Dating 2.0 Picks Up Speed

Sites bet on video, text messaging and social networks to amp up online dating.

February 23, 2009, 1:36 PM

Dec. 20, 2007 — -- It's Friday night, and your date for the evening just appeared on your computer screen. He's shifting awkwardly in his chair as he adjusts his webcam, and a comment about American Idol makes it immediately clear you haven't found your soul mate. You promptly click "End date" and -- after a few moments -- your next date appears, and you're ready to begin again.

Welcome to Dating 2.0. A bevy of new services is banking on the booming popularity of web video, text messaging and social networking to amp up online matchmaking for the Web 2.0 crowd.

"We're the antithesis of sites like Match and eHarmony," says Stephen Stokols, co-founder of speed-dating site WooMe. "It's instant gratification."

A handful of next-gen dating services updates the original online-dating sites' standard mix of exhaustive personality surveys and poring over profiles in search of a potential mate. They're the latest twists on internet dating, which drew in 22.6 million people this year, according to data collected by comScore.

Video-centered services like SpeedDate, Say-hey-hey and WooMe reel in online speed daters by offering quick registration, free memberships and the tantalizing promise of a date within minutes. Others, like Ice Brkr and Crazy Blind Date, rely on text messaging to coordinate speedy meetings.

WooMe, backed by original Skype backer Mangrove Capital Partners, allows members to create short group-video-chat sessions. SpeedDate, based in San Mateo, California, files a seemingly endless line of daters through your virtual door for three-minute "video dates" supplemented with a text client. With Say-hey-hey, users upload a YouTube-style clip of themselves, and viewers interested in a date ping the posters with intro videos of their own.

Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University at Dominguez Hills and author of the forthcoming book Me, MySpace and I, says the evolution of online dating is only natural: Even pioneer dating site is hooking up with Facebook to tap the social networking site's growing popularity.

"Dating sites have finally gotten into what people in this generation want and expect," Rosen says. "When you're looking at a group that craves anything new, the site that manages to provide that will win, at least until something better comes along."

The new services have quickly reached significant milestones: WooMe has facilitated upward of 100,000 introductions, SpeedDate has hosted more than 100,000 speed dates and Crazy Blind Date has registered 10,000 users, according to the services' representatives. Online dating is a growth industry that JupiterResearch predicts will generate more than $900 million a year in the United States by 2011.

Researchers say virtual dating could boost matchmaking potential, since video daters know instantaneously if they have that elusive chemistry.

"Within a minute, you know if a person is funny or not, if you two click or not, thanks to social clues like body language," says Michael Norton, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.

WooMe co-founder George Berkowski says real-world speed dating tends to be expensive and time-consuming, and the crowds are average. WooMe extends the concept, letting users move beyond simple speed dating to arrange interviews for travel partners and roommates.

Nate Elliott, a senior analyst with JupiterResearch, says he thinks the new convergence of social networking and dating sites is interesting, but not necessarily permanent. "We just haven't seen these types of free dating sites have a significant impact on the dating industry," says Elliott.

While none of the next-gen dating sites' founders admitted to explicitly tracking whether online dates resulted in offline relationships, MIT Media Lab researcher Jeana Frost wonders if the speed-date model could actually keep users from finding long-term love.

"How are we going to build deep and committed relationships when you are always wondering if someone else might be someone better?" she asks.

But Sam Yagan, CEO and founder of Crazy Blind Date, says he sees a definite benefit to next-gen dating schemes. It's hard to filter out potential dates using old-school methods like e-mail and personal ads, he says, and services like his make online dating easier than ever.

"You could spend five hours for one awful date, or go on 10 first dates in an hour," says Yagan. "You can endure a few minutes talking to anyone, no matter how ugly. And at least you can say you met someone new."

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