Ashley Davies: Looking for true love online

Could online dating be the answer to finding true love? Ashley Davies examines the evidence. Picture: Contributed

Could online dating be the answer to finding true love? Ashley Davies examines the evidence. Picture: Contributed

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IF you’re looking for a date for Valentine’s Day, niche dating websites cater to all sorts of very specific preferences, writes Ashley Davies

BEING without a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day is a bit like feeling glum on Hogmanay or not having a poop bag when you’re walking the dog – it might not be a big deal at any other time but those specific conditions don’t half highlight the absence of what you are “supposed” to have.

Online dating may not be for everyone. Picture: Contributed

Online dating may not be for everyone. Picture: Contributed

I remember, before getting hitched, being single and feeling left out when other people were parading commercial evidence of being adored on the officially designated day for premeditated romance, 14 February. Back then my friends and I all met our boyfriends or girlfriends through the traditional channels – at university, via mutual friends, in prison, through work – and it wouldn’t have have occurred to us to enlist the help of a third party to find someone.

In those days advertisements for introduction agencies would brandish photographs of smiling couples, all looking ever so slightly lobotomised, demonstrating their shared interests: “LOOK! We both like walking on the beach. And Labradors. And eating out. And hugging. What are the chances?”

But the industry has changed dramatically over the past 15 years or so. The stigma of online dating has largely slipped away – certainly among younger people – and I know at least ten happy couples who met via one of the main websites that make a tidy profit from getting people together.

Their parents might not all be massively keen on the idea, though. As one friend put it: “I told my mum the fact that we met online might well come up in the speeches at our wedding. In true Irish mammy fashion, she said, ‘I don’t see why you need to BROADCAST it.’ She still thinks online dating is the preserve of rapists, serial killers and worst of all, desperadoes.”

That apparent odour of desperation is something that would have put me right off online dating when I was single because I’m deluded enough to think I would only want to start a relationship with someone who wasn’t on the hunt for a girlfriend but was so bowled over by my unique and irresistible qualities that he had no option but to hang up his bachelor trousers.

But it’s not desperation. Not necessarily. It’s more like efficiency. Back when I was dating, it wasn’t even called dating. You’d go out for a drink with someone you got on with and wouldn’t even know for certain whether it was a “date” until one of you did the snog lunge and the other snogged back – or really, really didn’t. Or you’d spend a few years together before realising how much your opinions differed about crucial issues – politics, having children, and whether it’s acceptable to pronounce “drawing” as if it had two “r”s. FOLLOW US

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There are hundreds of dating sites that aim to cater for people with similar interests. There’s lovehorse.co.uk “for horse and country lovers” and muddymatch.com, for outdoor enthusiasts; ethicalsingles.com, “the meeting place for people who are changing the world for the better”; and beautifulpeople.com and dateamillionaire.com, which presumably don’t organise ice-breaking Scrabble evenings.

There’s disabilitymatch.co.uk; animalpeople.com (“You don’t have to have a pet, just a desire to connect with other animal lovers”); uniformdating.com; dateacook.co.uk; dateateacher.co.uk; dancinglove.co.uk; and illicitencounters.com, which is for people who want to have affairs (and let me say, the design of that website accurately reflects its grubby intentions.).

If you’re shy you can look into silentdating.com, which, its organisers say, is about “meeting people without the mindless chitter chatter. In fact, there is none of that having to make small talk.” So basically, it’s like being on holiday after 40 sour years of marital regret, except you pass notes to each other to establish the depth of any chemistry.

I’d like to be a fly on the wall at some first dates arranged through okcomrade.net – “dating for the proletariat” – but I have yet to see evidence that it is a real thing.

The biggest and most successful sites are match.com, eharmony.co.uk, Guardian Soulmates, the horribly named plentyoffish.com (it might want to change its name to rebound.org) and the very clever Tinder and OK Cupid. If you’re under 30, you probably know all about the last two, so forgive the following explanation. Tinder is a smartphone app that allows you to look at the photos of potential dates according to parameters you’ve set, such as age and proximity. In bigger cities it is often used as a straight version of Grindr, the gay “hook-up” app. Hooking up, by the way, is young-people-speak for one-night (or less) stands. I know lovely people in good relationships who met on Tinder, and lovely single people who use Tinder for the occasional hook-up when the mood strikes.

OK Cupid is fascinating for many reasons, largely because of its clever use of big data. You are given the option to answer hundreds of questions, some of them incredibly detailed, about your politics and moral outlook, and some that are unbelievably personal, such as what, erm, eccentricities you find acceptable or desirable in the bedroom. You don’t have to answer them all, and your answers don’t have to be visible to other candidates, but they all go into a big scary matrix to work out who your best potential matches are.

The engrossing trends analysis set up by the people behind OK Cupid shares findings about everything from most effective introductory lines to what kind of people are attracted by what kind of profile picture, issues about race, age (depressing) and much more. It’s a statistician’s paradise.

So if you’re on your own and don’t want to be, it might be easier than you think to meet someone you have a lot in common with, be it a fellow porridge lover; hoarder; disgraced local councillor; or someone who also claimed to have voted Yes when they really voted No.

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