Earlier this year, Zoom announced a Byzantine policy change that, if I had thought about it at all when it happened, I probably would have expected to have almost no impact on my life: One-on-one video calls, which had previously been free and unrestricted for all nonpaying users of its platform, would now have a 40-minute time limit just like group calls. A bummer for thrifty Zoom power-users, perhaps, but at the time, I was blessed to live an existence of only sporadic Zooming.
Then a few months ago, I had occasion to start using Zoom a little more frequently. I would love to leave the reasons for this sudden Zoomaissance vague and retain one emotional support shred of dignity, but there’s no real way to explain the rest without disclosing the following: I had decided it was time to “get back out there” and was using Zoom to go on video dates. After meeting and chatting with people on dating apps, I would suggest we talk on video before actually getting together in person, et voilà: video date. Well, date might be too strong a word—they were somewhere between dates and CAPTCHA tests. I was mostly hoping to get confirmation that the person on the other end of the Zoom wasn’t a bot, murderer, or anti-vaxxer, and I was secondarily trying to determine whether I might like to meet them in the real world—that is, if I had sufficiently convinced them that I was also worth meeting and not a bot, murderer, or whatever identity was a deal-breaker for them.
I could have used FaceTime for this, if it weren’t for me being an Android user (speaking of deal-breakers), and I suppose I also could have used one of the built-in video chat features that some of the dating apps offer, but they tend to be janky, and besides, does anyone who’s not a TikTok star own one of those stands that holds up your phone for you so you can position it in a way where you look good? Because I do not. Zoom was the obvious choice: I’d gotten comfortable with the bland user-friendliness of firing up the program on my laptop, which, two and a half years into a pandemic full of work and social calls, I knew how and where to set up for optimal lighting and background. If you’re wondering whether it sometimes feels soul-crushingly reminiscent of your job to go to the trouble of setting up a Zoom meeting and dropping a link for it into a dating app chat, my answer is that yes, it does, but I will defend it as no more embarrassing than the rest of dating, or really the rest of life.
In any case, in August or so, I sat down for one of these dates/Turing tests the same way I have umpteen times since March 2020. But this time, 30 minutes in, per the newly instituted limit, Zoom gave me a warning: “Your meeting will end in 10 min,” it said, unless of course I wanted to upgrade to Zoom Pro for $149 a year. It was excellent timing: I had by then decided that this date, while indisputably human, did not fall into the category of humans I wanted to spend an evening out on the town with. So I’d already been contemplating how to gracefully bow out of the conversation. The 10-minute warning felt like being handed a Get Out of Jail Free card. In the past, even when I wasn’t interested in a guy, I’d let him drone on for long stretches of time, sometimes over an hour, all the while picturing my backbone disintegrating into a pile of dust. (Interestingly, many of the men who were able to quickly determine that I was not worth meeting in person seemed to share no such compunction about ending the calls swiftly.) Now, though, I knew that I’d just have to get through a few more minutes and then I could say something like, “Oh no, it looks like we’re getting to the free Zoom limit! Guess we should wrap it up!” Hallelujah. My date wouldn’t blame me for ending the conversation in the middle of whatever point he was making. It was simply those fat cats at Zoom cutting us off. Haha, ugh, what are ya gonna do, right?
Discovering this, I felt like I had found a crucial loophole in the system, or maybe beaten it altogether. Using Zoom for dating actually transformed the 40 minute limit from drawback to benefit. Good or bad, I could just let the date explode at the 40-minute mark. Forty minutes is plenty of time to give someone a fair chance before deciding you don’t want to meet them in person. But it’s also, importantly, a perfect point to pause if you decide you do want to meet them and want to make sure you’ll still have ground to cover when you get there. Marathon video chats may have been a serviceable way to flirt during the worst of the pandemic, but now that it’s safer to venture into the world, it’s vastly better to try to do the bulk of getting to know someone in person. I don’t need to explain to you why sitting at a bar is more natural than watching someone drink on a screen. Awkward moments on Zoom are just awkward (“Sorry, you were muted!”); awkward moments in real life have a chance of transforming into romantic ones—think the proverbial accidental hand brush. (If, however, you’re not sure about the person after 40 minutes, maybe it’s the case that you don’t need more time video-chatting as much as you just need to sleep on it.)
The time limit is probably not a crutch everyone needs, and I salute all of you who are better at tactfully winding down a conversation than I am. But for me, it’s been an immense comfort to go into video chats knowing that a stuffy corporate teleconferencing utility that’s worth billions of dollars has inadvertently armed me with a superpower.
I have since gone on exploding Zoom dates with—well, I’m not going to tell you how many people. It’s an efficient system, but not altogether foolproof. You still have to figure out how to play the end: Do I keep acting every time like it slipped my mind that the free limit is 40 minutes, so as to avoid revealing that I ruthlessly engineered it this way? How do I do that when I have no poker face whatsoever? One guy seemed stunned when I—possibly cocky after executing this little maneuver more than once—timed things badly and didn’t start my “Oh no, guess we’re done!” spiel until the date was down to its last two minutes. His face was momentarily crestfallen, like I was swiping left on him in real time. Another guy foiled my whole scheme by protesting that Zoom had “work-week vibes” and requesting we try another video chatting app, one whose call length I had no control over. I had a similarly humbling incident when I (in case you don’t remember, an Android user) briefly got the notion that it might make me seem more cool and casual to try FaceTime for once. I signed in on my laptop, only for my date to politely inform me that my face, which was in a horizontal window on my computer but being viewed vertically by him, was—grotesquely, I imagine—filling up his entire phone screen. He eventually took the liberty of ending that date, gentlemanly but unmistakably hitting me with the ol’ “Well, I should let you go.”
Mostly though, the dates have gone wrong in the ways they were always going to go wrong. In one video chat, a guy correctly and devastatingly diagnosed me as a big childhood Harry Potter fan and very earnestly asked me, “Have you always been nervous?” A few other guys weren’t good matches; a few ghosted; and a few I went on honest-to-goodness in-person dates with. All in all, pretty solid results. If you’re single, I highly recommend it—and, ahem, just so you know, my Zoom calendar is pretty open at the moment.