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NEW DELHI : It has been a tumultuous couple of years for Shreya Parekh, moving cities and switching between multiple relationships that didn’t work out despite promising beginnings. Locked up at home for months during the covid-19 pandemic that hit India last year, the 27-year old marketing professional took time out to interact with men online, seeking refuge in the fact that there could be no in-person meeting anytime soon and there was therefore no pressure to keep it going at a certain pace.

“We’re still taking it slow, we will eventually meet if all goes well but there is no rush," Bengaluru-based Parekh said about the person she had been chatting with, echoing the sentiments of a whole community of dating app users in India that are likely to see virtual connections take precedence this year despite the rollout of a covid-19 vaccine and easing of restrictions.

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A recent survey by Bumble said 40% of single Indians will opt for virtual dating in 2021, as people now look for a large degree of trust to be formed and meaningful chats to be exchanged before they meet in person. Nearly half of the app’s dating community (47%) prefers low-key first dates in real life such as staying indoors with services saying the covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated the trend of Gen Z setting its own pace and creating its own rules.

“As people are more inclined to seek meaningful connections after a challenging year, virtual dating will become more important now than ever - as a large degree of trust must be formed before meeting in person," Samarpita Samaddar, the Bumble spokesperson said. Bumble is seeing that its community is having better quality chats on the service - as one in two chats has turned into something more meaningful with a large number of messages exchanged. Also, people want to feel more secure as they are connecting while having fulfilling conversations that could lead to a new relationship and video chats are proving to be a great way to form these relationships.

Recognizing the need for deeper virtual connections, Tinder rolled out in-app face-to-face video calling in India last November. Rashi Wadhera, director of communications, Tinder India said the pandemic has significantly diminished opportunities for chance encounters and interactions in our lives, especially for young members. However, many have creatively co-created and figured out new rules of meeting, hanging out, and falling in love. “Gen Z has always set their own pace, created its own rules, and thrived despite constraints and covid has only accelerated this ingenuity," Wadhera added. Tinder has seen a notable increase in activity among members, especially those under 30. People are matching more frequently, sending more messages and engaging in longer conversations. In India, conversations have been up an average of 39% and the average length of conversations is 28% longer. At its peak, swipe volume among members in the country was up 32%.

Snehil Khanor, CEO and co-Founder, TrulyMadly said at least for first dates, people may still prefer Zoom calls as it requires less effort and is less awkward. A lot of users have reverse migrated to their hometowns and are more open to long-distance relationships, thereby opting for ‘pan-India’ as location preference as opposed to ‘around my city.’

“Through 2020, millennials have discovered an impatience with entertaining dead-end connections, and are instead truly investing in the one with potential. The practice of social distancing has set in a void leading to a strong impulse and a real desire to fill it by connecting with new and interesting people," said Anukool Kumar, marketing director, OkCupid India, 85% of whose users believe it’s important to develop an emotional connection before a physical one. In India, the app has seen a 26% increase in conversations since March 2020. Moreover, 38% women would like to take things slower and have more virtual interactions even in a post pandemic world, versus 25% men.

“Users certainly are more cautious in meeting in-person now, and that’s why leading dating apps have introduced questions that specify if users prefer “virtual dating" or “social distancing with mask". With lockdown-imposed restrictions on movement, dating app users want to first explore a “connection" before meeting in person, but it is too early to conclude if this practice would lead to change in mindset in the long run or not," said Parul Bhandari, a sociologist specialising in the study of marriage and intimacies. Dating in 2021 could pan out in two directions, Bhandari added, it could lead individuals to put more emphasis on first establishing a rapport online before meeting in person, or it could make them want to quickly embrace a “let’s meet in person first" approach, given that there has been limited human contact since 2020.

“Either way, there is no doubt that dating in 2021 would be substantially different than the pre-covid era," Bhandari said.

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