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Singles stay home to ‘go out’: Speed dating online takes off

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A screen shot from speeddate.com. (Courtesy of speeddate.com.)

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A screen shot from woome.com. (Courtesy of woome.com.)

He just doesn’t look like his profile photo.

Or, she’s nothing like I expected—-we had no chemistry.

Online daters often face these disappointments upon meeting in real life the people they’ve been cybercourting.

In an attempt to add more authenticity and fun to the online dating experience, speed dating Web sites are now offering singles the chance to meet one another-—live-—using webcams. Blending elements of live speed dating events, where people go to a bar or restaurant and go on many short dates in a single evening, and online dating sites like match.com, speed dating Web sites attempt to provide users with the best of both worlds.

“We’re trying to get rid of the frustration that’s inherent in traditional dating sites,” said Dan Abelon, co-founder of speeddate.com, a free dating site where an estimated 50,000 three-minute dates take place every day. At the end of the short encounter, both sides vote. “There are no long profiles. We’re focused on people who believe that interaction is the most important thing.”

Even though these interactions take place via webcam for the most part (people can also participate using IM without a webcam), online speed daters say they know a lot about another person after a brief cyberconversation.

“I like how, unlike other services, you can get a feel for who the person really is because you hear what they have to say,” said Kristin Young, a 25-year-old marketing coordinator from San Jose, Calif., who has been using speeddate.com since November.

Ryan Spillers, 22, a recent graduate of Kansas State University, has been “hooked” for a few months on woome.com, a San Francisco-based service where a handful of speed dating sessions start every few minutes. Once a session starts, users have a minute to chat and then click “I was wooed” or “no thanks.”

“It’s as close as you can get to meeting someone without meeting them face to face,” Spillers said. “You can interpret their facial expressions—-the sound of their voice.”

Webcam interactions are becoming more commonplace as more Americans log onto the Internet with faster connections. Since its launch in 2003, 276 million registered Skype users around the world have talked with one another for more than 100 billion minutes using free Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls, according to Skype’s Web site.

And while most people use Skype to keep in touch with friends and loved ones, the growing popularity of video chat is illustrated by paltalk.com, a site that has provided over 60 million users with software to join thousands of Palktalk video chat rooms.

“More and more consumers are using our service,” said Matt Gore, vice president of marketing for Paltalk, who added that many Paltalk groups have formed online and then met up in the “real world.” “Friends, love, and romance is one of our biggest categories.”

Many online speed daters are not concerned if they ever meet in the real world, however. These users say they are logging on for the sheer fun of meeting new people.

“Woome.com has a game-like feel to it. It’s entertaining,” said Steven Stokols, CEO and co-founder of the site.

Because they are looking to expand their AIM buddy lists rather than looking for their soul mates, Stokols said many users are less concerned about the geographic location of their dates.

Meeting a woman via camera is also “a lot easier” than meeting her in real life, according to woome.com user John Madden, 23, who lives in Orange County, Calif.

“Girls will just tell you if they think you’re cute,” said Madden, who says he meets about 20 women every time he logs on to the site. “I have a lot more confidence now.”

At his home in Manhattan, Kan., Spillers most recently met a Brazilian woman named Sarah in a woome.com speed dating event he created called “I Love Brazilian Women.” He agreed that these Web interactions have given him more confidence in the real world.

“Now I feel much more comfortable talking offline to someone I don’t know,” Spillers said. “I almost look at it as an opportunity to build my offline social skills.”

While the majority of traditional online dating sites do not yet support video, it’s on the horizon.

“Video chatting is linked to a desire for authenticity—people can see, is this person real?” said Susan Mernit, a blogger and former senior director of Yahoo Personals. “You’re going to see a lot more sites that allow people to upload videos into profiles.”

Mernit added that online daters are looking to have fun on dating sites and video chatting, like IM, offers “immediate gratification.”

If a few minutes isn’t immediate gratification enough, speeddate.com even lets users end dates before the mini-cyberdate is over.

“In real speed dating you have to sit through those three minutes,” said Young. “Here, you can just end it early.”

E-mail: mfh2107@columbia.edu