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The darker side of online dating

Wednesday November 14, 2012

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I was recently asked if online dating was a dying trend. This may sound ridiculous; it's difficult to get a good fix on how much the online dating industry is worth but even conservative estimates put it at around the £700,000,000 (not far short of a billion) mark in the UK alone. And usage is growing. An estimated 60% of singles have tried online dating.

And yet, if we look more closely a worrying trend is emerging.

A recent Channel 4 investigation documented the alleged use of false profiles, not by outside sources trying to capitalise on a captive market, but by a prominent online dating supplier.

It has been alleged that the company employed around 30 or so people in their offices to construct numerous profiles in order to engage paying members whose subscriptions were about to expire. Why would you not renew when receiving an increasing number of messages from disturbingly suitable/attractive/keen singles?

Then there are the white label dating companies that allow anyone to attach a customised 'front end' website to their shared database. These front end sites often claim that site members have shared interests whereas this simply isn't true. You'll find the same members on countryloversdating.com as you would on hardrockersmeet.co.uk (both made up BTW)   The problem is that all the sites, regardless of whom they profess to bring together, share a central database with very limited control over search parameters. This means that hundreds of sites with wildly varying pay structures share the same members.

There are plenty of other examples of the largely unregulated online dating industry failing its customers. So, while technically the industry is on a safe financial footing its quality is being significantly compromised.

It has been suggested that, as a speed dating host in London, I have a vested interest in undermining the online dating industry. This makes no sense. There is no correlation between the increasing popularity of speed dating and a decline, real or perceived, in online dating. The two sectors are not mutually exclusive. And let's be fair, the evidence stands for
itself.

And there are great sites out there. Two notable mentions are: OK Cupid whose well-funded geeks provide an extraordinary array of statistics and a comprehensive site funded, not through membership -  it's free - but through advertising; and LoveStruck who cross reference member profiles with their social media accounts to ensure potential suitors are who they say they are.

No, the online dating industry is not suffering a financial decline. But it is suffering a crisis in consumer confidence. It's feasibility as a genuine and useful means of meeting singles is being significantly eroded. If this drives people to prefer the more immediate benefit of speed dating then so be it. It's more difficult to scam someone standing right in front of you than it is to scam an ostensibly anonymous online entity.

However, the truth is that online dating and speed dating should not, and cannot live without each other.

Two things are needed: A form of carefully managed regulation and greater innovation in the way sites operate. Contrary to my default position of wanting regulation imposed initially (I don't believe that regulation de facto curbs innovation - That's just accountant speak for 'let us do whatever we want'), I believe that innovation will actually drive a more effective form of self-regulation.

Most forms of matching have not changed significantly for 15 years.

Failure to adapt to the emerging crisis in confidence will result in answering the original question of whether the online dating industry is a dying trend as a definitive yes. It's only those that confront concerns and show true and radical innovation in the way their sites operate that will prosper. And this could come from either sector:  Online dating or speed dating. Perhaps a combination of the two is in order.

WORDS BY JOHN DAVIS