© Copyright 2021 Chloe Robinson, Ryerson University.
Dating in your twenties can be tough, but it is even tougher when you’re dating during a global pandemic. Back in March 2020, I was on the brink of completing my university semester and turning 24, when the world shut down. Suddenly, there I was: single, social distanced, and quarantined alone with my cat in a shoebox apartment in downtown Toronto during the most miserable part of Canadian spring. Out of boredom that soon turned to loneliness, I was one of many young adults who found myself glued to the digital screen. With the COVID-19 pandemic, technology and screens have taken on an unprecedented importance in many peoples’ daily lives. As a society, we began distancing ourselves physically while at the same time accelerating and multiplying the connections we made via screens. We began daily communications on Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Hangouts, and the suddenly omnipresent Zoom. Soon enough, life itself took place on screen.We held virtual office meetings, Zoom-based happy hours, and video calls with distant friends and family (Denson). Virtual dates and mobile dating became a new standard for the single young adult as well.
Before the pandemic hit, meeting through mobile dating apps wasn’t all that uncommon. A quarter of all Canadians ages 18-34 claim they have tried virtual dating, most commonly through mobile dating apps such as Tinder or Bumble (Thottam). While some may have projected that the threat of a viral and deadly infection would put a stop to mobile dating, dating app usage stats are actually higher than ever. We are socially distant, but we definitely aren’t disconnected, and daily messaging activity has risen by 10% to 15%. More than ever, having someone to talk to can make a world of a difference (q’td in Brown). Tinder’s monthly active users estimated at 66 million in 2021 alone, with over 50% of those users ages 18-25 (Iqbal). In the initial days of the pandemic, I, too, found myself frequenting dating apps more often than before. However, I noticed a difference in the types of interactions I was having. Before the pandemic, hookup culture prospered on mobile dating platforms. In my own experience, a large portion of young adults in Toronto weren’t interested in long-term dating, or even making friends on the apps. As the hospital ICU units began to fill up, brief and non-committal sexual encounters were increasingly inaccessible and unacceptable. I began to see more words, longer conversations, more caution, and more care. This is a far cry from pre-pandemic dating app hookups, where two young adults could exchange three or four messages before meeting up to drink in a dark, crowded bar somewhere along King Street West, or in the nooks and crannies of Kensington Market.
As users became more hesitant to meet with their matches, many chose to embark on a new type of relationship that emphasizes the technological screen over the physical body. Single young adults on dating apps relied on virtual video chat dates, sexting, and multimedia interactions— all of which may be said to constitute and contribute to the shift from relationships to “pandemic-ships” (pandemic relationships).
This shift exemplifies how the pandemic altered the way young adults in Toronto form relationships via mobile dating apps. By reducing the capacity for instant gratification and unlimited networking, the pandemic has forged new practices for mobile dating which may benefit young adults in a pandemic and post-pandemic future.
The Digital Mediation Paradox
Four affordances to mobile dating have been recognized in relation to the digital screen: portability, availability, locatability, and multimediality. With the pandemic, there was a significant shift toward reliance on multimediality and away from locability, as users became less inclined to meet with their matches straight away. The locatability affordance enables matching, texting, and meeting up with users in close proximity. The multimediality affordance relies on at least two modes of communication, typically texting or photo sharing. Users can also link their other social media profiles to their dating app profiles, which enables a more sophisticated and rounded self-presentation. Once matched, they can then carry the conversation on to other media such as phone calls, video chats, or snap-chatting (Ranzini and Lutz). In the context of social distancing, the shift toward multimediality drew attention to a paradox of screen-mediated interactions that has always been there: screens serve at once to connect and to isolate individuals (Denson). This paradox is a factor that young adults have been made painfully aware of as they navigate the mobile dating scene in pandemic Toronto.
29 year old Dennis* moved to Toronto from Dublin, Ireland three years ago. As an active user on mobile dating apps for the majority of his time living in the city, he acknowledges that he paid very little attention to screen interactions before the pandemic: “While it was important to have some sort of online connection before meeting up, that first in-person date was the true test for how things were (or were not) going to develop with that other person. The pandemic has made screen interactions essential, like it or not.” Whereas a video chat prior to meeting up might have been quite rare, it is now standard routine. The digital mediation paradox can be explored further if we consider two key factors that play a role in mobile dating.
Gratification and Networking in the Digital Age
I downloaded my first dating app when I turned 19 years old in 2015. The screen always seemed invisible, if not irrelevant. A user could match with someone, and then meet up with them the same night. They would also have endless options, and if one relationship didn’t work out, they could move onto finding their next match within the same day in the span of a few “swipes”. This allowed some users to go on several separate dates a week if the opportunity presented itself. As the pandemic caved into everyday life, there was a considerable change in pace: “The process [of mobile dating] nowadays is a lot slower. While people still want to meet up, in some circumstances (like the stay-at-home order), there simply is no opportunity to do so right away. Further, there is no rush, as the rest of the world has also slowed down. People are taking their time with everything, dating included,” (Dennis). It becomes clear that two key factors that made mobile dating attractive in the years leading up to the pandemic were the instant gratification and infinite networking that digital media enabled.
From a psychological perspective, instant gratification derives out of the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is one of the most basic drives of humanity that compels human beings to gratify their needs, wants, and urges. Thus, instant gratification describes the desire to see pleasure or fulfillment without any delay or deferment (Patel).The desire for instant gratification has filtered into every corner of society, and it is most evidently seen in digital media, with respects to high speed internet, instant messaging, Amazon prime, Rogers on Demand, and of course, mobile dating apps (Drury). Long gone are the days of romanticizing rom-com meet-cutes in a coffee shop, or becoming pen pals with a distant lover. Instead, young adults are presented with a giant network of humans at their fingertips and in their vicinity, waiting to be matched. Having our desires instantly met isn’t always a bad thing. But as it pertains to the spread of quick-fix solutions in the digital age, there are many reasons why certain instant gratification-fuelled behaviours may be detracting from the quality and authenticity of the relationships that young adults form on mobile dating apps (Perlmutter). Most of relationships I formed never lasted more than three months, and we never quite got past the “talking stage”. Researchers examining how long relationships formed through dating apps lasted on multiple different dating apps found similar statistics. While 24% of users lasted only one or two dates, only 15% had gone on more than a year (Iqbal). Eventually, I found myself quite lonely and isolated. Living alone during the harsh Canadian winters made that a bit more difficult. I understand that the way I was engaging with the platform was implicated in my growing feelings of disconnect and isolation due to failed dating app relationships. Unfortunately, I had no idea of the further physical isolation that was to come in 2020.
Vast networking presents a similar dilemma. One experimental study in which undergraduate students could select a partner from a large versus small pool of potential partners revealed that participants who selected a partner from a large dating pool were less satisfied with their choice. They were also more likely to change their choice in comparison to those with fewer options. Researchers concluded that the abundance of dating options triggered more searching and decreased the quality of the final partner choice (Alexopoulous et al.). In the context of mobile dating apps, users are placed in a similar situation as the participants of the study who were able to pick from the larger pool of potential partners. Further, dating app users can change their choice in partner at their own whim; With one left swipe, that profile is erased from their account forever. Ultimately, the extensive connection networks that mobile dating enables may contribute to further dissatisfaction and isolation.
Confronting the Digital Barricade
To counter Dennis’s former statement claiming the pandemic made screens essential, it seems that the mediated screen was always essential due to the instant gratification and vast networking that it allowed. However, those factors simultaneously continued to lower the overall quality and length of interactions. Consequently, the more that young adults overvalued these two factors in the pre-pandemic mobile dating world, the more likely they were to be distracted from longer-term, or more meaningful relationship goals (whether platonically or romantically). In my own experience, delayed gratification and limited networking during the pandemic allowed me to take more time to build stronger bonds with the few individuals I interacted with on dating apps. Even if I didn’t end up meeting up with them, I did make a few friends.
Only from the perspective on the pandemic have I come to understand that the same digital media that allowed for instant gratification and networking was also creating a barrier to authentic connections beyond sexuality. This existence of this barrier drives home Stanley Cavell’s insight that the screen has always led a double existence as both a window and a shield, simultaneously extending our perception out into the world while also screening us from the world. In this case, the digital screen is serving as a physical barricade, a virtual face shield akin to the physical masks we don each time we step outside of the house (Denson). The pandemic has brought this double existence to light. Users are urged to contemplate their relationship and engagement with digital media and the digital screen as it rapidly encroaches on all areas of life. However, these findings may just offer a beacon of hope.
Although the reliance on the digital screen has increased, two key factors of mediation implicated in increasing feelings of disconnect and isolation have also been removed as well. The shift to social distancing and reliance on multimediality enables delayed gratification and limited networking with mobile dating, which may in turn increase the quality of future embodied interactions. Individuals have the opportunity to take the time to build a stronger bond and cess out any red flags for incompatibility. For 23 year old Torontonian Malorie*, her enlightenment of the digital mediation paradox made her realize she was missing a real connection: “The physical and mental assessments we do prior to meeting someone is more extensive and over a longer period now, and this makes it that much worthwhile to stick around when we like someone instead of moving onto someone else so quickly and ending up alone.” Malorie and many other young adults like myself were victims battling the connected disconnect found within the mobile dating environment of Toronto. However, delayed gratification and limited networking contributed to an overall more positive experience on dating apps.
An Ode to Pandemic-ships
Moving forward, it seems that pandemic-ships will be the new “how-we-met” story for many young adults. I met my current partner on a mobile dating app about a month into the pandemic, and we had our first socially distanced date after two whole months of video chats and daily multimedia interactions. In the background of our relationship, we grappled uncertainty about our personal future, the global future, mingling our social distance bubbles, radicals storming the U.S. capitol, anti-mask protesters parading our neighbourhood weekly, the provincial government’s oscillating restrictions… the list goes on. This is a strange trajectory that many current dating app users living in major cities across North America can identify with.
As we embarked on our pandemic-ship, we discovered many positives that benefitted the formation of our relationship. Delayed gratification allowed us to strengthen our non-sexual intimacy. Further, our acknowledgement of the technological reliance and barrier allowed us to carve out time to detach ourselves from the omni-present digital screen after we met in order to form deeper embodied intimacies. By limiting our network, we were able to put more effort in our unique partnership without distractions.
One great connection is worth a thousand insignificant and fleeting connections.
The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way relationships are formed on mobile dating apps, and the rise of pandemic-ship is just one way this change has played out. This change articulates the possibility for an alternative to dating app courtship practices in a generation of young adults in Toronto who were becoming increasingly disconnected from one another as a result of the mediated digital screen. Hopefully some of the lessons learned and caution erred when forming relationships moves forward in order to promote higher quality connections for young adults navigating mobile dating apps in a post-pandemic world.
* Pseudonyms used for the purposes of confidentiality.
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