love and tiktok

Online Dating, Without the Apps

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

There’s more to online dating than just dating apps. Like confessing, on TikTok, to revenge-buying an ex’s Depop Likes so they can’t have the clothes. In some circles, it is now normal to creep someone’s Letterboxd before a first date. Some people only post to Instagram Stories when they’re in the talking stage, while others wait to see how their crush will react to the laundry list of video essays they sent before asking for a second date.

Online meet-cutes happen anywhere on the internet that doesn’t require swiping, where couples meet in all kinds of virtual spaces, like a Rick Owens fan page. When Crislin, 28, an operations coordinator, was fresh out of a divorce, she began cringing her way through the Big Three of dating apps: Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble. It was a lot of work, and it wasn’t helping her find the people she’d hoped to meet.

As the story goes, both Crislin and Natalie are both very active on Twitter and probably started following each other thanks to a mutual friend. They run in the same social circles and were even in the same room without meeting on a few occasions. Crislin is about to tell me exactly how they started dating when Natalie, a 27-year-old writer and community coordinator, sheepishly interrupts, “You should add that you missed hella cues before that.”

Like if Crislin tweeted she was watching chess videos after binging The Queen’s Gambit, Natalie would reply, “We should play sometime.” Or when Crislin woke up from a nap one day to find that Natalie had liked her Instagram pictures — all 12 of them — and decided to not think much of it. (“I was just like, Oh that’s cute, that’s sweet.”) Natalie’s last relationship started on Twitter, so this is just what dating was like for her. She thought that with enough retweets, enough favorites, and enough likes, Crislin would get the hint. Eventually, she decided to just DM her.

As Crislin remembers it, the DM went something like, “Hey, you’re really gorgeous, you’re funny as fuck, and I just wanted to remind you of that today.” Upon reading it, she thought, My wife just DM’d me. Scrolling through her own feed, she saw that Natalie had liked her weird tweet about bagel holes.

Twitter helped them fall for each other, the couple tells me over Zoom, because they had time to watch each other from across the proverbial room. “It’s like being at a party,” Natalie says. “You don’t have to leave with somebody, but you could, and a dating app, it’s like, you have to or you shouldn’t be there.”

Dating apps only increase your odds of meeting someone because they are places where people go when they want to meet somebody. Despite their best efforts, these apps don’t succeed in offering any additional or unique mechanisms that aid in our search for connection. The connections we make are only as good as our ability to articulate our values, interests, and identities within a given platform’s narrow parameters.

When Delaney, a 30-year-old bartender whose real name isn’t Delaney, first encountered Jack’s TikTok — videos of him performing, doing songwriting challenges, and sharing covers and original work — she was struck by his talent. “So I did what I could to hype up the video and push it through the algorithm”: She liked, followed, commented, and shared. He followed back seven minutes later and messaged her, “How you find my page?” and started chatting.

They met again when his livestream came up on her FYP. They mostly talked about their shared love of music at first. Delaney’s TikTok shared every side of herself — singing challenges, acting challenges, story times — and Jack says he was originally drawn to how much of a mixed bag her profile was. “I thought this person was just brimming with personality and whether what I’m seeing is real or fake, I want to learn more,” he tells me. “And then I did.”

They went from TikTok mutuals to friends on Discord, an instant-messaging platform that’s like Slack for the very online. Then things escalated to three-hour phone calls. They are now in a long-distance relationship — he lives in Chicago, and she lives in Washington, D.C. (According to her calculations, they spent “a grand total of 23 percent” of 2021 in each other’s company.)

“We didn’t hesitate to actually get to know one another genuinely; neither of us had time to build up a false perception or idea of the other person in our heads, so we were able to just be and get to know each other,” she explains. Jack adds that 2020 pushed him to invest in online friendships, including the one with Delaney, “because I suddenly lost all incentive to lead with some kind of persona and I was able to truly experience the most authentic connection I’ve made up until that point.” He added that that was his main frustration with dating apps — that a profile “specifically requires a much more refined and catered persona.”

When talking about TikTok, there is a temptation to give its algorithm undue credit; after all, it’s what put Jack on Delaney’s FYP the first time, and then again during the livestream. But he likes to think of their meeting as a “very fortunate accident.”

Lockdown expanded and further entrenched a lot of social activity into the internet — to the (systemic) exclusion of many. We are far more accustomed to working, socializing, communing, grocery shopping, masturbating, crying, healing, and being hurt online. And we’re growing increasingly comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to do all of this over Wi-Fi. While this level of enmeshment can trigger some technophobic anxieties, it’s not new.

Before Jessie, 19, met his girlfriend, Paige, 22, on Discord, he already had plans to move to Kansas City with an online friend he’d known since he was 12. But he met Paige on a Discord server with over half a million members in April 2021 and ended up moving in with her instead. It was a League of Legends Discord. He messaged a dedicated channel looking for players, and she reached out to him directly to volunteer to join him.

“The majority of my friends were online for the past five years of my life,” Jessie explains, “but I never did anything like that, going on VR Chat and opening up to someone.” VR Chat is a virtual-world platform, and while there, Paige and Jessie played a game where they took turns rolling dice and answering questions like, “What is an event you think shaped you into the person you are today?” Paige has also been using Discord for years, and while this was the first relationship she got out of it, she was used to making friends and opening up to people she met online. With Discord on their phones and on their computers, they could “text all night, call, video chat, share screens, and watch video together all in one place,” Paige explains. “If those weren’t readily available, I’m not sure we would’ve sought them out,” she says. “It’s an extremely streamlined process.”

Tinder lets you add a tag to your profile that says you’re into gaming, but it was specifically Paige and Jessie’s shared interest in League of Legends that brought them together and gave them an opportunity to get to know each other. A tag on a profile can only tell you that the other person also uses the same word to describe their interest — just like how “politics” could mean anything from an interest in abolitionism to a commitment to increase policing.

A shared interest also helped Molly and Oliver, two 25-year-olds from Leeds, meet on the social e-commerce app Depop. She is into “trainers” and streetwear; he is into “football” and sportswear. He started following her on Instagram after realizing he’d bought stuff from her more than once, hoping to catch drops before she posted them on Depop. “On Depop, it’s set in stone,” Oliver explains. “You like this trend because you bought it previously, and then I like this trend because I want to buy it off of you, and you have a connection there.”

Depop dating memes will have you thinking it’s a hopeless wasteland of Y2K resellers and archive-fashion snobs. Then there are those who have gone as far as listing themselves, threatening to turn Depop into an e-commerce/personals hybrid. Molly and Oliver think it’s funny they met on Depop, considering Molly asserts they have “very different tastes” and move through different Depop subcultures.

The fact that he sought out the shoes she was selling and cared about them enough to spend his own money on them helped Molly trust that this online encounter was founded on a meaningful shared interest: “I put a lot of trust in that and it made a huge difference to me,” she says. “If we had been speaking on a dating app, or even Instagram, I’m not even sure if it would go anywhere. Depop was definitely the foundation.”

When researching this story, I found just as many best-friend “couples” who met via online meet-cute as I did actual couples, a reminder that friendship is also often romantic. And anecdotally, I can add that the queer circles I move through are woven with connections born online that were nurtured over DM for months before expanding off-line.

So maybe dating apps will soon be responsible for their own (unplanned) obsolescence. It’s not that they’re bad; it’s just that they aren’t particularly good at what they claim to do.

Dating apps got us used to the idea of online dating, of looking to social networks for the kind of connection our culture often says is The One that matters most, the kind of connection that for a long time, we thought the internet could only further corrupt. But it seems like a meaningful connection is something you find in spite of — not thanks to — more structured forms of online dating.

When we start thinking of online dating as dating that happens online, instead of as dating that happens on apps and websites specifically designed for heteronormative courtship, our sense of scale shifts with it. We consider our online presence as a series of vignettes — sprinkled across profiles and platforms — of who we can be, rather than forcing them into a cohesive narrative of who we are. It doesn’t demand we make definitive statements on who we are and what we want. This gives us room to find ourselves along the way, maybe even within each other.

Online Dating, Without the Apps