The pandemic has challenged and changed how most people date and hookup.
“Monogamy is preferable at this time,” said Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s National Director of Public Health, during the height of the first wave. Government-imposed physical distancing measures, stay-at-home orders and other public health initiatives resulted in a shift toward online dating.
This shift has increased the number of dating app users and the amount of time people spend on dating apps. Tinder says its users had 11 per cent more swipes and 42 per cent more matches last year, making 2020 the app’s busiest year.
Since dating apps were created to help people connect online and then meet in person, how have app companies responded to the pandemic? And what does their role in helping people adjust to this new dating reality mean?
Three main ways dating apps have responded to the pandemic
From March to May 2020, we looked at 16 dating apps, their social media accounts and broader media coverage to understand their pandemic responses.
We shared our findings in the book The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives and consider whether app companies, as for-profit corporations, are best positioned to support people’s health and wellbeing.
We found dating apps made efforts to shape how people date during the pandemic in three main ways:
1. Communicating about health
Pop-up messages on dating apps encouraged users to stop meeting in person and engage with each other online. Bumble sent users direct messages while public service announcements from provincial governments showed up in Tinder’s swipe screen. Grindr told users “Right Now” can wait to disrupt the usual emphasis on quick hookups.
Dating apps operated as public health advocates: users were invited to stay home, wash their hands, practise physical distancing and consult a doctor if they had COVID symptoms.
2. Addressing loneliness and isolation
Dating apps also tried to foster community-building and address feelings of isolation or fear. Apps like Grindr, Lex, Bumble, HER and Coffee Meets Bagel hosted online events like concerts, speed dating and dating advice sessions.
On social media, dating app companies promoted self-care. Plenty of Fish made an Instagram post stating, “It’s important to isolate without feeling isolated … and we’re here to help you through it!” Bumble said that “If you’re just ok, that’s ok.” Coffee Meets Bagel told users in an Instagram story, “It’s ok to do less when you’re coping with more.”
These posts reflected the messages of support that circulated widely across social media from companies and people during the first few months of the pandemic.
3. Making virtual dating the new normal
Several apps created or unlocked features to facilitate virtual dating. More than simply meeting through apps, virtual dating took the form of multiple online activities and exchanges that people could participate in while physical distancing.
Match, Bumble, Hinge, Jack’d and Plenty of Fish offered free video services. Other apps like HER, Coffee Meets Bagel and OkCupid recommended their users connect via Zoom or other videoconferencing software, text messages and even old-fashioned telephone calls. Tinder made its passport feature free, which allowed users to geolocate themselves anywhere in the world, encouraging them to connect with people globally – all while staying home.
Company blogs and social media accounts provided ideas for virtual dates. From virtual museum tours to ordering UberEats for each other and sharing a meal over FaceTime. They also offered advice ranging from what to wear to how to adjust the lighting for a video date.
Dating app companies focused their efforts to convince people that virtual dating had its benefits. Depending on the app, keeping things online was seen as socially responsible, romantic or even sexy.
Should dating apps be taking care of us?
Our findings raise questions about what roles dating app companies should play in their users’ health, well-being and dating behaviours.
Dating apps can be important tools for establishing relationships in times of crisis. Even though new features and supportive messaging may help people feel more connected, app companies stand to profit from the pandemic. For example, the companies benefit from more paid subscriptions and greater amounts of user data when they keep people on their apps.
As for-profit corporations, should dating apps be taking care of us? Should they act as health authorities? If so, can their one-on-one matching features truly establish spaces for community-building? And do these companies possess the will and resources required to sustain communities over time?
These are important questions to consider, especially because provincial and federal health messages have often left people confused as to how to stay safe.
Scholars have pointed out that marginalized communities have not felt supported by health and governmental institutions during the pandemic, prompting them to search for information elsewhere. Non-profit organizations have rushed in to help while mutual aid initiatives pop up across the world, spawning a redistribution of care from national and international groups to local communities and even individual people.
The future of dating
Dating app companies are reporting success in the uptake of virtual dating. OkCupid found that 31 per cent of users liked engaging in virtual activities, 25 per cent preferred video chat over meeting in person and 15 per cent wanted to watch a movie or TV together online.
While this is good news for dating apps, these companies are also ready to get their users meeting in person again. Tinder recently gave away hundreds of free mail-in COVID test kits. Each kit included a pair of tests: one for the individual and one for their Tinder match.
As we move into the next stages of COVID crisis management, people who are looking to date will wonder what to do. If governments, health experts and community leaders do not step in with clear advice, the most prominent guidance daters receive may come from dating app companies.
And while it is certainly better for dating app companies to respond to the COVID crisis than do nothing, their efforts should not replace public and community-based initiatives that offer people free and reliable support to address risk, safety and loneliness in these challenging times.
Christopher Dietzel is a Postdoctoral fellow, School of Health and Human Performance, Dalhousie University
David Myles is a Postdoctoral researcher in Communication studies, McGill University
Stefanie Duguay is an Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University