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How the pandemic has rewritten the rules of online dating

Online dating is now popular in small towns and villages too, with women emerging as the most active user base

'Slow dating' is on a rise during the pandemic, when people are taking time to get to know one another virtually. Photo: Getty Images
'Slow dating' is on a rise during the pandemic, when people are taking time to get to know one another virtually. Photo: Getty Images

For Nilanjana and Ankit, March 2020 is very significant. While the country went into social isolation during a lockdown forced by the covid-19 pandemic, the two students found companionship on the online dating platform OkCupid.

“It was a coincidence that we both hail from Guwahati and come from a similar sociocultural background,” says Ankit, 26, who is studying for a master’s degree in economics and preparing for the civil service exams. They couldn’t meet, but they spent hours chatting on the platform. “It is quite a challenge to gain the trust of the other person online, without having the opportunity for a face-to-face interaction, but we just went naturally with the flow,” chimes in Nilanjana, 20, a law student. Since then, they have managed to meet a couple of times, following social distancing norms, but most of their interactions have been confined to the virtual realm. “We have set some rules that we have to set aside a significant chunk of the day to connect with each other,” adds Ankit.

The rules of online dating have changed drastically during the pandemic. The isolation wrought by the lockdown has created a craving for human contact, evident in the rise in number of users and conversations on online dating platforms. On Tinder, for instance, the number of messages sent globally peaked on 5 April, with an increase of 52% from the pre-covid period. “In India, we reached this peak a little later, in May, with 60% more messages being sent,” says Taru Kapoor, general manager, Match Group and Tinder India. “This was higher than the global average. The swipe values are up as well.”

OkCupid reported a similar trend, with a 26% increase in conversations and significantly higher mutual matches. “We are seeing a rising trend in slow dating, when people are taking time to get to know one another virtually instead of straight away jumping into a physical meeting. The switch to virtual dates has allowed these emotional connections to thrive,” says Melissa Hobley, chief marketing officer, OkCupid.

Looking for companionship

No wonder then that there is a gradual shift in what millennials and Gen Z are seeking from relationships online. According to Anjali Chhabria, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist and founder of MindTemple, a counseling centre, people would prioritize looks and personality earlier but companionship is now more important. “They want to be understood and supported more than ever before. For instance, two people connected as they just wanted companionship. They wanted the feeling of another person around them, even if they were spending their silence together,” she says.

Perhaps the pandemic has changed the way people view life, forced them to reflect. A young woman who was about to get married with all the frills of the big fat Indian wedding, now wants a simple ceremony with the person she loves. Someone else has realized that it was the frills they wanted and not the person that they were in a relationship with. “Some people have got on to online dating platforms to distract themselves. Others feel that time is running out and they still don’t have someone. A lot more people have gotten engaged in the last three-four months without having met each other more than a couple of times,” adds Chhabria.

She cites the example of a client, a Mumbai-based woman in her late 20s, who had been very busy in her career over the last couple of years. She had an active social life. People would tell her to settle down but she would shrug off the suggestion, saying she didn’t have the time. Post-lockdown, however, she has started actively looking for matches on dating apps. She even sought Chhabria’s counsel before joining a site.

Prerna Kohli, a Delhi -based clinical psychologist, says that while human beings are still seeking fulfilment of emotional and physical needs, the process of sourcing this companionship has changed. According to Kapoor, at Tinder, she says, they are noticing that two-thirds of all dates and relationships among the 18-30 age group now begin online.

Towns overtake metros

Women have become a very important part of the active user base across dating apps. QuackQuack, a home-grown dating app with over 10 million users in India, has witnessed a 30% in its female user base, with Delhi and the National Capital Region being the most active, followed by Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. “The new additions to the women’s user base has seen far more active participation, with female users logging in 26 times a day into their profile on an average as compared to 20 times a day by men,” says Ravi Mittal, founder of the app.

This is no longer a phenomenon restricted to the metros. During the pandemic, in fact, it is the smaller towns and villages that saw a greater increase in the number of active users of such apps. QuackQuack is seeing from places like Guna, Barmer, Churu, Saharsa and Valsad. “We were not getting much traffic from Guntur or Kakinada earlier but now there are so many users from these two places,” says Mittal.

Take YB, for instance. This 24-year-old market research professional works in Gurugram, Haryana, but has been at his home town, Ranchi, during the pandemic. He has been trying online dating platforms since college, on the lookout for “genuine people” and shared experiences. “I logged into QuackQuack during the lockdown and within seven days of joining, I got three likes from around Ranchi. That was an unheard of thing when I was in college here. Dating sites have truly gone beyond metros,” he says.

Encouraged by the response, dating apps are launching new features to enhance and sustain this engagement. For instance, QuackQuack has started a random chat feature that allows you to chat with strangers. OkCupid has rolled out a mobile app redesign globally called Stacks, a new matching system that consolidates multiple discovery methods into one, making it easier to find the type of person you are looking for. Tinder recently launched Swipe Night, an in-app interactive event that allowed members to steer the direction of the story and, in the process, decide who they match with.

“We will be launching a video-calling feature soon in India,” says Kapoor. “Human relationships continue to be at the heart of what we do. How these are initiated may have changed but the richness remains the same. We think of ourselves as introducers, with human chemistry taking over after that.”

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