The messages came in at a steady pace every evening. Long, wordy answers and questions lending themselves to lengthy replies: What is the best song ever made? Do you get on with your family? Where do you see yourself in the future?
For Norrie, 23, making a dating app friend had started out as a way to kill time during self-isolation in London, but a few days in she found herself savouring the online relationship she had been carving out. “We probably won’t ever meet, but that doesn’t really matter,” she says.
Norrie is not alone. She is part of a new wave of people opening their messaging apps to pseudonymous penpals. Despite a pandemic preventing people from socialising, the dating app Bumble says its usage has increased. Tinder has also noticed a similar trend: as an area becomes more affected by social isolation measures, new conversations have cropped up more frequently and those conversations are lasting longer.
But why? When the government has introduced strict lockdown measures lasting for the foreseeable future, why are so many people bothering to make connections with people they may never meet?
“I guess because everyone’s in isolation indefinitely, you know that whoever you’re speaking to is genuinely interested in forming a deeper connection since there isn’t really the prospect of actually being able to meet anytime soon,” says Sarah*, 24. Sarah had several dates lined up at the start of the month. “None of them ended up happening because of abrupt border closings. Now it’s this awkward situation of texting everyday. Sort of like when you were a kid and you text them loads but never actually hang out,” she says.
Martha is 24 and living in Berlin. She currently has six dating app penpals on the go. “These people I’m messaging aren’t expecting to meet up with me for at least a month, which takes the pressure off me. I don’t need to to decide if I like them enough to meet right now,” she says. “The boredom means we have to keep the convo going. Usually I’m so busy I forget about the small talk stage.”
For Norrie, being forced to take dating slower has been cathartic. “I’d not been on apps for ages because I wasn’t wanting to go on dates. So I’ve found it a lot easier to speak to people without that pressure.”
Many agreed that the cyclical churn of dating apps had been giving them something close to romantic burnout. For some, regular online dating is more stressful than it is rewarding. Securing a date based on pictures alone can be exasperating. Then, having secured a meeting, the danger of a truly awful first date looms.
“I didn’t really realise until slowing things down that I’m actually starting to feel good about the prospect of properly dating again,” Norrie says.
But while some people are happy to embrace the more gradual pace of this brave new dating world, others are more restless. The popular dating app Hinge reports that since the beginning of the UK’s social distancing measures, 70 per cent of its surveyed users have expressed an interest in virtual dates.
“People can now go on two FaceTime dates in a day,” says Lull, from Oakland California. “I’m certainly getting way more matches than normal and I’m also being less selective than normal.”
Lull organised a date last week with a woman he matched with on a dating app. The next day she messaged him to say she was after something more serious than he seemed to want. Even when a pandemic is locking the world indoors, age old dating hurdles persist. “The date wasn’t awkward but the woman I FaceTimed wanted a full-on relationship. I think that wouldn’t be a strange ask at any other tim,e but I don’t really think people are getting the gravity of corona.”
Last week Cilla, 25 from London, also had a FaceTime date with a man she met in a bar before lockdown measures were introduced. He transferred her £15 on Monzo so she could buy herself a bottle of wine. “It was really nice, I got sufficiently waved lol. Played a few drinking games. I would recommend.”
I have a facetime date this evening loool
This guy transferred me £15 to go to a corner shop and buy wine for the occasion
— Cilla (@cillahope_) March 19, 2020
Elsewhere in the UK, Abby, 24 from Manchester went on a Google Duo first date. She had agreed to date before quarantine was announced and felt bad rescheduling. “He was really funny and I think we would have had a good time in real life.
“It did make me think I should do a FaceTime screening before a first date with everyone. Definitely weed out the waste of time first dates where you’re hungover at work for no reason,” she says.
How was the conversation? “There was no alcohol which tends to allow for more deeper conversations, but there was no kissing to distract us so I guess it balanced out. 10/10 would Google Duo again.”
Chris, 42 from Sheffield has a Whatsapp video call first date scheduled for this week. “We met on Hinge and have resigned ourselves to the fact it’ll be a while before we meet in person. I think when it comes to these apps it’s always best to strike while the iron’s hot, as it’s easy for a penpal relationship to fizzle out. I guess this is our way of safeguarding against it,” he says.
For some, quarantine has been a way to take the pressure off dating, to enjoy human interaction without the fears and anxieties that inevitably come with real life interactions. For others, it’s simply business as usual: Covid-19 or not.
But, for the most part, isolation has simply emboldened the tender human habit of carving out connection, cutting through the void despite all rational thought. “The potential for intimacy still drives us,” says Lull, “even if it’s a lost cause.”