Out of thought came the word
Zoom Chat Video Dating — My Quest For Love Online During The Coronavirus Lockdown
WHEN I WROTE MY BOOK about online dating, little did I know how the Covid-19 lockdown would bring Zoom chat video dates to the fore — or that it would work for me in my quest for love. By Ben Arogundade. July 26, 2020.
LOCKDOWN LOVE ONLINE: When 55-year-old author Ben Arogundade wrote his bestselling online dating book, Zoom video chat dating was barely used. The coronavirus lockdown changed all that — perhaps for good.
“So, how long have you been single?” I asked.
“Three years,” Simone replied.
“Right. And how are things with the ex?”
“OK, I suppose. He’s here with me now.”
“Downstairs. We’ve got kids together, so when the lockdown happened we thought it would be easier if he just moved in, so he could see them.”
“Wow. So…does he know what you’re on a video date right now, with me, upstairs?”
“Yeah, he knows. He’s not too happy about it, but it’s my house, so what can he do?”
This was my introduction to video dating via Zoom, the platform that has rapidly become the go-to medium for online daters under lockdown. Simone was a 46-year-old advertising director and single mum I met on the dating app, Bumble. With her ex-husband waiting downstairs, it felt as if he was actually on the date with us, which made me slightly uncomfortable. I was also put off by the news that he had moved back in. Was he really over her? It was none of my business and I didn’t want to find out. All I knew was that matters were unsettled, and so our date ended there. This is the problem with us mid-life singletons — so much baggage. I was grateful that my situation as a single 55-year-old seemed simpler than hers. I live alone, I have a grown-up son who lives abroad, and no ex-partners hiding in the woodwork.
ZOOM CHAT VIDEO DATING ARRIVES
Dating apps caught fire under the coronavirus lockdown. They all report massive spikes in new sign-ups and messaging between members. Before Covid-19, swipe-based dating apps encouraged users to be fast and fickle in how they assessed potential candidates, but now single people have more time to devote to it, and so this sudden slowing down of the pace of life provides the perfect opportunity to adopt a more, dare I say it, mindful approach to love. And with this, new habits are quickly evolving, of which video messaging is right upfront. It affords singles a greater opportunity to vet potential candidates in advance, without going out. Single females can now also date safely from their armchairs, risk free. It is working so well for many that it has left them wondering why they didn’t do it before, instead of opting for the high risk option of meeting someone in real life on the back of very little information. Thanks to Covid-19 and video messaging, this might just be the best time ever to be online dating.
This is the principle at least — but is it the reality?
LOCKDOWN LOVE ONLINE
I first came to online dating three years ago, aged 52, after the end of a six-year relationship, and I have met three girlfriends online. I split from my last partner during February 2020, before lockdown, and then signed up after it had been imposed. My quest is for a relationship, rather than anything casual, and this has its challenges, as most divorced mid-lifers often come with young children (I’ve already been through that stage), difficult exes or trust issues. I often wonder, how many of them are actually looking for a relationship, as opposed to just passing the time, or using the apps as a source of entertainment?
So, single again, once more I selected my pictures and wrote up my dating bio. This time I also included my woman spec:
You are between 40 and 55, physically fit, smart and funny, live in London, non-smoker, probably divorced with children. You like books, art, podcasts, fine cheese, high quality coffee and Netflix. Please, no moustaches or unibrows. Also, no mobile phone zombies (who like to sleep with the thing next to them, like it’s a gun or something). Also please be over your ex — no, no, I mean really!
I signed up to Bumble and Hinge, both of which are less blatantly sexual than Tinder. Bumble is the app in which females make the first move. It is popular with many mid-life professionals who work in legal services, fin-tech and healthcare. Anyone who wants to date an NHS doctor or nurse, the new heroes of our age, should look no further than this app. Hinge, by contrast, is good for mid-lifers who work in media and the creative professions.
One thing I learned about dating apps back when I started is that they can be bad for ones mental health if overused, and should therefore be utilised sparingly. It is very easy during lockdown, when people are bored, to be constantly engaged, the way one might be on Instagram — but burn out happens fast. I put strict limits on my usage — 30 minutes a day, each evening after work, and with a complete break at weekends. As a writer, I have been working full days despite lockdown, and so I looked upon my online dating time as a treat to look forward to at the end of the day.
LOCKDOWN DATE APPS BLOW
There was activity just a few minutes after signing up. The big difference now is that there are many more people swiping right on me than before — previously it was two or three per day, whereas now its more like nine or 10 — and more of them want to message. I’ve noticed that women now put more energy into starting conversations, whereas before they tended to hang back and wait. This is great, although I wish the chats were about more than Covid-19 and lockdown life. While the upswing in attention was flattering, I quickly realised that it presented no advantage — it just meant more profiles to have to sift through, and I had no idea how many were serious.
As I look through I reject bios with typos, no writing, blurry pics, or ones in which the person looks unhappy. (This usually means they are unhappy). Single parents who display their young children in their photos, without respecting their right to privacy, are also out. I also reject photos of the backs of people’s heads or ones in which they are concealing their faces. (What are they hiding?) My disqualifying criteria may sound harsh to some, but assessing people quickly and then moving on is vital, simply because there are so many people on the apps, especially now, and so we all need rules to quickly reduce the numbers. Elimination rather than accumulation is my mantra. I found I could quickly get through almost 100 profiles in my 30-minute allocation, only selecting approximately five a night.
ZOOM VIDEO DATE HESITATION
But despite my increase in matches and texts, crucially there was no spike in the numbers who actually wanted to progress to a video date. Often when I suggested it, many would simply ignore my text completely. This was both a surprise and a disappointment, considering the energy invested to reach this point. But Fear Of Meeting Up (FOMU) is a key facet of dating apps. According to research by Queen Mary University, only 10 per cent of Tinder users actually go on dates. The rest just look, accrue likes or chat. This suggests that most use the apps socially, rather than to find romance. Could this be why there is such a big increase in lockdown sign-ups — because commitment-phobic singles now feel safe in the knowledge that they can’t actually meet? Since lockdown, apps such as Guardian Soulmates now allow users to specify if they are interested in video dating. When I logged on there were 1,293 single women identified by the algorithm as being suitable for the requirements I had put into their filters. But when I checked the box to include those interested in video dating, the number plummeted to 119 — just 9 per cent of the total. This is all bad news for someone like me genuinely seeking a partner.
Nicole might have been one of those suffering from FOMU. She was a single mother from Kent that I matched with on Bumble. She had a cascade of black curly hair and big, expressive eyes that shone out of her profile pictures. After a sparky exchange I suggested a video date. I don’t like endless messaging, so I always try and move things along quickly. But to my surprise, as soon as I broached the subject of video, she ghosted me. Chatting was all she wanted, despite the fact that she’d stated on her profile that she was looking for love. During our chat she’d told me she’d been single since her divorce seven years ago. Maybe she’d become boyfriend-proof — single for so long that she could no longer adjust to the prospect of having a partner.
Or perhaps she simply didn’t like me.
As I considered this, rejection hit me like a hard slap in the face. My ego burned, I closed the app for the night and drank wine, staring out of the window.
On the upside, I was now I was a fully-fledged Zoom user, part of the new global tribe, alongside celebrities, politicians, business leaders and healthcare professionals. FaceTime, WhatsApp and the video apps present within dating platforms are also being used for dating, but their framing lacks scope, with room only to show your face and torso — plus you have to hold the phone in your hand, which can be uncomfortable for longer conversations. Running Zoom on a laptop frees you from this, and has the added benefit of a big screen, which shows the background. Crucially, Zoom is free for the first 40 minutes only, which gives each date a ready-made time limit, so I always have an easy get out.
ZOOM VIDEO DATING – THE BACKDROP
I quickly learned that the way to make a good impression on a video first date is to curate your Zoom, carefully creating your backdrop for the session, and your sartorial presentation within it. Watching the nightly television news during the coronavirus pandemic I have been surprised at how many politicians appeared not to have thought about visual presentation. The biggest mistake I see is when people do not raise their laptops up in line with their face, and so you are presented with an unflattering upward view under their chin and nostrils. My number one rule for online daters is, never sit in front of a blank wall. People like “conversation starters”, and a plain wall gives them nothing to feed off. John Legend hit the headlines recently when his collection of Grammies featured in the background of his home video performance. But so far most online daters have no idea about curating their Zoom, perhaps because the culture is so new, and so most just log on without thinking about presentation.
My video dates take place in my study in the evenings, as most people in my age range have kids, and so it is better when they are in bed.
Behind me is a carefully arranged shelf of books,amongst them, The Master & Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, andThe Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley, placed within sight of the camera. My computer sits on a box to boost its height, and I use a lamp for extra light on my face. I put on a little low background music — the albumA Go Go, by jazz guitarist John Scofield is a current favourite — and I am ready with a glass of wine and a glass of water. This was the set-up a few days later when I had a video date with Katherine, a single mum from Mitcham. She had suggested an activity-based Zoom link-up, during which we played a game, or ate dinner “together”, but I was not keen. A first date is really an interview, and I wanted to find out all I could about her, which meant looking her in the eye and asking questions. Until I am sure I like someone I don’t want to spend two hours with them playing charades.
I was dressed in a smart navy blue denim shirt, but when I logged on she was wearing her pyjamas, and in contrast to her dating profile pictures, she had made no effort with her appearance. She was slouched in her bedroom, and in the background was a padded headboard with a wonky picture of clouds in a frame above it. The first thing she did was apologise for having not made any effort.Well, why not, I thought?Isn’t this important?I was amazed, and disappointed. Just as a person would never attend a job interview with this attitude, why would they do it on a date? Isn’t finding ones potential life partner as important as finding that great job? It was in complete contrast to the effort I had put in. I knew we were not suited, but nevertheless we talked for half-an-hour before finally I said, “I’m going to go now. It’s been great to meet you, but I just don’t feel there’s much of a spark between us.” She seemed surprised at my directness, but she agreed, and we said goodbye. Departing on Zoom always seems more abrupt, and I wondered if I had begun to adapt my behaviour to the technology. In real life, conversations take longer to tail off, and then you physically see someone walking away. This provides valuable processing time, which humanises the experience. By contrast, on video, things happen suddenly — you make a concluding statement and then you hit a button on your device and the person is gone in a flash. But this is the nature of digital dating. Within the apps themselves the process is even more brutal, as we dismiss huge numbers of human beings each day with a cursory swipe of a finger.
ONLINE LOVE PANDEMIC
The following week I matched with Valentina, a 40-year-old communications director in London. She had sculpted eyebrows and wore her hair pulled back in a fierce ponytail. She had no kids, and this appealed to me, as it meant that with no childcare restrictions, she potentially had more time for romance. When I logged on for our video date I got a shock. She was sitting naked in a bubble bath, drinking champagne.
“Whoah!” I said, as the image flashed onto my screen.
“Hiya Ben, pleased to meet you,” she replied, her head leaning against a backdrop of white marbled tiles.
“Please to meet you too,” I stuttered. “They’re serious bubbles you got going on in there. What is it — Mr Matey, or some kind of high-end luxury product?”
She laughed. “Crème Brulee Honey Bath, darling. By Laura Mercier.”
She went on to explain that the Covid-19 pandemic had frightened her, and thoughts about her own mortality had led to her approaching life more adventurously. “We all might die tomorrow,” she lamented. “Why don’t you come round, and jump in with me?”
I suggested that it wasn’t a good idea under the circumstances. “Don’t be a bore,” she replied.
I decided not to lecture her about putting her own selfish needs before those of the country. Instead I said, “I think I’m going to go.”
“Oh, whatever,” she replied, and she promptly logged out.
By the end of the first two weeks of lockdown I had scanned 1,000 faces, and had five video dates. My shortest, with Valentina, lasted only 15 minutes, after she’d invited me to break the rules on social distancing. Emotionally all the activity takes its toll, which is why I insist on using the apps so sparingly. I felt drained. I needed some fallow time, a break from the mind-numbingly repetitive first date Covid-chat. I felt like if anyone else asked me the question, “How’s lockdown going?” I was going to scream. On the upside however, I realised that Zoom is a much better way to have a first date than getting dressed up and spending the time travelling to meet them in the flesh. If you are going to be disappointed at least you haven’t left the house. It means no more awkward conversations about who pays for drinks. This has saved me a lot of money at a time when cash is tight.
I stopped video dating for a few days after these first encounters. As I rested, and pondered my early Zoom encounters, I wondered, was I sub-consciously choosing the wrong types of women. Did I need to alter my woman spec? It was just as I was considering this that I connected with Candice, a 44-year-old art director and painter from North West London that I met onHinge. She was divorced, with a five-year-old son. She had narrow eyes, a thin mouth and pronounced cheekbones.
“Those cheekbones look sharper than a scalpel,” I said to her, as my opening line.
“Thanks,” she replied. “I’m making extra cash during lockdown, working as a bread slicer.”
CURATE YOUR ZOOM DATE
Apart from her wit, what attracted me to her profile was the fact that she was smiling in her photos (she’s happy); she had no semi-nude images (she’s classy); she talked about art (she’s cultured); and she didn’t have a moustache (phew!). We quickly progressed to a video date. And finally here was a woman with the best Zoom curation I’d seen so far. In the background she had a mixture of paintings, wild plants and big art books. I noticed that one of them was by the German painter Albert Oehlen. On a table next to her there was a glass of Vionnet, and a wooden sculpture of a seagull next to a Santa snow globe. She had done her hair and make-up, and wore an amazing vintage dress with silver chainmail epaulets that glistened under the light. I was mesmerised. If the seriousness of a person’s intent could be measured by how much time and effort they’d put into curating their Zoom, then Candice scored a 10.
“What’s with the Santa snow globe?” I enquired.
“Oh, well, Xmas is a time when we’re all really happy, and I just thought, if Xmas makes us feel good, then we should think like every day is Xmas. So the globe is there to remind me.”
Wow, I thought.Wow!
By the end of our date she knew that I liked her, because I uttered the magic sentence — “What are you doing tomorrow?” As we signed off we were both smiling at each other.
After this I continued setting up Zoom calls with other women, but no one impressed me like Candice. Whenever I saw a sloppy backdrop, or someone who had not made an effort with their appearance, I was instantly put off. Candice had now set the standard, and everything was measured against her. This often happens when dating multiple people. Once you meet someone you like and that impresses you, the others start to pale.
After a month of activity I’d looked at 2,000 profiles and gone on 11 video dates. Candice was the only woman I had wanted to Zoom with again. The others all finished after the first encounter. One woman sent me a follow up message stating she was uninterested in a second date, while I pulled out from the other nine myself. But with Candice it felt different. I was surprised to have found someone I liked so quickly. It felt out of kilter with the many stories of people online dating for years without finding anyone they like. I do think there is too pressure placed on the endgame of romance. Perhaps instead, online dating should start as a quest for learning — that is, connecting with someone through which we learn something, either about ourselves and our choices or human nature in general. This could be achieved without necessarily fancying someone.
I’d soon had three video dates with Candice, and it began to feel almost like we were together. Our second date happened the day after the first, in the evening, after her son was in bed, and it felt noticeably unpressurised, as if we’d known each other for years. All we did was talk at the screen, and that seemed the most exciting pastime in the world. I didn’t ask her what other dating she might be doing — it was none of my business. I was focused only on getting to know her better. The third date was instigated by her, and on that occasion she gave me a tour of some of her artwork and paintings, moving her laptop around the room, while intermittently poking her head suddenly into frame. It wasn’t supposed to be funny, but it made me laugh.
ONLINE LOVE, OFFLINE FAIL?
At the same time I was beginning to wonder whether our genuine onscreen interactions had a hope of potentially forging a real offline connection. Was this simply to be a digital version of a holiday romance (or pandemic romance) — a fantasy love affair that runs on the fuel of the current heightened circumstances — that starts and finishes online? Is there a danger that what happens in corona stays in corona? I thought I’d have to wait weeks to find out, but then the lockdown rules suddenly changed. The government decreed that we are permitted to meet one person from another household, as long as we stay two metres apart, and preferably outside.
So, the day before I wrote this article, I finally met Candice in person. I suggested a walk-n-talk in Hyde Park, now the number one venue for first dates in West London. We both live quite close by, and so she cycled from her flat, while I walked from mine. We met by the main gate, just up from Notting Hill. I arrived first. My hands were shaking a bit as I held a coconut cappuccino for myself, and a mint tea for her, which I’d bought on the way from a café on Westbourne Grove that has remained open. When she arrived, my heart bumped a little in excitement, and I took a step toward her, to give her a hello hug, but then I remembered the protocol and stepped back again. She somehow looked bigger in real life, in three dimensions, her features more animated. We stared at each other silently, and then started giggling like children.
ONLINE DATING IRL
When I handed over her tea she took off the lid and removed the teabag. “Why didn’t you cut the lid off the cup with those razor cheekbones, instead of using your hands?” I joked.
“I don’t want to blunt my blade,” she replied, raising her hands innocently. She wore an oversized black hoodie, with her hair spilling around the edges and one hand buried deep into one of the pockets. It took all my willpower not to try to hug and kiss her. We spent two hours walking around on the grass, staying off the busier pathways, and also out of each other’s orbit.
I glanced at her and asked, “So, where are you in your recovery from your ex?”
“I’m through it,” she replied casually. “…..but he isn’t.”
“Did you instigate the divorce?”
Then she asked me about my exes. “The last three haven’t been the best choices,” I said. “I am working on changing my spec.”
“How do you know I am not the same as the others?”
I paused. “Good question,” I said after a few seconds. “We’ll have to see.”
Thanks to our long Zoom chats it already felt as if we knew each other quite well, and so in this regard it was not like a first date — although physically it was. I was fascinated by her face, her hair, her body and its contours — the parts of her I had never seen until now. Many times as we walked she caught me scanning her form, but she pretended not to notice. As time went on, resisting the temptation to touch her actually got easier. Under lockdown, avoiding human contact means that, like many, I have now deprogrammed myself from the instinct to touch. Nevertheless, as we parted, saying goodbye from a distance felt rude, almost disrespectful. We didn’t quite know how to do it, so we just stood there shuffling and looking awkward.
Video dating and physical isolation have made me value human interaction more than ever before in my life. Have I met a new partner? I hope so. I realise I have also found a new dating tool. Even after lockdown is fully over, there will still be a place for video dating with Candice. Between her busy work schedule and having a young child, she won’t always have time to meet. Zoom will now form part of modern romance for us, and many others.
“When this is over, things are going to get seriously physical,” I said.
She smiled. “I am really looking forward to that.” She got on her bicycle and rode away.
An abridged version of this article was originally published in The Telegraph newspaper.
In Online Dating, by
“Intriguing and powerful.”
BBC Radio 5 Live
“Extraordinary and revelatory.”
Author Ben Arogundade recounts his journey as an online dater, during which time he was stood up, verbally abused, propositioned for sex and asked to be a father to an unborn child. Along the way he offers singles the secrets and best practices they need to know to boost the quality of their matches, and presents the latest strategies, research-based guidelines and innovations to take their online profiles to new levels of excellence. Get it now at Amazon, £9.99/$12.99.
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