Life beyond the web for a new age of daters

IT’s been a long day and you’re tired. But when you get home you have another job to do: search through thousands of faces for your potential life partner and reply to a half-dozen or so relevant messages from fellow cyber love-seekers.

Internet dating is no longer considered weird or sad – roughly 5.2m Brits set up dates this way – but it has lost some of its sheen. Despite the success stories (everyone has a friend that found The One online), there is a growing sense of exhaustion among digital daters. The term “online dating fatigue” has become de rigueur and an increasing number of relationship experts are discussing the “exhaustion” that is leading people to bin their profiles. A recent Wall Street Journal article was headlined: “Scary New Dating Site: The Real World”. Chicago-based psychologist and author of Relationships for Dummies Kate Wachs noted therein that people were finding internet dating “exhausting” and that they “burn out really fast”.

Certainly, people have been at it for a while now. It’s 15 years since online dating hit the mainstream – Match.com, the first of the biggies, launched in 1994 in the US. The market has matured, allowing time for its exciting novelty, as well as its stigma, to fade. We all have friends who we encourage to go online without a single twinge – heck, many of us have given it a whirl ourselves. But – as well as concerns over how tiring it is – there is a growing cynicism about just how effective internet matchmaking is. In the last year, there has been a surge in criticism of the figures pumped out by websites, which are thought to be hugely inflated. Web dating services claiming so-and-so numbers of marriages per day do not invite peer review of their data, unlike in the scientific community. Nor are the figures balanced against the far greater numbers of internet daters who quit before finding anyone. And, as people are beginning to admit, despite sleek and cheerful TV ads and posters full of images of happy domestic endings, successful outcomes are the exception, not the rule.

Internet dating is far from over, of course – it is still one of the most lucrative businesses online. But a new wave of entrepreneurs is stepping into the disillusioned abyss enveloping web daters, offering something better and, quite frankly, nicer. Whereas traditional internet dating is all about choice, algorithms, photo perusal and messaging, the new format is far more personal and sells selectivity, exclusivity and less time behind a screen.

Suze Cook, founder of The Picnic Project, a new “luxury matchmaking service”, got the idea for her company from her own experience of internet dating while working and travelling a lot as a high-flyer at Microsoft. “I did a bit of online dating and had a lot of fun, but there was a real disconnect between day life and evening life – I’d be busy all day and then going home and sitting in my bedroom chatting to randoms online. Also, it was very hit and miss – there were some really bad dates. The fun began to really wear off. Then I just thought Christ, if there’s a way of paying someone to help make the process more selective, it would be great.”

Cook tried a range of upmarket matchmaking agencies but felt they were sorely out of date: “The emphasis on you as a woman was all about the biological clock, things you should be doing to snare a husband and so on. Plus, the people I was meeting were quoting 80s books and had poodle hairstyles.”

So Cook struck out on her own, following the application-based, personal matchmaker model used by agencies such as the high-end Berkley International and Drawing Down the Moon. “We have to consider you interesting and presentable,” she says. “You could be stunning but have no personality – we wouldn’t select you. If you weren’t well groomed or had no interests, you wouldn’t make it. All our clients are attractive.”

Fundamentally, Cook’s service challenges box-ticking. “We try to take people away from their lists – the starting point for any internet profile. You can’t do wildcards online, but sometimes those are the best. In essence, we’re acting like friends of friends. Personal recommendation is the way things are going if you can afford it and you’re busy. After all, people have personal yoga teachers, nutritionists and now dating managers.”

A consultant who prefers to go un-named is yet another dating entrepreneur trading on exclusivity, whose business, the Shared Tables Society, launched in September. It’s an invite-only service that hosts dinner parties of four single women and four single men, with no browsing of members at all: the website’s only purpose is to enable you to invite new members and book dinners.

The founder set up shop after years of cajoling friends to find love online – and hearing them moan about how time-consuming, inefficient and patchy it was. “I absolutely think internet dating is not working for some people,” the London Business School graduate says. “For a lot of people it does work, of course, if they’re prepared to go out there and say ‘what I really want to find is a soulmate’ and they answer those 180 questions or whatever is required. Personally, though, I find it all a bit too sticky; a person changes all the time.”

Like The Picnic Project, Shared Tables challenges not just the process but the fundamental structure of internet dating. “I don’t think it provides a good representation of people,” the founder says. “People aren’t very good at knowing what they want and they may not describe themselves in the best way. For example, many people would say their partner is nothing like the person they’d have described before they met.”

And for the busy professional, internet dating can be a false friend. It’s a great way to access a large pool of single individuals but you may not like them and then you’ve wasted time. The solution? “You need to meet more people at once,” says the Shared Tables founder.

Jon Harris, a technology consultant and dating entrepreneur, agrees. He is in the process of creating a service that combines a hand-picked, CV-based application process with an online browsing function and a real-life speed-dating element. It’s the most efficient format possible: if you don’t find a date, you’ll probably find a good person to network with. “My idea is that you get to meet six or eight great people in the amount of time you would normally take to meet one,” says Harris. “Either there's chemistry or a professional contact.”

As for that sense of alienation that arises from endless dates with people who seem one way but turn out quite another, Harris says: “The matchmaking trend now is kinship – people are finally thinking about how they meet and form relationships with people in real life. I personally like to develop relationships through friends of friends. It’s far safer from a time-saving point of view.”

Internet dating works for many people. But for the vast amount of busy, professional singletons whom it only confuses and tires, the dawn of a new matchmaking era has arrived not a moment too soon.

Zoe Strimpel’s book, The Man Diet: One Woman’s Quest to End Bad Romance, is out as e-book on 30 Nov, paperback January 2012 (Avon).

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