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What's the motivation behind online relationships in social distancing?

Apr. 15, 2020
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Illustration by Sky Kim

I came home from college my freshman year armed with a dedication to actually take Bumble seriously. I promptly got to swiping—only to realize that the majority of the people I was swiping on were people from my high school. The more I swiped, the more I realized I’d actually had crushes on these people back in the confines of high school. 

From then on, my resistance to using dating apps while home was all thanks to my swipe screen looking identical to my high school yearbook.

Aside from my mental block from using online dating apps, I’ve never shied away from fostering online friendships. Often, it’s with people who live a considerable distance from me—people whom I know I won’t easily meet in person anytime soon. 

Despite all the assemblies my elementary school put on about never talking to strangers online or revealing your identity, I joined Tumblr when I was 11 and made my first Tumblr friend at 14. I lived in California and she lived in New York, and we were unified in our shared love for New Girl and Kate Middleton. I learned about Vineyard Vines from her at 15; we live-texted each other our semi-disastrous junior proms when we were 16; we met in real life for the first time in Washington Square Park at 18 as college freshmen. 

It took us almost half a decade to meet in person, with geographic and physical barriers restricting us. We were teenagers sitting in our hometown bedrooms knowing there was no way we were going to meet anytime soon, but we kept the friendship going strong anyways. 

Recently, I’ve found that my online high-school friendships loosely parallel the emotions my friends have experienced with online dating in the age of quarantine and social distancing. We know we’re not supposed to be out socializing or hanging out with people—so what’s the motivation behind starting new relationships when we can’t meet the other person for an indeterminate period of time? 

When I first pitched this essay, it was the situational aspects of quarantine that fascinated me: being on our phones more, not being able to meet people. I’ve seen memes about how any and all flirting in quarantine is invalid because we’re all bored. Or, if someone isn’t answering you and you’re still in the “talking stage,” it means they’re just not into you. 

Is any type of human connection unimportant if we can’t meet the other person? Will any and all connections made during this period simply be forgotten the moment that the curves worldwide are flattened and social distancing is lifted? 

Dating apps worldwide have been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. Tinder recently made its Passport feature free, allowing all users to match with people in any location in the world. Bumble has been putting out guides for social distancing, while developers have designed a pandemic-specific dating app called Quarantine Together. 

In true quarantine manner, Quarantine Together asks its users every day if they’ve washed their hands; if they have, they’ll be introduced to someone, and after a certain amount of time, they’ll be able to video-chat with people. 

My friend Jasmine said she’s noticed differences in her motivations to use dating apps. “Before quarantine, dates were about having fun for a night and just enjoying myself. A lot of people are on dating apps to hook up, but with the current situation it really separates the people who genuinely [want to get to know you] versus the people who are trying to have a one-night stand once we get out of quarantine,” she explained. 

While a significant population of Americans are now having to adjust their professional and personal lives around the mandated stay-at-home orders, their social lives are being affected as well. 

As I enter day 30 of quarantine writing this sentence, the only people I’ve talked to in person for more than five minutes have been my mom and my friend Elizabeth the day we left our study-abroad program. Besides quarantine walks in my neighborhood (which I’m definitely grateful for), I’ve spent a significant time indoors just dreaming of the things I’ll be able to do once social distancing is over. 

From something as mundane as ordering an oat milk chai at a cafe, to going back to work at my farmers’ market job, to getting together with my friends at a restaurant, social-distancing rules have definitely given me perspective on the importance of social interactions that I’ve taken for granted in the past—whether they be platonic or romantic. 

A couple of my friends have drafted up “post-quarantine bucket lists,” dreaming of the adventurous things they’ll do post-social distancing. Some have sworn to never turn down an opportunity for a date ever again. As for me, I’ve gone through bouts of mulling over the social decisions I made pre-quarantine. 

Should I have turned down an invitation to a club back in January? Would anything be different if I’d kept talking to the Canadian exchange student I met at a party that same weekend, even though we didn’t click? When taking into consideration all these “regrets,” it suddenly starts to feel like a big case of FOMO. Even though I was sound in both those decisions at the time, this time of social distancing has me wondering—why didn't I take advantage of being able to safely go out?

I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity to safely quarantine at home, with the technology needed for online classes, access to food and water, and a roof over my head. Even with the unread Zadie Smith books I have on my desk, and a mountain of homework I’ve procrastinated, one of the things I miss the most about college is the ability to meet new people. 

During these moments when I’m itching to see a new face or even just indulge in small talk, this has me circling back to how online relationships or friendships can be so important. 

Whether that means downloading Bumble, utilizing Tinder Passport, or reaching out to someone on Instagram about a cool post, there are countless ways to be able to meet someone new—while respecting social distancing. 

Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images