Published in The Myanmar Times on 11 February 2013
Ei Mon San and Sai Aung Zaw Tun met online.
True love is elusive – some would say illusory – and as Valentine’s Day approaches, the chances of finding it can feel depressingly slim for singles. It’s therefore no surprise that since the world’s first online dating website, Match.com, was launched in 1995, millions of people have turned to the internet to increase their chances of finding that special someone. The stigma initially associated with online dating – that is, being judged “desperate and dateless” – has largely melted away. Unfortunately though, several risks remain.
Technology analyst firm Tekrati estimated that the online dating market in the United States generated US$932 million in 2011 and in 2009 The Guardian stated that, “Fifteen million people in Britain are single, and almost five million are shopping for love online.”
In India, traditional matrimonial sites may soon be overshadowed. A December 2012 article in Business Today titled, “Online dating business is India’s new love interest” reported that dating sites have some 25 million active members in India.
“[Indians] are now embracing a more progressive view on many things – in this case, dating, relationships and marriage,” said the founder of TwoMangoes.com, Anita Dharamshi.
China’s online dating market has existed for a decade and is expected to be worth $315 million by 2014.
Business Today reported that the industry is worth about $4 billion globally.
Some dating sites use highly specific membership criteria to stay ahead of the competition by increasing compatibility rates. For example, veggiedate.org requires “a declaration of vegetarian strictness” before setting up a personal advertisement on their site.
In Myanmar, by contrast, online dating sites such as online-dating.org were blocked until at least as recently as last year.
Open Net Initiative (ONI) said in its October 2012 report that there was a “drastic” reduction in the number of filtered sites since testing in Myanmar began in 2005.
Only five out of 541 tested URLs categorised as political content remained blocked. Interestingly, almost all of blocked URLs belonged to ONI’s ‘social’ category.
“Out of 132 total URLs found blocked, 104 belonged to the pornography and alcohol and drugs category. Also found blocked were gambling websites, online dating sites, sex education, and gay and lesbian content.”
However the dating websites listed as blocked by ONI, including adultfriendfinder.com now appears to be accessible.
Denise Strete, the director of Kaus Media Group, which designs and hosts websites in Myanmar as well as many other parts of the world, told The Myanmar Times, “We haven’t been approached [to create an online dating website in Myanmar].
Denise said the company is unsure whether such a business venture would be “accepted by the local internet user population or if it would it be seen as something so different and wrong, eating away at local traditions.”
Despite the absence of local online matchmaking sites, a variety of more casual forums exist: notably Tagged.com, G-Chat and what is arguably the world’s most popular site for romantic introductions, Facebook.
All a person really needs is access to the internet and, as an anonymous online dater told The Myanmar Times, a sense of “curiosity.”
“Thiri” (not her real name) signed up to Tagged.com in 2009 and met her boyfriend through the site a year later.
Thiri said that Tagged “is a lot like using Facebook.”
Members can create a free profile containing photos and personal information and can search for other members by name, email address and even schools where users may have attended.
However Tagged, which based in San Francisco and was launched in 2004, distinguishes itself from Facebook and other social networking sites because, “While other offerings focus on existing relationships, Tagged has established the category of social discovery.” Tagged’s website also states that it has more than 100 million members in 220 countries (oddly, that’s 27 more countries than the number that actually exist) and its “Meet Me” feature creates 2.4 million matches every day.
As Thiri scrolled through Tagged on her smartphone, I noticed that her profile has been viewed more than 4000 times and that she has 886 pending connection requests, the vast majority of which are from men.
She said “A lot of people try to connect with me, but I don’t choose people who I think might be nasty. I keep my profile private, so I haven’t had any problems with harassment.”
She also keeps the number of her connections fairly low, at a total of 60.
Thiri and her boyfriend waited three months before meeting face-to-face.
She said that after chatting online for a while, “He asked for my phone number and when we talked, I could tell he had a great sense of humour.”
He called Thiri four times a day for two months – “in the morning, then around lunchtime, dinner and bedtime. He seemed very kind and really cared about me.”
Nevertheless, Thiri knew firsthand how easy it is for people to create a false impression in order to entice people into a romance.
“Many people lie about their marital status, age and looks,” she said.
She was thus pleasantly surprised to discover that the object of her affections looked exactly the same in real life as he did in the photos he’d sent via Gmail – and that he really is a doctor and the same age as her.
When Thiri told her father that she had met someone on the internet, he reacted calmly.
“He was okay with it because I explained the advantages of using [Tagged] and also told him I hadn’t been using it every day.”
Thiri and her boyfriend celebrated their two year anniversary last month and have been introduced to each other’s parents. Plans for their marriage are underway.
When it comes to online dating, Thiri’s advice is “not to believe everything you see on the internet.”
She added, “The internet isn’t always safe. I never lied about myself, so I was a lucky one.”
Her friend then chipped in with a giggle, “But you are beautiful and wealthy…”
Ei Mon San and Sai Aung Zaw Tun met on Google Talk and married four years later.
Some of Thiri’s friends exercised less caution: some set up dates shortly after meeting online and most of their experiences weren’t positive. Some were heartbreaking. One of Thiri’s female friends fell in love with someone she met online and the two started making wedding plans before ever meeting face-to-face. When the man eventually came to meet her in Myanmar, he wasn’t American as he’d claimed but Myanmar – and at least 25 years her senior.
Another friend met a girl online while studying abroad and they developed a relationship that lasted for months.
“But the girl turned out to be as old as his mother!” she said.
One of the most popular forums for meeting new people (usually through a mutual friend) in Myanmar is Google Talk (also known as ‘gchat’). One user said that many people in Myanmar create alluring email IDs to increase their chances of being noticed.
Ei Mon San, 24, and her husband, Sai Aung Zaw Tun, 26, were complete strangers until they met through Google Talk.
The couple dated online for two years while Sai Aung Zaw Tun completed his studies in the US.
Ei Mon San said, “We were friends for a long time. After talking for months, he sent me photos of himself on Gmail. Straight away, I thought he was handsome, but I didn’t believe it was actually him because a lot of people use fake photos. Later, I saw he hadn’t done that.”
The two fell in love after chatting online for eight months.
“We talked a lot about our family, our education, our problems. We shared a lot,” she said.
Ei Mon San decided to tell her mother about Sai Aung Zaw Tun four months after she’d fallen in love with him.
“At first my mum didn’t like it that I’d met someone on the internet. My mother let me call him – and she spoke to him too. Actually, she interviewed him! Everything was okay because my mum liked him – and now treats him like a son.”
When Sai Aung Zaw Tun returned to Myanmar, he came to Mandalay to meet his girlfriend in person.
“On the first day we met we went to Mandalay moat. We talked for a long, long time – we didn’t even notice it had gotten dark! Then the police came by and we had to run away.”
The couple dated “offline” for two years in Myanmar and were married in 2011.
Like Thiri, Ei Mon San considers herself lucky to have met the love of her life – she said none of her friends found lasting relationships on the internet.
“The disadvantages of online dating are that you don’t know whether a person is real or not. We can’t really know their attitude or character. Some people pretend to be good, so there’s a risk of meeting bad men. You should protect yourself,” she said.
Wise words indeed: a 2007 study by the University of Texas Health Science Centre found that “women assumed a false degree of safety while looking for love on the internet, which exposed them to stalking, fraud, and sexual violence.” Such attitudes may have likely changed over the years as familiarity with the pros and cons of online dating has improved, but many still fall victim to deceit.
And although an increasing number of online dating sites conduct background checks on members, nothing in cyberspace can be considered foolproof.
Guardian journalist Tania Gold believes that, “When you meet people conventionally, friends or colleagues introduce you, or you have interests, or a lifestyle, or a city in common. Subconsciously these factors create boundaries, so you tend to behave better. This doesn’t exist on the internet; it is profile meets profile in a vacuum.”
Sociologist Edward Laumann from the University of Chicago believes that, “A real person – whatever his relationship to you, be it friend or kinsman or co-worker – is still far and away the most reliable way to meet someone.”
While some people may consider online dating too risky to be worthwhile, deciding whether to give it a try is ultimately a matter of individual choice. As the Persian poet Rumi once said: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.”