Toronto Internet Dating, 2.0

Toronto Life, March 2008

A little over a year ago, Sarah Attwell decided to give on-line dating a try. She signed up with one of the largest companies, began creating a profile and quickly became discouraged.

“There was just so much pressure,” says the 30-year-old downtown restaurant manager. “Creating your profile, trying to decide what your ‘favourite book’ is or, at least, which book would sound the coolest—it was almost easier to just go to a bar and talk to random people.”

“Almost” being the operative word. Sarah Attwell didn’t bother to go to a bar and chat up strangers, but on a whim one day she did try the cyber equivalent: looking up random Toronto bachelors on Facebook and “poking” the ones that seemed cute and interesting. A couple of men responded, one stood out, and they’ve been together ever since.

Gone are the days when the only people you were likely to meet on the Internet were nerds and perverts. When the first on-line dating services began in the mid-’90s, most people saw them as an extension of newspaper dating classifieds—something for a tiny minority of desperate singles, who used arcane acronyms and limited word counts to try to find the SWF of their dreams.

Since then, however, the number of people hunting for love on-line has grown astronomically. Match.com, one of the first on-line dating services, began in 1995, and three years later had more than 50,000 members. By 2002 it had grown to 2.5 million—and today it claims to serve a whopping 15 million people in 37 countries.

Internet dating has clearly moved into the mainstream. According to Jupiter Research, an Internet market research firm, the industry was poised to rake in $900 million in 2007. Lavalife, one of Canada’s largest services, says it has 250,000 active users in Toronto alone; the popular American service eHarmony claims responsibility for 90 marriages a day and 100,000 resultant children (a disproportionate number of them named Harmony).

Technologically, too, on-line dating companies have come a long way. Today Internet daters can troll through enormous databases full of potential lovers, mathematically determine their soulmates using complex algorithms, and try one of the many niche services for increasingly specific tastes—from ConservativeMatch.com (slogan: “Sweethearts not bleeding hearts”) to the creepily named DateMyPet.com, which connects compatible pet lovers.

With the rise of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, on-line dating has taken another step forward. The free services don’t just allow for Internet dating, but Internet flirting, Internet matchmaking and, for the many people who scroll through the photos and profiles of unrequited loves, Internet yearning.

For people like Sarah Attwell, trying to find a date on a Web site such as Facebook, a place you already visit throughout the day, can be a less pressure-filled way of meeting someone on-line—the cyber equivalent of meeting someone at a grocery store or yoga class, rather than a singles bar. It also allows people to maintain the superstitious and somewhat paradoxical belief that—like the struggling slugger who’s told not to try to hit a home run—you’re most likely to find someone when you’re not really looking.

Such was the case with Luke Bryant. He was left with an extra ticket to the symphony a little while ago, and decided to find a date through Craigslist. “It’s totally legit to go on Craigslist to sell your Lionel Richie album, so just drifting to another part of that page and posting an ad seemed completely natural,” Bryant explains.

Sometimes, using the same Web site or service as someone means there’s already a shared sense of community—much like finding yourselves at the same club. A Toronto investment banker met his former long-term girlfriend while downloading one of her songs through Napster. A common interest in an obscure Québécois indie band was enough to kick-start a seven-year relationship.

The fact that many people don’t want to use a Web site that’s just for dating shouldn’t be surprising. Most singles, after all, don’t go to a bar solely to find a partner. And if the on-line dating industry used to simply be a place for people trying to hit a home run, it’s quickly adjusting. Sites such as ImInLikeWithYou.com try to lure in new users with multi-player Tetris-like games, and contests designed to encourage flirtation. Lavalife has just introduced LavalifePrime, a “social dating” service aimed at baby boomers that uses many of the features of social networking sites, allowing members to form groups, organize events, and find friends and travel companions.

The popularity of social networking sites and the development of dating Web sites that are more like on-line playgrounds than newspaper classified ads won’t lead to the downfall of traditional on-line dating services. It may be a long time before we see the first babies named Facebook. It seems as if the on-line dating scene is diversifying, just like its real-world counterpart. In both bars and on-line, there’s enough room for everyone—the person looking for a serious relationship, the person seeking a one-night fling, and the one who just wants to have a nice night out, share a few laughs, and perhaps meet someone friendly, without worrying too much about someone judging their “favourite book.”

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