The Dana Centre event on Internet Dating on 5 June 2007 turned out to be more about "dating" than "internet", which to me anyway was a bit of a shame. I'd also have been interested in whether anyone's developed a system for processing people's personal information which works better than average at matching the right people, for instance, or algorithms to help someone select the most "suitable" candidates! But what they did discuss was still interesting.
The presenters were Jennifer Cox, journalist and author of Around the World in 80 Dates, and psychophysiologist Harry Witchel, an American now at Bristol University's Physiology Department.
Witchel cited some interesting statistics. From polls, 72% of people think there's a stigma associated with internet dating. But did you know that in the US of A internet dating is the number one paid for internet service, a $1 billion industry which since 2003 has outstripped even porn? (if you'll forgive the pun). And 16% of US visitors to dating sites are over 55 years of age, so it's not restricted to just one narrow age group.
Some 3 million people in the US have had, or know someone who's had, a successful outcome as a result - meaning a long term relationship or marriage.
Why do people internet date? Apparently over 50% of women say it's for friendship, and interestingly 40% of men. Not surprisingly, about 4 times as many as men as women (30% of men) want a no strings fling. But would you believe that as many men as women (12%) are after true love, and twice as many men as women say they want marriage?
What makes people respond to an online profile?From polls it seems that 74% respond because of the photo, 70% the description, 60% hobbies and interests.Then it's age, location, job. Only 5% said they based the decision on income. As many as 4% go by the zodiac sign! (More below on how to write the perfect profile.)
Lies, damned lies and internet adsInternet dating has its own particular issues. If you meet someone in person you can tell a lot about them in just half a second. On the internet, people can be dishonest or misleading, and you won't even know it unless you meet them.
Statistics show that women in their 20's on average say in their online ads that they weigh about 6lbs less than the national average, women in their 40s 20lb less!
Men on the other hand are extra tall. But they may have good reason to lie in their profiles - men who are 6'3" or 6'4" in height get 60% more first replies than men who are 5'7".
In the USA there's even a dating website True.com which verifies independently that what you say about yourself is true. But it seems people in the UK are rather less concerned about truth in advertising when it comes to personals. Some people don't mind white lies about e.g. age (as a means of getting others to meet you and then hopefully give you a chance to win them over, when otherwise they'd dismiss you based on possibly too rigid criteria), while others think it's just unforgivably deceitful, period.
However, even though some people lie online, it's also been found that people are best at figuring out untruths from the words used. In fact, people can sense lies best from written words (e.g. newspapers), then audio only e.g. radio, then audiovisual e.g. TV or in person. It seems people are more able to analyse and recognise falsehoods from words alone, when they can't see or hear the person - body language and facial expressions in fact can distract people from accurate lie detection! I've heard this before e.g. in New Scientist (who are running a lie detection experiment involving watching YouTube videos, if you want to take part).
How to write the perfect profile?An interesting exercise (though the time alloted was far too long) was that attendees were each given a piece of paper and asked to write 3 words to describe themselves, 3 words that would attract them to someone else's profile, and 3 words in someone else's profile that would put them off. And then discuss them in small groups.
Jennifer Cox also led separate small groups to discuss the components of a good profile, reading out real life examples. While all this reflects her own view, a lot of people seemed to agree with her. It seems common sense, to me, but common sense often bears repeating.
Trying to say too much about yourself (e.g. I have a daughter I've never spent enough time with) can seem defensive or disingenuous, whereas something provocative and bold can stand out (e.g. if you believe in God don't reply).
She feels the aim of profiles is to filter out unsuitable people, to engage people's critical faculties of assessment, then get them to move on if you're not suitable for each other.
She thinks it's actually not that hard to get a first date if you present yourself in a certain way (women tend to present themselves as flighty or energetic, men as still). But why waste time constantly meeting people who aren't suitable and never getting beyond the first encounter?
People seemed universally to dislike "good sense of humour". The point of phrases like that is to show that you've got friends. The issue is, how do you present yourself as being reliable and socially integrated without being obvious?
It's important to understand who you are and what you want. You need to reach your target audience. Your profile should communicate who you are in a way which is not cliched or boring. There are so many ads out there, you need yours to stand out, to attract people to you - you need a thoughtful profile that says something (even just one thing) that engages. She believes the point of a good profile is to understand what people are looking for and say it in a way that makes people engage rather than recoil.
One of the best profiles she's seen (by a woman) ended up saying something like "My favourite joke at the moment is what do you call a Frenchman who wears sandals?" - without giving the answer! (If anyone's desperate to know drop me a comment and I may let on...)
Your photoIt is true that people stop at a photo, then read what that person has said about themselves. That's why the percentages are close between those who reply because of the photo (74%) and those who reply because of the description (70%).
The right photograph is important. But keep your clothes on, that applies to both men and women! A travel photo can show that you have a life outside the Net, but to some people a travel photo is not important.
TimingTo Jennifer it's important how quickly you move from assessment to interaction to meeting. The longer it takes, the more energy you've put into something which could disillusion you and put you off the whole internet dating process.
She thinks it shouldn't take more than 10 days to 2 weeks between initial contact and first meeting, otherwise it's a waste of energy.
There is (inevitably) more on all this in her book Around the World in 80 Dates. I haven't read it though.
(Anyone interested enough to read this far may also want to see my post about the secret of successful chatup lines.)