By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
After a quick glance at the profile in front of her, Belinda Tjader decided the guy wasn’t her type.
But then something pulled her back to his profile a moment later. She started reading over the “additional information” section. While some men took the chance to gloat about how romantic they are, this guy had only one simple request, “If you’re praying for someone, and you found my profile, send me a message.”
And so, she did.
The message, sent in the late afternoon from Indonesia, reached his desk in Seattle at 2:00 a.m. The two chatted online until the sun was about to set in her corner of the world and rise in his, and the rest — as they like to say — is history.
A growing industry
Online Dating Magazine estimated in 2011 that more than 280,000 marriages a year result from people meeting through an online dating service like Match.com or eHarmony, which are ranked highest in paid and trial subscribers plus overall reach. A Chadwick Martin Bailey study ranks online dating as the third most popular way for singles to meet, behind school or work and friends or family members.
But despite attending church and having a circle of friends, Michael Nguyen’s usual avenues of meeting new people started drying up after college. So he tried something new.
On his profile, he describes himself as a funny, loyal guy, a reformed surprise party spoiler, someone looking for a Christian, Asian American girl.
“There are very few Asian Americans on Match.com. If I get too specific with my preferences, the list would move down to 10 [girls]. My [preferences] are pretty narrow, and there is very little of that on the website, especially in Seattle. Eventually, I changed my range to 30 miles, then 60,” said Nguyen, a 28-year-old Seattle resident currently signed up for a 3-month account.
According to a review by PC World in 2009, online dating traffic in the United States topped 22 million persons, and the online dating industry was expected to top $1.049 billion. Asians make up a small percentage of online dating users, consisting of less than 5 percent of the total users on large online dating services in the past few years. Whites make up the majority.
There are 23.4 million users on Match.com in the United States so far this year, and Asians comprise a seemingly tiny four percent. However, four percent is still 900,000 persons, according to a Quantcast demographic survey.
There are also a few new culture-based dating sites catering to the cultural needs of minority online daters, like Asian Singles Connection and 2 Red Beans, for Chinese singles. These newcomers have drawn some Asian users away from mainstream dating sites.
Jumping in head first
“I’m very Chinese, but I also adapt well to other cultures,” said Valerie Sun. “I never get matched up with a lot of Asians, and I think it’s because of what I put in my profile. If there are Asians that I’ve messaged, they would never message me back.”
Sun’s on and off relationship with online dating services, including eHarmony and OKCupid, began more than a year ago. In one instance, she agreed to go on a date with someone she met from OKCupid, after exchanging a few messages.
That was when the limitations of online dating became clear.
“He gave me a creepy feeling. He was a creepy person, and that’s not something you can detect just through messaging or through the person’s profile,” said Sun.
She ended their correspondence.
“I told him that I was in a messed up place and that I wasn’t ready to date.”
During the two and half years that Tjader carried on the long distance relationship with her boyfriend in Seattle, she tried to obtain a visa and failed on the first try. She succeeded on the second try and booked a tour to Las Vegas, where he planned to meet her, but Tjader’s brother was skeptical.
“Are you sure about this?” he said. “When you go there, you won’t have family. If he treats you badly, you’ll be alone.”
But after two years of talking, laughing, having a few arguments, and skyrocketing phone bills, Tjader felt good about it, and she left Singapore, where she was working at the time, for the United States.
He was tall and friendly. He smiled as he came to hug her, and she stood nervously at the entrance of her hotel room. She walked timidly beside him, unable to pay attention to the brightly lit hotels around her. Hoping to break the ice, he turned to her, his girlfriend of two years, and said, “Hey, why are you so shy? It’s okay, just hold my hand.”
“It was an amazing feeling, having him next to me. I was so amazed he was there.
Sometimes, I still look at him when we’re driving and think, ‘Really? Now we’re husband and wife!’ I still have that unbelievable kind of feeling,” said Tjader.
Shaping a positive attitude
The Oxford Internet Institute reports that positive attitudes toward online dating are not focused on effectiveness, but are instead, “socially shaped.” Those who know others who date online are more likely to date online themselves and approve of online dating.
By 2006, 15 percent of American adults, about 30 million people, said that they knew someone who had been in a long-term relationship or married a person he or she met online, according to a Pew Research Center online dating study.
However in the same year, 66 percent of Internet users still viewed online dating and putting personal information on the Internet as a dangerous activity, and 20 to 29 percent of online adults still see online daters as desperate or in dire dating straits.
Despite the prevalence of social media at the time, finding love online still felt taboo or unsafe for many in the general public. The growth of the online dating industry depended on services overcoming such negative perceptions.
Ten years ago, “Whschoolgirl,” aka Christine Tran, met her future husband in an AOL Instant Messenger chat room. Both were up late doing homework and they started chatting. One year of online correspondence led to nightly phone conversations.
“When you’re talking to someone that much every day, it says something. There is no background or history together, but for some reason, you’re still pulled to make time for each other,” said Tran, who at the time was living in California, while he lived in Seattle.
But her mother wasn’t as convinced and ran a background check on him before accompanying her daughter on a trip to Seattle. The background check came back clean, and that’s when the petite 4’9″ Tran met 6’2″ Brian Sunde in person for the first time in two years. On their first date, the two went to Seattle’s Kerry Park.
“Superficially, we are as complete opposites as you can get, down to the fact that he is very tall and I am very small. It’s our core value that’s the same — family. We both view marriage seriously. Both our parents are divorced,” said Tran.
“It all came full circle because [Kerry Park] is where he proposed.”
The science of attraction
The shift from the intuitive matchmaker, the concerned parent, the well-intended friend, and the trusted community as sources of meeting new people to that of a computer screen was not as natural as we now assume. The shift remains a challenge for members of more reserved or traditional communities.
“I don’t think [my family] would be very supportive of the online dating world because of the dangers that are involved. Maybe the most important concern is why I am not able to meet someone in real life and have to turn to meeting people online,” said Sun, who has not told her family about her decision to date online.
Online services with the challenge of distinguishing themselves from other sites, easing public distrust, and providing effective service turned to science, acting as providers of scientifically precise, psychologist-endorsed matchmaking tests (like the 400 questions from eHarmony said to target all 29 dimensions of compatibility). The science of computing attraction has been made available to the masses.
Tran believes that the perception of online dating has greatly changed in the past 10 years since she met Sunde online.
“Seven years ago, it wasn’t common to meet people online. People would know that I was from California and they would ask how we met. When we’d tell them, they would say, ‘Oh, that’s creepy,’ whereas now, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s cool’ because this is a new trend, and it’s the new thing that people do,” said Tran, who currently knows a few friends using OKCupid.
“I totally feel that if this had not worked out, I would go on eHarmony.” ♦
Tiffany Ran can be reached at email@example.com.