Pandemic dating, humor, and selling the selfie in the online market

Recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Dr. Sanjay Gupta was asked if people should date in the time of Coronavirus to which his answer was “it depends on how much you like the person”. Colbert then asked about blind dates, to which Gupta said, “no, no blind dates.” Colbert prodded further, asking about Tinder, to which Gupta promptly fired back, “definitely not, but even before this, no Tinder,” then laughed it off and said, “I’m kidding.”

Despite Gupta’s warning to avoid dating and apps, people are still swiping. An OkCupid survey recently showed 92% of Americans and 88% of people globally are still dating. As a digital communication researcher studying online dating, I wondered why people were not heeding advice to lay low for a while. My research confirms these statistics that people are still swiping and dating but are changing how people are looking for love and lust. In the words of 46-year-old women from Seattle, WA who goes by the username Lady Siren, “in this time of COVID-19, strangers are…well, strange.”

Many daters are capitalizing on these strange times, trying to stand out from others in a seemingly endless pool of options. OkCupid found an 188% increase in Coronavirus mentions on profiles between January and February. Humorous profiles and pick up lines are becoming increasingly common as people try to find connection in a world where distance is the new norm. Alexa, a 34-year-old woman in Tacoma, WA said that “Tinder Tuesday” on a References to “QuaranTeaming” are showing up across social media. For example, in a Facebook group for traveling medical professionals has been full of messages for people “Looking for someone to ride out the COVID quarantine and post-COVID apocalypse with”. Aristotle, a 55-year-old Seattle man, sent an opening message to a woman suggesting “we meet up in full body condoms” just to be safe.

Facebook posts about QuaranTeaming

The use of humor on dating apps is a common strategy that, when used well, can be highly effective. In her book Language, Creativity, and Humour Online, Camilla Vasquez argues that linguistic creativity can be used create a sense of mutuality, which during a time of physical distancing has to power to close social distance through solidarity moves that suggest “we are all in this together.”

As government leaders increasingly order citizens to “shelter at home,” online dating profiles reveal changing priorities about what makes for a good partner. With the possibility of lengthy quarantine, those prepared to survive the duration become more attractive. Profiles with photos showcasing a pantry stocked full of rice and beans, enough hand sanitizer to take a bath in, and reams and reams of toilet paper suggest reliability and resourcefulness. These pandemic profiles reflect the new norms of the day and provide a window into Quarantine Dating by visualizing new norms of daily life.

In addition to “survivalist” and “stable provider” tropes, pandemic profiles often employ selfies of people washing their hands and wearing face masks and gloves. On the surface, these images signal cleanliness and hygiene. On a deeper level, these images tap into ideological beliefs about social and moral responsibility as daters represent themselves as citizens doing their part to flatten the curve. In mid-March, a Facebook post went viral, garnering over 200,000 shares in two weeks, as Nate Huffeditz posted that “dating profiles during quarantine be like…” and followed it with a collage of silly selfies in which he performed the hygiene ritual of handwashing and posed with the quintessential symbols that we now associate with COVID-19. Pandemic profiles that were unusual and unique at the beginning of the epidemic are quickly becoming the latest trope and thus may quickly become just like every other profile, thereby having less value in the digital dating marketplace.

Viral Facebook post of man posing with artifacts of artifacts of the time
Viral Facebook post reflects norms for pandemic profiles

According to my research, a sense of humor — or “wit” — is one of the most commonly sought-after characteristics on dating apps. For those looking for long term relationships (LTR), especially professional women with successful careers, the quest for a partner who “has their shit together” is another often cited requirement. In this way, a well-executed pandemic profile checks the box for both wit and having one’s shit together.

A deeper look into the complexities of pandemic dating, shows that it’s not all fun and games. While many pandemic profiles seem to take a lighthearted approach, there are also some that rely on black humor. Seattle women recently came across a Tinder profile for a 34-year-old man going by the name of Coronavirus. Below the photo of the user, a stylized visualization of the biological virus, the profile describes Coronavirus as a “Typical man: trying to be in you, constantly a threat, and not good to introduce to relatives.” Coronavirus is also a world traveler looking for people to hang out with in his quest to visit every country. The women who shared the profile with me said they just couldn’t swipe right — even if it was intended to be funny. While many people find black humor funny, there are many who find gallows humor offensive. In addition to the delicate nature of the content, sarcasm and irony are often difficult for people to detect in online environments, making these sorts of moves risky for online daters.

Tinder profile of Coronavirus as a male user on the dating app
Tinder profile comparing the Coronavirus to a typical man on the app

From a mental health standpoint, Coronavirus humor in online dating spaces can be seen as a world trying to cope with fear and uncertainty. Loretta LaRoche, a suburban Boston stress management consultant who uses humor to help clients cope with Coronavirus related anxiety says,“There’s so much fear and horror out there. All the hand washing in the world isn’t going to clear up your head.”

Pandemic profiles and pick up lines provide a window into “quarantine dating” by visualizing new norms of daily life. These timely online dating strategies are not merely about savvy daters trying to outshine the competition with their best selfie, but also attempts to shine light in the darkness and serve as cathartic interventions for a global society in crisis and struggling with social distancing.

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Riki Thompson

Digital communication scholar & certified word nerd. Researching how people find love, sex, and connection in the digital age. www.rikithompson.com