Spring has truly sprung in Middletown, Connecticut: The trees are blooming, the libraries are packed with students preparing for finals, and perhaps more importantly, Wescam season has arrived. Wescam (stylized on the current website as wescam but originally stylized as Wescam), a Wesleyan-specific online dating and hookup platform, was started in 1998 by Jesse Vincent ’98 as a final project for Professor Hope Weissman’s College of Letters class, Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes. Since then, it has become a ubiquitous part of the University experience.
“[Professor Weissman’s class] was the most serious literature course I took in my four years at Wesleyan,” Vincent said. “Our final project was supposed to be a work of pornography, by whatever definition of pornography that we had individually developed throughout the course. There were folks who did photo series, there were a couple of movies, there was a lot of writing, and I wrote code. The definition that I figured out, retroactively after the project came up, was ‘Pornography is that which allows its audience to live out its sexually transgressive fantasies without fear of transgression.’”
Vincent, working with Aaron Weiss ’99, created a website called WeScam (as in wes-scam, not wes-cam—no cameras here). The site featured a list of students, and one could tick off the names they were interested in. Seniors could choose anyone, and underclassmen could choose seniors. The site dropped over Senior Week, and matches (unlike in the current system) came out all at once.
“Senior week, at the time, was when everybody got drunk and hooked up with everybody that they kind of meant to over the past four years,” Vincent said. “And so WeScam’s horrible conceit was you could go to a website and click on the names of everybody that you had intended to hook up with and never gotten around to and it would tell you about your matches. Nobody would find out anything that wasn’t a match.”
The site was a huge success. It was in the glorious days before Tinder, when the internet was still young, and it blew up, garnering nationwide press coverage in Playboy and The New York Times.
“I had frat boys I hadn’t talked to since freshman year walking up to me with big grins on their faces, thanking me for code I’d written,” Vincent said.
One worry that Vincent and his co-conspirator had was the potential for people rigging the platform.
“At the time, we were very concerned about people gaming the system by picking everybody,” Vincent said. “The first year, we added fake students: a masculine name and a feminine name in each class that weren’t real. If you picked them, you got told to stop scamming randomly and it wouldn’t add [them]. The second year, we came up with what we thought was a much cleverer solution. If you picked under 25 other people, your matches wouldn’t be told anything special. If you picked between 25 and 49 other students, your matches will be told you were a WeScammer. If you picked between 50 and 99 other people, your matches would get told you were a WeSleaze, and if you picked a hundred and more other people, your matches were told you were a public health threat.”
The site evolved from year to year. In the iteration from 2001, it was Amazon-themed and renamed Scamazon.com. At the end of the season, the site also published anonymized data breaking down all the signing-up, matching, and scamming that had gone on.
Like the anonymized data, another Wescam feature that no longer exists is threesomes.
“The way that threesomes worked was you would just check a box saying ‘tell me about threesomes,’” Vincent said. “And so if all three of you picked each other, you’d get told about it…. We had one fully interconnected group of nine.”
Even though Vincent was marked down in his class for the site not being “transgressive enough,” almost twenty-five years later, Wescam lives on. This year, Ben Bushnell ’21 and Rafael Goldstein ’21 are in charge of running the website. Their job has presented unique challenges, as operating during the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing does not exactly lend itself well to a vibrant dating life. However, Bushnell and Goldstein feel that Wescam can be a way to unite people in an otherwise disconnected time.
“We wanted to be intentional about the way we were presenting it to the student body,” Bushnell said. “We didn’t want to contribute to a rise in COVID cases on campus or in this community.”
Bushnell explained that although the primary purpose of Wescam is to be a dating site, people actually often end up using it platonically, either to prank their friends or strike up an innocent conversation with someone in their class. He also pointed out that he believed that University students have demonstrated that they can be responsible with COVID-19 safety, and trusts that if people do meet up, it will be done in a safe way.
“Most Wescams are just chats,” Bushnell said. “You never even find out who it is or it’s your roommate messing with you, there’s so many Wescams of that nature. A much smaller percentage is actual matches and once you get to that point there’s so many things you can do to be responsible during COVID. Everyone on this campus has been seeing other people in responsible ways and we don’t think Wescam is inherently breaching that.”
Bushnell and Goldstein have found other ways to promote responsibility and safety, including a warning at the bottom of the website.
“COVID Warning: While we want seniors to enjoy their final semesters, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic,” the message reads. “If you are going to meet someone, do so outside.”
They have also included a link to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, where students can find the latest stats about the University’s COVID-19 cases.
Goldstein and Bushnell emphasized that another significant difference about Wescam this year is that due to COVID-19, there is not as much interaction between different grade levels. In a typical year, the University enjoys a lot of inter-grade mingling, perhaps more so than at other schools.
“When Ben and I were freshmen, we would be in different social spaces with seniors who would always be talking about it, like, it’s Wescam season,” Goldstein said. “Freshman and sophomore year, Ben and I definitely had a lot of senior friends. There [was] just a much more integrated social experience. And that’s really not the case anymore.”
Bushnell agreed, mentioning that institutional memory being passed down through grades is crucial for any college tradition to continue.
“If first-years and sophomores don’t know what the app is, that’s one reason they’re not gonna use it,” Bushnell said. “And if they don’t really know any seniors, that’s another big reason that they won’t use it.”
Despite these hurdles, Goldstein and Bushnell have faith that Wescam will remain popular. After all, many of the elements that make it compelling have reached new levels of importance during the time of COVID-19. People are looking for easy and lighthearted ways to have fun, and Wescam certainly fits the bill.
“It’s a game,” Goldstein said. “Everyone loves games. And there’s this tradition aspect to it. Wescam has been institutionalized. And it’s really fun to have crushes. People are like, ‘Damn, I’m on a college campus. I wanna be telling people I have crushes on them because there are some awesome and really cool people on this campus.’ Even if it’s not romantic, it’s also a way to connect with friends and spend time and connect with other people, which has been increasingly taken away because of COVID.”
Goldstein and Bushnell have also been acutely aware of concerns about harassment and unwanted messages that Wescam has prompted. They have adjusted parts of the site to make these occurrences less likely. Now, you can only Wescam people who have signed up for the site.
“We made it this year so that you can’t add people who haven’t signed up for an account, just to prevent that sort of thing,” Bushnell said. “Once you have an account you can block other users. We also have a reports [system], so you can report them to us and we can work with people on figuring it out.”
Goldstein added that while these issues of harassment are deeply important, they’re not Wescam-specific and are only going to be resolved by creating larger systemic change within the University.
“College campuses in general are not equipped to…properly address any of these issues,” Goldstein said. “Ben and I, as two men and coders, by no means have the resources or the training to be putting our noses in those places. All that we can do is…listen to people, give [as many] avenues to report or block: temporary Band-Aids. In the meantime, given the campus we live on, [it’s about] how we create safe environments and still have fun things like Wescam. There’s totally an argument to be made that…Wescam plays a role in hookup culture, and [that it] shouldn’t exist. It is an important conversation to continue to have.”
So Cardinals, Wescam wisely. And remember, as the motto goes, a Wescam does NOT imply consent. It’s simply a substitute for time, tact and courage.
Annie Roach can be reached at email@example.com ;)
Sophie Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ;)