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Love in a digital era
Global Times | May 23, 2012 19:20
By Neela Eyunni
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Love in a digital era

With hectic lifestyles and their smartphones in hand, more of the country's singles are speaking a new high-tech language of love. Traditional online dating and matchmaking sites are feeling the pressure as Chinese looking for love increasingly turn to the latest forms of social media, including microblogs and phone applications.

With a full social calendar, 38-year-old business owner Willy Wang doesn't have any trouble meeting women while out on the town. The Beijinger, however, still peruses microblogging site Sina Weibo for potential dates. Besides being fast and convenient, Wang said the site offers users a vital tool when it comes to matchmaking - transparency.

"You can see people's story on Weibo and really get a sense of their lifestyle."

Wang said that unlike dating websites, which provide limited and static information, Weibo's dynamic and revealing nature exposes people's true colors.

For example, he notes profanity in daily posts as a way to weed out Weibo users who aren't the "nice girls" he is looking for.

For those who do make the cut, so begins a digital courtship.

After his standard period of Weibo following and casual conversation, Wang escalates the relationship by switching communication to Tencent's social networking app WeChat, which allows users to instantly send voice messages. From there, he decides whether to take the plunge and meet in person.

Love in a hopeless place  

Some Chinese, however, are using social media in a less staggered and more fate-based approach to dating. Lei Ping, a student at the Beijing University of Science and Technology, is one of a growing number of people meeting strangers not with a handshake but phone shake, literally. The WeChat feature connects users with other random people who are shaking their phone at the same time.

"It's much easier than meeting people in person because it eliminates any feelings of shyness or nervousness usually associated with face-to-face introductions," Lei said.  

The 22-year-old swears by weather-related comments as icebreakers, but adds that Beijing traffic and jokes suffice as good topics of conversation as well.

Chinese are even finding love on the other side of the world with iJOYou, the first international mobile dating app. Users can text with strangers in other countries or use the app's voice chat feature.

Sun Yingchun, a professor at the Communication University of China, explains how new channels of social media fit well with Chinese personalities.

"Most Chinese are still shy in their everyday life, but online sites give them so many splendid platforms to play different roles and cover their privacy at the same time."

The rising popularity of such outlets also suits China's demographics. Today's bachelors must rely on a greater number of dating resources as the country's widening gender gap makes finding a significant other increasingly difficult.

It's estimated that the country will be home to 30 percent more men of marriageable age than women by 2016, according to 2010 census data.  

Booming online industry

Catering to growing demand, social networking sites have started expanding to include matchmaking features. Last year Sina Weibo launched its Micro Crush Notifier, following in the footsteps of Facebook. Shortly after, Renren began offering a similar application.

With China's booming online dating industry reaping in big bucks, the moves make sense financially. Online market research company iResearch forecasts the country's online dating market to soar from about $72 million to more than $301 million between 2010 and 2015.

Traditional matchmaking sites like Jiayuan.com and Baihe.com still dominate the market today, but are showing signs of vulnerability. With 40 million registered users, Jiayuan is currently China's largest online dating operator. According to a financial statement released in March, the company posted a net loss of $190,000 for the fourth quarter of 2011. That stands in sharp contrast to a year earlier when it reported a net income of $1.58 million during that same time.

Beijing resident Li Ming said she's happy with her experience using the site.

"The best part is that I found the most important person in my life," she said.

Li and her husband were married a little more than a year after meeting online. Despite positive results, the 26-year-old still declined to give her real name, alluding to the social stigma that continues to surround traditional online dating sites, regardless of their widespread use. 

Conventional platforms?

Many of the major platforms also focus on attracting clients in their 30s and 40s, leaving the door open for social networking and microblogging sites to solicit younger net users. According to its official website, online matchmaking giant Zhenai.com targets services to singles between 25 and 45 years old.

In addition to attracting younger singles, mobile apps and social networking sites are filling a dearth in online dating options for Chinese excluded from joining conventional matchmaking sites, such as those seeking same-sex relationships.

The reputation of Internet dating sites has also been marred with incidents of fraud and clients using false information. Social networking and microblogging sites, on the other hand, are under stricter government control, quelling such problems.

 The Chinese government recently implemented a new policy requiring microbloggers to register with their real names. The regulations, which went into effect last month, restrict those who refuse to comply from posting or forwarding messages.

Traditional online dating sites, however, are stepping up their game, turning to mobile Internet services to stay competitive. In a recent press release, Rose Gong, chief executive officer of Jiayuan, said the company's wireless offering "continues to gain traction with advanced features such as mobile location-based services that are specifically designed to meet the needs of serious users looking for love."

Whether diversifying services will be enough for traditional online dating sites to remain on top is unclear.  But with the country's growing population of singles driving up the stakes, it's likely they'll soon face new and perhaps more formidable high-tech challengers in the fight to win the hearts of Chinese searching for love.

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