One of the biggest lessons? You can get a date on TikTok.
Forget swiping around The Apps: There's an ever-widening pool of singles searching for love by looking into their ring lights and saying, "Hey, I need a date for a wedding in June."
I discovered this in the early days of my For You Page (the algorithmically driven feed of videos you see when you open the app), before TikTok knew what to show me. There were videos of people volunteering facts about themselves, decrying their poor flirting skills and offering up their comfiest hoodies that potential future partners could borrow. I scrolled, a little slack-jawed.
TikTok as a dating app?
I hate this.
Wait, do I hate this?
I don't hate this.
Here's the thing: Online dating is difficult at the best of times. Dating during a pandemic is worse. For many singles, 2020 (and increasingly 2021) felt like being on the bench. Yet people persist. Dating apps like OkCupid are reporting that more people are expanding their geographic filters, apparently more open than ever to whatever might be out there. Maybe it's not the wildest idea that folks would look at the internet's latest watering hole and say, why not?
Stephen Oswald turned to TikTok in October 2020 when he needed to find a date to his friend's December wedding. On a lark, the 24-year-old from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, made a highlight reel of sorts of himself -- skydiving, skateboarding, jumping into a pool -- with a voiceover about how he was looking for a date to have fun with at his buddy's nuptials. It got more than 12,000 likes and more than a thousand comments.
"So where can I send my resume?"
"ME. I got killer moves & terrible signing skills."
"I wanna go!!! This sounds amazing, and I'm great at breaking it down on the dance floor!"
Oswald wasn't betting on his plan working. "I would have taken it down because at that time most of the people following me were just buddies and I didn't want my buddies making fun of me," he says.
Meanwhile, in Orange County, California, 24-year-old Joy Ellis, fresh off a breakup, saw Oswald's video and commented, never thinking she'd hear back. They ended up FaceTime-ing and bonding over their shared religious beliefs. He picked her as his date for the wedding, and after a bit more than a month's worth of chatting, she flew out to Sioux Falls.
"I'm really excited to one day tell my grandkids that I met some random person on the internet and was able to go to their best friend's wedding and have the time in my life," Ellis says. They're not dating, but have plans to hang out when Oswald makes a road trip over the summer and stops in California.
Elsewhere in the world, @hrpeacock13 slid into @paffevara's DMs in May. About seven months later, @paffevera, who is Australian, moved to Scotland to be with @hrpeacock, documenting every step along the way.
Another user, @tatcedie, made a TikTok in December 2020 about how it felt like she'd be single forever. In February, she posted a followup about the "TikTokmance" that had started almost immediately afterward with another user, who lived 1,600 miles away. As of the end of February @tatcedie posted another about the pair's hunt for an apartment.
"It's pretty much your stereotypical TikTokmance," @tatcedie says in her video, "There was a TikTok crush involved, there was a DM slide involved."
Can't any app be a dating app?
To better understand this trend, I turned to one of my favorite TikTok creators, 27-year-old Seattle-based Amelia Samson, whose account is devoted to critiquing the most mind-bendingly weird, awful, illogical and offensive dating app profiles out there. If you find yourself flabbergasted by The Apps, you will find a kindred spirit in Samson.
On the surface, it's easy to say anything can function as a dating app. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram … shoot, I know women who've had guys slide into their DMs on LinkedIn. But there are reasons TikTok in particular could be conducive to dating these days, Samson says.
"[TikTok] is kind of like getting into somebody else's world without being in the same room as them," she says. "You're getting a view of who somebody is through their style and their sense of humor. Sometimes they're just talking at the camera, and you can see if you have aligned beliefs."
Samson hits on two important points. At the moment, you can't -- or at least you really shouldn't -- be in the same room with people outside your household. During the pandemic, TikTok's seen a surge in popularity. App analytics platform App Annie told Forbes in September it was the top-grossing app globally in the App Store in the second quarter of 2020. Perhaps TikTok is filling the void left by not being able to go out to a bar or club and be around other random humans.
And maybe The Apps aren't cutting it. Data from SurveyMonkey showed that 56% of adults viewed dating apps negatively and suggested that the main possible reason could be how hard it is to get a read on people online. Looking at a profile, you're missing out on indicators like body language and tone of voice, qualities you can't get a feel for looking at grainy selfies and pics of daters holding up fish.
And as Samson put it, it's not hard to swipe away and feel a little burned out.
"They're ... starting to not try," she says.
That isn't to say TikTok, like most other social media apps, doesn't have its share of artifice (and thirst traps), or that people on the app aren't carefully managing their images or seeking validation constantly. However, Samson notes that, unlike other platforms, TikTok seems to breed a level of vulnerability and earnestness.
##duet with @lillalove69420♬ original sound - lillalove
Along with the skateboarding dogs and lip syncs, people talk about gender, body positivity, mental health, physical health, neurodiversity. And it's not abstract. It's real humans talking about what it's like to feel depressed, to have ADHD, to be the target of microaggressions, about how they relate to their friends, families and pets. About how they moved across the country, about the books they like and how they finally, finally got the hang of winged eyeliner.
And maybe that's why people are willing to express bluntly what they want, and trust that the algorithm will get their video to the person who needs to see it.
If that last bit about placing faith in an algorithm sounds a little too mystical for you, know this: TikTok has accounts purely dedicated to the art of matchmaking.
The woman behind the account Your Rishta Auntie (who asked to only be identified by her handle) wanted to find a space in between the more traditional matchmaking process you might find in some cultures, and the social media world of millennials. So she's been posting TikToks introducing serious, rishta-minded folks to the world. (Rishta translates to marriage proposal, she tells me, in Urdu and Hindi.)
"I had this idea of creating this judgment-free safe space where we could get more exposure for quality people that are just trying to find someone," she says.
Her account has accrued more than 12,000 followers, many of whom are young Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus (and more -- anyone can apply for Rishta Auntie's help). When we talked, Rishta Auntie had to set a cap of 1,000 responses on the Google Form she created for applicants. She's essentially built a database and is serving as matchmaker. Some people want to be featured on TikTok, some don't. She talks to everyone on the phone.
"A lot of them wanted to try something new, and they're willing to put themselves out there," she says.
Rishta Auntie isn't the only one surfacing singles on TikTok. Chloe Burdette, a 29-year-old in Chicago posted a video over the summer, somewhat cheekily, where she said, "I'm going to expose my hot single friends" and made a montage of video clips of her friend Ty, with facts about him. It took off. So she made more.
"It was just content that I had on my phone," she says, "This is truly who they are. You can see their smile, you can see them laugh, you can see them in motion."
Burdette's videos rack up thousands of likes, and they've yielded numerous dates, some involving out-of-state travel, and a couple of relationships. The demand led her to also create a form for people to fill out, and she had 6,000 applicants within a month.
Part of the reason for the success, she thinks, is that she can do a better job selling her friends, so to speak, than they can. And her background in the menswear industry has been an asset in what's essentially been marketing and leads generation, but for dating.
Burdette's spinning this matchmaking pursuit into a company called Intro. She's in the process of talking to investors about funding. In the future, she might build it into an app.
Love in 60 seconds
How the dating scene will evolve on TikTok remains to be seen. After all, it's not set up to be a dating app. There's no surefire way to access the app's willing singles and wall off anyone who doesn't want to or shouldn't be in the mix. Likely there are plenty of folks on the platform who would rather not deal with flirtatious DMs from strangers.
Such is the internet: a mess that flickers between brilliant usefulness and disaster.
But for the 18.5 billion views the hashtag #single has garnered it's not a big leap to think there's interest in a new way to shoot your shot.
Or as Samson explained it: "TikTok opens up the world, and it's like, well if I put myself out there then maybe my soulmate will watch it."