They matched on dating app Coffee Meets Bagel and had been chatting for about a week, bonding over a shared passion for travel. But after he asked her out a few times, Hong Kong-based freelance writer Monana Liu decided to politely and firmly turn him down one last time, cutting off contact.
Although 30-year-old Liu said she normally would not mind going out with the man she matched with, his persistent requests to meet up – at a time when the city was racing to contain a third wave of Covid-19 cases – put her off.
“He was quite aggressive when he kept trying to convince me that there wouldn’t be a risk for infection, unless we’re leaning very close to each other,” Liu recalled. “I don’t feel comfortable dining with a stranger at a time like this, because I am quite serious about the health concerns.”
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Liu’s experience reflects changing attitudes among online daters, as social distancing measures and health concerns due to the pandemic influence almost every aspect of daily life from employment to education, not sparing the quest for love.
In a survey of more than 1,200 Hong Kong-based users in late July, Coffee Meets Bagel found that 95 per cent said it was “at least somewhat important” that their date took Covid-19 precautions seriously, with eight in 10 considering it a deal-breaker if their date did not wear a mask, and seven out of 10 feeling the same if their date did not adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“I think it’s really important that you make decisions that feel comfortable for you,” said Dawoon Kang, co-founder and chief dating officer of Coffee Meets Bagel. “And that requires having built some level of trust with whoever you're choosing to meet.”
While 41 per cent of Hong Kong daters surveyed by the platform last month said they had gone on at least one in-person date in the past 30 days, 70 per cent said they were taking longer to decide to meet someone and nearly half said they were more selective about doing so, compared to pre-pandemic times.
Aside from health fears, the lack of date options due to pandemic control measures is one reason some users are taking a rain check on meeting their matches. The city’s current social-distancing rules include a ban on gatherings of more than two people and mandatory mask-wearing in public places, as well as prohibiting dine-in services at restaurants from 6pm until 5am.
“Dating places such as restaurants and cinemas are all closed, where are we going to date?” said 24-year-old Hong Kong resident surnamed Lok, who uses Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel. “We don’t have any reason to hang out physically.”
Lok said she has chatting with someone on Tinder since February but had been putting off meeting him for months due to social distancing measures. Last Wednesday, they finally met, but both kept their masks on: Lok said she did not mind that her date’s face was partially covered, as she already knew what he looked like based on his pictures on Tinder. “I would definitely mind if he did not wear a mask at all,” she said.
Liu, the freelance writer, said meeting in person is only necessary when the match is willing to know her better through these online conversations. “The coronavirus is actually helping you to screen out those who are not the right ones,” she said.
Despite this, online dating apps are more popular than before. Coffee Meets Bagel said 38 per cent of the Hong Kong users surveyed said they were using dating apps more often in July, a 15 per cent increase since a similar survey was conducted in April.
In July, popular dating app Tinder overtook short video sensation TikTok as the top grossing app on Apple’s App Store and Google Play, toppling the latter from the leading position it has held since March, according to mobile research firm App Annie.
Tinder said in a recent press release that between March and May this year, swiping activity among users below the age of 25 increased by up to 40 per cent globally, compared to in early March when most countries were not yet under lockdown.
In mainland China where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged, users spent 30 per cent more time on Chinese dating app Tantan in early and mid-February amid the nationwide lockdown compared to before the pandemic, and the number of matches and messages sent in the app each increased 20 per cent before “normalising” in late February, Tantan said.
“The pandemic has exposed the fragility and impermanence of life to everyone,” Tantan said in a statement. “More and more people want to cherish each opportunity to meet something good under such complex and uncertain circumstances, which greatly boosted their willingness to meet new friends and communicate with others.”
Instead of meeting up, some users are getting creative with virtual options such as video calls, online games and watching shows together on Netflix Party to get to know their matches better first.
Tinder, for instance, started testing its new video chat feature Face to Face last month in markets including US, South Korea and Spain, among others. Bumble, another popular dating app, has offered video chat and voice call features since June last year.
Recognising that many users are postponing in-person dates, Coffee Meets Bagel scrapped its seven-day expiry period for chats, instead allowing all active conversations where both parties have said something in the past three days to stay open indefinitely. The platform is also organising virtual community meet-ups to allow users to meet each other via video chat.
In Hong Kong, online games are a popular way for daters to spend time together. Game night is among the top five dating ideas for those in the city, according to the Coffee Meets Bagel survey, while Tinder said that Nintendo’s Animal Crossing is one of the most popular games for daters to hang out virtually with their matches and mentions of the game in Tinder bios saw a fivefold increase worldwide during the pandemic.
Ruishuang Song, who recently returned to China after studying in the US , said that she now plays Sky: Children of Light by Chinese indie developer Thatgamecompany to meet people virtually.
While she uses Chinese dating and social networking app Soul, the 25-year-old said speaking to strangers online is enough when she feels lonely and she does not feel the need to meet up in person.
“The open world game is like an enormous chat room, and you can hold hands, hug or high five with other users while you complete your tasks,” she said. “It’s a very encouraging and supportive community … which is what we need amid the anxiety of the coronavirus.”
Additional reporting by Minghe Hu
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This article More swiping, less meeting: how online dating has gone more virtual amid the coronavirus pandemic first appeared on South China Morning Post