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The new rules for finding love in a pandemic

Tinder has encouraged users to go on 'virtual' dates during the coronavirus pandemic.
Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Social distancing and looking for love aren't exactly the best bedfellows.

And since going on a date in real life now falls foul of most countries' rules around coronavirus, singles are finding new ways to communicate with their matches, from dinner dates over Zoom to "watching" Netflix together – in their own separate homes - or simply finding time for an "online wine."

Upscale dating website The Inner Circle has seen the number of messages sent rise by 116% over the past week, and overall activity is up 25% compared to "Dating Sunday," the first Sunday in January and usually the most popular day for online dating.

Its users are mainly in large cities like London, Berlin, New York and Hong Kong and so are used to dating in urban bars and restaurants, but now they are finding themselves discussing things like toilet roll, according to founder and CEO David Vermeulen.

"There has also been an 800% increase in members talking about 'quarantine' since the start of March. Mentions of Netflix have also increased by 70% as people discuss how they are keeping entertained," Vermeulen told CNBC by email, referring to users' online messages.

Love under lockdown

Dating sites have moved fast to warn users not to meet in real life, with Tinder telling people to respect lockdowns. "Staying inside and doing your part to stop the spread of this virus is exponentially more important than going out to meet them IRL (in real life)," stated a post on the site's "Swipe Life" blog on Monday.

Daters can only usually connect with people local to them, but Tinder, part of Match Group, has made its Passport feature free until the end of April, meaning that users can match with people overseas without having to pay an upgrade fee – and presumably the site hopes to convert them into future subscribers.

It seems that as people are spending more time at home, they're increasing their activity on dating apps, with both Tinder and Bumble seeing a rise in active users for the week starting 8 March, according to the most recent data from App Annie.

The Inner Circle is also finding that users are keen to get on video calls, with a 50% increase in people suggesting they Skype or Zoom their matches since the start of March, according to Vermeulen, and it's a similar story for OkCupid.

The site, owned by Match Group, said that 25% of its users intended to video chat and 16% wanted to talk on the phone. People can now add their "ideal virtual date" preferences to their profiles and people are also playing games over FaceTime, according to OkCupid CEO Ariel Charytan.

Virtual connections

But whether you can actually fall in love without meeting in person remains to be seen.

People use all of their five senses to assess whether there is genetic compatibility with a potential partner, according to anthropologist Anna Machin.

"Visually, you can assess facial symmetry which is the indicator of strong genes and you can read body language. You can hear voice tone and listen to what they say which is an indicator of intelligence," Machin told CNBC by email. That's the good news for those who choose to go virtual.

The bad news is that touch is what releases oxytocin, the neurochemical that underpins the first stages of attraction – impossible on a virtual date. And according to Machin, women in particular use their sense of smell to assess genetic compatibility – again, out of the question.

Dating apps have been blamed for encouraging a culture of casual hook ups, so effectively forcing people to get to know each other first might mark a return to more traditional courtship, according to Rachael Lloyd, eHarmony's senior PR and communications manager. 

"I remain hopeful that despite the turmoil, there will be positive side effects from the current crisis – that we can rediscover our flair for conversation and getting to know someone over time. I expect people will self-reflect more and consider what they really want for themselves," she told CNBC by email.

 For Charly Lester, a dating expert at The Inner Circle, video dates don't have to be boring. One of her suggestions is "coronavirus and chill," where couples choose a TV show to watch at the same time. "It could start a debate, a connection, a relationship," she said in an email to CNBC.

Swiping apps have, in the past, led to some unusual trends in human behavior. "Breadcrumbing," for instance, refers to someone sending endless flirtatious messages without ever intending to meet up, while "obliga-swiping" is when someone swipes to get matches on an app just for a buzz.

But the emotional impact of the virus could encourage people to take dating more seriously, according to anthropologist Machin. "Maybe it makes you think that in a crisis like this really all you are left with are those you love, so it might have made some people ramp up their search for someone."