Online Dating in South Africa

Are people who link up in cyberspace more likely to click?

It’s easy enough to reduce dating to a simple numbers game, but what happens when you actually use math to find your ‘perfect partner’? 

The idea sounds at best trite, at worst completely insane. Yet, since its South African inception in the mid 90s, online dating has ballooned into a third-party matchmaker consulted by more than a million people each year.

While no comprehensive study’s been conducted locally since Ramon Thomas, a Netucation online behaviour expert, collected data from nine different digital dating sites in 2004, a present-day look at the largest and most expansive online dating company’s database indicates that, at the very least, the virtual platform’s growth is ‘going steady’. 

According to David Burstein, COO of The Dating Lab, a business that comfortably commands a fleet of some of the country’s most well-known sites, his database alone counts between 800,000 and 900,000 people (that means roughly 10% of South African Internet users have delved into digital dating).  

Most importantly, though, the figures indicate that the process of finding romantic relationships via the sixth dimension of cyberspace is no longer hamstrung by stigma. 

“Online dating has become much more mainstream,” explains David.  In the old days, it was thought to be the realm of geeks and sad, lonely people. Now, the perception has normalised.” 

Along with the facts that online literacy has increased and Internet access is more ubiquitous, the acceptance that online dating isn’t for ‘the desperate’ is a major reason why, even during a recession, the ranks of virtual matchmaking sites swelled. 

In particular, more people of colour and more people from an older generation (55 to 60+) are perusing the platforms for a potential long-term partner, companion or friend, not necessarily with sexual intentions. After all, the end game can be anything from a one-night stand to marriage, depending on what you’re in the market for. 

As David explains, larger numbers of older individuals are turning to the computer for help hyperlinking the heartstrings to solve an all too familiar mystery: Where do you meet people? 

“God forbid you have to resort to bingo or something,” he jokes.

In all seriousness though, since its advent, online dating’s most noteworthy success has been its ability to provide greater access to a larger and more eclectic pool of partners. In other words, add up all the wayward suitors you’d maybe meet through friends and family, in a bar, in the aisles of a supermarket, atop the pews at church or on the cycle at gym, and you still can’t hold a candle to the seemingly endless (and ever-increasing) supply of profiles online. 

This fact alone is a huge selling point in South African cities like Cape Town, where urban legend seems to suggest that half the men are married and the other half are gay (only bad, obviously, if you’re a single heterosexual woman). 

Interestingly enough though, in contrast to the above folklore, in South Africa, the Western Cape included, more men use online dating sites than women.

But what about members of the younger generation, people who seem to have greater opportunity (and more time) to come across lovers organically? Has online dating hit home with them too?

Helen Paul, a 26-year-old who took the plunge mainly for a giggle and to combat growing “boredom with life in general”, admits that, despite the assumption that under 30s have no problem meeting new potential partners, online dating did, in fact, help her to meet people she would never have otherwise crossed paths with. 

Though, that’s where her positive take on the platform seems to begin and end. Strike one: she reports that her online dating site’s compatibility quizzes seemed “off”; she was found time and again to be most compatible with 59-year-olds from Durbanville, not exactly flattering for a young city centre draughtswoman and 3D visualizer working at cutting-edge furniture design company Pierre Cronje. Strike two: her fleeting liaison with what she describes as, “a person who turned out to be a ‘man-child’.” 

As she puts it, “He did NOT turn out to be the person I expected, which is the big thing about online dating. Words on a screen don’t show personality as much as meeting face-to-face; I think that’s the big shock with online dating.”

Which brings us back to our original question: Is online dating actually superior to offline dating? 

As David explains, it’s a question that’s nearly impossible to answer, as individual definitions of success vary so widely. Though, his gut feeling is that the answer is yes, online dating is the better route to Mr. or Ms. Right (whatever that may mean to you). 

On the other hand, Ramon, who gave up on the platform a few years back for the poor photo integration, argues that online dating sites aren’t as successful as other media, like Facebook, that allow users a greater expression of themselves. 

“Interests are integrated in a much more natural way on Facebook,” Ramon asserts. “You’ve got the questionnaires on online dating sites, but on Facebook, you can demonstrate how you’re involved and, because of the elements posted by others, you can almost get a truer assessment of people.” Something that he believes is essential to finding people you’re more compatible with. 

Though, it’s this very argument that, David points out, is detrimental to online dating. Calling the freedom Facebook allows voyeurs an invasion of privacy, he believes that one of the upsides of online dating platforms is that you can exercise a degree of control that you don’t have otherwise. 

“The great thing about online dating is that you can be as specific or unspecific as you want to be; you really can lay out who you are and what it is you’re looking for. I think that’s one of the big appeals.”

He ultimately agrees with Helen though, saying, “The objective of online dating is actually to meet face-to-face; our success is our failure.” 

A statement that the young draughtswoman takes one step further. She reports that if you don’t meet up within two weeks of meeting online, there’s really no point in continuing the virtual flirtation.

Or as Eli J. Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, reasons, “People aren't reducible to a list of characteristics, just as cake isn't reducible to a list of ingredients.” Meaning, two-dimensional communication can’t replace the romantic chemistry that people establish when meeting each other offline. 

Not to mention, in his 2012 critical analysis of online dating as compared to offline dating – it’s the most recent study conducted worldwide – he and his co-researchers found that many of the matching algorithms used by online dating sites actually depend on aspects that aren’t crucial to compatibility. 

Needless to say, now, 15 to 20 years since its advent, here in South Africa, it seems that online dating is alive, well and a great platform on which to meet people, but even so, you still can’t count on its mathematical framework to find you the person of your dreams. 

By Stephanie Katz

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Met someone special and stumped for dating ideas? Read our overview of romantic things to do in Cape Town

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