S ixty faces stare back at Dawoon Kang, each one enclosed in a neat square as she kicks off a Zoom call scheduled for 8 p.m. sharp. It’s a diverse crowd—men, women, white, black, Asian, Latino—but they’re all young, live in or near New York City and are members of Coffee Meets Bagel, the dating app that Kang cofounded and runs.
A month ago, before the coronavirus began its rampage through the U.S., the whole thing would’ve seemed profoundly strange, a direct contradiction to the app’s raison d’être: Pair off users and encourage them to rendezvous face to face. But these are not normal times. Most of America is being told to stay at home, avoid unnecessary interactions and, most definitely, avoid intimate moments with someone you haven’t yet met.
“This is not a video-dating event or a speed-dating event, there is no pressure to look a certain way or say something perfect,” Kang, 37, says from her San Francisco home. “We thought it would be great to provide a space to share what we’re experiencing and just try something different and fun.” To put everyone at ease, she offers an admission: “I definitely am not wearing any makeup.”
Kang is not alone in her pivot. Every one of Coffee Meets Bagel’s competitors—Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and others—are scrambling to avoid becoming corporate COVID-19 victims the way festival hosts and cruise-ship lines have.
There’s plenty to protect. Dating apps have spent the last decade persuading us to date online, wiping away the stigma that clung to the practice from its origins in the original dot-com era. Couples are now more likely to form a relationship through online dating than any other avenue, according to a 2019 Stanford study. Talking up someone at a bar—let alone finding someone through friends, family or work—can seem as quaint as a love sonnet or waiting for marriage to have sex. As online dating has become the new norm, a $6 billion-in-sales global industry has sprung up around it.
For the foreseeable future, we’re living under house arrest, a situation that has already prompted family gatherings on Zoom, FaceTime happy hours, virtual game nights and synced Netflix viewings. (Even Meetup, the social site that aims to connect people of shared affinities, is rushing to guard itself from the pandemic’s fallout effects by moving its gatherings online.) Humans are immensely adaptable—especially when driven by something as primal as companionship. For that reason, the coronavirus lockdown is also changing how we date, likely shifting our habits permanently.
Dating apps are pushing users to meet for virtual dates, rolling out new video-based features, making it simpler to meet more people and staging meetups like the one Kang arranged on Coffee Meets Bagel. Match launched a toll-free hotline for anyone struggling to figure all this out with the motto “nothing is off limits.” Grindr, the most popular gay-dating app, has offered phone-sex tips, and the platform—not known for modesty—includes among its suggestions to be descriptive and indulgent with fantasies.
“While we are socially distant, we definitely aren’t disconnected,” says Tinder CEO Elie Seidman, who reports daily messaging activity among the app’s American users has risen by 10% to 15% across the country. “More than ever, having someone to talk to can make a world of a difference.”
After several weeks in lockdown in Santa Clarita, California, Kylie Renwick found herself with a lot of lonely downtime. Her classes at College of the Canyons have gone remote—she studies art there—so she opened Bumble last week and started scrolling through. “In quarantine, I’m way more likely to swipe right,” she says. “I need social interaction.”
Renwick, 23, matched with a fellow Californian, Adam, who was pleasant, funny and shared her passion for video games. They talked for a bit on the app, then switched to Instagram and continued messaging there. This a common step in online dating, with multiple purposes: verify a person’s identity, get a sense of their personality and interests from their Instagram posts and see if they actually look like the photos on their dating accounts. After talking a bit longer, Renwick and Adam agreed to go on a date.
Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd has directly encouraged users to date virtually and avoid meeting in person, writing in a public blog post that “we want to help you stay connected, even when physically apart.” She hopes people will use Bumble’s in-app video chat feature (launched without much fanfare last year), another tool for its female-centric audience to gauge a potential date. With more people at home, Bumble saw use of this function spike 93% between March 13 and March 27. The average call was nearly 30 minutes long.
“When physical connection is limited, humans will seek out other means to interact,” says Priti Joshi, Bumble’s vice-president of strategy. “Video calling is meeting that demand.”
Yet that is not how Renwick and Adam choose to get together. They meet up instead on Animal Crossing, the online multi-player Nintendo game that debuted a new version March 20. Each Animal Crossing player has an island with villagers and a virtual museum, where, Renwick explains, “you can collect fish, insects and fossils.”
The aspiring couple talked using the game’s text-chat feature; Renwick sweet-talked Adam into bringing a precious crop to her land. She had a surplus of oranges—“very boring,” she says—and Adam had a lot of peaches. “So we made a little orchard together.” It was an enjoyable time, she notes, and she’s up for a second virtual date. “I told him that I needed to work on my island a little bit, make it better, and then he can come back.”
OkCupid has been encouraging people to meet virtually, too, though its users have tended toward more traditional outings than Renwick’s. “We’re hearing more and more about virtual coffee dates, dinner dates, movie dates, you name it,” says OkCupid CEO Ariel Charytan. “We recently heard from a new OkCupid couple in Brooklyn who set up a candlelit dinner over video chat for their first date earlier this week.”
Hinge has directly pushed users, too, permanently appending a notice to part of the app where users trade messages: “70% of Hinge Members would be up for a phone or video call right now. No pressure, just keep it short and fun!” Tinder has been positioning itself similarly, sending out this recent tweet:
Aside from Bumble, none of the major apps have built-in video functions, so mostly people are using the apps initially to find someone and then using simple video tech like Zoom, Google Hangouts or FaceTime to meet. That was the case for Ayana Colvin, 26, of Brooklyn. Last week, she was on Tinder and met an attractive, dark-featured young man who described himself as half-Egyptian, half-Greek.
She popped the obvious question: “I was like, ‘Are you looking for a quarantine bae?’ ”—and then arranged a FaceTime drink, her first virtual date. Until then, her dad was her only regular FaceTime companion. After opening a White Claw hard seltzer, she and her date talked about their families and Brooklyn, where they both live, and gave each other a tour of their apartment.
It was a pleasant time, but Colvin’s date soon made an unforgivable mistake, quickly hitting her up with additional FaceTime requests, text messages, emojis and an offer to cook her dinner at his place, in violation of New York state’s shelter-in-place decree. She was forgiving of the transgression, keenly aware that social-distancing rules have everyone cooped up and feeling lonely. She liked the virtual connection and plans to keep scheduling new ones, just not with her first companion.
“Long story short,” she says, “I ghosted him.”
For now, dating apps have little opportunity to turn this new user behavior into additional revenue streams. They’re far too deep into survival mode. They face forecasts for declining sales this quarter and possibly beyond, eliminating any notion of charging more for additional features. “Estimates [on revenue and profit] are going to come down. No one really knows by how much,” says Evercore analyst Benjamin Black. Spending on dating is “something you can pull back on. You’re not gonna die without it. It’s not a consumer staple.”
Plenty of Fish has hurried out a livestream function for its app, which, of course, its users can access for free. The company had noticed how livestreaming had captivated large parts of Asia and began testing its livestream in Texas late last year. Originally, it anticipated launching it by the end of June; instead, it debuted last month. The service lets users broadcast a livestream video of themselves while others tune in as they might to a TV host’s monologue. If you like what you see, you direct-message the host and go from there.
“When all of this started happening with the pandemic, we decided to accelerate our plans,” says Plenty of Fish CEO Malgosia Green. “It became really great timing for us to get the feature out there to people stuck at home who aren’t able to meet people the way they’re used to.”
So far the apps’ goal of maintaining their audiences seems to be working. The number of weekly active users across Tinder, Bumble and five more of the largest dating apps was largely unchanged from February into mid-March, according to the latest data available from App Annie, a San Francisco–based company that analyzes the app ecosystem.
These figures tell us only so much, given that most of America was still out and mingling through that period. But App Annie’s numbers are global and include usage from countries that have been shut down much longer, a possible indication that the all-important U.S. market—with its massive pool of 40 million online daters—will follow the same pattern.
It seems inevitable that dating companies will find a way to monetize our growing ease with virtual dates, though none of them would comment on any upcoming plans to do so. And while a tight economy will unquestionably zap some consumer spending, there’s an ironic twist to all this. In-person dating is expensive, with the average night out costing $102. 32, according to research from Match.com. A virtual date, on the other hand, has a pretty low-cost ROI, with no drinks, dinner or Uber fare attached. Staying home costs no more than you already spend on a data plan—and however much you spend on the dating app itself.
“We have definitely heard from people who see being able to engage in online video and meeting people through livestreaming and chats as expanding their dating life while staying at home,” says Plenty of Fish’s Green. Apps like hers will likely follow the industry’s established business model, offering services such as livestream functionality for free with added extras for a recurring fee, perhaps by putting a limit on how long a non-paying user can broadcast a livestream. Other apps may limit the number of in-app video chats they permit individual users to do per month.
Grindr is already doing a version of this. The app, which has always been a bit of a pioneer—launching three years before Tinder and five years before Bumble—has had a video-chat function for about a year. You get 120 seconds of use for free. The cost to access to five hours starts at $19.99 a month.
As Coffee Meets Bagel’s Kang wraps up her video meeting, she hints at another change that this sudden transformation could bring, one that might encourage us to act a little more human toward each other—even as we use more technology.
First, she asks the group to fill out the survey they’ll shortly receive, which she says can be used to indicate if they liked anyone from the meetup. If there’s mutual interest, she says, Coffee Meets Bagel will introduce them. The users seem sweet on the meetups at least, and Coffee Meets Bagel plans to expand to doing them in five cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.—twice a week.
“Normally all of us see each other on the app in a two-dimensional profile,” she explains. “Here, we actually get to interact. I think this helps us realize how much depth each of us have, which is really wonderful. And I hope this would actually translate into all of us, you know, giving each other more of a chance—versus writing someone off based on one photo or a few seconds of conversation.”
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