Credit: rachel hawley

I cruised through my pre-date ritual with a rhythmic familiarity: showered, moisturized, tweezed errant hairs from my eyebrows, put on makeup, threw on my favorite jeans and sweater, and paced around my room to whittle away at the nervous pit in my stomach. Standing in front of the mirror, I swiveled back and forth to investigate every angle, grimacing at the way my ass looked in my jeans as I normally would before catching myself—on the other side of the webcam, I would exist only from the shoulders up, and in one dimension.

I have been on first dates at bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. I’ve been to the Art Institute, to a student opera, and to improv shows. I had, until recently, never had a first date over Google Hangouts—a few weeks ago I would have laughed at the prospect. Since then, the world has changed, in ways that, if not outright horrific, are just mundanely bizarre.

“I’m inspired by your dedication to putting yourself out there,” a friend told me when I mentioned I was still using dating apps even as the city entered into lockdown.

“That’s one way of looking at it,” I replied.

Even now, the apps have maintained their usual staples: preppy consultants who promise your mom will love them, aspiring rappers whose profiles link to their Soundcloud tracks, aloof men who claim to be there “for a good time, not a long time,” and couples seeking a third party for threesomes. It only takes a moment of swiping through profiles, however, to find reminders of the extraordinary event we’re living through, namely, in the form of pickup lines. “If coronavirus doesn’t take you out, I will,” read a few profiles. “Imagine telling our kids about our first date over Zoom,” another said.

Determined to retain usership at a time when so many sectors of the economy have been decimated by the crisis, dating apps have responded to stay-at-home orders by steering into the skid. For the month of April, Tinder has removed the paywall on Passport, a feature which allows users to search by city around the world. Tinder and other dating apps such as Bumble and Hinge are pushing “virtual dating” as a replacement for the real thing. “Get together while staying apart,” a banner ad on Bumble reads, while Hinge advises that “70% of Hinge members would be up for a phone or video call right now. No pressure, just keep it short and fun!”

Quarantine, the apps claim, has been a boon for online dating. Bumble reported to Mother Jones an increase in messages sent through the app of at least 20 percent, with bigger boosts in large, heavily impacted cities. Tinder likewise reported an increase of 10–15 percent in mid-March, around the time restaurants and bars began closing down in most major cities. What’s more, Vice reported that in-app Tinder conversations in the UK have been lasting longer since quarantine began.

I am a longtime on-and-off dating app user, but I haven’t given the apps more than a cursory glance since I started working at the Reader in December. A few weeks ago, however, fueled by boredom and loneliness, I began swiping through Tinder and Hinge. Immediately, I noticed a difference in my own behavior on the apps; where I have usually been too shy to message first and choosy about whom I reply to, I now found myself messaging or responding to messages from most of the people I matched with. Those first messages presented variations on a clear theme: “How are you holding up?” “How is quarantine treating you?” “Are you going stir-crazy yet?” Gone is the pressure to find an opening salvo that can transition into fertile conversational ground—there’s plenty to talk about where coronavirus is concerned.

I maintained longer conversations with about ten men in the Chicago area, whose ages ranged from early to late twenties. Some were working from home, some had lost their jobs due to the virus, and two were graduate students attempting to take classes over Zoom. There were, notably, no essential workers among this group. Our conversations flitted between the present and past tense, describing our lives before and after the crisis began. On a few occasions, one of us momentarily forgot the ways in which coronavirus has put our normal routines on hold. “I love going to bar trivia,” one guy told me, “. . . or, I guess I used to.”

Eventually, all but three conversations fizzled out, at which point it was time to suggest a virtual date. On the day of each date, fifteen minutes before the agreed-upon time, I began positioning and repositioning my bedroom lamp in search of the best possible webcam lighting. Then, I opened Google Hangouts, ran my fingers through my hair repeatedly for a casually tousled look, and invited my date to join the call, each beat of my heart landing with a thud in my chest as I tried to maintain a collected façade.

Removing the natural context of an in-person date also strips away many avenues for small talk; you can’t dip your toe in the conversational waters by asking if their trip to the date location was alright, or what looks good on the menu. My virtual dates each began with some variation of one party sheepishly murmuring, “so, how was your day?” While the flow of conversation was sometimes more awkward than on a real-life date—pauses in conversation, screen lag, both parties talking at the same time—sitting across from a nervous stranger felt less daunting from the comfort of my own bedroom. We bounced between discussing non-coronavirus topics and the pandemic and its effect on our lives. One feared potential layoffs at work; another expressed frustration with his roommate’s choice to go on an in-person date. We also discussed the typical subject matter of first dates: our families, our jobs, our hobbies, and our favorite books and movies. I politely cut one date short (without anywhere I might plausibly need to be, I resorted to the time-tested classic, “sorry, my mom is calling me”), but on another, I was shocked to look at the clock and find that we’d spent more than an hour and a half talking.

One doubt that has lingered with me is whether or not a virtual date provides the same kind of information about a person that an in-person date does, and whether my virtual experiences are enough to ascertain whether I’d like to see these men again. Before meeting, it’s difficult to gauge chemistry; God knows, I’ve had lovely texting exchanges with people only to then realize four minutes into the first date that there simply is no spark. My impressions from the Google Hangouts are valuable—I’ve learned who can make me laugh, who shares my core values, who I can carry on a conversation with. But in some ineffable way, meeting on either side of a webcam fails to capture the experience of meeting a person in flesh and blood, just as taking a virtual tour of an apartment will never compare to the experience of standing inside it.

Dating is a series of cumulative escalations—second and third dates, sex, commitment, and so on—and being unable to meet in person puts the possibility of escalation on hold, such that my flirtationships feel almost hypothetical at times. Perhaps part of the problem is that the future has become nearly impossible to imagine. Will quarantine be lifted on April 30, as the current stay-at-home order suggests? Or will it be extended into May or June? I have no idea what my life or the broader world will look like in a month or three or six; there is only this moment, boring and lonely as it often is.

As for right now, I’m planning on a second virtual date with one of the guys I saw last week. It’s strange to feel cheerful about anything at a time like this. Still, I can’t help but feel optimistic, even if I might not get to stand within six feet of him for a while yet.   v