Entertainment

Coronavirus Quarantine Is Collapsing The Space Between Online Dating & Reality TV



When roommates Thi Q. Lam and Rance Nix woke up last Wednesday, they had no intention of creating a viral dating show. They were just bored.

The two Brooklyn-based millennials are self-described extroverts and creatives — Lam, 27, runs the production house Garnish Studios, and Nix, 28, is an actor. The coronavirus pandemic had put their work lives on pause, and they had recently watched “Love Is Blind,” Netflix’s breakout reality TV dating show about couples who can hear but not see each other as they date in pods.

Many singles were suddenly finding themselves trapped in apartments with no IRL dating prospects and the ever-present human desire to find love and connection. This got Lam and Nix thinking: What if they could create an online version of “Love Is Blind”?

That’s how “Love Is Quarantine was born.

A week later, the show has nearly 15,000 followers on Instagram, a website and official merchandise, and has spawned independent spin-offs in Canada, the U.K. and on Columbia University’s (virtual) campus. Nearly 50 people have participated.

As online dating increasingly moves on-camera and reality dating TV goes temporarily dark, there’s ample space for creators like Lam and Nix to jump in and make sure the search for love continues on our personal screens and Instagram feeds. These digital “shows” are collapsing the space between dating apps and reality TV, creating something that could perhaps be even more authentic.

“I swear that this show is more real than the actual Netflix show,” Lam told HuffPost during a video chat. “People are actually getting along and connecting.”

* * *

Prior to the pandemic, reality dating shows were thriving and in constant rotation. The first U.S. season of the successful British dating competition series “Love Island” aired every weeknight from July to August 2019, proving that older audience-skewing network CBS could find a loyal younger viewership. “Temptation Island” Season 2 ran on USA Network in the fall TV season, and ABC’s juggernaut “The Bachelor” debuted its 24th season in January.

But Netflix shook up the entire genre in February with “Love Is Blind,” a highly addictive yet extremely troubling “marriage experiment” in which couples don’t actually meet face to face until they’re engaged. The show’s final episode, a cast reunion, was released on March 5, a few days before Peter Weber’s drama-filled “Bachelor” journey wrapped and fears surrounding COVID-19 hit a peak. 

Now, the entertainment industry is at a standstill while the world self-quarantines. Many companies have shut down production, including Warner Bros. Television Group, which has suspended filming of its 70-plus TV shows and pilots, including Clare Crawley’s upcoming season of “The Bachelorette.”

“Like it is for everybody around the globe, the ripple effect of this is massive,” “Bachelor” franchise host Chris Harrison said of the coronavirus shutdown in a video posted to Instagram. He added that despite it being the right thing to do, the suspension of the show will be tough for everyone involved. Production teams will be hit hard financially as isolation becomes mandatory and freelance gigs nonexistent. Logistically, there will be a lack of fresh content in the months ahead.

But dating reality television culture hasn’t just produced a captive audience to tune in to shows like “Love Is Blind.” There is a whole ecosystem of professional and armchair critics and commentators. And these shows have provided a way for people to engage with the norms of love, sex and dating in our culture. Both “Love Is Blind” and Netflix’s other big hit, “The Circle,” featured people connecting in isolation. 

The framework set up by those shows has crossed over into our current reality. Singles are still turning in droves to online dating platforms while in self-quarantine. Bloomberg reported that Bumble users were up 8% in mid-March, and Purell and pandemic jokes abound on people’s Hinge and Tinder profiles.

But in the absence of being able to plan a coffee date or grab drinks at a bar, quarantined singles are looking for digital avenues to “meet up.” This is something the apps simply aren’t built to provide, though some are trying. A Hinge spokesperson told HuffPost that 70% of Hinge users have expressed interest in dating from home. The dating app is now adding a note encouraging swipers to set up a FaceTime or Zoom date. 

But Lam and Nix wanted to come up with a new avenue to date that really spoke to our current moment. They said “Love Is Quarantine” moved from idea to action in about 10 minutes. They made a publicly editable Google spreadsheet and an Instagram account and sent the Google Sheet out to a bunch of their friends. At first, they were “a little nervous,” but soon the sheet “started flooding with names and numbers,” Lam said. Then they got to “casting,” matching people up and setting up phone dates.

“I’ll just go down the list, call them or text them, ‘Hey, this is Rance from ‘Love Is Quarantine!’ And people go, Oh wow! What? Are you kidding me?!” Nix said, with Lam joking, “They thought they won the lottery when they got that phone call.” 

From there, the guys asked the contestants to film themselves pre- and post-date so viewers had the opportunity to get to know and root for them, as with any other reality show. Of course, fans began to stan certain couples, like Steve and Katie (#Skatie), who met on the first “season” of “Love Is Quarantine.” They hit it off so well that Katie even introduced Steve to her entire family over FaceTime after their date.

When HuffPost spoke to Lam and Nix on Thursday, they had already set up four couples. And a fifth success story was hanging in the balance as one woman, Val, didn’t know if she could actually date a younger man, Roman. (Turns out, she couldn’t.)

Since then, they’ve hosted three more seasons, including Boomer Night, where Lam and Nix matched singles ranging in age from 60 to 80.   

“We’re riding the wave until the wave hits the shore,” Nix said. 

People are hungry for connection; they’re hungry for community. And they really still want to find love.
Thi Lam, 27, co-creator of “Love Is Quarantine”

Other creators are joining them in that pursuit. Austin-based entrepreneur Zach Casler, 30, and Down To Mingle matchmaker Elsa Moreck, 28, teamed up to create “Pandemic Love,” a digital miniseries hoping to unite social-distancing singles in three virtual speed-dates in which their identities are hidden until the final date.

This dating experience, which launched last weekend, is broadcast live on the Pandemic Love website, with a recap episode produced for the next day. As of Monday, over 1,000 viewers have tuned in nightly. 

“The beauty is that [I run] a dating app company and we’ve done tons of research on dating and compatibility,” Casler, co-founder and CEO of matchmaking experience The Round, told HuffPost over video chat. “Elsa and I know very much what people need to do in order to date successfully, but people go too fast to listen. And this month is the perfect month for someone to work on how they’re going to take dating super slow and [focus on] self-love and self-improvement and, as a result, date better.” 

After the first round of dates, Casler and Moreck have matched three out of five potential couples. 

Elsewhere on the internet, there’s the college-focused relationship service “OKZoomer,” started by Yale University juniors Ileana Valdez and Patrycja Gorska. Their goal is to connect quarantined students to new friends or potential partners over the video chat app Zoom as they all adjust to life off campus. Thirteen thousand people from 350-plus schools have already signed up. 

“We’re just really excited to help people keep connecting and to battle the loneliness that, I think, college students are especially facing right now,” Amanda Esposito, a 24-year-old friend of Valdez who is helping expand the service, told HuffPost. “We’re used to socializing 24/7, and now we’re completely alone in our hometowns. Whether that be, like, in the middle of rural Wyoming or the middle of Texas, that’s really depressing. So I think we’re pretty excited to help people battle that.” 

Natasha Shorts from Cleveland, who’s now living in Cape Town, South Africa, for Athletes in Action, launched her own dating service to connect her Christian friends on blind dates.  

“As a 27-year-old single, this time can be both needed and difficult. We need our own space, but not having a family or a spouse — or a healthy family — could make this time even more difficult,” Shorts told HuffPost. “Instead of sitting around wishing you could meet someone, why not get all my friends to help my other friends find matches? Hopefully, at least one person finds love through all this.” 

* * *

While traditional reality dating shows like “The Bachelor” and even “Love is Blind” have had a well-documented, fraught relationship with diversity and representation, this new generation of digital dating platforms has been able to bypass those issues almost entirely. 

Since these shows and proto-apps are built by millennials and Gen Zers, “Love Is Quarantine,” “Pandemic Love” and their digital peers are built to serve the creators’ demographics. And they have none of the red tape or old-school gatekeepers that even the most progressive-minded of TV production companies have to contend with. (More traditional dating apps like OKCupid and Hinge have been quicker to catch up with the times.) 

A quick scroll through any of the Instagram posts on “Love Is Quarantine” shows a wide variety of bodies, gender presentations, ages and skin colors. The show has also created seasons built specifically for queer contestants and for contestants over 60. 

Lam told HuffPost that he and Nix found themselves wondering why “Love Is Blind” didn’t include any non-heterosexual contestants outside of Carlton, a bisexual man who was shown to be battling some painful internalized biphobia of his own. Very early on, they added an option in their Google Sheet for participants to identify as non-binary or to seek non-binary love interests. 

This inclusivity was helped along by the fact that Lam and Nix see “Love Is Quarantine” as somewhat of a community project. “We had a stranger help build the website; we had a stranger help write copy; we had a stranger organize the Google Sheets for us,” Lam said. 

“OKZoomer” similarly allows participants to identify as non-binary or to opt out of disclosing their gender identity at all. They can seek matches who identify as “male,” “female,” “non-binary” or “anyone,” and can select more than one category. “Pandemic Love” doesn’t even ask for gender preferences up front.

We really made a point to try [to be inclusive],” Lam said. 

Given that many American singles — especially those who live in densely populated urban areas — are going to be affected by COVID-19 for months to come, some of the creators HuffPost spoke to wondered if dating would remain changed even after quarantine ends.

We have to think about this in the context of what the world will look like in three to six months,” Casler said. “You’re going to have people who are hesitant to go and make new contact with new people but want to do it deeply. You’ll have [fewer] events in person, so you’re going to see a lot of people spending more time outside with each other. You will probably have limits on the number of people who can go to bars, so bar mingling is going to be down.” 

Valdez hopes that “OKZoomer” can push forward a more intentional, less “superficial” vision of what dating can be. 

“I feel like if you log on to an app like Tinder or Bumble, what you’re judging people based off of is their looks, and you might immediately write a person off,” Valdez said. “But because we have an element of randomness along with our algorithm, we match you with people who you might have never considered, and encourage you to build an actual relationship based on more than just superficial data points.”

Casler and Moreck agreed that this brave new world will lend itself to “slower more intentional dating.” Over the last five years, singles were already increasingly turning to matchmaking services instead of just swiping right and left. Perhaps out of disaster and pandemic will come some opportunity. 

In quarantine or not, there are certain, deep-seated human desires that will always stay constant. The same thing that has driven people to watch “The Bachelor” play out the same narrative since 2002 is driving them to sign up for and watch “Love Is Quarantine” and “Pandemic Love.”

“People are bored. People are hungry for connection; they’re hungry for community,” Lam said. “And they really still want to find love. That’s never gonna go away, no matter what circumstances are happening around you. That’s all that people really want.”

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