The music is loud and the room is dark, lit up only by banal string lights dangling on the side of the wall. There are guys playing beer pong in a brighter part of the house, showing off and making drunken noises. In the tiny kitchen where the counter is filled with red cups and variations of alcohol, sorority girls throw up in the sink as their sisters kindly hold up their hair behind them. 

You are surrounded by a room full of people, kissing and grinding against each other. Your friends are already drunk and dancing on the platform with some frat boy you have never met before. You try to vibe along with the beat — a rap song that you hear on the radio all the time but don’t know the name of. Even though you want to head home, you are not sure if walking the streets alone at 12 a.m. is the best option for a girl.

That’s when your eyes meet. Another pair of anxious yet curious eyes across the dance floor catch your gaze, longing for comfort in a crowd of strangers. You reach a tacit agreement and unconsciously move toward the door together. After a quick self-introduction, he offers to walk you back to your house, indulging in the get-to-know-you questions and even a little banter. Before you part, you exchange phone numbers and a kiss.

***

This would be a common, cheesy scene of “love at first sight” from any typical 2000s romantic comedy movie. Of course, this has not happened to me, or anyone that I know for that matter — though young women have plenty of awkward experiences with men who suddenly start grooving next to them at a party, only to ask for their number. 

Nevertheless, the media has always placed emphasis on the initial encounters of intimate relationships. Two complete strangers are expected to be magically brought together by serendipitous incidents: bonding over The Smiths in an elevator ride to work, meeting in a local travel bookshop in a foreign country, kissing a stranger to prevent an embarrassing confrontation with a past crush.

While these scripted scenes inevitably dictate our expectations of romance, I couldn't help but wonder how realistic they are in our ordinary lives. As technology becomes more integrated into our social life, are the oh-so desired “organic” encounters possible? What is the likelihood that we will find “the one” amid the rise of COVID-19 cases on campus and enforced social distancing protocols?

The most recent data shows that even in a pandemic, young people are not giving up on their chance at romance. Dating apps owned by Match Group —Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, etc. — have all experienced a direct growth in revenue since March 2020. College students have also become more creative with the ways they build intimate relationships, with people going as far as designing a Zoom dating site or a matching survey algorithm to battle social isolation. While the creations of these technologies were well-intentioned, many users complained of a lack of success due to the short nature of online conversation.

I could easily see why. As someone who suffers from extreme Zoom fatigue and online social anxiety, I have always had my doubts about building meaningful relationships through technology. However, my inner romantic offered a shimmer of hope, peeking through a crack in my skeptical heart and prompting me to properly investigate my questions. In turn, I spoke to five people regarding their experience with dating apps, long-distance relationships and chasing love during a pandemic.

***

The first person I spoke to was LSA senior Emma Carter, who met her girlfriend, Annie, on Hinge. On the Sunday morning of our interview, I rolled out of bed and rushed to Zoom. Emma arrived at our meeting a few minutes later in a gray zip-up hoodie, much more awake and refreshed than I was.

I started off with the basics, asking about why she got the application and what she wanted from it. Emma explained that she first downloaded Hinge when studying abroad for a semester in Barcelona. She was never intending on finding a relationship through the app, as she is “not a huge fan of online dating,” but instead downloaded it just to meet new people. When asked about why she selected Hinge over other popular apps, she explained, “I wasn’t really looking for a relationship necessarily, but I don’t like Tinder. It kind of just implies a hookup and that’s not what I am really interested in.”

While the two apps belong to the same parent company, Match Group, Tinder and Hinge serve entirely different purposes. Whereas Tinder is mostly known as the “hookup app,” especially among college students, Hinge is for people who look for a deeper connection. Nevertheless, the two share a similar demographic, with their core users being millennials ranging from the age of 18 to people in their 20s. 

“Hinge is a really good one because it’s not just about how a person looks,” Emma elaborated. “On Tinder, it can just be like ‘hey you’re cute.’ That’s how the conversation starts and there’s not much to talk about with that. (On Hinge) when there are these preliminary questions, it is easier to generate more organic conversations about something real.”

Though Emma has always been a little skeptical about dating apps, a conversation with her dad’s coworker completely changed her perspective. He told her that if he were a young person in this pandemic, he would “100% use dating apps.” The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forces people into quarantine and smaller social circles, giving way to intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. Public health officials have even recommended wearing a mask when engaging in sexual activities with individuals outside one’s social pod.

However, the forced absence of physical contact and need for social distancing has also hindered people from forming serious relationships. When asked about how she makes efforts to maintain her relationship in this pandemic while protecting those around her, Emma shared her own experience. 

“I think it’s definitely respectable to suspend online dating during the pandemic right now, though I don’t know if we could suspend meeting new people forever,” she explained. She additionally pointed out the importance of being socially-aware and transparent in her and Annie’s communication.

“I am not necessarily freaked about getting COVID-19,” Emma said. “I am freaked out about spreading it. (Annie and I) are working together really well to minimize any risks of doing that. At the end of the day, we don’t see many people.”

Emma told me that despite having found a serious partner through a dating app, she remains skeptical about the effectiveness of these technologies. She is convinced that if she and Annie met in person instead of through Hinge, they still would have been together. 

“In person personalities play a huge role in attraction to individuals, and I don’t think you can get that through these apps,” Emma explained. “I didn’t think I was going to find someone I like this much from online dating. I don’t like the idea that much, but it worked out.”

***

The next person who I talked to was LSA senior Kate Kachmer, who is one of Emma’s housemates. However, unlike Emma, her experience with Hinge was not at all successful. Kate felt a sense of a fear of missing out and loneliness while quarantining with her siblings, who are both in serious relationships. With the constant romance in front of her face and the future of socializing appearing uncertain, Kate decided to finally give dating apps a shot. 

However, after setting up her profile, she found Hinge’s set of personal trivia questions insufficient and inauthentic. Like icebreakers before a meeting, Hinge’s set of profile prompts were created to spark conversations, with T.M.I.-style prompts like “a shower thought that I recently had.” 

“Anyone could look through a list of questions and send it to their friends and ask ‘what’s a funny response to put,’” Kate explained. “It’s more like who has the best one-liner they can put in response to a prompt and make someone like them.”

As predicted, if one only Googles “hinge questions list,” there are over 30 million results on “the best responses to Hinge prompts” and guides on how to come up with the best hinge answers for your profile. While these popular search results may seem like proof of people making serious efforts to find love and impress their potential partners, Kate’s experience reveals that a perfect profile is no more honest than a recent college graduate’s resume.

“I went on this one date,” Kate said. “Part of what bothered me a lot was how he was super nonchalant about COVID, and (he) wouldn’t put his mask on. That was another reason, like I can’t do this because I don’t know what these people are doing and I don’t know who’s being safe or cautious.”

Unfortunately, dishonest and socially irresponsible dates are not the only risks that women face from online dating. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center, “57% of female online dating users ages 18 to 34 say someone has sent them a sexually explicit message or image they did not ask for,” compared to 28% of male users in the same age range. Kate admitted that though she has received some creepy comments on the app, she has fortunately never experienced any form of harassment in person.

“This is a horrible mindset to have but I expected it when I signed up for dating apps,” Kate lamented. “Girls who sign up for dating apps almost expect some form of harassment. It’s so anticipated when you put yourself out on an online dating forum.”

Kate told me that after using Hinge for a month in quarantine and another month back in Ann Arbor, she was completely sick of the app. She eventually deleted it. However, Kate did not give up on romantic relationships and became more open to possibilities with people who are already in her social circle.

“I honestly think it made me feel more lonely because I was trying so hard to connect with people but I wasn’t connecting with them,” Kate confessed. “(After deleting Hinge,) I think I’ve been a little more appreciative of people’s personalities in general and a little less obsessed with the first impressions. It’s so much more than that.”

***

For Kate and Emma, technology has introduced more people into their lives, both good and bad, in a time of persisting isolation and hauled social interactions. On the other hand, for some individuals, technology has become an essential part of sustaining their connection. 

I interviewed LSA senior Grace Baker about her long-term relationship. She met Sam when he was an exchange student at U-M for one semester. Though they broke up for a while in the immediate aftermath of him returning to Australia, the couple reunited and will be celebrating their two-year anniversary on Halloween. 

When the pandemic first broke out, Grace was an exchange student at the University of Melbourne, the city where Sam lives. The last time she and Sam saw each other was when he dropped her off at the airport, and little did she know they would not be reunited for at least another six months. On top of the U.S.’s volatile fluctuation of daily COVID cases, their relationship has been further complicated by border closures and travel restrictions, keeping them apart.

“For a while it was kind of hard, because we couldn’t have an escape,” Grace said. “We would have to be talking about how badly things are going with coronavirus.”

Grace told me that prior to the pandemic, the longest they went without seeing each other was three months, so they have become more creative in the ways they use technology to surprise each other while taking into account the time difference. The couple uses the Chrome extension Scener to video chat while watching videos together and occasionally joins in virtual yoga sessions. In addition, they send each other handwritten letters. However, there are non-verbal cues that cannot be picked up via mere words or videos, which adds fuel to a lot of problems.

“Sometimes if I make fun of him or tease him a little bit, he gets really mad about it,” Grace recounted. “He thought it was like an attack, but I was just joking.”

Grace confessed that though technologies are indeed effective in bringing Sam and her closer together, it can be frustrating at times.

“If we were only writing letters to each other, that wouldn’t be anything,” Grace acknowledged. “(But) I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love Sam so much, and I really think that is the key.”

Grace and Sam were not the only long-distance couple whose relationship was impacted by COVID-19. LSA junior Natalie Pacht, a LSA junior, and University of Maryland junior, Noah Seiden, had been in a long-distance relationship for less than one year before they began quarantining together in their hometown in March. When I spoke to the couple, they were sitting side by side with each other on the bed as Noah had just driven up from Maryland as a surprise.

Having spent six months in quarantine together, the couple has learned to acknowledge the benefits of spending time apart from each other to focus on their own lives. They consider technology a good supplement to their long-distance relationship, but definitely not its foundation.

“Being in person is a totally different thing from (using) technology,” Noah confessed. “I would rather spend an hour in person than a day on technology with her.”

Loneliness is a common human condition. We all share a desire to be understood, among other things. In an age where most of our in-person interactions have already been replaced and enhanced by modern technologies, quarantine has only furthered the drought of human contact. Being trapped in our childhood homes or our personal apartments has allowed us to develop a new appreciation for the small things in life and the people who care about us. Though technology is able to mimic an environment for conversations to happen, it cannot imitate the people who we love and call home. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

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