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Online dating in the time of corona

The Zoom generation is trading hook up apps for online match-making in isolation.

COVID-19 has wrought unprecedented harm on millennials’ love lives, with quarantine complicating the use of many dating apps. It’s not clear how to use an app designed for short-term hook-ups when you can’t see the person you’ve matched with for the next few months. Since the pandemic began, new quarantine-inspired dating sites such as OkZoomer and Quarantine Together have been launched, seeking to provide alternatives to mainstream apps like Tinder. Emblematic of the times, they focus instead on match-making rather than short term flings — a mode of online dating which, until now, has largely been Boomers’ realm.  

Unlike mainstream dating apps, OkZoomer does not include pictures or physical descriptions. Instead, users answer questions about their style, favourite quarantine activity, and themselves. They also disclose what university they attend and have the option to only match with people from their uni. Then, every weekend, OkZoomer sends a match, rather quaintly, via email.

That first email to the week’s match can be daunting for some. For me, the epistolary exchange feels a lot more formal than the casual message. But perhaps that’s the point: the search for connection is a serious affair. Also, the only information users get about their matches is their email and name — without a self-description or hobbies or any other details. Thus, the mystery might make starting a conversation more difficult.

I spoke with OkZoomer co-founder, Yale undergraduate, Ileana Valdez, about the dating platform. “It started off as a meme meant to cheer our friends up but has since then expanded to a growing platform,” Valdez says. “We were inspired by our own sadness about lost dating prospects when school shut down.”

“There are a lot of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble that work on college campuses but don’t fulfill the need for meaningful connection. These apps allow people to swipe based off of extremely superficial biases such as height,” Valdez explains. “The goal is to help college students break out of the echo chambers they isolate into on college campuses.”

Due to OkZoomer’s origin as a meme, the initial algorithm was “a bit random”, but with the implementation of more open-ended questions and user feedback, it is increasingly better at matching users. For Australian users finding love on the same continent might prove difficult: during the last three weeks, I have matched with two Americans and one Australian. The platform was initially American-based, though its users are becoming more geographically-diverse. “We have expanded internationally and now have a fair number of international students,” Valdez says.

OkZoomer’s pared-back design is more humane than most commercial apps. Tinder, by comparison, gives you the feeling of flicking through an online store. On mainstream dating platforms, users swipe people away and accept others into their lives based on some pictures and a caption. OkZoomer, by providing very little information about your match and the lack of swiping functions, may sometimes prompt people to connect with others’ personalities, other than with their appearances.

Digital communication has changed rapidly since the pandemic. Since we must rely on social media for most interpersonal interactions due to physical distancing, more humane dating apps need to emerge as well: technology must meet the times’ demands. So, with people becoming more alone, when society communicates primarily through the internet — we long to build meaningful human connections more desperately than ever before. The rise of new quarantine platforms such as OkZoomer, then, is a step towards a more genuine way to connect with others online.

During these isolated times — when metres separate bodies, screens confine beloved faces and human touch seems like an ancient ritual — we might wonder if our yearnings would ever be numbed by time’s passing, if our loneliness would one day disappear. But don’t these times also provide us with an opportunity to really get to know someone, if only through a voice from a speaker or a smile from a screen? We might not be able to walk through flickering neon streets or talk over the buzzing restaurant chatters — but our heartbeats will rush on still the same.