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Taiwan's Virtual "Tuck-Me-In" Platform Shows COVID Impact On Dating Apps

Do you long for bedtime stories told remotely? Or miss the companionship a voice provides? There's an app for that, which also responds to special COVID-19 needs of dating apps that allows for more direct online communication.

Photo of a woman looking at her phone in her bed

The rise of "Calling to sleep" apps

Dan Wu

TAIPEI — PlayOne is a popular app in Taiwan that provides online partners for streaming video gaming and other chat functionality. But recently the app began to offer online companionship with a new option: “Calling to sleep.”

On this particular platform, a user can select the characteristics of their ideal companion to be nearby, virtually, when bedtime arrives. A range of features can be selected, including the go-to-sleep voice and appearance of the person who is there with you remotely as you drift off to sleep. The price? One sleep buddy says that he charges about $13 per hour.

"Calling to sleep" also allows two strangers to communicate through online social platforms, or be on a together until they fall asleep. This socializing method has slowly emerged in the wake of online dating platforms that gained popularity a generation ago.

Taiwan's new trend: finding an online sleep buddy on social platforms

PlayOne says the bedtime companionship platform has been overloaded with requests, including from users who want people to stay on the phone even while they're sleeping — at the risk of facing low-battery problems. A typical wish of a customer is to fall asleep listening to someone's voice. In some cases, the relationship can evolve, with one user recently writing online that she met her boyfriend through the service.

All they need to do is make sure they stay online after 9 p.m.

Taiwan’s case is not alone in Eastern Asia. In Mainland China, where more than 300 million people are afflicted with sleep disorders, virtual tuckings-into-bed are also becoming more common, making “talk to sleep” a growing industry. This has led to the emergence of online apps that let users battling insomnia register and connect to a sleep coach.

Most of these platforms match users with sleep buddies of different gender — usually part-time workers, including many students. All they need to do is make sure they stay online after 9 p.m. to provide voice chat for users who have trouble falling asleep.

Screenshot of PlayOne app showing several profiles of potential gaming partners, some of whom can be selected for "calling to sleep" purposes

Screenshot of PlayOne app

Official website

Loneliness economy

As online relationships are becoming an ever bigger reality in the digital age, other dating apps in Taiwan have started developing similar functions. Ken-Han Huang, the founder of the dating app Goodnight, pointed out that “Calling to sleep” services are becoming a trend, which is reflected in the growing number of minutes spent on the platform: from 40 million to at least 60 million. “People are no longer just chatting randomly, but talking until they fall asleep, keeping each other company,” he says.

Huang says social media and the new services it has spawned are a technological response to loneliness. While digital communication has made life easier, it is common for people to turn to social media and dating platforms because it is difficult to have conversations with others in real life. "Calling to sleep" is an intimate feature, but because neither party needs to have physical contact, a situation Huang describes as a "no-body-heat relationship" that creates a feeling of virtual companionship.

The ensuing relationships are often fragmented.

In an online community, people build up a sense of security in these short interactions — without the "social pain" of real-world interactions. Rongrui Wu, the founder of Eattogether, points out that even though today’s generation would like to have actual social connections, social media is becoming their go-to solution to deal with solitude.

If the trend allows people to communicate easily with little pressure, the ensuing relationships are often fragmented; in reality, people can live in two parallel worlds, which only makes users spend more time looking for more connections, allowing the “loneliness economy” to grow.

A new business model

The outbreak of a global pandemic is seen as a watershed moment for dating apps and new online industries, as one needs to constantly maintain physical distance with others, making it more essential than ever to socialize digitally. The long-term effect could be that these boundaries remain, and ultimately rise further.

Data from Future Commerce shows that the rate of dating app users turning to the audio-visual call function has increased significantly, from 6% to 69%. The report also cites the figure from dating platform Hinge, which indicated that 65% of users were willing to use video and audio calls as part of the dating process.

This reflects a significant change in the business model and demand for social software, with platforms eager to develop more interactive features in response to the trend of people turning to online socializing after the pandemic prevented them from meeting in person.

The rise of the “homebody economy” has created a different industry and competition in the online market, with traditional dating software intending to revamp its marketing approach. These changes show the impact of new social features on the emerging online industry.

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Photo of Via della Madonna dei Monti in Rome, Italy.

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