It was 2019 when 26-year-old communications professional Ananya Shaji started using dating apps. Barely had her dating scene picked up when Covid-19 struck. The Gurugram-based girl spent the first few months of the lockdown exploring online dating. Initially curious and motivated, over time, monotony set in along, and soon, she felt the urge to return to physical dating.
With the easing of the pandemic and lifting of restrictions, Shaji immediately replaced her online dating sessions with in-person rendezvous in coffee shops and restaurants. In the last three months, she has met 4 to 5 people and is currently going steady with one.
Even as the fourth wave of the pandemic looms large, physical or in real life (IRL) dating seems to have rebounded with a vengeance. According to Bumble, 71 per cent of its users in India are ready to hit the reset button on their dating journey this year.
Samarpita Samaddar, India Communications Director, Bumble, revealed, "Since the onset of the pandemic, we've seen a surge in virtual dating on Bumble. People talked for longer and had better quality chats to get to know each other. However, they are now excited and hopeful about IRL dates. According to Bumble's recent internal study, 65 per cent of daters surveyed now prefer IRL dates with their potential matches or partners."
Making Eyes At IRL
During the pandemic, people had no options but to settle for video calls for their first date. However, this is no longer the case.
Concurring with Samaddar, Able Joseph, Founder, and CEO of Aisle, said, "With the pandemic slowing down and the future looking better, we see more people take their first date offline. Video calls are still popular, but the old school first dates are coming back."
Aisle, which has over 9 million members onboard, launched vernacular dating apps like Arike for Kerala, Anbe for Tamil Nadu, and Neetho for Telangana and Andhra Pradesh over the past few years. Earlier this year, tech company Info Edge acquired 76 per cent of Aisle for Rs 91 crore.
Tinder, a major player in the dating landscape, also confirms this phenomenon. Its 'Year In Swipe 2021' report shows that Gen Z was more open to connecting with new people close to them for IRL hangouts. In fact, the mention of terms like 'nearby' and 'close by' have increased by 20 per cent across Tinder bios globally, indicating a growing interest in IRL.
Getting Back In The Game
While nothing can replace IRL dates, online dating through video calls remains in the reckoning. Even though the pandemic has exacerbated the need for physical interactions, the time taken to reach that juncture is slow and contemplative. The first step is often over a dating app through a video call.
Snehil Khanor, CEO and co-founder TrulyMadly, said, "At least in serious dating use cases like ours, the first date now happens over a video call. And once some kind of relationship is built on a digital medium of communication, they meet offline for the first time."
Bengaluru-based young advertising professional Yatharth Agarwala says pre-pandemic, online dates translated into IRL dates quickly but not anymore. "Dating always meant face-to-face interactions; otherwise, what is the whole point. What the pandemic did was to let people spend time meeting like-minded people. I did that too and shortlisted people for IRL. As soon as the lockdown lifted, I started meeting up."
Noticing the trends on its app, Tinder says that while 3 out of 5 people are looking forward to finally dating in person, other singletons have realized they can make more informed choices about who they want to meet IRL or whether it's even worth it. Call it a quest for meaningful connections, if you wish.
Throwing more light on it, Joseph explains, "A relationship that starts on a dating app progresses differently now. People don't get on phone calls immediately. Instead, they get on Instagram as a base to exchange memes, build romance and an emotional connection and see what everybody's personalities are like before making a decision."
Shooting Through Cupid's Bow
In view of the changing dynamics, Aisle introduced features such as 'Aisle Concierge' and 'Settle Down' for serious long-term relationships and marriage in addition to vernacular apps. "The idea was to remove the barriers of region and language and give users a greater sense of connection with other individuals," adds Joseph.
To allow users to build deeper connections, Bumble has also come up with several new features since 2021. The app introduced Night In, a virtual dating experience where two people can participate in an interactive game over a one-on-one video chat after matching within the app. Its Interest Badges lets people select up to five badges from over 150 interests ranging from sports, creative hobbies, favourite movies, television shows, music to books.
Mindful of India's linguistic diversity, Bumble also added Language Badges, to help its community showcase which languages they speak on their profiles, helping them make more meaningful connections.
Speaking for TrulyMadly, Khanor says, "In the last few quarters, we have upgraded our proprietary gate-keeper algorithm - ChowkAIdar (a play on Chowkidar with AI referring to Artificial Intelligence) which works on 5 layers and rejects more than 40 per cent of the profiles who apply to become a member on TM or strengthening our TrustScore feature by partnering with CRED to give 100 per cent Trust Score to CRED members."
One of the hottest and most relevant badges of the time is the vaccination badge introduced by the dating apps. Tinder's Year In Swipe 2021 report, says that mentions of 'Vaccinated' in bios in India grew by 40x as its users advocated for vaccine status as a dating essential. Its users are also using phrases such as "Let's get the COVID Vaccine together ;)" and "Will you hold my hand while I take my COVID vaccine."
Having built a solid connection online, even as people move ahead with IRL, it is not going to be one versus the other. Dating experts like Pratik Jain feel the two worlds will coexist, of which video calls would be a big part. A nationwide study by Bumble in 2021 threw up some interesting findings in this direction: 45 per cent of single Indians surveyed believe virtual or online dating is the normal way of dating in India; 48 per cent single Indians surveyed enjoy virtual dating because it feels safer than meeting up with someone in person for the first time.
Aahana Dhar, Director, Communications, Tinder India sums it up succinctly, "The last two years have been unexpected in so many ways, and as we get back to normalcy, IRL dating is on the rise with more matches turning into physical dates. It's safe to say that Gen Z on Tinder is eagerly looking forward to experiencing the magic of human connection with anyone who matches their vibe based on shared, similar interests. It could be anything from gaming, astrology, or binge-watching to their love for sushi that makes Tinder members swipe right on their kind of match. This is a new era of dating and we are all excited to watch it unfold!"
a) According to Bumble: For 75% of people, the pandemic has made them prioritize finding a partner who is more emotionally available. For more than half of (52%) people on Bumble the pandemic has drastically changed what they are looking for in a partner.
b) As the pandemic locked us inside our homes and made in-person dating a distant reality, Video dates turned into a first date staple for Gen Z singletons with mentions of 'video call' in Tinder bios growing by 52 per cent globally.
c) 52 per cent of people on Bumble in India are planning their dates around their new hobbies like cooking, pottery, entrepreneurship
(Some of the names have been changed to maintain anonymity)