What is social distancing doing to all those hook-up apps and sites? Douglas Whitbread reports on how new-found values of Platonic love and friendship are dominating.
It’s six o’clock, a few hours before the UK is rumoured to be entering lockdown, and the mood on social media is tense. Journalists are speculating on possible crackdown measures, while their followers wait nervously for each prescient comment.
On another section of the internet, others are dealing with their neurosis in a different way – by chatting with strangers on dating platforms.
“I hope you’re okay with everything going on,” says Ryan, a caseworker from Manchester. “Everything is a bit ridiculous and terrifying.”
“I think I’ll be fine,” I reply. “I work from home.”
The night rolls on, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirms what most have been expecting: physical contact between people in different households is now prohibited. But, oddly, messages still trickle in from my dating app matches. None of these is remotely flirtatious, focusing instead on where to buy food, the Government’s ineptness and worries about the future.
Dating apps, it seems, are satisfying a different kind of desire in the time of the Coronavirus: secretive platonic contact.
‘We Just Talk about Coronavirus’
For Jasmine, a writer from Liverpool who has used dating apps for about a year, this isn’t a huge deviation from her original approach.
“In all honesty, the majority of the time I know full well I’m not going to meet these people anyway – I’ve successfully met about five in the space of six months – so it almost doesn’t make a difference,” she says. “[But] since I’m bored and live alone in the middle of a global pandemic, on some level I’m probably also looking for some sort of connection, no matter how short-term it is.”
These brief exchanges offer instant gratification. “I’m addicted to the dopamine hit I get when I match with someone,” she says.
Others like Lucy, a student from London, are seeing a more radical shift in their online experience due to social distancing.
“I’m definitely in the camp of ‘let’s meet up in person early and see if we have anything in common’ so as not to waste time,” she says. “But I’m partly using dating apps to pass time at the moment. As they are so time-consuming, I thought it would be quite a good time to do it.”
Her conversations have also switched over the past few weeks from basic introductions to national issues. “Coronavirus is pretty much the only thing people are talking about,” she says. “Some people are quite active and chatty on the apps, whilst others seem to think there’s little point.”
‘No Cuddles on the Couch’
As weeks of isolation turn into months, the question of whether Coronavirus pen-pals will blossom into post-pandemic couples remains uncertain.
Rich and Aindrea, who met through an internet forum back in 2003 while living in separate countries, say that single people can benefit from getting to know each other online first.
“You talk a lot, your relationship is built entirely on communication, which means you’re asking a lot of questions, really getting to know each other on a deep level,” Rich explains. “The outcome is, when you do eventually meet, you’re on a really stable footing. So many relationships fail or hit a turbulent patch because communication falters.”
The pair, previously based in Britain and America respectively, dated for seven years without seeing each other in person. In 2010, they were finally united and married the following year. Like those now matching while under lockdown, this meant forgoing many standard boyfriend-girlfriend rituals.
“You won’t have the cuddles on the couch, they won’t be meeting your friends and you’ll be lacking physical touch so you need to find other things to do,” says Aindrea.
They suggest couples exchange handmade gifts, letters, music suggestions – taking care of personal hygiene if mailed. Mutual forms of interaction, even from a distance, it seems, remain crucial.
“These days, people are starting relationships on gaming platforms,” she says. “But anything you can do to demonstrate your affection for that person is important.”
‘A No Brainer’
Webcam dating, where individuals meet over video-link, has become a key innovation during the pandemic. After the Government banned social gatherings, dating companies such as Tinder, Hinge and Bumble rushed to highlight its merits.
Hinge, which has the tag line “the dating app designed to be deleted”, made a notable U-turn – from prompting its members to meet in public to advising that they speak via “video calls”.
Amanda Bradford, founder and CEO of elite dating app The League, which launched a video chat service back in 2019, says that single people should embrace this option – whether they’re self-isolating or not.
“I think this is a great way for people to get to know each other’s personality without being forced to evaluate chemistry right away,” she says. “I’m proud that we’re able to provide a solution for our users to continue dating during this time and that we are the first-mover and ahead on that curve.”
Its members can arrange individual webcam dates or take part in “League Live”, a three-minute speeding dating event held twice a week, where they’re paired with up to five eligible single people.
“It’s a very efficient way to filter choices down,” Amanda says. “Worst case scenario, sparks don’t fly. Best case scenario, you have five dates lined up after only 15 minutes. Taking the current situation in the world into account, it becomes a complete no-brainer. You can get a good sense of a potential connection without leaving home.”
‘It Fills me with Dread’
Whether dating app users will want to embrace this is another matter. The majority of those Byline Times spoke to seemed unconvinced.
“I have enough Skype meetings every day, so I really can’t be arsed to do Skype dates,” said Rachel, an IT expert form Manchester. “I won’t consider it all.”
“Even the idea of this fills me with dread,” Jasmine added. “When I’m on Skype, I spend the entire time obsessing about how weird I look on camera, so I would find this completely stressful.”
Someone on a dating app recently offered Lucy a “virtual coffee”, taken via webcam, but she declined. “It’s not really something I’m up for. I just don’t think it would be the same,” she explained.
But some did imply an interest in the idea, even if this was muted.
“I haven’t had any Skype dates yet,” Ryan said, “I’m open to the possibility of one, perhaps.”
Angela, a student from Manchester, also suggested that she might be interested in a video call with a date “if both were comfortable with it”.
For most though, dating apps offer a brief form of escapism from the stress and anxiety of life under lockdown. Few are looking for a future relationship or anything serious, but just to share a few intimate words with a receptive stranger during the crisis. The relative anonymity among users is key to the allure of these fleeting online connections.
Just like the synopsis of ’90s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, while the pandemic reigns, many believe “the best way to meet someone is to never meet at all”.