Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has changed everyone's lives, single people have a claim to being especially affected. In Western countries it is many, many decades since people's ability to meet, socialise, and romance has been restricted in the way it is now.
Despite all that, dating apps have been booming. After an initial lull, people have returned to them in their droves. And with less ability to meet and date normally - behaviour has also changed.
Daters are spending more time messaging the people they match with, and the gender balance has changed, with younger women's activity increasing the most of any group. Swiping activity on Tinder in May, for example, was 40% higher for under-30s women than it was before the lockdown.
The changes appear pronounced, but will they last?
We took a look at the conversation around dating apps, to see what real people thought of dating during the pandemic
By using AI to create Qual at Quant scale, and combining it with expert human translation, we analysed conversational data around online dating apps, to understand how people's opinions and behaviour were changing.
We used predictive modelling to separate the topics and emotions of conversation, and analysed the recurrence of specific word types to understand the leading feelings and behaviours.
What we found were four distinct topics of conversation, which together show how the 'industry' has been turned on its head, forcing many to reassess what they want from it.
Topic 1: The New Approach
With such big changes taking place, people are reappraising the role of dating in their lives - especially the way they are spending their 'time', and what they want from it. This is mentioned in one of two ways:
Firstly, is the time spent on dating worth it, if I can't meet the person or date normally any time soon? This discussion was common early on in the pandemic, during full lockdown.
Secondly, how much time 'should' be spent at each stage of the dating process? The pandemic has made many people think more flexibly, relax formulaic expectations, and in some cases get to know people better before actually meeting up. Meanwhile, more people returned to dating as it became clear things weren't going back to normal any time soon.
“My relationship actually started during the pandemic and lockdown, it allowed us to have more time to talk (by message first), then on the phone, and then video calling. I got to know the person more and slowly build something.”
“I usually like to have had some decent conversation before committing time to someone (something beyond small talk), otherwise I’d be wasting a lot of hours on numerous randos. Whether that’s a few days or a week depends on the person and how the conversation goes.”
Topic 2: How to video date
Most people thought video chats were incredibly weird at the beginning of 2020. Just as they also thought ‘elbow bumping’ or bowing was a weird way to greet someone. The advent of video chats as a mainstream option means that all sorts of new etiquette has to be worked out. What’s acceptable on a video date? And perhaps a more important idea - what’s normal?
Three subtopics emerge in the discussion around video dates:
“The only time I’m doing FaceTime anymore is on my iMac get lighting and face angles down right and don’t have any screen shake. First few times were basically me on my couch holding the phone and felt I really had poor presentation of myself.”
“He said it was on purpose. I find it intrusive because it is like knocking on someone's door and dropping by unannounced. No, I don't have to answer, but it is rude and presumptuous to expect someone to drop everything and pick up the phone”
3. THE VERDICT
“Anyway, I think FaceTime is a great middle step to that, so I’ll update on how that goes.”
“I mean I haven’t FaceTimed ever. I prefer to meet face to face. Or not lately...”
Topic 3: Covid worries
Not everyone can agree on how much of a threat Covid-19 represents. For example, the word 'flu' mentioned a lot in this topic, as people compare its deadliness to that of Covid-19.
For some, any risk of spreading the virus is too much. Others think the measures are out of proportion, and the cure (behavioural restrictions, economic slowdown) is worse than the disease.
People are different. Some dating app users are willing to sacrifice more to help others. Some are more anxious. Some are more likely to obey the rules, even if it's difficult for them. This difference matters more in the dating world, when you are meeting new people, trying to make a good impression, and have a good time.
“You understand that there are at risk people... and your actions are directly putting those people at risk? Are you dumb or incredibly selfish?”
“Asymptomatic is what scares me about dating/hookups now. How can we know if we have it if tests are limited and don’t know if op carries it?”
“One date we postponed because he was going to visit an elderly relative and didn't want to risk getting sick until after. I think it's reasonable for us (me and the people I date) individually to choose to take chances because we are young”
Topic 4: The old dating game
For all the change that has taken place, the old dating approaches and conversations are still there. It's just that now they only represent a small part of the conversation.
These people are operating in a more transactional way, with a cynicism that comes from treating dating as a numbers game. Indeed, in our report on dating in 2019, we saw a ‘feedback loop’ between men and women, where unsuccessful men swipe right more and more. Women, overwhelmed by more and more matches, become more discerning in response, and the cycle continues.
However, whilst some people still play the blame game, there are signs of increased empathy between the sexes, at least about the system dating apps create. Perhaps this is even a first step to a change in behaviour.
“I created a fake bumble profile to check out what girls were experiencing and what my competition was like and holy shit, it's bananas.”
Covid-19 has upended our lives. In the process, it has naturally made us open to new ways of doing things.
This is an idea that’s central to the field of behavioural economics – the idea that behaviour often drives thinking, rather than conscious thinking driving behaviour. So if we are forced to do things in another way, some people will inevitably prefer it, and many others will have removed the behavioural barrier of ‘that’s not something people like me do’.
The same is true of many of the changes for dating apps. The time spent at each ‘stage’, the people using them, and the use of video dating. With less prospect of meeting up in person, people have been spending more time getting to know each other digitally, before expecting anything more.
Of course, there will still be many people who operate in the old way. But the longer the current conditions go on, the more people will find that the new approach has its advantages.
All this represents an opportunity for dating apps, but only if they can fully understand the changes taking place, and how to guide their customers through them.