Online dating during lockdown- can love thrive while we’re apart?

Lockdown has accelerated the transition of online dating apps to purely online hangout spaces. Should this trend continue beyond quarantine?

If modern communication falls broadly into two categories – the online and the offline – then where do we place online dating?

Pre-COVID, it occupied some strange liminal place between the two, with the majority of conversations never traversing the digital despite the fact that this was, for most people, the aim. Depending on the ‘type’ of dating app user you decided to be – the ‘let’s not mess around with small talk and get a coffee’ user, to the ‘I’m only on here for an ego boost’ user – online dating could be a tool for transferring relationships to the real world, or something exclusively done on your phone.

In lockdown, however, this distinction no longer exists. With everyone unable to leave their homes, online dating is by design a purely digital act, unless you’re fond of breaking the law (or are in a country where lockdown has eased). In our current situation, new relationships can’t be consummated with a face-to-face meeting, and, until quarantine ends, many app users will be trying to maintain existing romances and cultivate new ones virtually. We’re all the same kind of dater now: the one at the other end of a screen.

In order to make this transition easier, many online dating apps have introduced video chat features. The more vintage platforms tending to attract older users, like eHarmony and OKCupid, have had video chat functions for a while, but those more populated by Gen Z and millennials lagged behind. This seems to align with the general consensus that the latter group, apps like Tinder and Bumble, are vehicles for hook-up culture, rather than for those looking for long-term relationships.

Bumble was the first to break this stereotype, introducing video chat in 2019. The other two big fish in the dating app pool, Hinge and Tinder, planned to follow suit in the next few years, however these plans were swiftly accelerated by COVID-19.

Last month, Hinge launched their ‘Date from Home’ feature, whereby daters can notify each other via a double-opt-in policy when they’re ready to move from text chat to video. Tinder plans to roll out a similar system in June that will be free-to-use and supported by a team of moderators.

The decision to go all-in on pandemic dating strategies by these companies has proved a good one. All dating apps have reported a surge of engagement since quarantine was announced, with Tinder users making a record 3 billion swipes on Sunday 29th March, and Bumble experiencing a 26% increase of activity in the last two weeks of that same month.

It’s difficult to make too sweeping a generalisation about people’s motives for flocking to dating apps during this time of global crisis, but it’s safe to assume it’s largely to do with the boredom and loneliness that quarantine engenders (she says, generalising).

The other week I wrote about how feelings of anxiety and restlessness are mentally healthy ways to respond to unprecedented situations that take away our feelings of power. Not only has our usual sense of connectedness to the world been re-aligned, but for many of us this is our first experience of state mandated regulation on this scale. When the parameters of freedom narrow, the sense of personal control that comes from a swipe yes or no can be comforting.

Or, more simply, our modern-day addiction to the dopamine stimulation our phones give our brains has been allowed space to thrive in the absence of real dopamine outlets. Pick your poison.

Regardless of your reason for ramping up the digital dance that is app dating, this causal plurality doesn’t extend to the styles of dating available to you at this time, as I mentioned above. And that could be considered good news for those who primarily download the app for conversation, and to create real connections.

As someone who spent a good amount of time on these apps before lockdown, I can say with authority that the pressure to meet up with a person after doing only the minimum amount of due diligence was immense. People’s profiles often declared proudly that they were ‘not the kind of [hinge/bumble/tinder]er who chats online and prefers to just meet up in person’.

This seemed to be the predominant attitude of what we’ll call the ‘casual dater’, which of course as a woman looking for matches online it was essential to be (the question ‘what’re you looking for’ often comes hot on the heels of a match, followed by an exaggerated ‘thank god’ after you emphasise that you’re really not looking for anything serious at all, effectively disguising the fact that you’re usually both lying). Like the antithesis of a Netflix dating show, app daters are expected to downplay at all times any genuine emotions they have, writing off anyone who openly admits to relationship-coveting as a pervert.

I admit to having gone along with this status quo many times in the past, and in my opinion this style of dating should be re-named ‘not the kind of [hinge/bumble/tinder]er who chats online, but definitely the kind of [hinge/bumble/tinder]er that enjoys wasting time and money meeting up with someone they would have realised was unsuitable with a five-minute phone call’.

Tinder is testing a Matches Up For feature | VentureBeat

Somehow, those only in it for sex managed to co-opt the system to be entirely at their service – it was their game and everyone else was just playing along.

Not during lockdown.

In one fell swoop, quarantine has brushed away the physical element of dating almost entirely. Hook-up culture can no longer thrive on these apps because ‘hooking up’ is (for the time being) against regulation, and all that we’re left with is… actually getting to know one another. Quelle horreur.

Online dating apps were designed for a generation of people used to instantaneous satisfaction. Speed of information is prioritised in our primarily reactive culture, and with the increasing availability of smartphones even in the eastern hemisphere, it’s become the norm. As young people we’ve come to expect that our food, content, and even our education be delivered to us fast. This means that we can sample a great deal more life has offer due to sheer availability (the notion of five careers in a lifetime would have been absurd 50 years ago, but it’s now the statistical average) but it also means that we’re not so great at taking things at pace.

Apps like Hinge and Tinder tend to analogise other people with the rest of the content we scroll past on a daily basis. It can be easy to forget that your relationships with other humans don’t have to be two-dimensional and instantaneous, like, say, your relationship to a meme, especially when the mechanism of ‘like/dislike’ on dating apps is almost identical to, say, the ‘upvote/downvote’ mechanism for filtering content on Reddit – two apps you can switch between in a second. Taking the time to analyse a meme, you generally won’t find any hidden depths or layers of experience, but taking the time to get to know another human is a different story.

The ‘slowing down’ of the dating experience that lockdown has instigated might be emphasising this point to a new generation. A friend of mine mentioned that through using Tinder’s ‘Passport’ function – which allows you to chat to people from all over the world rather than just your immediate vicinity and has been free for all users during lockdown – he’s managed to have in-depth conversations with people as far away as Canada and Singapore. Whilst these matches probably won’t lead to a relationship after lockdown (though you never know), it’s given him an opportunity to learn about other cultures and to speak to people that would have remained complete strangers to him otherwise. And hey, now he has somewhere to stay if he ever decides to visit Canada.

Though not on the apps myself at the moment, I’ve heard anecdotal reports that people seem more willing to express their hope of finding a real relationship online when casual sex is no longer on the table. It seems that some are finding quarantine an ideal time to shed shallow expectations and dig a little deeper.

Of course, humans being the primordial animals of instinct and baseness that we are, sex still exists in our dating lives in a changed form. That too has been moved online.

Online sex is a great way to re-introduce some of that physical human connection many of us are craving during lockdown and has likely been invaluable to people in relationships who are isolating separately. However, as we’ve seen many times in this tricky era of technological integration, digitising a process usually carried out in person has its pitfalls.

Whereas standard sexual activity generally involves acts and consent between people, online sex adds a third party – the company providing the software for you to communicate long-distance. And consent between people and large corporations is a little tricky.

Since lockdown began, Zoom has become the video conferencing platform du jour. The company reached more than 200 million daily users in March, up from 10 million last December. But, like many mediums that explode onto the world stage spontaneously without giving people time to read the fine print, Zoom might still have some kinks to iron out. In the last few months it’s come under fire for several privacy-related issues.

The biggest problem we seem to be encountering with the platform is that the ‘host’ of Zoom meetings has the ability to record conversations without the consent of all parties involved.

Thousands of personal Zoom videos have been made viewable on the open web, with that number increasing tenfold since March, highlighting the risks involved with digital communication. Whilst most of these videos are innocent enough – lectures or classes recorded for students, or at-home tutorials – some include intensely personal content and were very likely created without the permission of all parties.

The implication these privacy concerns could have for people using online platforms to engage in intimate activities are immense, and clearly very worrying. Using the internet in this way means there’s always the possibility your sexuality can be downloaded and turned into ownable content in a way that’s just not possible when physically interacting.

Video Chat Date Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

Of course, the flip side of this is this is that online sex removes the possibility of bodily harm that unfortunately lingers over sex in the real world. Like it or not, app-dating under traditional circumstances leaves many people, in particular women and members of the LGBT+ community, vulnerable to sexual violence, assault, or any of the multitude of complications sex can bring (baby anyone?). But, despite appearances, online sex doesn’t eliminate power from the sexual contract entirely. Whilst both parties have novel access to a quick exit from sexual activity through simply hanging up, the threat of having your sexuality used against you persists.

In this sense, digital dating isn’t all that different to regular dating: it’s important to be cautious with people you don’t know or trust yet. But, arguably, it’s a lot easier to take things at your own pace when you’re in complete control of your physical environment and situation.

So, having established the various benefits and drawbacks of digitising dating, it only remains to be seen whether these apps will stay predominantly online after lockdown lifts. Inevitably, there will be some who prefer establishing a connection in person to labouring at one online, and I would count myself among them. But, hopefully, the human elements we’ve seen drawn out of app dating during lockdown like blood from a stone will persist like a merry little COVID-19 hangover.

Maybe those undercover romantics navigating the muddy waters of Tinder will feel more confident coming forward with their real ambitions from now on, and maybe dating app users will take more more care to remember the person behind the profile, and that each swipe contains multitudes.

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