In an investigation into the efficacy of online dating during the pandemic, I tried my hand at it. Could this actually work?
One of my closest friends went through a breakup during the year-long quarantine. The circumstances made it quite literally impossible for her to recover — she couldn’t get out there, meet guys, and have terrible but emotionally pivotal rebound sex — and so as her best friend, I did her a favor and took over her Hinge account. I did this out of love and also probably a deep-seated need for control; I was tired of seeing her get her heart broken. With a fine-toothed comb, I scoured Hinge for a good guy. And when I found one, I set them up on a Zoom date.
It went badly. He was nice enough, but the Zoom call was awkward and detached. The fact that they were on a “date” while being physically separated, sitting in the same rooms they’ve been in for the past year, was less therapeutic and more depressing for my friend. To her, going on Zoom dates was such a sad excuse for intimacy that it actually made her miss her ex more.
Is it really that bad? Is this the fate of social distancing singles everywhere during the pandemic? It’s a bleak thought. According to an October 2020 study by Making Caring Common, a project by the Harvard Graduate School of Education centered around ethics in education, roughly two-thirds of young adults reported feeling “serious loneliness” during the pandemic. For much of Generation Z, myself included, the coronavirus pandemic hit during what was supposed to be a particularly social part of our lives. Every day spent in lockdown is an important opportunity lost, whether that opportunity is for career advancement, socialization, or romance. Young adulthood is a race against societal expectations — a constant feeling of running out of time to achieve success in all facets of life. And when life is put on pause in the middle of the race, depression and loneliness can creep in, slow, silent and monotonous as the passing of each day.
Dating apps are designed to foster connection through the internet, so one might think they would be helpful in times of extreme isolation. If you can’t go out and meet people at a bar, an app like Tinder is meant to be the next best thing — a bar in your phone. Were dating apps truly unsuccessful at the job they were designed to do, in the time that we needed them the most?
My friend’s short-lived venture sparked my curiosity. I’m in a perfectly healthy relationship, but I felt compelled to try my hand at socially distanced dating — in the name of journalism, of course. It had been disgustingly long since I’d had any human contact outside of my small quarantine group, and I was excited to meet new people, even if it was only through a screen, and more importantly, I wanted to test just how awkward and isolating the endeavor could be.
My boyfriend (bless his heart) was slightly reluctant, but agreed to help me build my dating app profiles. I settled on Hinge and Bumble, excluding Tinder due to my less than ideal previous experiences with the unofficial app of one night stands. Creating a profile is a delicate dance, and I was rusty after being absent from the online dating scene for two years. I started by scouring my Instagram for the right photos — not too sexy (at the request of my poor boyfriend, but also because I generally prefer not to be harassed online by clinically horny men), but still a little bit sexy. A candid to show that I can be laid-back and fun, a few photos where I’m smiling but a few more where I’m straight-faced and cool, and at least one group photo to prove I have friends. In lieu of a bio, I decided on a more visible explanation of my reason for being on the app: a notes app screenshot, positioned strategically as the second photo on my profile, that read, “Hey! I’m a journalist and I’m currently working on a story about dating during the pandemic. If you’d be down to go on a Zoom date then match me! Research purposes only,” followed by an extremely calculated winky-face.
I felt good about it, but I knew creating the profile was only the easy part. I figured I’d attempt to match with everyone I saw to maximize my chances of finding a date — I was on deadline, so this was no time to be picky. As I swiped through seemingly endless Dylans, Nicks and Joshuas, I became acutely aware of the dizzying amount of options available within just a 10-mile radius. Faces and names blurred together, and swiping began to feel less like an exciting game of boy-roulette and more like a morally ambiguous exercise in prejudgement.
I quickly got into a rhythm. Every time I checked my phone to reply to a text or check social media, I would also open Hinge and Bumble and reply to whatever messages I had gotten. More people than I expected were extremely interested in the logistics of my little social experiment — I got lots of questions about the magazine, some passive-aggressive comments addressing the universal fear of being ghosted after a date, and a few people who were suspicious I had made the whole thing up. There were moments when I was carrying on close to a dozen conversations at once, and for each one I would have to go back and reread messages to recall who I was talking to and what about. I wondered if the men on the other end of the conversations were doing the same, stuck in an endless loop of introductions and icebreakers with strangers. After a couple days of frustration, I wrote and stored a pre-fab answer in my phone that I could copy and paste into the message box whenever one of my matches asked me to tell them about myself. I was beginning to understand why my friend had described the experience as “detached,” and I knew I had to move onto the next phase to protect my sanity.
I gathered the frontrunners—the best conversationalists and the men whom I could most scarcely picture in a prison jumpsuit—and offered each a Zoom date. I was able to schedule exactly five dates: three from Hinge, two from Bumble. I was proud of myself. I had gotten past the preliminaries and was ready to get to the crux of the thing. It was a nice feeling.
Getting ghosted is extremely annoying. It wastes your time, and it makes you wonder what you did wrong, even though you probably didn’t, in fact, do anything wrong. I wondered if it was just Zoom anxiety, or if they’d have done the same thing if we had planned a real-life date in the before times, where standing me up would have required them to leave me stranded at some restaurant, waiting for them to show. Ghosting before a date where neither party is required to leave the comfort of their own home could seem tame in comparison.
Finally, though, I was able to make it to the day of one of my scheduled dates without being ghosted. In the hours beforehand, I found myself feeling a type of nervousness that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I was well aware that nearly everyone’s social skills, mine included, have been on a long hiatus for the past year. As much as I was worried about the strange man that I was about to go on a date with being awkward and weird, I was more worried I would be awkward and weird.
As I fixed my makeup and adjusted my outfit in the minutes before the date was set to begin (an impulse I kept having despite the fact that I wasn’t actually looking for a romantic partner), I began to calm down. My roommate, who had become deeply enthralled by my online dating saga, was in my room with me, sipping wine and sitting silently out of frame of my laptop’s webcam so she could bear witness to the date in real-time. Every few seconds the silence was broken by the click of a camera lens — this entire thing was being photographed for the magazine. Fleetingly, I imagined myself as the star of some terrible half-baked reality show: I was the Pandemic Bachelorette, joined on my date by a live studio audience and thousands at home.
Absolutely nothing about this situation was normal, and absolutely nothing about it was not awkward. But I sort of knew then that if anything, it was going to be fun.
My date was a good-looking athlete named Damion, and from the very start, he was assured and charming. He had no shortage of stories and conversation-starters, and after a while, the conversation flowed organically. Despite my expectations, I was genuinely having a great time. We guessed each other’s Zodiac signs (I correctly identified him as a Leo while he mistook me for a Gemini), argued about whether or not Central Jersey exists, discussed the stupidity of catcalling, and talked about our dream travel destinations and Nigerian food (Damion prefers Ghanian food, but still highly recommends trying jollof rice in all its iterations). After about an hour, we said our goodbyes and logged off, promising to keep in touch. To my own surprise, I genuinely wanted to — I immediately thought of the legendary party I plan to throw once the pandemic is over, and mentally added him to its guest list.
As far as first dates go, it was beyond successful — a realization which gave me a touch of dread for my next date. Has there ever been a recorded instance of someone having two really good first dates in a row?
The next night, while my roommates were out bowling, I was getting ready for my second date. I was a little more relaxed this time — instead of scouring my closet for a cute outfit, I wore the t-shirt and leggings I had been wearing all day. My date was a sound designer called Alex, who coincidentally lived one town over from the New Jersey suburb where I grew up. Without all the anxiety that had been with me on my first date, I was able to tap into a more comfortable part of my personality, and hanging out with Alex felt like catching up with an old friend. We scrolled through our Facebook friends and tried to find mutual acquaintances from high school, and showed each other our baby pictures. At one point, we each took a shot and clinked our glasses against the webcam, and it was the closest thing to a real-life “cheers” that I had experienced in a long time. Almost two-and-a-half hours had passed, and I had a new friend.
Later, after saying goodbye to Alex, I kept thinking about a comment that my first date, Damion, had made during our date. He had said sincerely that he had a good time, simply because it had been so long since he got to have a conversation with someone he’d never met before. I felt the same way, although I didn’t admit it in the moment. I’d felt nervous to break the news to each of my dates that I wasn’t actually single, even though I knew they were fully aware that the dates were part of a social experiment. Especially after having such a positive experience with both of them, I didn’t want them to feel like I had wasted their time, but they both took it well and made it clear that they were happy just to make a connection with someone.
I’ll be honest. Doing this experiment didn’t give me the grand revelation about romance in isolation that I had hoped for. I wasn’t swept off my feet, nor did I hope to be — but I realized that that’s precisely why I had such a positive experience. There is absolutely nothing about the circumstances we’ve been forced into this year that is sexy or romantic. Going on dates over the internet was at times awkward, and it did remind me that physically, I was alone. But because I didn’t try to force myself — or my dates — to experience some intense, dreamy connection through a webcam, I was able to experience something else entirely, and something I’ve craved since the start of the pandemic: that giddy, euphoric feeling that comes with making new friends unexpectedly. In these times, I think it would be hard to ask for much else.
Photos by Colleen Claggett