Five days into self-quarantining, I found myself propped up in front of my phone, which was in turn propped up on a makeshift tripod of books, a footrest, and a crowning box of Kleenex. When I’d first heard of video speed dating, I didn’t imagine it would involve quite so much DIY.
The tripod was a result of my panic-Googling “video interview techniques” in the sweaty minutes before the virtual event. Positioning the webcam at eye level was said to establish kinship, but really I wanted to avoid shadows and resemble someone other than Lurch for the first time during quarantine. While this earnest attempt at looking alive felt like an interview to me, I figured the 3,000-plus users in my area were probably there for something more enjoyable. Flirty, even.
Last December, the dating app the League rolled out League Live, a video speed-dating platform. The feature allows users to have a series of two-minute video chats every Sunday night, right from the phone app. Due to the number of people self-quarantining, the San Francisco-based company has rolled out live dating events in 13 more cities, as well as adding Wednesday nights. Which is how I found myself joining in.
My first match was 29-year-old James. He’d been on League Live for two months, and boy, did it show. While I sat upright in a fresh turtleneck, James lay motionless and hoodie-clad on his bed — comfortable, confident, and entirely unfazed by this confronting matchmaking format.
Romance wasn’t exactly in the pixels for us, but he delivered some hot takes on the platform. He said the video format felt more personal than “Swipey McSwipey” and that it might be the future of dating, given that we’ll all be “inside for a while.” It was pragmatic but, in a sense, hopeful. Pandemic or not, at least those who are single and looking have a virtual place to get their fix of first-time jitters.
I’m no stranger to dating apps, but I found video speed dating slightly awkward. It’s (unsurprisingly) nothing like messaging, where there’s ample time to tailor responses and run an entry-level background check through reverse image search. That’s not to say I didn’t find it refreshing. Chemistry can be difficult to recognize over text, but during a virtual face-to-face it’s easier to detect. Nothing beats meeting in real life, but in the beginning, wouldn’t you rather spend two minutes on a video chat than risk an entire hour on drinks and discomfort?
This modern format might have been previously scoffed at, but over the past decade, skeptical attitudes toward online dating have relaxed. Plus we now have a more practical push to do our romantic bidding online: a pandemic. As coronavirus sweeps the globe, dating apps and daters are adjusting to the new normal.
Major dating apps have been responding to coronavirus in their own ways. Tinder issued an in-app card encouraging social distancing and made Tinder Passport — a feature that allows people to match in any location — free for all users. Bumble released an epidemiologist-led guide to dating. While these warnings might have led to daters canceling in-person dates, it hasn’t deterred online matchmaking.
Over the past week, users have observed an increase in matches. Mike, a 37-year-old who uses Hinge, has referred to this surge in online dating as a new “cuffing season.”
“I’ve been getting a lot more matches. People want to stay in on dates, rather than go out. Like in the fall when you’re moving into winter. It’s cuffing season, but couples quarantine season,” says the Toronto-based sales director.
Given the rapid spread of the virus, and the disarray that comes with it, it might surprise you that people have the bandwidth to contemplate dating. But in times of crisis, people need distraction. Big cat Netflix documentaries and viral TikTok dances might entertain us and keep us occupied, but will these keep the loneliness epidemic at bay? During a time when many singles are separated from friends and family, dating apps provide another layer of human connection, a sense of normality.
While Tinder and Bumble issued practical warnings about coronavirus, some apps are stepping up to facilitate this kind of positive distraction in a more personalized way. Coffee Meets Bagel, a dating app with 166,900 monthly downloads, recently shared tips on virtual dating. This guide included a remote version of “Netflix and Chill” whereby a half-watched episode of Altered Carbon and couch canoodling isn’t the only goal.
“This is an opportunity for us to all break the same old dating app pattern. Many of us are jaded about swiping and texting, doing the same old thing. What if we used this time to be a bit more creative about how we get to know someone?” says Dawoon Kang, the founder of Coffee Meets Bagel.
In an app-led survey, shared with me by Coffee Meets Bagel, 17 percent of US users have had voice calls with their matches and 9 percent have had video calls over the past few weeks. Dawoon sees this willingness to interact beyond text as vital during times where people are geographically isolated.
“The power of connection is so important when it comes to us being able to navigate troubled times. People think that because they can’t physically meet other people that they should totally isolate. So, we thought it was important to stay connected and be creative about how to do that,” she says.
While Coffee Meets Bagel doesn’t offer a video or voice call feature, there’s a new niche dating app that does. Launched in October 2019, Blindlee allows strangers to have three-minute video calls to “vibe-check the chemistry with a potential match”. While some might be fearful of this Chatroulette-style set-up — think back to 2009 when an unsolicited dong shot was but an Internet Explorer window away — there’s a catch. Calls on Blindlee are, wait for it, “blind.” This means video chats are blurred to strip away the “sometimes fake and superficial aspect of the online dating world.”
Consider it an appified version of reality series Love Is Blind, the quarantine-like dating show that somehow mirrors new reality despite being filmed in 2018. This dystopian setup seems to have struck a chord with daters, with activity on Blindlee almost doubling in recent weeks. A survey shared with me by Blindlee found that 22 percent of users were also using it for moral support during the outbreak.
Lucy, a 22-year-old financial services worker, is one dater who’s found that while her pile of matches is growing, concern about the virus isn’t.
“Since coronavirus broke out, guys are trying to match with me a lot more frequently. The notifications on my Hinge are increasing threefold ever since it happened. People are bored self-isolating and have to keep themselves busy,” she says.
“In the conversations I’m having on Hinge, coronavirus comes up every single time. It is dealt with in such a comical way. There are lines like: ‘We can Netflix and quarantine together.’”
This “comical” take on the pandemic is echoed across dating apps. In data shared with me by the friend-led matchmaking app Wingman, the app saw a 75 percent increase in registrations since coronavirus spread internationally and found that the words “isolation,” “corona,” and “soap” featured in more than 200 profiles within a 24-hour period. On Coffee Meets Bagel, 7 percent of US users mention “coronavirus” every day.
Then there are those who aren’t exactly joking about the virus but are still rejecting the gravity of it. Even in the face of contagion, the urge for physical contact is stronger than self-preservation.
“The messages I’ve been getting aren’t, ‘We need to self-isolate’; people still want to meet up. I’d say the gay community is quite horny, so it doesn’t surprise me,” says 22-year-old Ben of his recent experiences on Tinder.
“I had a guy message me and say: ‘I need you right now now’ and I said, ‘This is nonessential social contact, and going with government guidelines, I’m not going to see you.’”
Ben is also an active user on Grindr. On the hookup app, he’s noticed that sex is more readily available than usual due to the number of people working from home.
“People are putting ‘working from home’ in their profile so you’ll go around for a hookup, but it’s not my vibe. There’s a lot of activity on there as people are so bored now. In conversation, the virus hasn’t come up that much. I haven’t had anyone mention they didn’t want to meet up because they’re self-isolating,” he says.
While some users are piling on the self-quarantine quips and using work-from-home situations to get laid, some are genuinely concerned about contracting the virus and are factoring this into conversation. Zoe May, 33, recently started speaking to a Hinge match who seemed more nervous about the virus than her other matches did.
“He’s been on edge. I joked that we should have a Skype date and he said yes. I’ve never done anything like it before, so I guess I’ll put on my makeup and not bother with perfume,” says Zoe.
Zoe and her flame from afar ended up video chatting over Skype. It went so well that the two have continued to talk, and hope to meet up once it’s finally safe to do so. Ah, modern, pandemic-stricken love.
“Coronavirus has made people realize that they don’t have to have as many meetings or work events and they can do more things online, so maybe it will make us realize that this could apply to dating,” says Zoe.
“We could have the first date online, coronavirus or not. I think early on in a date, you know whether it’s going to go anywhere, so with Skype dates you could do that without having to go to as much effort.”
Perhaps Zoe is onto something. As coronavirus spreads, so too have government-issued advice on social distancing and social media movements like #CancelEverything. For those whose line of work actually allows for this arrangement, working remotely has become less about employer-employee preference and more a matter of public health. The debate for flexible working arrangements has moved to the fore via think pieces and a chorus of professionals smugly declaring that most work meetings could have, in fact, been emails. So perhaps the pandemic is an impetus for dating to become similarly streamlined.
If there’s another positive outcome to emerge from dating apps during the pandemic, it’s that in-app conversations have taken a more meaningful turn.
“This crisis ushering in a new period of modern courtship. Longer, richer conversations taking place, taking the time to get to know people before meeting face to face,” says Dominic Gallello, chief marketing officer at the dating app and social network Badoo.
“The data is showing an increase in meaningful conversations. What we mean by this is longer chats and dwell time, with more interactions and longer messages.”
Lucy, for one, appreciates this change.
“Before coronavirus, I felt like a lot of guys I matched with instantly wanted to go for a drink, clearly just going off my photos. I didn’t like that,” she says.
“I always like having a bit more of a conversation. Coronavirus is sparking a lot more conversation because no one can actually meet.”
In a few months’ time, once people have completed Netflix and developed solid vitamin D deficiencies, hopefully the doors will fling back open to whatever life was like before social distancing. Only this time, there will be a whole lot of cyber sweeties finally able to meet. For those in this situation, may the conversation flow IRL as it did on the video chat, and may your lover be as tall as they said they were.
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