I feel good when I do it [ghosting] to someone. I feel like, yes, I can also do this.

— Karthik, thirty-four

...Ask any woman who has used a dating app and she will happily share with you her inbox full of unsolicited messages from men she did not swipe right on but who found a way to reach out to her nonetheless.

What makes a man reach out to a stranger online?

“It’s really not a big deal, bro. Every platform is a dating app,” twenty-four-year-old Shashwat tells me. I ask him to explain what he means. ‘See, if I match with someone on a dating app, that doesn’t mean she’s my girlfriend now. It means we chat and if we like chatting with each other, we meet. And it goes on from there. So what difference does it make whether we chat on Hinge or Instagram? Or if I email or Google her? It’s all the same. Anyway, it’s so easy to find out all the information about someone online these days.’

I can’t retort. I am reminded of an interview I once conducted with Taru Gupta, General Manager, Tinder India, during which she had told me the same thing. “Tinder is simply an introduction platform. We don’t influence what happens after a match is made.”

People have been meeting strangers on the internet, and falling in love, since before the surge of online dating apps. Before applications that are tailored to facilitating romance and sexual encounters we had Yahoo chat rooms and Orkut. Both platforms were popular meet-up portals for those who were single and ready to mingle.

Tushar met his wife in a Yahoo chat room. For around six months, they chatted online, emailed pictures to each other and Skyped. One lived in Agra, the other in Pune, yet they fell in love through a screen.

This was not unheard of back in the day of Yahoo chat rooms that were categorised by location and interest. For example, “Dilli dilwalon ki”, “FRIENDS fan club”, “Music lovers”. Then there were rooms dedicated to people who wanted to flirt or meet someone new. Some rooms had some not safe for work (NSFW) activities going on too. In some ways, Yahoo chat rooms were wilder than the predictable, vanilla, regulated dating apps of today.

Also, perhaps, much less safe. But then cyber security wasn’t a big concern in the early days of digitisation. There was also no way to verify the person’s identity, to filter by interests (as is now possible on several apps like OkCupid) or to make a profile on which one could offer a short introduction about themselves. All these features were missing from the infamous chat rooms.

Like the honeymoon phase of relationships, we were romancing the internet, giving it a chance, a chink in the window, without realising it would barge in with full gusto and change the interiors of our homes beyond recognition.

While it wasn’t impossible to meet strangers online before dating apps came about, it was still under wraps and considered to be somewhat of an oddity. One did it on the sly.

Embracing online dating as a legitimate way of meeting people has brought with it a paradigm shift. It has opened a fascinating world of casual sex, FWB, almost-relationships, dating for the sake of dating, and for the hopeless romantics, finding the love of one’s life on one’s own terms. It has made it possible to overcome false social boundaries created by our insular social structures and maintained by our comfort with the familiar.

The Internet enables meeting people who come from a different world. Thanks to the plethora of dating applications available to us, the door is now open to many experiences – from having a cup of coffee with the cute boy/girl next door to a Bollywood movie marathon with an eager expat to dinner and drinks that culminates in mind-blowing sex and a series of dates that end up as accidental love!

Tinder – one of the most popular dating applications globally – launched in India in 2016. From hopeful singles to the recently broken up, nearly everyone was on it, at least in the metropolis. Popularised as a hook-up app, Tinder became the new avenue to meet people and create all sorts of alliances.

The app’s success brought along more dating apps – Bumble, Truly Madly, Happn, Hinge, etc, each with its unique features. In recent years, we have also seen more niche online dating services. There is a surge of dating or matchmaking apps that cater to specific groups – Aisle for Indians across the globe, AndWeMet for urban Indians over thirty, ReKindle for those who’ve been previously married.

In 2021, online dating is no longer a big-city thing. It is fast gaining popularity in tier two and three cities as well.

To some men the world of online dating apps has come as a sigh of relief. Twenty-nine year old Angad is an introvert. He has a small circle of three close friends with whom he likes to hang out, and is never seen at parties. He’s never been comfortable with chatting up an attractive woman at a pub or a cafe, or even a gathering with mutual friends.

For him, dating apps are a respite. “When it’s a text message, it’s okay if she doesn’t respond. But imagine saying hi to a cute girl at a bar and she turns around and walks off ! How embarrassing would that be!,” he tells me.

Striking a conversation behind the safety of one’s smartphone not only protects us from such embarrassment, it also helps make a good first impression. The same can be said for women. In fact, for women, dating apps have helped in normalising making the first move. Technology allows us to surpass the barrier of social inhibitions. A match might not always go where you wanted it to, but rejection hurts less in the virtual world.

During the pandemic, when social distancing has become a survival skill, dating apps and online video chats provide relief from isolation for many. In an article published by Forbes, CEOs, VPs and spokespersons of various popular dating apps shared that during the lockdown, people spent more time on dating apps. Bumble users were also 38 per cent more likely to have video chats with their dates.

Some women feel safer in the pandemic-driven dating diaspora where meeting per convenience is not possible, and they have to resort to video chats to get to know the person on the other side of the phone.

Varnika is thirty-one and lives in Delhi with her parents. She is a financial advisor who, before the pandemic, would travel often for both work and leisure. She tells me, “It’s actually been a blessing. I have a couple of matches, and I’ve had quite a few video dates with each of them. I have a preference already without meeting either of them. It’s also helped me feel safe...there’s already some level of trust with this one guy.”

It’s interesting to note that while video chats have been available to us for quite a few years now, seldom has anyone, who could meet their match in person, thought of using video chats as a way to vet them. I suppose despite how easy technology has made it to get to know someone without really meeting them, we want to hold on to that element of mystery and surprise.

Even though we can access information about a match online, we want to experience that moment of novelty and surprise when we finally meet them. We want to meet them as if they were a stranger we met while out on a leisurely walk.

Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India

Excerpted with permission from Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India, Prachi Gangwani, Bloomsbury India.