Has the pandemic really changed dating on the internet? The answer is hard to quantify

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My personal experiences with dating apps in the New Jersey-New York area have been a lot like paying a visit to the DMV: Most people there aren’t much to look at, someone inevitably says something grotesque to me and nobody is having fun.

Alas, like the millions of other users trying not to die alone via the internet, I am one of them, because if I was not, I probably would not have an opportunity to date anyone at all being that I have worked remotely since before the onset of the pandemic and I am averse to leaving the house unnecessarily in a pandemic (I am also averse to leaving the house regardless of the circumstances).

The near necessity of the apps — Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and what have you — for anyone looking to date in the era of COVID-19 can hardly be overstated. Between January and March 2020, Tinder, which is owned by Match Group, set records for its usership. Bumble recorded a 21% increase in messages sent in Seattle, a 23% increase in New York City and a 26% increase in San Francisco, which were all under shelter-in-place orders at the time.

Hinge, also owned by Match Group, tripled its revenue compared to the year prior to the start of the pandemic. One could go on like this, but the message is clear: When trapped inside, a whole bunch of people joined dating apps.

My own pandemic app experience has not been much better than before. Going in, I had spent time with a young man, who we’ll call George, a couple of times. Plagued by anxiety over a deadly virus and surrounded by alcohol, George’s text messages became increasingly erratic and cringeworthy — particularly several that read “I love you” — but none more so than the one that went something like “I think (my indoor cat) has COVID. She’s making weird noises. I’m scared.”

The line at the DMV still seems populated by a random assortment of members of the general public, so to speak, and few have struck me as interested in “intentional dating.” But according to popular narrative, more people, having assessed their wants and needs during perhaps the loneliest time in recent history, are being conscious about their partners and taking things slow.

“How the Pandemic Fueled the Rise of ‘Intentional’ Dating,“ teases one article from Time magazine. The New York Times pledged that “In a Fast-Moving Pandemic, Daters Are Taking It Slow.” Even relationship experts and therapists, like Jessica Warren, a Paramus-based LPC with the counseling company Thriveworks, said she feels those statements are true based on clients’ feedback.

“What I’m seeing most is people are reassessing their lives or giving a bit more attention to what is meaningful to them,” Warren said. “Really taking stock of what is important to them, what’s valuable, simplifying a bit more, as far as not giving too much thought to relationships that have not felt fulfilling or meaningful, but rather gravitating toward relationships that are meaningful and wanting to hold on to those and preserve them.”

Match Group did not respond to requests for comment, but the company’s 2021 Singles in America study, which surveyed 5,000 single people in the U.S., found 53% of app users are “prioritizing their search for a relationship more than before the pandemic – with 58% moving toward “intentional dating.”

More than half of those surveyed made improvements concerning their physical health, building stronger family relationships, unplugging from social media and increasing their self-confidence. Overall, the study found, only 11% of singles want to date casually.

“We’re not saying one-night-stands are gone for good, but they’re definitely on the decline. And social distancing isn’t the only explanation,” the study said. “The pandemic has initiated an appetite for more meaningful, steadfast and long-term relationships. And to the shock of many, young singles are embracing this trend the most.”

The reality, however, is that dating culture is almost impossible to quantify, even with the proliferation of data-collecting applications. In a conversation with Clare O’Connor, head of editorial content at Bumble, I gleaned limited insights into user activity on the apps, but little real information is available to show the thoughts, feelings and intentions of those users or the outcomes of their matches.

What data can tell us is that the self-reported vaccination badge on apps such as Bumble, which employ an honesty-is-the-best-policy rule, according to a Bumble representative, can increase a user’s options significantly. O’Connor said having a vaccination badge bumped matches by up to 61%.

“It shows folks are perhaps getting back out there,” she said. “They’re absolutely cautious and they definitely care about who was vaccinated and who isn’t.”

O’Connor confirmed that much of what we know about what dating is like in the time of COVID-19 is anecdotal, but that external polling surveys have shown some anecdotes appear over and over.

“The only thing that we can really track is what happens on the app and what people are sharing on our profiles,” she said. “We can talk anecdotally about what we’ve heard from our users and our community, whether they’re being more cautious or how they’re having the COVID conversation.”

Ultimately, my own set of experiences are also just anecdotes that can’t be populated on a graph or tell the public anything meaningful about systemic changes to dating culture due to COVID-19. What has definitely changed is that relationships I already had going into the global health crisis are more precious to me now. Being alone is not something that scares me as much anymore, and my relationship with me has improved tenfold.

Warren echoed these observations, saying her clients report wanting to make what they already have better.

“After so many years of uncertainty and thinking that we are beyond our control, I feel like a lot of people are really trying to work on what is within their control, and they’re willing to make maybe some changes that they hadn’t looked at before,” she said. “Even with some parents having issues with their kids, and they’re finally looking at, “How can I strengthen this bond with my kids? It’s also strengthening bonds with their spouses too by doing that.”

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