After two years of stay at home orders, masks and travel shutdowns due to the spread of COVID-19, Stephanie Tong understands more than most how the dating world has been altered.
Even prior to the pandemic, the Wayne State University associate professor of communication studies in the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts and her research looked at how people initiate, maintain and terminate relationships using popular social media systems.
But the pandemic put everything into technological overdrive, while also making casual meet ups and dates riskier. Tong, who is also director of the Social Media and Relational Technologies (SMART) Labs, shares her thoughts on how dating has changed, the long-term effects on courtship, how people have adapted and more.
What’s the online dating scene been like since living in a socially distanced/virtual COVID world?
I think there has been an even bigger demand for online dating sites and mobile apps since the pandemic began! There is definitely an increase in use — in fact, sites like OkCupid reported a 700% increase in usage. Tinder broke its own record for the most swipe activity in one day — at 3 billion swipes. It's not just that online and mobile dating are the best option for romantic dating right now, for many it's the ONLY option if they want to remain socially distanced.
People are using them even more now — alongside other forms of social media technology and video conferencing — for so many purposes including dating, but also in other domains like work, school, and (of course) everyday interactions.
Another thing people are talking to each other about is their vaccine status. Personal health is a real concern for people during COVID, and many daters are simultaneously trying to communicate that clearly (even on a profile!) while making sure that they are associating with potential partners who also take the pandemic seriously.
How have people adapted (or not) to dating during a pandemic?
In this unprecedented moment, social computing technology has really become a lifeline for many; for some, it's the ONLY modality available for interaction with others. Although we are all aching for more in person interaction, I do think it's important to recognize the powerful and important role that internet communication has played over the last two years.
One thing is the typical "sequence" of online dating has changed. It used to be swipe — exchange text — meetup in person (for coffee, drinks, dinner, etc.). But that pattern has now subtly shifted to swipe — text — video date. And people have become pretty creative with video dates.
There are couples who report playing board games together online, streaming a movie from their respective homes, or eating a delivered DoorDash meal together on FaceTime. Video dates were not that popular pre-pandemic, but now they are very popular. For example, Bumble reported a 70% increase in video calls on their platform. These seem to be real changes that people are making in an effort to be safe in their dating practices.
Do you think the pandemic and what we’re still experiencing will have any long-term effect(s) on dating?
I've heard that some people are experiencing "FODA" — “fear of dating again" or "fear of doing anything.” Another great pun is "hesidating." But, funny acronyms aside, these reflect real concerns that people have about picking up dating practices of the past.
After two years of stay at home orders, masks and travel shutdowns, it can feel downright scary to plan to meet a stranger in a public place. That reticence will likely resonate for some time, but it will also be interesting to see how people react to the in-person/physical side of dating once we return post-pandemic.
Additionally, there has been an interesting shift in the kinds of relational goals people are reporting. Where dating apps once seemed to be the domain of quick hookups and casual sex, many people are reporting their desire for longer-term partners and relationships. According to Match.com's 2021 Singles in America study that surveyed 5,000 single Americans, more than 50% of respondents are moving toward "intentional dating" — which Match describes as wanting a committed relationship with an honest partner.
I don't know if people's sudden desire for deeper relationships has come from the loneliness of the pandemic, but it is an interesting trend to note.
You were quoted in a 2021 New York Times piece that people were getting app fatigue. Can you explain that a little more?
Because dating apps have become so popular during the pandemic and people have been swiping, texting and calling with such frequency, it has led to a general feeling of fatigue among many daters. A lot of people are very tired of the constant profile scrolling, partner screening, texting and ghosting.
Some daters are so fatigued they are hiring "dating app assistants" who (for a fee) will do the "work" of online dating for you. They will write your profile, swipe for new potential partners (based on your specific desired criteria), and even text and arrange dates for you. Kind of like a modern-day Cyrano De Bergerac — daters can pay for "relational outsourcing" to combat the fatigue of dating.
Personally, how has the pandemic changed some of your research focus areas (if at all) such as social media, online dating and computer-mediated communication?
Interestingly, with the swarm of anger, fear and blame, my research has recently moved more toward online hate speech (go figure — moving from the warm fuzzies of romance to the complete opposite). But there has just been such a surge in (politicized) anger, fear and hatred that has manifested as a lot of angry posts that someone had to investigate it. It's not nearly as glamorous as online dating, but it's so very socially important right now.