Loose Wire: Looking for Love on the Net
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 31 October 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I’ve been suspicious about the benefits of linking computers and romance since the late 1970s, when as a gangly teen I joined an acting tour of New England schools. The stated purpose of the exercise was to bring refined English culture to the colonial heathen (although it wasn’t expressed so explicitly), but we young fellas were really only interested in using our posh English accents to melt tender American hearts. When, prior to departure, we were asked to fill out a computer punch-card form for a ball halfway through the tour where we were promised a bevy of girls matching our vital statistics, we felt sure the trip was going to be a runaway success.
Of course it wasn’t. Our first night on U.S. soil saw us thrown out of an ice cream parlour by a waitress unimpressed by our accents and empty wallets. And when it came to picking up my badge and list of matches at the ball, I quickly realized that I had been a little too honest in the questionnaire. As I wended my way through the room glancing at badge numbers, I couldn’t help noticing that all six of my matches looked like they were part-time shot-putters for the East German Olympic team. Torn between leaving and spending the evening in the toilet, I dumped my badge and tried to convince a couple of cheerleaders they were my matches. Needless to say they poured punch in my lap and I ended up in the campus shrubbery with a slightly moustachioed hammer-throwing exchange student from Leipzig.
Twenty years later, not much had changed. Single and newly returned to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, I signed up for a dating service. For a fee, you got to submit your profile for others to peruse. You, in turn, could check out their profiles. In tiny cubicles in a dingy office subscribers flipped through brochures, trying to stifle gasps of horror at the gallery on offer. I cancelled my subscription when the only woman I could find who didn’t seem to have some significant drawback — a contagious disease, six previous husbands or Joan Collins hair — rebuffed my mediated approaches.
Now, on-line dating has taken off in a big way. I counted half a dozen new sites launched in the past two months alone. Most let you browse what’s on offer for free, but charge you, either via subscription or a credit system, if you want to contact anyone you like the look of.
Setting up your profile has got a lot more sophisticated than punching a card. At uDate (www.udate.com) you can fill in detailed forms right down to whether you eat Chinese food or read the Helsingborgs Dagblad. The British-based site boasts 11 million members and made $2 million profit last quarter. One new site, DateCam (www.datecam.com), lets you use Web cams — cameras hooked to your PC — to flirt on-line. That should make those awkward early exits easier: Instead of feigning food-poisoning to escape your undesirable date, you could just blame your modem.
Of course, there are downsides. In some circles there’s a stigma attached to folk who apparently have to resort to matchmaking services. Another problem is that you can’t be sure who you’re dealing with on-line, leaving you vulnerable to liars, stalkers, philanderers and criminals: Japan reported almost 800 crimes related to on-line dating sites in the first half of 2002, almost double last year’s figures.
Still the more people who sign up, the less stigma there’s going to be, and the more choice folks will have in selecting a partner. Indeed, sites such as Lavalife (www.lavalife.com) offer a huge array of choices, even in a place like Indonesia: I was particularly taken by a lady who’s opening line was “Come to mama, big boy!!!” Another lady cheerily confessed she has more shoes than she can count, and her picture seems to catch her in a moment of happy abandonment at the end of a lively evening.
So does all this work? Lavalife reckons so. A survey the company commissioned said that last month more than half of Americans believe they stand a better chance of meeting someone they like on-line than in a singles bar.
If you’re romantically sidelined, I’d recommend dipping a toe. UDate has the most options, but it’s untidy, and member profiles aren’t particularly illuminating. Lavalife is the best laid out, in my view, and they make it very easy to add photos, personalized text, and a more private Web page that only folk you invite in can view. I only ran into trouble when I tried to remove a photo of myself by the pool which, on reflection, was a bit too racy for the public section. As far as I can work out it’s still there, which probably explains why I haven’t had any responses yet. Even from Leipzig shot-putters.