By K. Thor Jensen

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is disrupting nearly every aspect of human civilization, from grocery shopping to Eurovision. But one place the impact of social distancing is being felt strongest is online dating. What was previously a frictionless, low-commitment experience has been forced to rapidly adapt to a world in which “hooking up” is no longer a possibility.

The evolution of online dating has been a brisk one, from early matchmaking services in the 1990s to the swipe-based apps of today, where singles can speedily browse through their extended social networks and tag potential matches with the greatest of ease. For better or worse, this interaction flow has changed how a generation of singles meet their mates. 

While the user flow of a dating app is typically targeted to culminate in a real-world interaction, the CDC’s guidelines requesting people in many areas to quarantine in place and remain six feet apart while in public put the kibosh on that. Kissing is generally considered by the World Health Organization as the most efficient way to spread the disease, so that’s right out.

For weeks, if not months, singles simply aren’t going to be able to seal the deal with a real-life meeting. So how do dating apps survive in an age of social distancing?

Together, Apart

If you’ve logged into Tinder in recent days to check your matches, you might have seen an announcement pop up:

“Social distancing doesn’t have to mean disconnecting. We hope to be a place for connection during this challenging time, but it’s important to stress that now is not the time to meet in real life with your match. Please keep things here for now.”

Many apps have rolled out functionality and pricing changes to help people connect more deeply without meeting in person. Tinder’s Passport feature, a paid subscription that lets you choose a city to match in as opposed to using your current location, has been made temporarily free for everyone.

Shar Dubey, the CEO of Match, the company that owns numerous dating apps and sites including Tinder, Hinge, and OKCupid, released a statement to investors outlining how their properties are adapting to best serve singles. 

In addition to the Passport changes, Tinder is expanding its Tinder U program for college students. Now that college campuses have closed for the semester, people stuck at their parents’ house can continue to match with other attendees of their university remotely.

Hinge has already added a “dating from home” feature that lets matches frictionlessly set up video chats. It’s also working to deploy “Date Ready,” which will allow users to mark their availability for these phone-to-phone sessions.

Previously, video chat features were not embraced by the majority of Match Group services, but now it plans to increase focus on them. Plenty of Fish rolled out live-streaming functionality last month “to encourage singles to ‘date from a distance’ as the nation practices social isolation.” It’s currently available in areas most impacted by coronavirus—including New York, Washington and California—but will roll out around the US and globally later this month.

Dubey’s missive does admit that, in general, new signups are low, and it expects to see slower growth in the next quarter, much like nearly every other industry on Earth. Even so, she reports increased message volume among the users who are there.

Home Alone

Tinder and Bumble, among others, have reported a double-digit increase in messages sent on the service during quarantine. Our need for human connection isn’t going anywhere, and these apps are one of the primary ways we can connect with others.

OKCupid, the granddaddy of online dating services, has even updated its questionnaire to ask “Does coronavirus affect your dating life?” I’d be scared of matching with someone who answered “no” to that question, personally, but it’s a big strange world out there.

A straight male friend from the Bay Area told me that the tone of the Tinder profiles he’s seeing are very different than they were before the pandemic. “Every other profile has something like ‘How are you holding up?’ as their introductory message,” he told me. “It’s a little depressing. I don’t necessarily want to be reminded that I’m miserable, you know?”

It’s pretty hard to put your best foot forward when you’re constantly bombarded by negative news from around the world. Dead bodies stored in refrigerator trucks and hospital ships docking outside plague-ridden cities sure can kill the mood. But that isn’t stopping enterprising people from reaching out, some in unusual ways.

A straight woman in New York City says that she’s now seeing come-ons in places that are not ostensibly devoted to hooking up—most notably LinkedIn.  “I’ve noticed a major spike in random connection requests from men I don’t know over the past 2 weeks, all right around my age, with no business connection to what I do whatsoever. They like to send the very benign ‘hi, how are you beautiful’ messages and I just don’t go there,” she says.

Meet Cute

In addition, enterprising creators are debuting new products specifically for this moment in time. CNN reports on the launch of Quarantine Together, an app released on March 15 that sends every registered user a query asking if they have washed their hands. If they respond affirmatively, it matches them up with another user for a text conversation, which can be escalated to video chat by mutual consent after 15 minutes.

It’s a lot more basic and less choosy than your average dating app, but developer Daniel Ahmadizadeh says that is purposeful—life has changed, and the way we meet and date new people should change too. 

Even though the traditional first date is off the table until the quarantine is lifted, there are a number of digital alternatives that could help bridge the gap. 

A female friend in New York City is working on finding ways to maintain excitement with the person she’s dating, like “staging sexy photo shoots in my apartment and making a game of trading the photos for creative projects on the other end (like, write me a song and i’ll trade the photos for a song!), creating projects to work on together long distance, video chatting/sex, voice memos.”

Whether that sort of interaction is enough to keep a romantic relationship is a tough call. For other people at the start of a relationship, the sudden shelter in place order has forced them to make decisions about the future very quickly.

Another woman in New York has found herself quarantined with a new partner she met on Hinge. “We were at the point, about 6 weeks into dating, where it was like we either had to commit to not seeing each other indefinitely or to just go for it. So he basically moved in with me. And now we’re dating exclusively.”

Whether you’re seeking a new partner to while away the long lonely hours in quarantine or working to keep a relationship going from at least six feet of social distancing, the rapid adaptation of both dating apps and the human spirit has made us able to get a little closer in spite of it all.