Fair‘s ability to draw out both the worst of sexual concern-trolling and wide-eyed tech utopianism. We live in a world where it’s impossible to admit an app or the meet-ups it facilitates could be value-neutral, and that’s the biggest punchline of all.