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23 March 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Shopping for love
Online dating sites provide a sanitised cyber world for those who want to avoid the 'risks' of face-to-face flirting.

by Josie Appleton

Not so long ago singles would scour newspaper columns reading: 'man, 45, GSOH, looking for someone to share walks and theatre, and perhaps more.'

Online dating is now a multimillion-pound industry and growing. Over the past year the number of UK dating sites increased from 708 to 821, and in America dating is now the leading form of paid internet content. There is a bewildering range of sites catering to niche interests ranging from pet-lovers to herpes-sufferers, and increasingly sophisticated technologies for finding that perfect match. While newspaper dating ads tended to be restricted to the shy and the divorced, online dating is also used by outgoing twentysomethings.

Some American college students seem to be turning from the social circuit of balls and bars, and looking for a partner at the click of a mouse - the matchmaking site, thefacebook.com, is becoming a must for any college socialite. Even heavy-drinking English students are catching on. Mike Fitzgerald, who runs four UK student dating sites, says membership has grown over the past five years from around 5,000 to 150,000, taking in a broader range of people. 'Before it was the more studious type, people who didn't like going out - now there is also more of the middle ground.' Indeed, one of the posts on the Studentdate.com site is an attractive first-year English student who loves music, drama and outdoor pursuits, has a 'great sense of humour', and is on the lookout for a 'similarly easy going, good looking student type'.

No doubt some are using websites for a laugh, or as a replacement for clumsy newspaper personals. But there is also something unhealthy about the burgeoning of online dating. Singles are clearly yearning for love, but they seem to be shying away from real-life encounters, which are seen as altogether too messy and time-consuming. In the sanitised cyber world they can shop around for a date with all the right features, without the risk of flirting face-to-face.

Devotees claim that you don't have to trawl smoky nightspots, listening to people talk rubbish and spurning unwanted advances. Suzanne Oshima, who set up a number of US dating sites, says that '[Online dating] is a lot easier than going to the bars - people are over the bar scene. A lot of people don't have time anymore.' (1) Fran Compagno, a 'dating coach' from California, tells me that 'it's easier, it's faster, you get to go through more people in a shorter time in the comfort of your own home'. Match.com, one of the biggest US dating sites, has the slogan 'Love is complicated, match is simple'.

Rather than throw seductive glances across a dark room, you just fire off an email, and if he or she doesn't reply that's okay. Apparently there's no awkwardness or risk of rejection. 'There isn't the face-to-face pressure of asking someone on a date', argues Harvard student Chris Hughes, one of the creators of thefacebook.com (2). If one doesn't work out, there are plenty more matches to trawl through.

This may be convenient, but it takes some of the life - not to mention the romance - out of meeting someone new. You are risking less by email chat-up, but for that reason it means less too. An approach made so lightly is more likely to be taken lightly, as notes from admirers sit alongside spam in the morning inbox.

Online daters often seem more like consumers in a shopping mall, than suitors out to seduce. In the place of the gradual self-revelation of a first encounter, they cut to the chase, saying: this is me, this is what I want from you, how about it? 'People are more likely to self-disclose online. In a pub, they aren't going to be so forthcoming about who they are', Monica Whitty tells me, a lecturer at Queen's University Belfast who is writing a book about online dating. Indeed, many adverts read like personal encyclopaedias, detailing not only a person's weight, height, religion, hobbies, but also the pets they like (dogs, reptiles, mice, horses, and more), their favourite things, the last thing they read, their favourite travel spots.

'You have NO obligation to meet anyone, ever', advises LDS Mingle
And then there are the specifications of the desired mate: 'What color eyes do you like to stare into? What kind of hair do you like to run your fingers through? Are you looking for certain body types? Certain ethnicities?', prompts Match.com. 'It's like they are shopping for love', says Whitty. 'They are ticking off the things they hope to get, and if somebody doesn't match up on every quality, they get annoyed - they think "I didn't get what I paid for". They are not prepared to invest time or energy in that person.' This tick-box approach leaves little room for passion, or losing yourself in somebody else.

There has been a boom in niche websites allowing people with a common interest to hook up. There's one for followers of the objectivist Ayn Rand, J-Date for Jews, DatingForSmokers.com, KissyKat for pet-lovers, MPwH for people with Herpes, and others for Muslims, Christians, disabled people, or people with the same star sign. These cosy communities protect you from an encounter with somebody different; there's little chance of love across the lines. Unless love across the lines is your kind of thing, in which case check out interracialdatingcentral.com.

Dating websites play the role of chaperone, providing rules and guidelines for those first interactions. They email you suggested dates: only a day after signing up, Match.com had sent me three suitable matches, of 87, 82 and 81 per cent compatibility respectively. You are coached on how best to present yourself, and prodded on possible answers to questions. 'What do you do for fun?' asks Match.com, and offers the guidelines: 'Here's a great opportunity to get noticed. But remember, it's all in the details. What's your favourites genre? Who's your favourite actor?' Another website provides a list of adjectives to help describe yourself: 'adventurous, affectionate, alluring, altruistic….'

Where couples once sought to liberate themselves from the stultifying supervision of the chaperone, now they again seem to be seeking it out. Indeed, there is a whole industry geared towards helping people present themselves online. Fran Compagno offers advice to online daters: 'I work with the individual, helping them get their profile to be ideal. People get to think about themselves, and consider which are their best qualities.' She advises men that their picture should be friendly and attractive - 'they can't have a serious picture or women get spooked'. As for women, they 'should ideally show their body if they have a great figure'. Dating companies employ researchers to find out what turns people on, then feed this advice back to their users. Flirting becomes a science, where spontaneity and charm are replaced by recommended techniques.

People often end up expressing themselves in the formulaic terms laid out for them. 'What's your ideal date?', asks Match.com, giving you the options of 'cozy: a cappuccino and fat-free latte', 'sensual: a decadent dinner', 'raw: blissful pain of the tattoo needle'. Tick the box - which best describes you? And if you want to tell somebody you're interested, you send them a 'poke' if you're on thefacebook.com, a 'wink' if you are on Match.com, and a 'kiss' or a 'smile' on other sites. 'These members have winked at you', announces the email in your inbox, with links through to their profiles.

By contrast, actually meeting somebody in the flesh is presented as a dodgy business. The singles website LDS Mingle warns people to keep their anonymity, be cautious and take their time before meeting someone. 'One of the wonderful things about meeting somebody online is that you can gain so much information about a person before you feel you need to meet. You have NO obligation to meet anyone, ever.' (3) If you do bite the bullet, you should take a friend, meet in a safe environment, tell someone where you are going, take your own transportation, and 'be brief, one or two hours is plenty'. Finally, 'if your date disagrees with this guideline or any of the guidelines listed here, you shouldn't meet that person'.

No doubt some manage to find love and even marriage online. But for many, online dating has become a perpetual search for that perfect other half, while avoiding the risk and unpredictability of face-to-face encounters. As one 21-year-old American student and user of thefacebook.com put it, 'you're basically sitting in front of your computer, typing away. It kind of perpetuates being by yourself' (4).

(1) 'Dating websites swelling in ranks among mid-20s crowd', The Post, 10 February 2005

(2) Web site's 'like a yellow pages for dating', Sun Times, 18 March 2005

(3) See the safety advice on LDS mingle

(4) Web site's 'like a yellow pages for dating', Sun Times, 18 March 2005

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