“Almost every aspect of our lives has gone online now, why not dating as well?”
By Olga Ellinghaus
February 27, 20201
Artwork from https://www.reddit.com/r/Art/comments/flzra7/social_distance_me_digital_2020/
We are soon reaching the one-year mark since an entire planet’s way of life was twisted, turned, flipped upside down, swallowed and coughed up on as something new, something not quite comprehensible. It has been one year of flattening the curve, limiting contacts, travelling only when necessary, and wearing masks. There is a Wikipedia list called List of events affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that offers an endless overview of canceled ceremonies, competitions, and festivities. But something that has not been, and cannot possibly be documented, are the canceled human interactions. The loss of new friendships, connections, and relationships.
We have internalized daunting discomfort watching people hug in films, we awkwardly squeeze past other shoppers in narrow supermarket aisles, and compulsively scrub the outside world off our hands.
A global spike in the use of dating apps documents that, as our offline encounters wound down, our online interactions grew. Statistics show that over the last year, popular dating apps have increased their audience by something between 11 (Tinder) and 33 (Bumble) per cent. The dating app Bumble, which predominantly attracts a young audience, reached 100 million users in 2020 and a 25 per cent increase of usage since the beginning of COVID-19. And it makes sense - we are social beings who have been deprived of our basic need for casual interactions. We have internalized daunting discomfort watching people hug in films, we awkwardly squeeze past other shoppers in narrow supermarket aisles, and compulsively scrub the outside world off our hands.
Most of our lives are taking place on computer screens. We stay at home and abstain from unplanned or casual social interactions at fear of possible infection. The Dutch Government even went as far as recommending a list of 1.5 meter distant “alternatives to remote sex and intimacy.” But it has been one year and the separation of our own four walls from everything we used to know is slowly closing in on us.
Edward Hopper, Morning Sun (1952)
Emma* (20) moved to Amsterdam for university only a few months before the first lockdown. For her, downloading a dating app was a way to make new acquaintances and gain experiences at a time when she didn’t know many people in this new city. “I moved in with new roommates and they were all proficient online daters already. And there was one specific day when they were all on dates and I was cleaning the toilets in our apartment. So, I was like, this cannot go on and there’s no way I am going to randomly meet someone organically now,” she says.
The increased use of online dating platforms is also a way to cling to sanity and reason. Francesco* (24) has used dating apps for the last few years to meet new people in different places and has met multiple partners through online dating. “Everybody is getting crazy. Everybody gets this damage. Some people are more resilient and some people go crazy,” he says about the side-effects of the restrictions. But through dating apps, “you can still meet people, even if you’re not allowed to meet them in normal social circumstances. That’s important.”
"I think people who, before corona, thought they can only meet someone organically, that that's the better way to do it, kind of realized that is not possible anymore."
The drastic increase of users also suggests that many who previously took a poor view of online dating have changed their minds. Emma adds, “people are looking for an activity, new stimulation – whether it’s from swiping through the app and treating it like an Instagram feed for random people. I think people who, before corona, thought they can only meet someone organically, that that's the better way to do it, kind of realized that is not possible anymore.”
The global effects on mental health have made the loneliness epidemic boom. A recent study by Tilburg University revealed that loneliness increased considerably since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Netherlands and, among those who experienced loneliness, symptoms of anxiety and depression increased, too. The turn to dating apps is a symptom of loneliness in itself, an attempt to remedy the creeping alienation from a once familiar social world. Damien* (24) is a longstanding online dater but after taking a break, he only recently returned to using dating apps. “I was very social before, moving a lot and seeing a lot of people. So yeah, it killed this part of my life,” he says. “You know, when you feel a bit lonely it’s good just to be with someone. The presence of someone, just sharing moments with someone new or your friends.”
"So, no, for me it hasn’t helped with loneliness. It made it even worse."
Dating apps can be a way out of the collective loneliness that has characterized the last 12 months, but they can also reinforce negative emotions, self-doubt and magnify the loneliness its users are feverishly trying to escape. Alice* (22), a student in Amsterdam, has had some less pleasant experiences with dating Apps: “I think it exacerbated the feeling of loneliness. I don’t have the notifications, so I don’t really go there too much, but if I do – the fact that nobody responds, or that you don’t get matches, or that nothing is happening there – it makes you feel even more lonely. So, no, for me it hasn’t helped with loneliness. It made it even worse,” she shares.
Not unlike all other social networking sites, dating platforms use algorithms for ranking and personalization. A 2019 survey showed that one in five Dutch people uses online dating platforms and the most popular choice is Tinder. Tinder’s algorithm follows a controversial Elo rating system – or Desirability Score – which groups profiles and determines how often and to whom profiles are suggested. Francesco agrees with the criticism: “It’s not the app that’s making us feel bad or good. One year ago, I was with a friend of mine and he said, I am in a really big crisis, I am on Tinder and I am not matching anybody. I am not talking with any girls because I have no matches. It wasn’t him; it was the algorithm of Tinder that categorizes profiles in a low range. He was fighting against a machine.”
Meeting online can make it difficult to form a meaningful connection. “Sometimes it happens that you meet someone online and it goes very well. You’re talking, you’re joking. And then you meet face to face and it’s not that fun,” Damien explains. None of the online daters I spoke to - in official or unofficial capacity - have used the new COVID-friendly video calling options on dating apps. Everyone agrees that a real connection has to be explored offline. “From my experience, 65% of the people that I text were there to meet someone new. The rest just wanted to talk with someone, or have traffic on social media,” says Francesco.
And of course, the lockdown and the 9pm curfew are making it harder for people to make plans. Emma has not been on a date since the beginning of the curfew. Alice adds, “Now it’s super, super hard [to meet people]. Or, if you do plan something, it’s always like, ‘yeah, when the snow will leave, or when the curfew will leave.’” There is also a lack of options when it comes to date-activities. Previously popular choices of going to bars, cafés, or museums have been replaced by endless laps around Amsterdam’s wintry parks or slightly uncomfortable and premature home visits.
Online dating apps seem to reinstate the comfort of casual interactions and small talk during a time of curfews and confinement. Used as a tool to forge friendships, relationships and connections, many young people in Amsterdam have been actively engaging in online encounters, but all remain hopeful for swift salvation and a return to chance encounters.
(*Last names deducted for identity protection)