Michelle has had her fair share of bad dates.
A divorced mother of four children, Michelle, 52, resolved to maintain her sense of humor when she returned to the dating market, and signed up for Hinge, an online dating service that includes voice memos, in addition to audio and video functions that enable two interested parties to talk to each other without sharing their phone numbers.
Given that she had not dated since she was in her 20s, Michelle, who asked for her surname to be withheld, was thrown into the world of online dating, right swipes, ghosting, men who were actually living overseas, married men, men who lied about their age and men who posted photos that were 10 years old. She split from her husband of nearly two decades in 2014.
Hinge is part of Match.com’s
group of apps along with OKCupid, Tinder, Bumble, and Christian Mingle, among others. The company promotes itself as the app that is designed to be deleted by its users. It’s a bold statement in the era of online dating, when people scroll through profiles — swiping right for yes and left for no — in search of their perfect mate.
But Hinge, like many other dating apps, introduced a video function in 2020 to help push people to “meet” during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic. Dating experts advise applying the same rules you would to a Zoom
call: dress smartly, use an overhead light rather than a backlight that casts you in shadow, and don’t sit in front of yesterday’s pile of dirty laundry.
“‘It’s amazing how many guys use a picture from 10 years ago. You can barely recognize them when you meet them.’”
A video date will reveal a lot more than a profile picture. “It’s amazing how many guys use a picture from 10 years ago,” Michelle said. “You can barely recognize them when you meet them. I discovered that someone who is very quick to ask for your email address or your number is more likely to be a scammer. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of scamming on dating apps.”
She’s not wrong. Nearly 70,000 Americans lost $1.3 billion to romance scams through social media and dating apps last year, up from 56,000 the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That’s broadly in line with the amount of money lost the previous year, but up significantly from the $730 million lost in 2020.
Through her work as a social worker, Michelle has learned to evaluate people and look for red flags. She has used those skills when online dating. She watches out for “goofy stuff” like a man who is writing like a character from a romance novel. “The Lifetime Channel Christmas Love Story is not happening on Hinge,” she said. “Those are the things that I kind of find funny.”
Other red flags: Someone who lies about their age, is unwilling to meet, won’t turn on the video chat function — what have they got to hide? — and a man who is cheap. “Why did I drive 45 minutes to meet you and you can’t even buy me a cup of coffee? I don’t want someone who is stingy. Either they’re really miserly, have poor judgment, or poor people skills.”
The perilous side of handheld love machines
Dating apps are the ultimate love machine, churning out potential partners every two seconds, someone who is taller, younger, hotter, richer, broader, slimmer, sexier, kookier, weirder — and the list goes on. All of life’s parade is a swipe away. Millions of people use dating apps — from Grindr for gay men to Facebook Dating for pretty much everyone.
There is a balance between keeping people swiping and helping them find love. It’s a numbers game, and can be as addictive as playing the slots. EHarmony promotes its Compatibility Score, while OKCupid asks users to answer an almost limitless number of questions in order to match with more appropriate people. But critics say it leads to the gamification of people’s love lives.
Jenny Taitz, author of “How to Be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate,” said one of the most common complaints about dating apps is the constant game of cat and mouse. Each user is probably talking to several people at the same time, and it’s tough to get people off the apps and into the real world.
If you like someone, she says, move to a video chat to test the chemistry. “It’s time-consuming, but you need to move from a pen pal to an in-person meetup,” she said. “It could be something that you do all the time, so you really have to have limits. If you’re having four dates a week, does that mean you’re not making time for friendships where you have an investment?”
“‘The same person who volunteers at a soup kitchen might easily ghost someone. There is so much detachment.’”
Anonymity can often lead to ghosting, when people just disappear or stop answering messages. “We need to treat people like they would treat their future child or best friend,” Taitz said. “Bad behavior is so pervasive, and people are not held accountable for their actions. The same person who volunteers at a soup kitchen might easily ghost someone. There is so much detachment.”
Some studies have linked dating apps with depression, while other studies have found that online dating has led to a string of robberies through hook-ups on Grindr, and can also make it easier for sexual predators to find victims. These problems obviously exist in the real world, but social media and dating apps can provide an easier path for bad actors.
Julie Valentine, a researcher, sexual-assault nurse examiner, and associate dean of Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing, analyzed 1,968 “acquaintance” sexual assaults that occurred between 2017 and 2020. She and her fellow researchers concluded that 14% of these sexual assaults resulted from a dating-app’s first in-person meeting.
“One-third of the victims were strangled and had more injuries than other sexual-assault victims,” the study found. “Through dating apps, personas are created without being subjected to any criminal background checks or security screening. This means that potential victims have the burden of self-protection.”
All those coffees take time and money
A spokeswoman for Match.com said it does not release data on how many people have actually used the video chat function. If people did use the function more often without sharing their phone number, it would in theory provide a layer of protection, help weed out bad actors, and help people decide whether a prospective date is compatible early in the process.
Cherlyn Chong, the Las Vegas-based founder of Get Over Him, a program to help women get over toxic relationships, does not believe the video chat function is as widely used as it should be. Chong, who describes herself as a dating coach and a trauma specialist, encourages her clients to use every method available to screen dates, in addition to meeting in a public place.
So what if a man did not want to video chat? “If they didn’t want to video, that’s fine,” Chong said. “But their reaction to the request would be a litmus test. We would know he is probably not someone to date, as he is not flexible. It’s also very telling if a woman explains that it’s a safety issue. The response of the guy in that situation would also be another litmus test.”
“Once you give someone their phone number, you don’t know what they are going to do with it,” Chong said. She said one of her clients encountered a man who shared her phone number with others, and sent it to a spam site on the internet. “You want to believe in the best of people,” she said, “but there are people who misuse your number because they can’t handle rejection.”
“‘A couple of cocktails in New York City? You’re looking at $60 to $100, or a few hundred dollars for a pricier meal.’”
Connell Barrett, author of “Dating Sucks, But You Don’t,” said video dates are a good first step. “You can see your date, and read their body language,” he said. “Because physical contact is off the table for a video date, it can free both singles to let go and not worry about the pressure about moving in for the first kiss. Good chemistry happens when there’s less pressure.”
Video dating also saves you time and money, especially if you’re the one who picks up the tab. “A couple of cocktails in New York City? You’re looking at $60 to $100, or a few hundred dollars for a pricier meal,” he said. Regular daters could end up spending up to $1,500 a month in bigger cities, if they’re dating a lot and eating out, Barrett added.
How much you spend will clearly depend on your lifestyle. Members of The League, a dating app that’s geared towards professionals, spend up to $260 a month on dates, followed by $215 a month for singletons using Christian Mingle, $198 for people signed up to Match.com, and $174 for Meta’s
Facebook Dating subscribers, according to a recent survey.
A video call allows people to get a sense of the person’s circumstances and personality, and can avoid wasting an hour having coffee with someone you will never see again. Be fun, be playful, don’t ask about exes or grill the other person “60 Minutes”-style, Barrett said. “A big mistake people make in dating is trying to impress the other person,” he said.
Video dating goes back to the 1970s
Jeff Ullman created the first successful video-dating service in Los Angeles in 1975 called Great Expectations. People recorded messages direct-to-camera. “We started with Betamax, moved to VHS, and upgraded to CD-ROMs,” he said. “As long as there are adults, there will be the hunt for love, and there will be the longing for ‘I’m missing someone, I’m missing something,’” he told MarketWatch.
“The best and the brightest did not go into dating services in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said. “I only went into it because I wanted to change the world. What I wanted to do was turn pity to envy. Our videos were 5 or 6 minutes long. There were no stock questions. They had to be ad-libbed. The only similar question was the last one: ‘What are the qualities that are most important in a relationship?’”
He turned Great Expectations into a national franchise where customers paid $595 to $1,995 a year for membership ($1 in 1975 is around $5 today). “We did not hard sell you. We did a ‘heart sell.’ We had all kinds of Type As — doctors, lawyers, studio production chiefs, who all thought they were God’s gift, or God’s gift to womankind, but when they talked about their loneliness, they cried.”
People will always be searching for that perfect mate, Ullman said, whether it’s through videos, words, photos, psychological compatibility, A.I., or through arranged marriages or matchmakers. “But there is no perfect match. My wife Cindy and I are well matched. She’s not perfect. I’m not perfect. The moment either one of us begins to think we’re perfect is the moment we introduce negative forces.”
“‘What I wanted to do was turn pity to envy. Our videos were 5 or 6 minutes. There were no stock questions.’”
Before TikTok and Skype, people were not as comfortable in front of the camera, particularly if they had to talk about themselves. “We always hid the camera,” Ullman said. The 1970s decor of dark wood and indoor plants made that easier. “When we were finished, they’d say, ‘When are you going to start?’” But they were already on tape. They were, he said, happy with the first take 95% of the time.
Ullman required his franchisees to give members a three-day right to cancel for any reason — including “I’m not going to tell you” — if they changed their terms of service. “They just had to mail us or fax us their notice. Half of my franchisees were about to revolt.” Until, he said, they realized they could not afford to have a bad reputation in an industry where people were putting their hearts on the line.
It all started with a Sony-Matic Portable Videocorder gifted to him by his parents when he graduated from UC Berkeley in 1972. “They were very expensive, but they were portable. Whenever I went anywhere, whether it was a parade or a demonstration, which were common back then, they always let me in because they thought I was from “60 Minutes.” It gave us a sense of power.”
Fast forward to 2023: That power is in the hands of the $3 billion online dating industry and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the hands of the singletons who are putting their own messages out into the world through words and pictures. In the 1970s, most people were still meeting in person. These days, your online competition is, well, almost every single person within a 50-mile radius.
Watching out for those ‘green flags’
Video dating has come in handy for singletons like Andrew Kneeshaw, a photographer and publican in Streete, County Westmeath, a small town in the Irish midlands. He’s currently active on three dating sites: Plenty of Fish, Bumble and Facebook Dating. In-app video calls have saved him — and his potential dates — time, gasoline and money spent on coffee and lunch.
“Even someone local could be 15 or 20 miles away,” he said. He’s currently talking to a woman in Dublin, which is more than an hour away. “Hearing someone’s voice is one thing, but seeing that they are the genuine person they are supposed to be on the dating site definitely does help.” He could spend upwards of 20 euros ($21.45) on coffee/lunch, excluding gasoline.
He did go on a dinner date recently without having a video call, and he regretted it. “Neither of us felt there was a spark,” Kneeshaw said. So they split the check as they would likely never see each other again? “That sounds terrible, but yes,” he said. “I go on a date at best once a week. If you’re doing it a few times a week, it does add up very quickly.”
Ken Page, a Long Beach, N.Y.-based psychotherapist and host of the Deeper Dating podcast, is married with three children, and has compassion for people like Kneeshaw who live in more remote areas. In New York, he said, some people won’t travel uptown if they live downtown, and many more people won’t even cross the river to New Jersey.
“‘If it’s a video chat, you have the opportunity to get to know them more, and have that old-fashioned courtship experience.’”
He said green flags are just as important as red flags when deciding to move from a video date to an in-person date. “Is their smile warm and engaging? Are you attracted to the animation they have in their face? You just get tons more data when you see the person. You save money, and you save time before you get to the next step.”
In-person first dates can be brutal. “Your first reaction is, ‘they’re not attractive enough, I’ve got to get out of here,’” Page said. “If it’s a video chat, you have the opportunity to get to know them more, and have that old-fashioned courtship experience where attraction starts to grow. The ‘light attractions’ have more opportunity to grow without the pressure of meeting in person.”
Dating apps are a carousel of romantic dreams. The focus is on looks rather than personality or character. “There are so many people waiting online,” Page said. “That does not serve us. Unless the person really wows us, we swipe left. If you do a video chat, you will be more likely to get to know that person — instead of only getting to know the ‘9s’ and ‘10s.’”
And Michelle? The divorced Californian mother of four said she finally met a guy on Hinge last October, and they’ve been dating since then. “He’s just a fabulous guy. He actually moved slower than what I had experienced with other guys I had dated.” She kept her sense of humor and perspective, which helped. “He said, ‘You’re so funny.’ I didn’t have anything to lose.”
“It’s almost going to Zara
” she said. “Nine times out of 10 you may not find something you like, but one time out of 10 you do.”
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