If there’s one thing defining the internet right now, it’s people talking to strangers on the street and putting it online. Take one look at TikTok or Instagram and you’ll soon find any number of clips in which a chirpy person approaches a less chirpy person on a busy street and asks an intrusive question. The less chirpy person either tells them to “f*** off”, invites them in to have a tour around their home, or, more likely, responds with some sort of transcendent anecdote that alters the way you think and feel about yourself and possibly also the world.
For the most part, these videos are nauseating viewing. A symptom of our invasive, obsessively oversharing culture, they offer little more than a way to pass the time while sitting on the toilet. There is, however, one exception. Launched in February, Meet Cutes (@meetcutesnyc) is a hugely popular Instagram account bringing real-life romance to our screens via short-form videos sharing the love stories of strangers.
“We were talking on the phone about how we could make something fun and interesting on social media,” explains Aaron Feinberg, a 28-year-old hospitality specialist who founded Meet Cutes with his childhood friend, Victor Lee, also 28, who works in clothes manufacturing (yes, they still work their full-time jobs). “Victor always loved the street interview style of content: the randomness and the slices of wisdom that total strangers impart in a minute or two. He came up with the idea to ask random couples how they met and to share their love story.”
The only thing missing? Someone to take on the daunting task of approaching people in the street. “We had the perfect person for it.” Indeed, they did: Jeremy Bernstein, a 29-year-old renewable energy salesman who, thanks to his day job, was already an expert at talking to strangers in public. “He’s a professional at talking to people on the street [while] selling renewable energy,” says Feinberg, who films the videos while Lee edits. “Now, he’s the voice of Meet Cutes.”
Every video begins the same way. “Excuse me, are you two a couple?” asks Bernstein, before pointing a camera in two people’s faces and asking them to share the story of how they met. Given the context, you’d be forgiven for thinking that most people would simply walk away, or pretend they hadn’t heard the question. But that couldn’t be further from the case. The couples who share their stories with Meet Cutes are more than happy to talk – there’s some initial awkward giggling, of course, but they tend to quickly get over it, launching into the narrative of their relationship, if occasionally disagreeing with one another over details. Then there are the stories themselves, which come from couples of all ages, genders and sexualities, and sound straight out of a Richard Curtis film.
There’s the young couple who met when they were working together in an ice cream shop: “The minute I laid eyes on him, it was a yin and yang.” The preschool teacher who fell in love with her sign-language instructor: “He asked me out to tea.” The railway supervisor who spotted a beautiful woman coming off a train and proceeded to direct that train onto the same track day after day so he could find her again. They’ve now been married for 20 years. “The next time somebody changes the gate on your plane, they’re just trying to get a date,” the former supervisor laughs.
“At first, it was very awkward going up to couples,” recalls Lee. “Aaron and Jeremy went out one Sunday and filmed for eight hours in the streets of New York. After the third attempt, a couple completely opened up to us and were excited at the opportunity to share their story.” Victor edited the first few videos and the group started posting them immediately. “In the fourth video we posted, a couple had met through an online video game, Overwatch. It ended up going viral and getting over 3 million views on TikTok. After that, we realised we had something, and we hit the streets for 15 to 20 hours a week so we could post a story every day.”
How do they go about finding the couples? “We pick a busy street corner around the city, usually after work or on the weekends when couples are out and about,” explains Feinberg. “We wait for a couple to walk past, approach them with an iPhone camera, and hope for the best. Sometimes we’ll see an interesting couple a block away and literally run after them. We’ll do whatever it takes to get the story.”
Of course, there are inevitable hiccups, misidentification of couples being one of the most common. “Sometimes we’ll be approaching a couple and one of us will say ‘abort’ because as we get closer we realise they aren’t together. Sometimes it’s two friends, other times – and slightly more awkward – it’s a parent and their son or daughter. Thankfully, if we get it wrong, more often than not people laugh it off.”
Generally, there are clear telltale signs, though. “Hand holding, wedding rings, and overall body language are all usual giveaways,” adds Feinberg. “We have a rule that if one of us thinks it could be a couple, we have to approach.”
Today, Meet Cutes NYC has more than 2 million followers and its videos regularly rack up millions of views and hundreds of thousands of likes and shares. The brand has expanded beyond New York, too, finding couples in Miami and London. What makes the content unique is the scarcity of hearing stories like these: genuine moments of spark and spontaneity that happen in the real world as opposed to through a dating app. They resonate because they’re stories many of us long to be our own.
“New York has a reputation as a city that’s hard to date in, and full of unpleasant stand-offish pedestrians,” says Feinberg. “So I think watching New Yorkers be kind on the street, and share their stories about love, has really struck a chord. We hope our videos offer something that everyone can enjoy, whether it be authentic storytelling, relationship advice, or just feelgood content to cheer up their day.”
It also offers people something we could all do with a lot more of, particularly in the modern dating scene: hope. “People seem to romanticise meet-cutes because of the spontaneity and the chance that it could happen to them at any time,” adds Feinberg. “But we truly believe love is love. No matter how or where you meet your partner, everyone has wisdom and advice to share, whether you meet your partner by finding them on a dating app, saying hello on an empty subway, or if they just happen to be your sign-language teacher.”
If there’s one thing we can take away from what Feinberg and co are doing, it’s that all of us could do with being a little more open to love, in whatever guise it presents itself. Because in a dating landscape where scepticism and negativity are rife, sometimes the only thing holding us back is ourselves.