How dating apps have evolved to fit the needs of pandemic-struck … – KALW

A few weeks ago, on a crisp autumn night, I was waiting for my first date with a guy I met online. As I sat down near the bar at the Cat House in Oakland, I thought about the popularity of dating apps, and how I first started using them when I began college in 2013.
I’ve been using dating apps to navigate a lot of my romantic life since that time. This was shortly after Tinder and Hinge were first released as mobile apps. In 2014, Bumble was created and added yet another option to the online dating experience.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic made its wave in 2020, my need for virtual interaction became crucial. For the first time, my friends and I dabbled with meeting people on virtual dates. Several of my friends started regularly meeting people on Zoom, or even Facetime. When the pandemic forced most of us into isolation, video calls became one of the only options for those of us on the dating journey to meet new people.
Sam Guitierrez, a nurse from Menlo Park, also navigated this world. She said the transition to virtual dating wasn’t so easy at first.
“It was still kind of almost absurd. It was like, here’s the Zoom date, or Facetime date,” Guitierrez said. “I remember there was just one time when it almost felt like a happy hour with someone I just met.”
She lives with an older parent, so she has been careful about socializing in order to keep her family safe from COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, Guitierrez limited her dating to online and virtual meetups. At first, it was awkward for her, but it also helped her figure out what she wanted in a partner.
I understand the appeal. Video dates can help give a sense of someone’s mannerisms, their strange quirks, and what it might be like to look them in the eye. It’s also cheaper, safer, and more convenient than buying drinks with someone you don’t know.
Guitierrez tried to make her dates fun, like actual dates. She did movie nights, cocktail hours, and other activities. She remembered one guy that she had hours of Facetimes with, and sometimes it felt like they were in the same room together.
“If we were in real life, it was just like sitting at the bar talking about music and having a drink but it was just like in the context of like a Facetime chat,” she added. “So that was kind of sweet and it’s like, you’re just entering this new world.”
Guitierrez, like a lot of my close friends, started video dating by necessity at the height of the pandemic, before vaccines were widely available. In reaction to this, Bumble and Hinge urged users to take advantage of their video chat options, and added audio prompts to their apps, so people could give personal anecdotes with voice recordings. Tinder also added a face-to-face option, similar to video chatting. This allows people to sort of feel like they can get to know each other before even meeting up in person. Users can screen potential matches ahead of time.
According to a recent report, 71% of the 5,000 American adults surveyed said a video date helped them decide if they wanted to take the next step of meeting their match in person. More than half said they would feel more comfortable on a date if they had a video chat beforehand.
Samantha Garcia, Bumble’s Marketing Director for the Americas, said there has been a 70% increase in the video call feature on their app since the pandemic, and the average time users spent on a call was close to 30 minutes.
“The video calls are here to stay,” Garcia said. “Also from a safety perspective, where people are taking these video calls before meeting anyone in real life.”
She says that these new additions have allowed single people to focus on intentional dating, which is a term that sort of means to “slow down” in your love life.
“With intentional dating, it’s actually the reflection of what people are doing right now. What they’re looking for is not only about meeting anyone, it’s about meeting someone,” Garcia added. “With that, we have different trends such as being consciously single.”
Similar to the new video and audio chat features, apps have added functions to let people better control health risks while dating. Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge now have “COVID-19 safety features,” like vaccination badges so you can see if your potential matches have gotten the shot.
For many single people, like Oakland resident Kenji Okamura-Wong, some health risks would be a serious dealbreaker.
A lot of people now echo Wong’s sentiments. According to a 2022 Bumble report, one-third of Americans surveyed would not go out on a date or have sex with someone who is unvaccinated. For Wong, new app features have allowed him to cut down on COVID-19 risk, but also find people who have similar interests as him.
Basically, the apps have allowed him to be more picky. 
“In prior years, I didn’t get a lot of hits. Then I switched to Hinge, it was a little more personable,” he said. “I could leave voice messages, and more information that would give people a better idea of myself.”
Wong’s dating style is also known as exploratory dating, or what California-based dating coach Laurel House callsprioridating.” Prioridating means taking time to figure out what one truly wants in a romantic partner, and saving energy for people who meet more of those qualities.
After the trauma of the ongoing pandemic, many people started rethinking who they want to spend time with and what matters most to them. But Kenji said that even though he’s been sifting through dating apps for the better part of 2022, he still hasn’t found that special person yet.
“I decided that I was better off being by myself,” Wong said. “Just because of not necessarily safety issues, but more of like emotional compatibility overall.”
Dating app designers say they’re trying to keep up with consumers’ shifting priorities. This summer, Hinge added a dating intentions profile feature that allows users to be more upfront about what they want in a relationship. Daters can select options like “life partner,” “long term,” or even an option called “figuring out my dating goals.”
Wong added that he’s been talking with more people online in the last year, and even landed a date with a girl after exploring voice prompt options on Hinge. He said after a great first in-person date with this girl, he has yet to see if a second date is on the horizon.
Guitierrez, who found video dating to be awkward at first, reconnected with a guy she virtually dated in the start of the pandemic. He reached back out to her in 2021, and rekindled their romance.
I got a text and it totally surprised me. I remember vividly that there was a mutual interest after all,” Guitierrez said. “We’ve been dating, but we don’t have a particular, like anniversary date. But now we’re exclusively seeing each other. Here we are almost two years later.
Overall, it looks like virtual dating is sticking around for the long term, and will remain the first choice for many single people, even though President Biden has declared that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
As for my recent date at the Cat House, we didn’t click or have the right connection to continue seeing each other.
Dates can often feel like a daunting task. They take a large chunk of time out of my life, time I might otherwise use to hang out with my friends, explore hobbies, or even work on my interests.
Before I meet someone for another date in person, I’d like to try a better filtering process. Maybe I’ll take advantage of virtual app features, they might give me a better sense of someone’s way of speaking, what it’s like to enjoy a drink with them, or have dinner together.
But until then, I’ll just have to keep looking.