The first canceled date was a bad omen. “So, my coworker may have been exposed to COVID,” Sean called to tell me, an hour before we were due to meet at Radio City Music Hall for a show in March. I was sipping wine with a friend, killing time. “Our whole office might need to self-quarantine,” he said. I took my friend to the show instead. I wouldn’t see Sean again, but we would watch each other’s Instagram Stories religiously for eight months and counting. “Ghosting” is the colloquial term for disappearing after a date, but now the more insidious ghosts are the almost-dates that haunt us, indefinitely, around the edges of our digital lives: phantoms that remind us of what could have been, if the pandemic hadn’t changed dating and uprooted plans so swiftly. As case rates rise nationally, the pursuit of love—like much of life—remains stuck in virtual limbo.
After Sean canceled, the chips fell quickly: lockdowns, self-quarantines and isolation became the norm. I had connected on an app with another potential date, a musician named Chris, in February. He was kind and curious in his text banter, and as we hunkered down in our apartments we shared music recommendations and fears about the future. Soon, we were both living back at home with our parents, separated by a two-hour time difference and 2,000 miles. But nearly every night—both insomniacs—we’d check in. “How was your day?” we’d ask each other, going on long tangents about the news and art and family. We never spoke on the phone, never FaceTimed. But I learned the things that made Chris tick, his relationship with his parents, his sadness when his childhood house was sold, then demolished. But when we finally met in person, eight months later, it didn’t feel like he could ever be a partner—he would always be the person on the other end of the text, at once too familiar and not familiar enough. Still, I couldn’t imagine a quarantine without this connection, a relationship untethered from the scheduling pressures of dating and the stress of definitions.
Now, 9 months in, the pandemic has made these kinds of fully-virtual relationships commonplace. When I was a kid, I thought having a pen pal like this would be the height of romance. I was wrong, of course: at night, the blue light of my phone keeps me company, but the loneliness does not fade. I may be lonely, but in that, at least, I am not alone. A quick poll of friends on Instagram showed that about two-thirds were spending much more time talking to potential dates before meeting up, especially for those who had changed their living situations temporarily or been hit by the pandemic’s economic effects. Early in the pandemic, messages on Bumble were up about 25%. By the end of September, member activity on Tinder was up double digits from February, the company shared with TIME. Smaller sites like The Inner Circle saw message frequency double. Stuck at home and with little to do, people began to stack Zoom dates like they would work calls.
New initiatives, like the aptly named Quarantine Together and Love Is Quarantine, popped up to cater to the circumstances directly. Existing apps like Hinge, Tinder and Bumble launched or bolstered their in-platform video chat capabilities, encouraging the jump to FaceTime if not face time. Smaller groups like the comedy duo UpDating or the speed-dating service Here/Now made virtual versions of their in-person experiences. But there’s a sense of uncertainty around the shape of these connections; a Harris poll from November showed that Gen Z women now consider their relationships “undefined” a full quarter of the time.
For my generation of Millennials and our younger peers, it’s become normal to project our needs and hopes onto internet strangers, learned early in chatrooms—RIP AIM—or the confessional online forums of the aughts, or as pop culture connoisseurs thirsting after the characters in our favorite shows and actors in our favorite tabloids. The “internet boyfriend” (or girlfriend) is not a new concept; a new book, A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends, provides a handy roadmap to the type. “An Internet Boyfriend… seems like the type of person you would probably want to get to know and definitely want to date. An Internet Boyfriend often plays characters that are just as intriguing—or even more intriguing—than the Internet Boyfriend himself. An Internet Boyfriend represents something,” writes Esther Zuckerman. And then she names them: Benedict Cumberbatch, Timothee Chalamet, Mahershala Ali. Pretty celebrities with ample documentation online, they are cyphers for our hopes, however unrequited those dreams may stubbornly remain.
My internet boyfriends are real, everyday people, even if made concrete only by the photos they post and the messages they send. Chris was just a collection of grey text boxes on a white screen, a guy who was particular about punctuation, until we had a drink and I discovered the contours of his quick smile and the timbre of his voice. I’d met Jack once, at a wedding just before the pandemic, but now we call, text and even have written letters, discussing the confusion of the world around us, knowing we may not see each other again anytime soon. He spent the summer and fall traveling the West in a van, and now when I think of him, I hear his Southern drawl describing the moon while driving through the empty New Mexican desert. Brian sent an emoji reaction to my Instagram Stories almost daily for six months from his own Midwestern isolation, but faced with being back in the same city, we both chickened out about planning a meeting. Over the summer, Phillip’s jokes made me smile; we chatted on an app intermittently for months before, upon my return to New York City, he said he was too busy with work to actually meet for a socially distanced date. He is embalmed in my memories as a guy who headed to Tulum at the pandemic’s height, texting me sunset photos from a faraway beach.
Or there’s someone like Ben, with whom I matched on an app while he was visiting my hometown. I sent him a Google Doc guide to my favorite places and he sent me feedback on his dinners and hikes. He left before the case rate dropped enough for me to see him, and we’ve never lived in the same place. But we have the same taste in restaurants and hikes, and life is up in the air enough that right now, that seems like enough reason to stay in touch. Why concern ourselves with the parameters of reality? Why not keep an open mind? The list of internet pseudo-boyfriends goes on.
Each of them may be distilled to their digital personas, but they have changed the way I think about dating; they have taught me to step back and try to communicate without expectations. Dating during COVID-19 doesn’t offer the romance of infatuation or the passion of a fling, but it teaches us to commit to something different: kindness, curiosity, discovery, patience.
My shifting dating attitude is reflected nationally. A study released in the spring backed by Match.com highlighted the turn towards longer conversations and reconsidering values; 63% of respondents were spending more time getting to know potential dates. Honesty was up, as was the percentage of people who said they shared “meaningful conversations” prior to meeting in person. One app, The League, shared data with TIME showing average conversation length went up overall 20-25% between late March and now. (Back in April, they clocked a 41% increase in video usage within the app, plus more number exchanges and double attendance in their weekly video speed dating sessions, but that has since dropped off.) Over at Hinge, two out of three users said they “want to change the way they date once it is safe to meet in person again,” one in three were “open to being exclusive with someone they have only dated virtually,” about two-thirds felt a “growing connection” with someone they’d met only virtually, and two-thirds were “thinking more about who they’re really looking for.”
Most of these long-term messaging relationships don’t result in true love. One guy shared with me a story about his own COVID dating experience: he’d met a woman on Bumble just before isolation in the spring. After their first date was canceled, they talked daily for three months, ordering each other takeout while jointly watching shows like Money Heist, “double dating” while watching movies at home with their parents, investing in the same stocks on Robinhood and even attending virtual concerts jointly. She asked him to kiss in the comments of a Shadowboxers encore set. Then, as the pandemic dragged on, their online love story dwindled. They never met. They didn’t need each other anymore. (They do still talk, he said.) Yet it was a connection that helped sustain something like joy during the year’s darkest months—the type of connection I’ll continue to seek, for better or worse, online more than offline, as winter closes around us.
Maybe Sean and I will finally go on that date once we eventually get vaccinated, if we end up in the same city. But maybe he—and every other one of these internet boyfriends—will eventually fade out of my life, their purpose served. I’m grateful for them anyway.