In mid-March, Jessica Ross, an administrator at a law firm in Washington, D.C., had been self-isolating at home for a few days when she decided to start swiping on a dating app out of boredom. Ross said the app was booming with people excited to chat while stuck at home with one natural, unfortunate conversation starter—the COVID-19 outbreak.
Ross, 29, said she eventually exchanged numbers with a man she was messaging to take their conversation off the app. For her, exchanging numbers usually leads to the next step of meeting up for drinks. But they were both on the same page about not meeting in person during a global pandemic, so they started to virtually date using FaceTime. Ross said around two weeks ago, he asked if she was interested in going on a FaceTime date—noting that it could be awkward.
“I figured this was about to become the new normal, so I told him I’d prefer to do it while it was still weird,” she said. “Now we talk often enough that I know what he’s doing most nights, and we feel comfortable FaceTiming out of the blue.”
In February, Ross’s video dating situation may have seemed unconventional. However, it has become a new normal for people looking to make romantic connections while in-person dates are unsafe.
Major dating apps have reported an increase in global use during the pandemic, and they’ve swiftly pivoted to encourage users to not meet in person. The apps are now offering users convenient ways to set up virtual dates, on-theme digital and social content, plus links to safety guidelines from global health organizations.
Hinge, which reported a 30% increase in messages among users in March compared to January and February, is addressing the potential awkwardness that comes with asking a match to take a conversation from messages to video. The brand revised its in-app survey to reflect the current dating climate, reporting that 70% of members would be open to a virtual date on video platforms like Zoom; and in general, a third of all members shared the phase of dating when they feel the least confident was turning conversations into face-to-face meetings.
In response to the findings, Hinge today launched a “Date From Home” menu, which pops up at the bottom of in-app conversations, asking users if they’re ready to go on a digital date. Users can select when they’re ready to move the conversation off the app, and their response remains private until their match selects it, too.
“While we may need to be physically distant right now, we can still be socially connected,” said Tim MacGougan, chief product officer, Hinge, in a statement. “We are excited for the launch of ‘Date from Home’ as a new and easy way for our users to continue their dating lives.”
Michael Kaye, global communications manager, OkCupid, said the dating site has seen an 30% increase in global daily messages exchanged in the past few weeks. The brand is particularly monitoring how the topics of conversation have increasingly shifted toward coronavirus and social distancing. Kaye noted between February and March, mentions of video chatting platforms like Zoom and Skype increased 180% and toilet paper increased 238% on member profiles.
“But we don’t recommend you use a coronavirus opening line,” Kaye said. “Our data shows those messages are 5% less likely to get a reply, and the ones that do have conversations fizzle out faster.”
OkCupid has also added new in-app questions related to virtual dating; the questions are normally used to help the platform match people on compatible interests. New questions include: “What’s your ideal virtual date?,” “Do you enjoy phone sex?” and “Would you say ‘I love you’ to someone you’ve never met in person?”
Tinder reported daily conversations have been up an average of 20% globally and 19% in the U.S., and the average length of conversations 25% and 8% longer, respectively. The swiping app also reported the use of Passport—a premium feature that allows users to connect with anyone in the world—was up during the last week of March in Brazil, France, Germany and India. To acknowledge that members across the globe are sharing a similar experience, the platform has made its Passport feature free throughout April.
“We hope our members, many of whom are anxious and looking for more human connection, can use Passport to transport themselves out of self-quarantine to anywhere in the world,” said Tinder CEO Elie Seidman. “We’re inspired by how people are using Tinder to be there for each other, and we want to fan these flames of social solidarity.”
Tinder is also aiming to make connections for college students affected by school dismissals easier while they’re apart. The brand removed the distance radius for Tinder U, a feature where college students can join using their school email addresses to match with students on their own campuses and those nearby; normally, students are limited to a short distance range set by the app.
For Bumble, the temporary new dating lifestyle gave the women-focused dating and networking platform a chance to boost its in-app voice call and video chat service, launched in 2019. The brand initially introduced the feature as a way for members to chat with matches before they shared personal information like phone numbers or email addresses. Now, the brand is urging members to use the feature through in-app notifications and a letter from founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd on its website.
“We’re experiencing a major lifestyle change at the moment and we’re focused on helping our users shift the dating app experience to an in-app dating experience,” a Bumble representative said.
According to the Bumble representative, as of March 27 the brand has seen a 93% increase in voice call and video chat usage from March 13, and the average call time is 30 minutes. Since March 12 in the U.S., Bumble has seen a 21% increase in messages sent, as well as a 13% increase in use among Gen Z. Among its three modes—Bumble Date, Bizz and BFF—the brand reports its Bizz networking mode has seen the greatest increase in swipes, up 57%.
As major dating apps temporarily pivot messaging, they’re also offering virtual date ideas for their followers on social media and through blog posts on their sites. On Instagram, Bumble has posted a Mad Libs-style game to figure out what to do on your next virtual date, as well as ideas corresponding to astrological signs.
Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid have posted memes related to social distancing and video chatting. OkCupid also posted a pie chart for virtual date ideas based on member feedback (The answer with the highest percentage? A date that involves a game).
Additionally, apps are aiming to show corporate responsibility by directing members to health agencies like the CDC and WHO. Since early March, apps including Tinder, Hinge and Bumble have launched in-app pop-ups with WHO and CDC guidelines on proper handwashing and social distancing, and have directed users to the agency websites. In early March, Bumble also partnered with epidemiologist Dr. Seema Yasmin for a blog post on how to safely date during coronavirus.
As for Ross, she didn’t choose to start FaceTime dating based on suggestions from an app. She hopes to still meet her new virtual fling in person, once it’s safe to do so.
“I wouldn’t continue talking to a person if I didn’t think we’d be compatible in person. If we meet in person and there’s no chemistry, I still don’t think [virtual dating] is a waste of time,” she said. “Right now it’s a bit of a coping mechanism, but it’s also fun to talk to a new person and learn new things about someone. The attention is nice, too. He’s in the same boat, so there’s really nothing to lose.”