Finding love in the age of COVID

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I recently watched a show on Amazon Prime based on true stories that have appeared in the weekly column called “Modern Love“ published by New York Times. It got me thinking about the sea-change that COVID-related restrictions are bringing to the world of dating.

In one of the episodes we are told the story of a woman who thought she had been stood up by a boy she liked. After 17 years he unexpectedly shows up at a book reading. It turns out that the reason he had never contacted her was because he had lost the book in which he had written down her address. It is a story of a love and a life that never had the opportunity to take place because the story exists in the analog world of pens and paper, where Google and Facebook and cell phones don’t yet exist.

This is how life had always been throughout all of human history until very recently, and yet the peculiarities of a pre-Internet and pre-cell phone existence somehow already seem quaint to us.

For a little perspective, remember that only about a hundred years ago love letters took six months to arrive from Europe to the USA before the advent of planes. A lot could happen between the sending and receiving of a love letter!

In the 1980s and 1990s, video dating was pretty popular. People would record videos with camcorders at the office of a matchmaking company. Then singles would come in and watch the videos one by one and choose someone to go on a date with.

One of the pioneers of one such company launched in 1976 was Jeffrey Ullman. The company was called “Great Expectations” and helped usher in the era of video dating under the slogan, “no more blind dates.”

There were times not long ago when meeting someone on the Internet was tantamount to admitting that one is a dating failure, as an Internet date was the last resort for “losers.”

But times have definitely changed, as it has become more and more unusual to meet people somewhere OTHER THAN on the Internet!

The Necessary Evolution of the Dating App

And then came apps like Tinder, which were first featured in Cosmopolitan and quickly went mainstream.

After the arrival of Tinder, dating became a “no strings attached” affair, a swipe left or a swipe right to find your next fling. “Instant dating,” indeed…

And then all of a sudden — boom — social distancing. We aren’t even allowed to hold hands.

No, this is not an excerpt from the handbook of a religious zealot, this is our reality in 2020.

According to this article in Welt magazine, one third of singles are convinced that the dating landscape is going to change drastically due to the lockdown and social distancing, and it’s not hard to see why. 

Up until now, dating apps were designed as a prelude to a meeting, a quick and easy way to set up a real encounter, wasting no time on clumsy pick-up lines or on anyone who hasn’t been preselected. 

But now there is no easy transition to a second stage, no switch from online to the real world. It’s like taking a taxi to the airport only to find that all of the flights have been canceled. So you have no other choice but to head to Alaska by taxi.

The times of instant dating and swipe culture may very well be officially over. Apps need to do much more now than just interchange contact info — they have to foster a burgeoning relationship.

Self-preservation and common sense dictates that the rules of engagement have changed. You don’t hug, you don’t kiss — it is a matter of trust and risk.

So how does one date in such a situation?

Dating services are scrambling to offer new features, like video chats and virtual dates, an extension of the video tape dating of the past.

It seems like the time is ripe for a revolution in this space; the technology exists, more and more of our social interactions are being forced online, and these interactions must be sufficiently natural and fluid so that the couples can be sure that it is worth the risk to go out and meet in real life. And if it comes down to a choice between a video call and a personal meeting with half of one’s face covered, as I’ve mentioned in the past  — I am not sure which is worse!

According to this article from a few years back, video was still uncharted territory for dating apps in 2017.

That’s right, only 3 short years ago video integration remained a risky and expensive novelty for dating services.

It seems now things are quickly changing.

Dating apps have had to adapt almost overnight. According to Fast Company, “the world’s biggest dating brands have reprioritized their road maps to bring format to the forefront and have rolled out new in-app video calling features.” Video chat had not been a priority before the pandemic, when only 6% of users expressed interest in the feature.

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But It’s No Easy Feat 

To quote a recent article in Forbes:

“In this day and age, you might expect that every dating app would be equipped with video-chat capabilities as standard. Video chat however has historically been too expensive to build and maintain, requiring huge development resources which could otherwise be devoted to other features while also significantly increasing server costs. It has also generally been met with pessimism by users, given the somewhat underwhelming and awkward experience relative to meeting in real life…

“As well as increased usage, people’s attitudes certainly seem to be changing too. According to Badoo CMO, Dominic Gallello, 85% of Badoo users have said they would be open to a video date since COVID-19. The longer that social distancing and lockdown is enforced, the more this new medium of dating will have the chance to blossom. At a certain point, single people’s craving for romantic human connection could leave them with no other safe choice, escalating this behavioural shift from curiosity to desperation!

“Implementing live video into a dating, social networking, or any kind of application comes with its challenges, however. Network connectivity can vary from user to user depending on their geographic locations and devices.”

Is the industry ready for virtual dating? If so, what does one need to become successful? Are network quality and high latency the bottlenecks here?

I can personally attest to how terrible and awkward laggy, high-latency video can make when communicating online. I spend much of my workday talking with customers and workmates face-to-face online. And in my personal life as well, I have intimate friends who live all over the world, some of whom live in areas with such bad coverage that VOIP calls are nearly impossible. Lucky for me, I only want to touch base with them! if I had to figure out whether or not they’re my soulmate, that would truly be dire!

I understand that not everyone has a fantastic internet connection, but there are technologies that exist TODAY that minimize the effect that unstable and low-bandwidth connections have on the user experience. What I can’t grasp is why more video sites still don’t use them.

And while we’re at it, let me ask you why the love seekers of the world should suffer the adverse effects of this transition to an online community? Crummy video chats will of course affect telehealth and sales meetings as well, but the big losers will most definitely be those star-crossed lovers whose date with destiny was first interrupted by a virus, and then by video chats with no adaptive bitrate or advanced error correction (get ready, here comes my pitch! 😜).

As the Forbes article above stated, video technologies have historically required a huge outlay not only for development but also for server infrastructure and support. But instead of creating one’s own solution, wouldn’t it be a better idea to just rely on the expertise of companies like Ceeblue, who have been providing third-party live video streaming services for years?

Only time will tell how online dating companies choose to set the stage for an entire generation’s romances.

One thing is definitely clear, though – our world, and the world of dating, are not going to be the same for a while, so we better get cracking on making the best of it.

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