The Outbreak | Looking for love on “OKZoomer”

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives.

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Promiti Debi | Staff Illustrator

Just because you’re social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t find love — it just needs to be at least six feet apart. This is the basic premise of OKZoomer, a new online dating service for bored college students who are stuck at home in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zoom itself has become quite the cultural phenomenon — and by cultural phenomenon, I mean that it is, of course, a meme. Despite the playful jokes about “Zoom University,” the platform has quickly taken on an integral role in student life, replacing what used to be in-person social events with their virtual counterparts. Socially parched students are flocking to Zoom to host parties with their friends, cram for take-home exams in study groups and even attend their graduation ceremonies.

And now, with traditional dating apps like Bumble and Tinder — which are based on location, and at least somewhat on meeting in person — out of commission, students are even hoping to find love on Zoom. OKZoomer is a dating service for college students, by college students, started by two Yale University juniors, Ileana Valdez and Patrycja Gorska, almost as a joke. The first iteration of OKZoomer was a simple Google form asking the most basic of questions about gender and age. The only requirement to sign up was a university email. As students submitted their forms, an algorithm designed by Valdez’s brother, Jorge, would match them up and send each student an email containing the contact information of their match.

Valdez and Gorska posted the form on an Ivy League meme page on Facebook and watched as it was tossed about on social media, eventually reaching about 2,400 participants for the first round. Less than two weeks after the initial Google form surfaced, I stumbled across OKZoomer in one of my rare forays into Facebook. By then, the fledgling dating service had acquired its own slickly designed website and was taking submissions for the next round of matches. As a veteran of various dating apps, with which I have had little success, I was intrigued — and as someone practicing self-isolation as thoroughly as possible, I was lonely enough to give it a try.

I signed up for the service on Thursday, and the next Friday evening, I awaited my match more eagerly than I would like to admit. With every dating service comes that surge of dopamine, that rush of adrenaline accompanying the unknown, the mysterious, exciting possibilities, new depths to plumb. OKZoomer, though less conventional, was no different. Every time I checked my email, that surge arrived, followed by a wash of disappointment — only the same boring academic emails that I had failed to delete, telling me all about the wonders of online classes.

I went to sleep dejected, convinced that because I had signed up somewhat late in the game, I had fallen into the overflow of ladies — in the first and second rounds, 5,845 women were looking to match with men, while there were only 4,456 men looking to match with women. Oh well, I’d just have to cut my losses and perhaps try again in the next round.

I was so convinced of this outcome that I didn’t check my email until 1 p.m. the next day, only to find two emails from OKZoomer sitting ever so innocently in my inbox among all the native academic flora and fauna. Not only did I have a match — I had two! The emails contained only their first names and their school emails. One was from Yale, and the other was from Columbia — OKZoomer doesn’t take location into account during the matching process, unlike other dating services. It was my responsibility to make first contact. Yes, I could sit around and wait for the boys to reach out, but where’s the fun in that?

That first email was mission impossible. I’d never faced such a tough writing assignment in my life. I had to write an email — a proposition already intimidating enough on its own — without even the anchors of a picture or a brief bio, which would contain just the right amount of humor, just the right amount of information about myself and just the right questions to open up a dialogue that would be engaging for both of us.

I kept it relatively simple, including my year in school, my majors and a brief description of my hobbies — essentially the kind of surface-level information you’d share during one of those excruciating icebreaker activities on your first day of class. Then I passed the torch to the boys, asking about their majors, hobbies, interests and all that, as well as offering to keep in communication with their method of choice. It was serviceable, if nothing else.

The first boy got back to me on Saturday evening with an email that was friendly, if somewhat reserved. He gave me his phone number, so I texted him — and received no response for hours on end. Finally, just as I was beginning to give up hope, my phone screen lit up with a message: “I think you have the wrong number.”

I had indeed copied over the wrong number, switching out a one for a zero. How embarrassing! I was sorely tempted to give up — hadn’t I experienced enough awkwardness at this point? — but I had already come too far. I was in it to win it.

So I sent another text, double- and triple-checking that the number was right this time. A few minutes later I received a reply — bingo! We were back in business.

But not for very long. After an exchange of 10 messages or so, during which I was doing almost all of the conversational legwork, our communication petered out. Unrevivable. Irretrievable.

Ah well, at least I had another match, right? Hopefully, this one would pull through, though at this point I was already expecting the worst. My second match failed to get back to me for so long that I was convinced he was making the conscious decision to ignore me. Finally, late Monday evening, I found his email waiting patiently in my inbox. My email was initially sent to his junk folder, he told me, but I could follow him on Instagram if I so desired. Already aware that neither of us would be willing to reach out on another platform, I grudgingly obliged. Since then, I have not heard from him, even though he followed me back and I was able to see that he’s on the swim team at Yale — impressive. While I am of course disappointed by these flaccid results, I can’t say that I’m all that surprised.

The reason so many dating apps are successful, in my opinion, is that they don’t step over the boundary into real life unless you explicitly want them to do so. Talking to a person on Tinder is so incredibly low-stakes. Don’t like them? Don’t talk to them. They won’t stop sending you messages, even though you haven’t replied and are clearly no longer interested? Block them ruthlessly. Perhaps they’ll be hurt, but probably not — they have so many other options. Reaching out is so completely without pressure that I often message my Bumble matches by the handful. Of course, dating apps have their own set of problems, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they actually have at least some ability to facilitate relationships.

OKZoomer, on the other hand, is invasive from the start. It’s nerve-racking to sign up, knowing that your email address — your school email address — is being sent to a completely unknown, possibly creepy stranger. It takes even more courage to send that first casual introductory email. The fear of judgment is always intimidating, but that fear is only amplified when the means of communication is email, so formal and permanent. Even if you manage to send the perfect email, your match might chicken out and fail to reply, or your precious masterpiece might become buried in the dark depths of the junk folder, or you might not even like your assigned partner. It’s the sad truth that some things just aren’t meant to be.

Although I’m disappointed by my lackluster OKZoomer experience, not everyone is going to have the same results as me. Perhaps you will meet someone who can help you have fun, even during this weird and wild time. As for me, I’m going to focus on the wonderful relationships I do have, with my friends and with my family. Just because we’re isolated doesn’t mean we have to face this challenge alone.

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