The New First Date

Before committing the energy to a night out, some people are screening their suitors over video.

GIF of two people kissing from two separate screens
Getty; The Atlantic

In the summer of 2020, Andy Rattinger went on a video date with a woman he met on an app. He had such a nice time that he planned a second date, dinner over Zoom, with her. He then suggested that they order identical London-themed Lego sets and build them simultaneously from their respective living rooms, while also talking on Zoom. The activity opened up conversations about her time in the U.K. and his passion for games and puzzles. “That pretty much sealed the deal,” Rattinger said. They soon met up in person and began a relationship that lasted several months.

Rattinger, a 47-year-old film editor in Los Angeles, got divorced in 2017 and started dating again shortly before the start of the pandemic. Just as he was relearning how to date after 15 years, the rest of the world was learning how to date under lockdown. Previously, single people might have matched with someone on an app like Tinder, exchanged a few messages, then planned a date in person. But during the pandemic, meeting up in person meant taking a health risk. So some people started adding in a FaceTime, or several, before agreeing to meet up. Estimates on exactly how common this is vary, and much of the available data come from dating apps, which are eager to claim that video dating is here to stay. Still, there’s clearly been a steep increase in use since March 2020. A spokesperson for Hinge said that more than half of the app’s users had met a suitor on video, and a 2021 study reported that one in four single people had done so that year—compared with just 6 percent of people before the pandemic.

Some found video dates cringey and returned to cocktail bars and coffee shops as soon as health orders allowed. But others, having seen a new way, are still keeping FaceTimes in the mix. According to Match, 71 percent of people who’d met a romantic prospect on video said it had helped determine if they wanted to meet up in person. Zoom dates aren’t typically meant to replace in-person relationships. Rather, they are stepping-stones that allow daters to vet potential matches before dedicating time and energy to a night out. Among fans, these screener calls fulfill a desire for flexibility, efficiency, and control in dating—a field that, in the cultural imagination, tends to be dominated by spontaneity and chance.

As anyone who has watched an episode of Sex and the City knows, viewers are captivated by the promise of an unplanned run-in on the sidewalk—or a near-fatal car crash—leading to love at first sight. Video dating continues the trend that app-based dating developed in wringing out much of that randomness. It enables daters to control exactly whom they meet in real life, screening out anyone who doesn’t match their ideal vision of a partner ​​before they’ve even been in the same room together. If the conventional wisdom once was that love happens when you least expect it, now love can also happen exactly when you most expect it, because the people video daters meet for dinner and drinks will have already passed multiple rounds of Zoom interviews.

To a certain extent, dating is a numbers game, and video calls let people meet a high volume of suitors quickly. For example, chatting from home with people who live a long drive away is convenient, and saves time getting dressed, especially for those with busy schedules. “I think the video date should be the new first date—or I guess you could call it, like, a pre-date,” Gabi Conti, a writer and podcast host in Los Angeles, told me. In her experience, FaceTime dates were an efficient way to discern whether a potential match is “an F-boy”—that is, a guy whose central aim is to “F”—or otherwise incompatible, without first driving across L.A. What she lost in serendipity, she gained in time saved. (She is now married to a man she met on Bumble.)

These screener calls can also help those with safety concerns—whether related to COVID or harassment. Apryl Williams, an assistant professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan who has studied online dating during the pandemic, told me that virtual dates allow people with marginalized identities, in particular, to socialize and combat loneliness while also maintaining their boundaries. Over video they can get a sense of Does this person feel safe? before choosing to meet up in real life.

Courtship was once an activity characterized by tight control—occurring within private spaces like family homes and with parental supervision. Then, around the turn of the century, as young people moved to cities and women began earning wages outside the home, it evolved to become much looser, playing out in public spaces like bars, according to Moira Weigel, an assistant professor in communication studies at Northeastern University and the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. In this later, unsupervised phase, courtship activities became more spontaneous. But during the pandemic, dating migrated back into the controlled, private space of the home.

The ways people date have long changed with the ways people work, Weigel argued in her book. So in a work-from-home moment (at least for the professional managerial class), it tracks that many are dating from home, too. In some ways, video dating is a modern, “McDonaldized” form of connection, offering a similar type of predictability and efficiency as the fast-food joint. But in other ways, it’s a callback to that older mode of at-home courtship. “Maybe you’re not with your mom and your aunt in the parlor, but you’re back in your home office slash living room,” Weigel said.

Rattinger, for one, said he now meets dates on video before meeting in person about half of the time, depending on what his date prefers. Though there’s a lot to gain from meeting in real life, the flexibility and reduced pressure of going on a date with his dog by his side are pretty nice, he said. “In your own home, in your own environment, you feel a sense of comfort,” he said. “Or at least I do.”