Pining for Quarantine Tinder

When the bad dates start piling up, I find myself pining for the days of Quarantine Tinder.

I’m talking here about the true quarantine, that March–May era of sirens on the hour and lockdowns that seemed like they might actually be enforced, back when we still thought sanitizing packages would keep us safe. It was a hard time to be single, but it was a great time to be on Tinder. I think we all knew even then we were in the midst of something special; I remember joking with more than one match that five years from now we’d all be reading some New York Magazine article that was like, “An Oral History of Quarantine Tinder” or something, and reminiscing about what we’d by then be able to look back on as some version of the good old days.

It reminded me a bit of the early days of Tinder eight or so years ago, when the app had just been released and I’d created an account as a twenty-two-year-old who was newly single and newly arrived in Detroit, a city where I barely knew anyone, and that wasn’t exactly teeming with young people to begin with. Tinder then hadn’t yet lost its sheen of adventure: there was still something just a little bit taboo about meeting someone through a swipe, and even the most chaste messages were left lightly eroticized by the medium through which they’d arrived. (Also, Tinder was iOS-only at the time, and I maintain that iPhone users are, on average, better-looking. Fight me, Android people.)

The early days of the pandemic pushed so many of us to look at all kinds of elements of our lives from new angles, and the way we approached Tinder was no exception. We were all home alone (or alone-ish) all day, most of us for the first time, and buzzing with that strange emotional cocktail of being simultaneously bored beyond belief, yet also too agitated to really focus on anything. Plus we were all horny, or anxious—those are so often the same thing anyway—or starved for human contact, or just feeling things we couldn’t put into words. And there was Tinder, always the outlet for any and all of those feelings, now even more constantly available than before.

But whereas the Tinder of the Before Times had been full of flakes and creeps and the occasional outright grifter, us citizens of Quarantine Tinder we were all so gentle with each other. We remembered something we usually forget, something that, like most of the deepest truths, one rarely thinks about day to day: that everyone we encounter is making their way through a life that’s as difficult and as complicated as our own.

And we were all in it together. In what was some combination of canny marketing play and gesture of solidarity, Tinder made their “passport” feature—which lets people use the app as if they’re anywhere in the world—free during the pandemic’s first few months. And just like the real New York, the virtual New York attracted more virtual tourists than anywhere else. I matched with people in Paris and Portugal, in Melbourne and Moscow, in Denver and Dallas, everyone talking about their lockdowns and about the little differences that gave each its own distinctive flavor. (France’s, for example, had a classically bureaucratic twist, with paper travel slips—I assumed they were beautifully designed—required to leave your house.) And I was reminded that there’s something beautiful about going through a shared experience with the rest of humanity, even—or maybe even especially—if that experience is terrible.

Of course, when two people meet on a dating app during a lockdown, there isn’t much they can actually do, which meant Quarantine Tinder was Tinder for its own sake, Tinder with no end state to push towards. I had weeks-long, meandering conversations with people I knew I’d never meet, people I knew I probably wouldn’t even like if I did meet them. We’d all been knocked right out of our usual evaluative mindset and forced to focus on the moment. Instead of wondering if we would feel a lasting connection with each other when we met in person, we focused on the connection we were already experiencing right then and there. Quarantine Tinder was distracted and agitated and compulsive at times, but Quarantine Tinder was also Zen Tinder.

And since we couldn’t meet, we couldn’t be disappointed. We were perpetually stuck with all our matches in the first third of a romantic comedy, when it’s all butterflies and possibility and you haven’t yet realized that she’s not really sure she wants to be with you, or that behind his charming nebbishness he’s actually a sexual predator. If a relationship can’t go anywhere, it can’t go wrong.

It had to end, of course—we may not be rounding the corner on the coronavirus, but we rounded the corner on Quarantine Tinder long ago. We started leaving our houses again and slowly remembered how to interact with people in real life, and Tinder returned to being the bazaar of disappointment  and mediocrity it always was deep down. But I’ll remember the way it felt during those magical few months, long after I’ve forgotten the names of everyone I talked to then.

And hey, maybe in five years New York Magazine will interview me for that oral history.

Yours in doubting it was a good use of time to write 1,000 words about Tinder,


P.S. A big thank you to everyone who requested a sequel to last week’s piece about my commitment to donating 10% of my income to charity. It’s coming, eventually. A special thank you to the reader who told me that the piece was just the push she needed to finally make an equivalent commitment herself. See, mom, this newsletter isn’t just a place where I damage my future career prospects by publicly referencing getting high!

Read of the week: This insane Lapham’s Quarterly piece about the ghastly, disreputable history of surgery. Did you know surgery used to happen at the barbershop (since all you needed to do it was access to sharp tools), and that the red and white stripes on a classic barber’s pole symbolize the bloody bandages of 16th-century surgery?