It’s no secret that Covid-19 has been tough on couples. Even rock-solid pairings have been feeling the strain. But the pandemic has arguably been more difficult for single people without a partner to ride out the end of the world, especially those whose relationships have broken down somewhere between vaccine doses, leaving us not just lonely but heartbroken and without many of the usual outlets for recovery.
How frustrating is it when you’re swiping through Tinder and come across someone cute — only to see that their entire profile is a pizza emoji, an eggplant emoji and a lightning bolt emoji?
I am in the last group. My now-ex and I moved in together in September 2020, and a year later I moved out. Now Valentine’s Day is upon us, and my six months of online dating has yielded no serious love interest to share the holiday with — only the revelation that after a two-year hiatus, online dating is just as hellish as it was pre-pandemic, if not more.
Swiping hasn’t gotten easier, or more fun, or sexier in any way. Putting together a profile can still be exhausting. Sending messages that turn to nothing can still be disheartening. But while this was often brutal before, the discussions of vaccines, outdoor-only dates and the dreaded first meeting via video chat means the pandemic has added a new layer of ick.
Maybe that’s why this Valentine’s Day, a holiday celebrating love that dates back to at least the Middle Ages, I’ve been considering going old school and putting out a personal ad — or at least its modern-day incarnation.
For those of you not born before the internet pickled our brains, personal ads were a precursor to online dating. They were published in newspapers, usually in the classifieds, and would involve a pithy description of the seeker. An interested reader could respond via a handwritten letter or, in some cases, a 1-800 number that prompted the caller to type in a code to hear the voice behind the ad. Then callers could leave a message to arrange a conversation.
In the digital age, things are a little more streamlined. The personal ads that have begun to crop up since the start of the pandemic are now on Instagram, on Twitter and in newsletters. These ads tend to be longer than your average Tinder profile, and the benefit is that the person placing the ad has to fill out all of the provided questions to be posted. (Anyone who has ever swiped past dozens of wordless dating profiles knows what a relief that is.) There is the added benefit that it’s an actual human who is generally checking submissions before posting them, so those submitting need to fill out all of their information if they want to be featured.
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I first came across the reborn personal ad thanks to the Instagram account @letsf---ingdate, which is connected to entrepreneur Serena Kerrigan’s successful card game of the same name. Every Saturday, the Instagram account publishes a carousel of singles that includes their name, age, location, star sign, a fun fact and, of course, a photo. Each person’s Instagram handle is also included, allowing would-be suitors to click over to their profiles and personally message them.
Other modernized personal ads include the Hot Singles NYC newsletter, which delivers one fresh single to your inbox a week. New York magazine’s nightlife newsletter has a personal section dubbed “Sweeties <3.” There are even dedicated accounts for personal ads, like one that shares personals from queer people of color across the country.
When I stumbled upon my first Instagram personal ad, I was immediately interested in placing one — and not just for the nostalgia factor. Rather, it’s a more curated collection of singles that stands in stark contrast to the open-fire-hose stream of potential matches we are ambushed with every time we open a dating app. Ads are only published on certain days, and when they are published, there’s a select few singles highlighted at a time.
This instantly swaps the dynamic. Instead of endless swiping through dozens of faces whenever you’re waiting in line at CVS or the supermarket, you’re seeing the singles du jour in a concentrated point of time and then moving on with your day. It’s the Wordle of dating. Apps want you to keep swiping — they make their money by keeping you engaged, after all. Personal ads, on the other hand, help you to avoid doomscrolling through all those apps by offering curation.
Personals also allow you to circumvent the secretive, unnecessarily shady and often super racist algorithms that dating apps force on us. They’re the closest we’ve gotten to re-creating being at a bar in the digital world: You see a group of hot people and approach the ones you’re attracted to. But in this bar, you know they’re single.
Personal ads also force the advertiser to put a little effort into their profiles, since they won’t be published if they haven't filled out a set number of questions. How frustrating is it when you’re swiping through Tinder and come across someone cute — only to see that their entire profile is a pizza emoji, an eggplant emoji and a lightning bolt emoji?
For me, though, the main draw of personal ads is simple: It allows for a dynamic of one passive partner and one active partner. I am a 31-year-old woman who is done approaching men. I spent my 20s on apps like Bumble, where the women are the only members allowed to initiate messages, channeling my inner #girlboss and messaging guys first. I’m done. I’m tired. I prefer a dating situation where I am the one who is approached.
Putting out a personal ad is an easy way for me to signal to people that I’m open to being approached. It’s kind of like a taxi light. I can turn mine on and then drive around waiting for someone to flag me down, or slide into my DMs. Part of the reason I’ve been so dissatisfied with dating apps recently is probably because this dynamic is watered down: You both have to swipe right on each other to be able to start messaging, so there is still a sense of the chase on my end. I don’t dig it.
Call me a grouchy old millennial, but placing an online personal ad just seems so much more manageable to me than plodding through the barrage of dating apps I used to have downloaded on my phone. I don’t have the stamina for it. I know what I want, and I’m uninterested in slogging through a gang of bozos to find one halfway-normal person to sip pinot noir across from for a half-hour. Maybe our ‘00s nostalgia should extend into our dating lives. We’ve already brought back low-rise jeans. Why not go back to Craigslist personals?
So consider this my very own personal ad: Single 31-year-old writer seeks hunky creative type with an easy laugh and a big appetite. Must love carbs and disco music. Interested? I’m down for a belated Valentine’s Day drink.