I used to think every great relationship began with a great origin story, like hitting it off with the person who happens to be seated next to you on an airplane or meeting the love of your life when you both reach for the same book at a bookstore. I wanted to have a meet-cute happen organically, out in the wild, so I always felt slightly jealous of my friends who met their significant others through school and at bars, while I was going on first dates set up through Tinder and Bumble and meeting people online. But digital meet-cutes — an origin story for a relationship that springs from dating apps, social media, or some other online community — are 100 percent as romantic as meeting someone great in real life. I just didn't notice that they bloomed all around me until I had a romantic online love story of my own.
Even though 39% of straight couples and 60% of same-sex couples now meet online, according to a study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of New Mexico, a stigma still persists that meeting in-person is more ideal. According to an Elite Daily survey conducted earlier this year on dating, 30% of respondents say they've lied about meeting someone on a dating app because it's still a "taboo" place to meet. And in an informal poll of my own Instagram followers, 81% said they preferred to meet people IRL. (Preferences are different than real experiences, of course: when I asked if they had more luck meeting people online or in real life, my followers were split exactly 50/50.) It seems as if people still hope for adorable meet-cutes, and think that anything short of that is mundane or embarrassing.
Digital meet-cutes don't have to be, though. Like their IRL counterparts, they often involve an unexpected twist of events, uncanny timing, and a heavy dash of luck.
For example, in the fall of 2017, I was settling into my new job as the Dating Editor at Elite Daily. I was writing a lot of pieces featuring real dating stories, opinions, and advice from single women and men, and I was beginning to exhaust my supply of friends — I knew I couldn't hit them up with interview requests every few hours for the rest of my career. So, I did what any good 20-something would do: I opened Tinder, set my radius to 100 miles, swiped right on every single person I encountered, and asked my new pool of matches if I could interview them about dating.
One guy, Saul, gave me a quote for a piece rounding up the best dating advice guys had received from their moms. He explained his mom always encouraged him to date women who were Jewish, like him, and I published that advice alongside other maternal wisdom, like not rushing into relationships and always using condoms. I ended the piece by writing, "Just saying... I'd be fine with any of these moms as my mother-in-law."
I never looked closely at Saul's Tinder profile — to me, he was just a source. But a week later, I matched again with Saul on Hinge, where he happens to work as an engineer. This time, I paid attention to his profile, and I liked what I saw: we both worked in dating; he had great, dark eyes and a dimpled smile; the luck of matching twice seemed like a good omen. We had our first date a week later, moved in together 18 months after that, and while his mom isn't my mother-in-law (we're not married), I feel so lucky to have her in my life now, too.
When I tell the story of how I met Saul, people often comment on how cute it is that a dating editor and a dating app engineer would meet on his own dating app. I agree, it's sweet. But in my eyes, the story feels romantic because of what happened next: We fell in love. A conclusion like that can make even the most ordinary origin story feel extraordinary.
While digital meet-cutes have undoubtedly been around since the dawn of the internet, the first time I genuinely swooned over one was in February 2016, when my friend Dana Schwartz tweeted a link to a survey she made called "hey do you want to date dana schwartz?" and then swiftly fell in love with one of the respondents. As Dana tells me in an interview, "I was so exhausted by how transactional app dating felt — it seemed like I was interchangeable, just one more swipe among a thousand other similar women." She felt the survey would give her a better shot at a more meaningful, personalized match. Sure enough, Dana, the author of the forthcoming book The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon, had briefly chatted with a guy named Matt manning a booth at the Brooklyn Book Fair six months earlier, and he filled out the survey after spotting it on Twitter. She was charmed by his witty responses and they ultimately dated for two years. Though they're no longer together, Dana says, "Any time two people who love each other find each other in this hellhole of a world, it’s romantic."
Part of what might make falling in love after meeting online so satisfying is that people don't typically expect it to work out. Olivia Jennings, an office assistant at a non-profit, certainly didn't expect any fireworks when she was swiping on Tinder in Richmond, Virginia in August 2018. She matched with a girl named Hannah and they sent a few messages back and forth before deciding to meet up at a brewery. The circumstances weren't an obvious breeding ground for love: Olivia was three months away from moving to New York, and Hannah, who had just gotten out of a relationship, nearly canceled the date over nerves. But within a month, they were in love. They dated long-distance for eight months, then relocated together to Connecticut. "We talk all of the time about how lucky we are that we both swiped right, initiated the conversation, and showed up for the first date," Olivia says. "Nobody really expects to find love on Tinder, but then somehow, we did. So, I guess the sheer luck of it makes it romantic."
As I collected more swoon-worthy stories of digital meet-cutes, I noticed that luck and coincidence — or what some people call "fate" — often play an incredible role in bringing two people together. Lexy Townsend, who now works in higher education, says she and her boyfriend of three years, Jack, matched on Tinder after having six classes together at Arizona State University, even though they never spoke once during college. "Jack likes to tell people this likely was because I was studious and sat in the front row, and he sat in the back row so he didn't have to pay attention," Lexy says. "Thank goodness online dating is a thing, because we apparently weren't getting the universe's hints that we should meet one another in college."
Similarly, a dating app finally brought Chelsea Tageson-Crane and her fiancé Jamie together when other forces couldn't. For two years, her friend repeatedly insisted she should listen to the Friends-themed podcast Best of Friends because he thought she'd love one of the host's sense of humor. He even tried to convince her to attend the podcast's live show, but she didn't go. Chelsea, who works in TV development, explains, "The whole time, I was like, 'Nick, I don't care about this podcast, please stop telling me about it, I'm not going to listen to it.'" But then, in a twist of fate, she matched with Jamie, the podcast host her friend adored, on Hinge in the spring of 2017. They're now engaged, and yes, Nick will be in the wedding.
A technological fluke led Sara Pearlman, an executive assistant, to a transatlantic romance that's been going strong for over five years now. In August 2014, she was playing around on Tinder at a restaurant in Portland, Oregon with her friends; they set the match radius to just a mile to see if they could match with anyone in the restaurant. She wound up matching with Nathan, though he wasn't nearby at all. He was from London and traveling around the United States on vacation; he had passed through Portland, but was no longer there. Because he didn't have cell service in the U.S., Portland was saved as his last location on Tinder, making the match possible. The two started talking and instantly hit it off. That fall, Nathan flew back to visit Sara, and they realized their connection was incredibly real. After four years of long-distance dating, Sara moved to London in 2018 to live with him. "I think it was fate, genuinely, and I don’t normally believe in that kind of thing," she says.
Many people say technology doesn't feel that endearing — except, of course, when it leads them to finding an incredible connection. Mriganka Chawla, a managing editor, says that by her sophomore year at Penn State she had given up on finding love. She kept meeting people who only wanted to hook up, when she really just wanted an "old-fashioned dinner date." That's when Facebook suggested she send a friend request to a guy named Kunal. She thought his profile picture was attractive, so she did. After he accepted, he sent her a message that said, "I could start this conversation with the typical, 'Hey, how's it going...' but I'm really not a fan of online communication, so how about you pick a restaurant and I take you out to dinner?" It was like fate.
"Facebook is not the most romantic way to meet anyone, but the way he asked me out just did something to my heart," Mriganka says. "Once we started talking, we couldn't shut up. The conversation was organic and the chemistry was off the charts from the get-go. If I take my own preconceived notions out of the equation, I think it was the most romantic proposal [for a date] ever. The directness and honesty made me swoon."
Another recurring theme in these digital meet-cutes is an eerie sense of predetermination, or people intuitively knowing that they've met the love of their life. As a Penn State sophomore in 2012, Alicia Thomas posted a selfie on Facebook of her snuggling with her crush, a guy from school named Erich. The photo was liked by a guy named Andrew Valenski, one of Erich's friends who went to college six hours away; she thought his profile picture was cute, so she sent him a friend request. They flirted in the photo's comments, and then over Facebook Messenger, where the banter quickly turned romantic. "I told him some offhand fact about myself and he said, 'Marry me,'" she recalls. "I answered, 'Alicia Valenski does sound pretty good, doesn't it?'" Fast-forward through an honest but awkward conversation with Erich, meeting in person, two-and-a-half years of dating long-distance, and adopting a dog and buying a house together, and Alicia's last name is now indeed Valenski. She and Andrew got married in 2018.
Alicia, now the co-founder of the brewery workout directory Work For Your Beer, disputes the idea that falling in love online is somehow subpar. "It felt like a whirlwind romance. Love at first comment, if you will," she says. "Without the internet, we would never have been able to make long-distance work... And if you think the digital communication that I've saved from that chapter of our story couldn't make me swoon just as hard as a kiss, a dance, or anything other romantic contact that would have taken place in person, I've got a library of texts, emails, Snapchats, and more that would prove you wrong."
Unlike falling in love in real life, part of what makes a digital romance so special is that every interaction is recorded and preserved online. If you're feeling sentimental, you can scroll back through timelines and feeds and see your relationship flourish on-screen. For people who meet in real life, memory recall isn't as accurate.
Digital meet-cutes now seep into pop culture. Tweet Cute, the unbearably perfectly titled YA novel forthcoming in January 2020, follows high school classmates Pepper and Jack as they engage in a viral Twitter feud over a grilled cheese recipe. Soon, a relationship blossoms. Author and Bustle editor Emma Lord says Twitter is a natural place to fall in love. "Even when we're equipped with this platform that connects us with a bajillion people that should be too overwhelming to fathom, we still manage to find groups we feel deep connections with — I think of 'Book Twitter' or 'Bachelor Twitter,'" she says. "There is still something very human about the way we cluster online, and it makes these 'random' meetings on Twitter a lot more personal than we might think. But even that randomness lends itself to romance — there's something so compelling about meeting by chance."
That randomness is what I find so unbelievably heartwarming about these internet-fueled encounters with love. It makes no sense that you could meet your future husband in the Facebook comment section of a photo of you snuggling with your college crush. It's unfathomable that you would uproot your life by moving 5,000 miles to be with the person who just so happened to lose cell service while traveling through your hometown. And yet, these stories are true.
I've heard people glumly say they "just met someone on Tinder" with an almost apologetic tone, as if they're sorry they can't conjure up a sweeter story. But there's magic in that story, too: How improbable is it that two people who can love each other will actually find each other on the same app, at the same time, and strike up a conversation that leads to a real spark? It's as improbable as it is cute. That's a meet-cute, too.