Two Fridays ago, Emily Blim was walking back to her apartment after her final class of the week, when a particularly trendy friend – someone Blim described as “really up on, like, all the apps” – told her about a hot new hookup app called Friendsy. The two sat down to download it and try it out together.
“Within a matter of minutes, we went through everyone on there,” said Blim, a School of Communications sophomore. “And we were like, ‘Okay. That just happened.’”
More than 1,700 Northwestern students are on Friendsy as of Monday night – a fairly impressive feat after just one week. Despite some mixed reactions toward the nitty-gritties of Friendsy’s matchup system, the app’s viral campus takeover speaks to exactly why college students love dating apps in the first place – and it's not just because they're "too busy" or uninterested in forming relationships in person. It’s all about maximizing the odds – that is, increasing your chance of stumbling into a relationship, whatever form that may take.
“I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of freshmen on it, so I’m sure it’s an easier way to ease into college,” Blim said of Friendsy. “You have more outlets to meet new people besides just your dorm.”
Including last week’s arrival at Northwestern, Friendsy now operates at a total of 41 campuses, 35 of which launched within the last month. With an interface similar to Tinder and Hot or Not, this college-based social network allows a person to indicate interest in being friends, going on a date or hooking up with other students at their university based on their profiles – a couple photos plus their full name, school year, major and a Greek or sports-related affiliation.
On the recipient’s end, you won’t know who sent you a request unless you happen to send him or her (like many other dating portals, Friendsy doesn’t include any other gender options, nor any way to specify sexual orientation) that same request back. The system leads to a tricky guessing game before you can figure out your wannabe hookup buddy’s identity.
But a little mystery is the key to helping shier folk make that first move, said the company’s co-founder and COO Michael Pinsky, a Princeton University senior who fashioned the app with his own campus in mind.
“The great thing about the anonymous matchmaking is that it removes all of the fear behind taking that first step and potentially being rejected,” Pinsky said. “There’s no such thing as being rejected on Friendsy.”
And in the literal sense, that’s true. There’s no equivalent to Tinder’s “swipe left” option to flat-out reject another user, something intentionally left out by Friendsy founders because of their belief in changing attitudes toward other people.
“Feelings change, especially since Friendsy is not just the ‘hot or not’ thing that Tinder is. Tinder is kind of – you either find this person attractive, or you don’t,” Pinsky said. “Friendsy is much more nuanced.”
A system of hints that provide initial anonymity and a perceived lack of rejection can go a long way in helping less forward students connect with people they otherwise would not have reached out to.
But these types of meeting platforms perhaps most cater to the very opposite of what Pinsky describes as the intended audience: the already active socialites.
“It’s perfect for people that just wanna go out and put themselves out there,” said Weinberg junior Jake Hume, a self-proclaimed big fan of any opportunity to meet new people, noting the single segment of the college population who might have little to gain from such a network. “If you’re content with your social circle and you’re fine with that, then I don’t know if you’re going to get a whole lot out of the app.”
Hume once went into Chicago to meet up with a Tinder match, and he said he’s recently been texting a girl he matched with on Friendsy this week – two human connections he wouldn’t have made without the apps, simply because the chances are so slim that he would’ve physically run into them by accident otherwise.
There’s an important insight there: mobile matchmakers don’t hamper human interaction in the same way it can be argued that technology does on a broader spectrum. In fact, according to Weinberg director of social psychology Eli Finkel, phone apps like Friendsy actually help facilitate extended human interaction and have the ability to increase the overall amount of dating that occurs on campus.
“People have been complaining about the dating scene at Northwestern for forever, and I think this is something that can really help it,” Finkel said. “I’m not saying this particular company has cracked the code. I think the whole point is nobody’s cracked the code.”
To understand this theory, we need to take a bit of a closer look at the history books. Internet dating can be broken down into three “generations,” Finkel said. Generation I began shortly after the birth of the Internet itself when Match.com became the first online dating site in 1995. Finkel calls it the “supermarket of love”: users posted in-depth profiles, and people could browse them and try to pick the one they liked the best.
The problem with this initial generation of techno-romance was people’s reliance on words and pictures to assess compatibility. No matter how hard we try, no profile can ever adequately capture a person’s full character.
Generation II tried to remedy that problem with what Finkel called the “real estate agents” model. Websites like eHarmony.com claimed to find your ideal match with scientific data about you, which of course never works. Love and compatibility unfortunately can never be solved using algorithms.
“What mobile dating does is it gets beyond all of the silliness,” Finkel said. “It gets beyond this profile browsing. It gets beyond these fake algorithms, and it gets back to the way people used to assess compatibility, which is face to face.”
Generation III – cell phone-based networks like Tinder and Friendsy – features a system that makes zero promises of compatibility. Instead, the primary service being provides is simply increasing the number of options.
“I think the best we can do is facilitate meeting, and the more people you meet, the more likelihood there is that you’ll meet somebody that you like,” Finkel said.
Only one week since its launch at Northwestern, it'll still take some time to see whether or not Friendsy will stick and, if so, what space it will occupy in students' lives. But let’s not forget that when Tinder first launched here, it also got a lot of criticism from the student body.
“I think Northwestern tries to be really socially ironic a lot,” Hume said, “When things pop up that are cool and hip and with it, there’s kind of a natural pushback with things like Friendsy … They don’t want to commit to something like that. Because like, ‘Oh, we’re all too smart and professional for this kind of thing. So let’s mess around with it.’”
While 65 percent of all matches made on Friendsy are friendships, Pinsky said Northwestern matches are split fairly even between friendships and the two romantic options, which perhaps says something about Northwestern students’ unwillingness to embrace a potentially rewarding networking opportunity and their need to brush it off as a big sexual joke.
However, we may not be the only cynics. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, only 5 percent of people ages 18-24 and only 3 percent of college students use dating apps. Social network researcher Kevin Lewis said this low usage rate is because college campuses already provide so many ways for students to meet one another that using your phone to do it just doesn't seem necessary.
“College students traditionally are underrepresented [on dating apps],” Lewis said. “It makes sense. College students are surrounded by people that in theory they can take. So among college students, it's like, ‘Are you desperate or what?’”
But Friendsy's college-centric matchmaking model turns this theory on its head by offering students a way to meet people outside their physical social circle, Lewis said. It addresses the "coolness" issue by providing a service that students actually need – shrinking the campus to make options more accessible.
Apprehensions aside, more than 1,700 Wildcats have accounts, and that number is only growing. For Blim, no day goes by without receiving at least a hookup request or two when she opens up the app, she said. That’s at least a few people a day who she has suddenly crossed path with, who she may never have known about otherwise.