Virtual dating platforms are quickly pivoting to help quarantined singles. But the jury is still out on whether these new initiatives will change dating culture for good
By Alyson Krueger
Published: Apr 20, 2020
NEW YORK — Just as the coronavirus outbreak was reaching New York City, Beckett Mufson, a 27-year-old advertising executive, was ramping up his dating life after healing from a long-term relationship that had ended. “I was just getting to the point where I was asking people I like and respect out on dates,” he said.
In mid-March, he fled the city to live on a 120-acre farm upstate. But he was still interested in finding potential mates.
So from his bucolic quarantine pad, he tried something new: a virtual gathering hosted by Here/Now, an initiative for hetero, queer, and nonbinary daters.
Until recently, Here/Now brought singles together with curated events at places like wine bars and comedy clubs.
Then the pandemic struck. And Zoom took over.
For the hourlong virtual gathering, Mufson and 11 other singles got to know one another by answering personal questions. If you could build a dream house, which weird or interesting feature would you include? What is one item that means the most to you? The singles talked as a large group before breaking into smaller conversations of four. Then, they moved on to one-on-one chats.
Some dialed in from their childhood bedrooms. Others were cooped up in small city apartments they hadn’t left for days. While a few women put on makeup for the occasion, most were casual, content to show themselves in T-shirts and leggings. Some had dogs in their laps.
Afterward, the participants filled out a survey to indicate whom they were interested in. Matches were notified of one another. “I connected with three people out of five,” Mufson said. “My favorite didn’t connect with me, so I’m sort of sad about that.”
Mufson, a founding partner and chief operating officer of the Auxiliary, an advertising agency, planned on setting up video calls with all three of his matches. But he ended up texting with just one of them (and not getting a response) because he got busy with work.
“I am not too concerned,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is going anywhere.”
Virtual dating platforms are quickly pivoting to help quarantined singles. Although some of the more traditional dating apps like Hinge and the League have also added video components, these newer platforms present more like parties or networking events. The goal is for people to keep expanding their social circles. After all, this could be the new normal.
“It is an entirely possible scenario that this is how we might start, maintain, and end relationships over the next few months or even a year,” Mufson said. “We have to consider that our first one-on-one date might be on Zoom. The first time we have sex might be on Zoom.”
“Certainly some serious relationships will form through video right now,” said Matthew Hussey, a dating coach who helps his 776,000 followers on Instagram navigate the modern dating world. “At least with video both sight and sound are senses that are being affected. We hear tone, inflection, perceive awkward glances and shuffles. We come to know someone’s mannerisms. This is all so important in measuring both attraction and connection.”
Hussey warned, however, that video can only achieve so much. “There is still the very real risk that once people see each other in person, there will remain a significant measure of discomfort, even with someone they have spent many many hours with over the phone.”
But until we all meet again, in person, the goal of these video platforms is simple: to keep a dialogue going.
Mindie Kaplan works for a virtual and augmented reality company in New York City. But she also runs MaleRoom, a YouTube show, podcast, and event series that invites eligible bachelors in the city to answer women’s dating questions.
Derek Peth, from “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelor in Paradise” reality series; Ben Gleib, a comedian; and Jonathan Casillas, a former linebacker for the New York Giants, have all participated.
In the days before social distancing, venues like SoHo House New York would host MaleRoom events, with panels of single men sitting in front of live audiences consisting of curious women.
Now those sessions are virtual, and have become a bit more customized to the individual. Every Monday, women who, in the pre-coronavirus days, would have been live audience members, now have one-on-one chats that last three minutes with each man participating in a now-digital panel. If she is attracted to the person on the screen, she can spend her session flirting. If she gets more of a friend vibe, she can solicit dating advice instead. “You can say, ‘I was talking to this guy, we met before quarantine, he sent me this text, it was a little vague, what do you think?’”
The first virtual MaleRoom session on March 30 had 15 men and 15 women; by April 13, participants had increased to 20 and 20. Kaplan is hoping to scale sessions even more in future weeks. Most recently, MaleRoom started to host events on Twitch, a video livestreaming service that is part of Amazon, where women can submit questions to men in real time.
Lyndsey Wheeler, 28, a co-founder of Here/Now along with Rachel Breitenwischer, 32, has seen a highly increased demand for her events since the quarantine started. All five of her sessions in late March sold out days in advance, and “numbers are still strong,” she said. Tickets cost $5 to $10 and can be bought on Eventbrite.
Here/Now is also expanding its offerings. On April 17, it produced its first event for gay men, in partnership with OneTable. Soon, Wheeler said, it hopes to incorporate daters over the age of 40, too (currently its focus is on 25-to-40-year-olds). It is also presenting virtual dating workshops (a recent one featured relationship therapist Cara Kovacs and had 40 participants.) On April 16, it hosted a mixer where participants listened to a comedian riff on dating before they mingled with one another.
MaleRoom is looking into charging for its events too, and donating proceeds to Frontline Foods, an organization that works with local restaurants to prepare meals for front-line medical workers battling COVID-19.
There is also Filter Off, a new video dating app that is remarkably similar to old-fashioned speed dating. It was started by Zach Schleien, 29, who grew tired of not having any chemistry with people he met on apps. “It would waste two drinks in what is an expensive city, not to mention the opportunity cost of my time,” he said.
Schleien’s twist: Before you give a thumbs up or thumbs down on a person, you have to have a 90-second video chat session with them. “You can read fun facts about someone before your chat, but the photo is blurred,” he said. “We don’t want you to cancel the date because you don’t like the photo.”
Of course, now that all dates, in person, should be canceled, Filter Off has made some adjustments, too.
Before coronavirus, the app would hold weekly speed dating sessions using video. Now the app is holding them three times a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday nights. “People are just really lonely,” Schleien said. “They need this.”
Victoria Vitale, 30, who works for Google, was one of Filter Off’s earliest users, as she prefers talking face to face with people, not just texting back and forth.
“With the current, future restrictions around socializing, I plan to use Filter Off a lot more often,” she said. “I’m missing interacting with people so much right now.” She is currently video chatting and texting with three people she met using the service, she said.
Fred Comer, 67, of Amityville, New York, is a senior director for a national logistics company. He downloaded Filter Off about three weeks ago. So far, one out of three video exchanges has turned into a friendship, he said. “With apps that I’ve used in the past, I got sick of all the time spent swiping and time going back and forth over messages,” he explained. “You really don’t know whether you’re a good match until you see someone over video.”
In a quarantine situation, video dating can be a real balm, Mufson said. He found his Here/Now sessions engaging, he added. “Everyone was very excited to be there. Nobody was having a bad conversation,” he said. “I actually got to know people.”
Disasters tend to spur lasting innovations. But the jury is still out on whether these new initiatives are temporary fixes or will change dating culture for good.
Schleien believes it’s the latter. “I’ve always been really passionate about dating virtually as the first step to meeting up with people in person,” he said.
Wheeler disagrees. “Video is great, and it’s delightful when you are completely isolated, but this is going to create a resurgence of magic in real life experiences,” she said. “There is nothing like an in-person shared experience,” she continued. “I think people are going to come back out in droves at the end of this, whenever that is.”