Thursday, 2 October, 2014

Published July 04, 2014
Appy ever after
Apps are changing the landscape of the dating game by enabling your cellphone to help you get hooked up - and hopefully hitched - in record time, reports RACHEL LOI
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IN this age of artificial intelligence where robots can be programmed to have human emotions, will the time come when all the single man or woman needs to do to find a mate is go online and order a customised android to spend the rest of his or her life with?

Even if that is still the stuff of sci-fi movies, it may not be long before reality catches up. In the meantime, the quest for one's human soul mate continues, but the search has moved from brick-and-mortar pick-up bars and physical dating agencies into the online stratosphere. In the same way that smartphones have taken over our lives, your perfect match is now determined by the app you use.

Once a novelty, dating applications have been proliferating faster than the national fertility rate as evolving social values favour the anonymity of technology and sheer convenience over the human touch.

Dating apps are now so prevalent in the US that one is sure to lose count of just how many are out in the market. Plus, a recent Pew Research Centre study also found that one in 10 people in the US have used an online dating site or mobile dating app.

These apps are now gaining steam among media-savvy single young Singaporeans such as 30-year-old Eugene Lee, who created profiles on OkCupid as well as locally developed apps such as Paktor and Love Out Loud Asia (LOLA) just earlier this year.

"I started with OkCupid because my friend told me it was fun so I was 'kaypoh'," says Mr Lee, who works in the property industry. "I don't use it seriously, just in my free time like when I'm in the MRT or bus. I've had a couple of dates so far but nothing serious yet."

Singapore currently has four apps specifically designed for mobile dating - Paktor, LOLA, Kehmistry and Surf-face - all of which sprouted over the last year. Their registered user count ranges from 12,000 users at the relatively new LOLA to almost one million at more established apps such as Paktor.

LOLA was launched last November by three founders including Kenneth Lim, a 27-year-old visual communications graduate from Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design and Media. He says they created LOLA after one of the founders tried out overseas apps such as Coffee Meets Bagel and HowAboutWe and thought it could work in the Asian market.

"From the start we knew the kind of app we wanted - one that doesn't require too much browsing of fake or inactive profiles and sending or receiving too many messages," explains Mr Lim.

So like most mobile dating apps out there in the market, LOLA simply requires you to create a profile using your basic information and interests in order to start using the app. But what's different about it is that each day at noon, users will receive a notification with a suggested match. From there, you decide whether to "Like" the profile, or "Pass" on it. If both of you "Like" each other, a private chatroom opens for further interaction.

Current apps offer varied dating methods. LOLA's algorithm offers users one match a day so they don't get overwhelmed, explains Mr Lim. "They are able to give and receive 24 hours of exclusive attention at a time."

"One of us (the founders) actually found a steady girlfriend through the app, without any special treatment," adds Mr Lim with a grin. "They've been together a few months, and more than five of my own friends have also found someone through the app. So we're happy that this system actually works."

On the other hand, Paktor - which means "to go on a date" in the Cantonese dialect - lets registered users surf their database at their own pace. Unlike LOLA, Paktor users are not limited to viewing one profile a day, so they can initiate as many chats as they want at one go, as long as both users "Like" each other.

"Dating is a numbers game, so the more people you swipe, the more people you date and meet, the higher the chances of finding the right one," says Joseph Phua, one of the co-founders of Paktor.

While Paktor only launched last April, it attracted about 40,000 users from Singapore alone within the first two weeks. And so far it has accumulated almost a million registered users from 10 different countries, making it one of the largest players in Asia.

They have only recently started monetising the app by charging a small fee for people to send requests to start chats with other users who have not "Like"-ed their profile, and intend to slowly start adding more payable features down the road.

"If we focused on profits now, we might be able to build an app that is slightly profitable, and maybe make a few thousand a month, but that's not why we're in this. We want to build an amazing product first, and money comes later. What's important now is to gain traction in terms of users to stay competitive," explains Mr Phua.

One way he has improved his app is by reducing the amount of time users waste swiping through profiles to find a match they can actually "Like". Right now he estimates an average of 25 swipes versus the original 100 when they first launched.

"We've tweaked the algorithm so it doesn't take people that many swipes to find a match. People in general are very similar. For example, guys tend to match with girls two years younger than themselves, and people match when they are similarly attractive. Our algorithm pushes profiles that fit this," he says.

On how to get the most out of mobile dating apps, dating coach David Tian says the key to standing out from the "competition" is to take the conversation off the app as soon as possible. "Say you go on Paktor and have a conversation. Each time you want to reply to this person, you have to log in to the app. As soon as you do, what's the first thing they show you? More matches. On top of that, your message is in there along with those from other matches. But if you just say 'Here's my number on Whatsapp - find me there', your messages are among friends' messages and this person will think of you as a friend."

And although these mobile dating apps have been popping up recently, traditional dating agencies such as Lunch Actually say they aren't worried about having to give up their piece of the pie.

In fact, according to co-founder Violet Lim, the evolution of the dating industry from offline to online has so far been beneficial for their decade-old business, and she expects the shift to mobile dating to have the same effect.

Says Ms Lim: "Online dating helps us reach markets that we might not have been able to reach otherwise. When people try these options, they become more open-minded and start to accept that a third party is helping them find love. So if these options do not work out, it is more likely that they will be willing to use our services." Other than their flagship traditional dating service, the Lunch Actually Group also has an online dating website eSynchrony, and is working on making an entry into the mobile dating space. Ms Lim says this move is just their way of keeping up with the times and staying relevant. "If you look at the services we have, they are all very different and in a way, are competing services because they don't share databases. It's how we stay competitive," says Ms Lim.

"Who knows, one day singles might not want to use traditional dating services anymore and we don't want to be caught in a situation where we don't have anything else. Though Lunch Actually is doing well, we can't sit around doing nothing - we must keep our ears on the ground to know what singles are looking for right now," she adds.

After all, as sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan points out, this trend of meeting people online might very well become the way of dating in the future, especially with Singaporeans getting more tech-savvy. And in her opinion, this trend is beneficial for society because it helps people express themselves better and be more informed when looking for a life-long partner.

"If the first interaction is online, people actually get to see the other person's personality first before the visuals take over . . . Even if you have the person's photo, at the end of the day you're exchanging mostly texts. By the time you meet, it's an advantage that you already have some shared interests or similar perspectives," she says.

"And besides, my take is that if awkwardness becomes a barrier when you meet, then with or without the app it would have been a barrier anyway," she adds.

But for Shanker Joyrama, founder of the industry's newest entrant - Kehmistry, he feels that while meeting someone can be done online, getting to know them and eventually dating them is still something that should be mostly conducted offline.

His app allows users to use their current geographical location to look for potential matches within their vicinity, such as that cute girl they see sitting opposite them at a cafe, he says with a chuckle.

And Kehmistry only allows users to log in via their Facebook profiles, where they must have at least 50 friends, so this means users cannot access the app using a newly created fake profile.

"Our app just simply is a new medium for meeting someone. But you can't really get to know them until you have met them in person. Our role is just to be enablers. To open the door for you to make the connection. From there, if you have chemistry, you can start the relationship, otherwise it won't work. That's the age-old secret of any relationship," he says.