She tucks her hair behind her ear and angles the left side of her face – her “good side”, though she suspects no one notices a difference – to the camera.
As the clock counts down to 7pm, she considers that her nerves are not the same as before: her stomach doesn’t flip, her palms are not clammy. She takes a swig of white wine and hides the glass behind the screen. She might not be nervous but there’s still something, a building tension, a shift – that feeling you get when the old gives way to something new.
“Excitement, maybe. Yeah, I think that was it. Excitement.”
Sarah is 27 and works as a lawyer in London. Last week she went on her first ever video date.
“Right before I pressed ‘go’ I got this, ‘Oh shit, I’m about to do something for the first time’ feeling,” she explains. “Of course, I wondered, what if I’m bad at it? What if it’s strange? But it was also kind of cool to be doing something different and new. We’re living in exceptional times.”
As the world battens-down its hatches in the wake of COVID-19, our daily rituals are dismantled and reconfigured to accommodate a new reality. And like every other area of our lives, social distancing and self-isolation is leading to a radical shift in the way we date.
“I think video dating might have come into its own at some point without the pandemic,” says George Burgess, the CEO and co-founder of The Intro. “But it would have taken a long time and I doubt we would have seen anything like this level of adoption.”
The Intro is a dating app that specialises in setting-up first dates at the point of matching (tag line: “No chat, no faff, just dates”). “It works much as the others do,” Burgess says. “You have a profile, you like and dislike people but, when you do match, we ask your availability to meet in the next week and we ask you to vote on pubs and bars that are halfway between you. There’s no messaging, we just schedule the date.”
Launched last November, The Intro was seeing a steady stream of early adopters, all eager to meet without the added static of getting-to-know-you WhatsApp messages. But then the pandemic struck – dramatically changing our rules of engagement.
“When social distancing was announced we thought we might just have to close for six months,” Burgess says. “Trying video was a last-ditch effort to stay afloat.” They launched the video version of The Intro – where matched daters are sent a link to a video call which becomes active at a pre-agreed time – two weeks ago. “It’s been amazing,” he continues. “The number of first dates has doubled, people are actually really up for it.”
Mainstream apps have all similarly scrambled to push their own video capabilities. Bumble became one of the first to introduce in-app video and voice calls in July 2019 and, as lock-down restrictions tightened, sent out notifications to users encouraging them to “please take all your dates virtual. Use the Video Chat and Voice Call features within the Bumble app itself.” Hinge has taken a similar approach, reminding users to “date from home” and reporting that “70% of members would be up for a phone or video call right now.”
And people are dating. According to a Bumble spokesperson, the app saw a 35% increase in messages sent and a 21% increase in video calls over the first week of lockdown. Responding to our desire to stay sexy, in New York, a pair of entrepreneurial singles have launched Love is Quarantine, a Love Is Blind inspired match-making service which arranges video dates for isolating singles via Instagram. It has quickly gathered thousands of thirsty followers.
Sarah signed-up to The Intro because she found keeping up with messages from randoms difficult while working several hours a week: “But before I got to go on any dates the lockdown happened,” she says.
As it turns out, that hasn’t been such a bad thing. “My first video date was kind of perfect…” When the screen flickered to life she saw that her match was clutching a beer, “which was great, so I didn’t feel weird about drinking my wine.” They ended up speaking for more than two hours (“we spent 20 minutes talking about coronavirus, then the rest was the usual first date chat.”) She has since been on three more first dates, and one-second date.
“You definitely get to know more about the person than you would if you were just messaging,” she says. “And it stops you getting caught up in your own preconceptions. Like, humour is really important to me and I have a tendency to judge people from their chat very quickly. So I’ll be like, ‘Ugh, you haven’t made a joke in 4 texts, you’re probably boring’. Skipping straight to a video chat you can’t really do that. I had so much fun on these dates but nothing on their profiles suggested they were that funny. It forces you to give people more of a chance.”
Dr Anna Machin is an evolutionary anthropologist from the department of experimental psychology at Oxford University. Over the years she has studied the impact of apps on our relationships and found that swipe-dating has had a broadly negative impact on monogamy and long-term love.
“The temptation with something like Tinder is that you don’t stick with the person you’re with, but carry on swiping,” she says. She argues that forming a lasting connection is based more on fortitude – that ability to stick with someone beyond any initial awkwardness – than on an “instant connection.” But even just finding someone you’re truly attracted to – “a fairly sophisticated process involving a number of sensory cues, from how a person looks to how they smell” – is made more difficult when we boil it all down to four photos and a one-line bio.
“In that respect, video is certainly more effective than just messaging because you can take in more information, allowing your brain to run at least part of that sophisticated attraction algorithm,” she says.
But of course, no digital dating platform is perfect. “It might be harder to assess the spark than if you met in person but it is still a possibility via video,” says Dr Machin. “And at the moment, the only option daters have.”
For 27-year-old Lainy, a video editor from London, this new form of dating has proved to be more successful than she’d ever anticipated.
“I actually think I’ve met The One,” she says emphatically. “He’s just perfect for me. He’s really funny and irreverent but we also have really interesting conversations. So I went on a second date with him last night.”
She is 18 days into isolation after a (suspected) bout of coronavirus. “The first time we ‘met’ we talked until 4am. I can’t get over it.” Both her and Sarah agree that there is an etiquette developing around how to conduct a video date. Sarah did her first date via The Intro’s link (they currently use a third party service, but are working on integrating video into the app), but moved their second date to the resurgent Houseparty, where everything felt, she says, “more personal.” “We played games and talked more. It was really great.”
Lainy, who has been finding potential partners on Hinge has also been moving to Houseparty for her dates. “It can cause some issues,” she says. “Throughout the call – and we ended up talking til 4am – my friends kept jumping in, thinking it was funny. He’s quite serious so I don’t think he took it so well. It was definitely awkward.” Despite that, neither her nor her date decided to lock the room (a feature on Houseparty which means other people can’t join your conversation). “It felt like a really intense thing to say to someone, particularly someone that’s quite serious and shy. I just felt uncomfortable saying, ‘Shall we lock the room?’ It was way too soon. We locked the room on our second date – it definitely feels more like a second date thing to do.”
26-year-old Aiden, a personal trainer from Nottingham has been on two video dates in the past week. “I would try to video chat girls before the lockdown but not many of them were into it,” he says. “They just wouldn’t answer or they would get offended or something. For me, it was a quick way to find out whether a real life date would be worth my time.”
As the lockdown measures have come into force though, his fortunes have changed. He says he prefers Zoom or FaceTime for dating and argues that Houseparty should be reserved for friends. “It’s definitely not about all your mates being able to see who you’re chatting with – and also, other girls. I dated two in one night, I wouldn’t want them to know about one another.”
So far he’s learned that it’s important to find a flattering camera angle and to make sure that if using a phone, it can be propped up somewhere. “No one wants that Blair Witch vibe,” he cautions. “It’s not sexy.”
For Fran, a 26-year-old head of operations from Sunderland, this means using a laptop rather than a phone and positioning it in a place where you can leave it and walk around the room. “I found it quite hard to not just look at myself the whole time like, ‘Ooh, I look weird at that angle, what’s my face doing?’ It’s easy to be even more self conscious, so if you can turn the bit where you can see yourself off and leave the computer somewhere where you’re happy to move around it makes it easier to focus on the other person.” All four agree that staring at yourself throughout the conversation gives off the wrong impression, despite how tempting it might be.
Lainy’s approach to this distraction is to set-up a video call with a friend before the date (“That way you’ve gotten used to catching glimpses of yourself and you know you look okay”). Sarah recommends “playing it like a normal date – put on some make-up, wear a nice t‑shirt, whatever you would if you were actually meeting someone for the first time.” While Lainy argues that you should go one step further, “I wore a sparkly mini-dress, slides and a baseball cap the other day…why not? I would never wear that on a normal date but I think when you’re around the house all day it keeps things exciting. Wear a fun outfit! Dress up. These aren’t normal circumstances.”
Much of the etiquette comes down to respecting some of the ceremony of a date. “When you’re just talking to someone from your own house you can get comfortable really quickly,” says Sarah. “In a way that’s a good thing because it’s probably less awkward. But you don’t want it to just feel like a call with a friend.”
Of course video dates can – and often, in those first moments as the screen flickers to life, do – feel strange and unnatural. There’s the dizzying vision of yourself on the screen, the sense of un-location, of a meeting happening outside of corporeal space.
“And you know what is so fascinating?” says Lainy. “There’s definitely a moment where it gets a bit flirty and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, if we were on a date, this might be the bit where we kiss…’ You both have to awkwardly look away from the camera and stare into your laps until it passes.”
Then again, even IRL dates – with their strange rituals and unspoken codes – can feel unnatural. Whether the emotions that are generated through video lead to real, lasting connections remain to be seen. Even Lainy, who says she has found her “one” is concurrently dating four people.
“I feel like I have four internet boyfriends who all give me something different,” she says. “In normal times, when you can meet face to face it’s hard to find someone who ticks all your boxes, in terms of humour, intelligence etc. But it would be too time consuming to actually date four people. Now I get all these different things from four different guys. I can see two in one night and I don’t feel guilty because all we’re doing is video calling.” Aiden agrees, saying that his favourite part of video dating is being able to “stack” dates – meaning, date more than one person in a single night. “It’s efficient, which I like,” he adds.
For The Intro’s George Burgess, video will continue to play a big part within the dating industry even post lockdown for this exact reason. “I can see human behaviour evolving, as it is forced to in this scenario, to a point where people do video dates before they meet in person. It’s an efficient way to find out if you like someone enough to spend an evening with them.”
In this period, where the main question we are asking ourselves, sitting in our already over-familiar living rooms, is “what now?”, there’s certainly scope for new traditions to take root. But whether we really want efficiency to be such a big part of our quest for love is still debatable. We’re not locking the room quite yet.