Culture & Society

Love, Virtually: Is Digital Dating The New Normal?

Dating apps are playing Cupid and bringing people together even as they stay afar, making the virtual experience both engaging and interactive. Has the pandemic changed the way we date?

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Love, virtually: Is digital dating the new normal?
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Picture this: Adam meets his date, Eve, at a restaurant in a scenic brick building in the town’s centre…the skies are grey, but the rain holds off while she walks in. Perhaps not even the best digital native can replicate this scene on an app’s screen. And yet dating apps are abuzz with single men and women looking for a date. As people stay indoors, online dating has become the new normal for many. While it may not offer them the intimacy of physical proximity and the giddy pleasures of cuddling and canoodling, it is assuaging their sense of loneliness. The question now is: will the pandemic change the dating scene permanently or is online dating a transitory comfort, a stand-in for the real deal?

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Preeti Singh, a 27-year-old working professional from Delhi, created her account on an online dating platform in early 2020. “Maybe I was feeling lonely. With the work from home situation, I was tired and wanted some fun in my life,” says Singh. Many of her friends have found love and settled down with their companions. This has only made her feel lonelier than ever. But Singh is not regular on these apps, aware that online matchmaking platforms can be tiring. “If you connect with someone on an app it’s great, but the initial struggle of getting to know each other gets tiresome after a point.” 

Ayandrali  Dutta, 40, another singleton from Delhi, says online dating helps her distress. She gets to share some good laughs, some stories about each other and it creates a whole craving to meet in the future sometime. “It’s great to meet in the evening virtually over a glass of wine. I have my own rules of dating, though: I never date a married man.” The people behind these apps remain conscious of what people seek from their relationships. Shalini Singh, the founder of the ‘Andwemet’ dating app, says, “Our stress has always been on the term “committed” which can further be bifurcated into how a member chooses i.e., be it marriage, living-in or companionship, or neither. As a platform, we help people to channel their thoughts in an uncluttered manner to meet matches of their choice.”

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Bumble, women’s first social networking platform, conducted research in India on dating during the pandemic and found that there has been a paradigm shift in the world of dating. Virtual connections are becoming an integral part of the new normal in dating and people are staying more connected than ever before. According to the research in the last year, 83 per cent of users are more interested in dating during these times. 63 per cent of users are anxious about the future and 70 per cent claim a change in their behaviour and attitude towards dating compared to before the outbreak. 81 per cent of these users claim that they are more open to taking the time to know their matches at a deeper level, and 66 per cent of users are open to just chatting with their matches, even if the chats don’t result in a long-term connection.

Further, the data also showed that in the current environment, users are spending more time having better quality chats, with just under 80 per cent of users being open to trying or having tried virtual dating. Based on these insights, Bumble India unveiled an integrated digital campaign — ‘Love Will Find a Way’ — in July 2020. The campaign celebrated the importance of love, hope, and resilience during times of social distancing.

Single Indians are now feeling a strong desire to build trust online before meeting in real life as virtual dating is becoming the new norm in India. The time spent in lockdowns has allowed people to focus on what they are truly looking for while dating, giving them a renewed sense of clarity and confidence in taking control of their dating lives as they meet new people. Samarpita Samaddar, India Communications Director, Bumble, says, “Through recent research, Bumble has found that people are now dating more intentionally than before the pandemic — they’re being more honest about what they’re looking for in a relationship, whether it’s something casual or serious. One in four (25 per cent) daters in India have said that they are now feeling less willing to compromise on what they want and need from a potential relationship, according to our recent nationwide survey.”
 

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It’s no surprise that people have adapted to new ways of communicating and dating to find and explore meaningful connections during the pandemic. 72 per cent of single Indians surveyed think it is possible to fall in love with someone online they have never met in person. 45 per cent of single Indians surveyed believe virtual or online dating is the normal way of dating in India. People are finding virtual dates to be a safer way to engage with someone they met online before deciding to meet in person. 39% have tried a video date as their first date in 2021. In fact, the most popular reason (48%) why single Indians surveyed enjoy virtual dating is because it feels safer than meeting up with someone in person for the first time.

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In the modern Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are also happy to have a side hustle, called innocent infidelity — the phrasal expression that allows extramarital virtual dating with half the guilt. Secretive platforms allow such flings where married people, or those in a steady relationship, live their fantasies. One such is Gleeden from France — a portmanteau of “Glee” and “Eden”, or the Garden of Eden. It advertises itself as the “first extramarital dating website for married people. Taste adultery and try a discreet relationship with your lover”.

The company, which claims to have a 100 per cent female team running it, gives top priority to member privacy and hence, has delinked the platform from social media. Solene Paillet, its marketing director, says people prefer the mobile app more because of features such as a “discreet mode” in which Gleeden’s interface imitates Facebook and no one can tell. There’s also a “Shake to Exit” function, which allows users to close the app by just quickly shaking the phone. “That’s useful when the spouse sneaks up on you,” Paillet says. “Gleeden’s community is open to adults of all relationship statuses… married, separated, divorced, cohabitating, and single. And sexual orientations such as heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual.”

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Since women are its preferred clientele, the company’s constant push is to address its audience through an all-female team. “As girls, we speak the same language and know what we need because we share the same values. That’s why our percentage of female subscribers is the highest in the industry. Women know the difference immediately when they are on Gleeden,” Paillet says. What could be the average age of its members? Ranges between 34 and 49 — young enough to date, yet more mature than users found on dating sites for singles.
 
With current restrictions in India, Bumble’s newest innovations in virtual dating will offer an opportunity for people to engage with each other in a more interesting way and showcase their unfiltered and authentic selves when chatting on Bumble. “To make the virtual experience more interactive, we’ve recently announced a robust suite of innovations for our Bumble community. ‘Night In’ is a new virtual dating experience in Bumble where two people can participate in an interactive game over a one-on-one video chat after matching within the app. It offers daters in India an opportunity to create more meaningful and deeper connections in addition to other existing virtual dating options.” This feature enables people to send quick videos to each other directly in chat to help break the ice and build deeper conversations. To show their fun side, people can choose to add five Snapchat lenses for their video notes, including Atmosphere, Reactions, and Fox Ears/Tail. This enables people to send quick videos to each other directly in chat to help break the ice and build deeper conversations.

 

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To make video dates easier and more interesting on Bumble, people can also select the video calling backgrounds such as a picnic in Paris, a gondola ride in Venice, and a campfire under the stars, among others. These 360-degree backgrounds will imitate being together in real life and will react to your movement. The AR backgrounds will be available in Bumble’s existing video calling feature, allowing people to make their video calls more exciting to kick-start conversations.

As You Are, an app for Indian queer people was formed for the queer community who were looking for more than just swiping. Indian queer spaces are unique and need more than an app to browse through dating profiles. While dating is one of the many things queer Indian people seek, they also require friends, networking, and a safe space to meet and interact with others who share the same interests and values. Sunali Aggarwal, the founder of As You Are, says, “Aiming to meet people where they are at, we are taking an approach to focus on long-term relationships and bonds built with more emphasis on conversations.”

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As You Are was first launched in June 2020, and its main feature was Matchbox, a place where queer people could fill out their details and browse through other profiles of people from the LGBTQ community who are also looking to date. After nearly two years in the dating scene, they have realised that Indian queer people are looking for more than just dating. Because on Matchbox, there were profiles filled out, but there was not enough engagement.

Aggarwal says, “At this juncture, we realised that the Indian LGBTQ community needs an avenue for safe conversations more than a space for swiping profiles. Whether it is someone just looking for a company to step out for a queer event or share a personal story, a lot of them are looking for a judgment-free avenue to build friendships and interact with other people in the Indian LGBTQ community. Aiming to meet people where they are at, we are taking a new approach to focus on long-term relationships and bonds built with more emphasis on conversations.”

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The founders of the dating apps have to say that their mission has always been to create a kinder, safer, respectful, and equitable space on the internet. Samaddar says,  “We encourage people to use the block and report feature when any behaviour that goes against the company’s guidelines occurs — even for something as simple as someone made you feel uncomfortable.”
 
Safety has been the number one priority for all dating apps. Samaddar states, “We updated our terms and conditions to explicitly ban body-shaming–unsolicited and derogatory comments made about someone’s appearance, body shape, size, or health.” Most apps use automated safeguards to detect comments and images that go against our guidelines, terms and conditions, which can then be escalated to a human moderator to review.

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People who use body-shaming language in their profile or through the chat function will first receive a warning for their inappropriate behaviour. Moderators will also share resources that are intended to help the individual learn how to change their behaviour to be less harmful to others in the future. Samaddar adds, “We will not hesitate to permanently remove someone from the app if there are repeated incidents or particularly harmful comments.”

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