Taking the sleaze out of online dating

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Taking the sleaze out of online dating

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Illustration by Bae Min-ho


The barrier between Koreans’ online and offline social lives is fast disappearing with the growing popularity of social networking services like Cyworld, Facebook and Twitter. For many, who you are and where you socialize is as much determined online as offline nowadays. And most people communicate with their friends over e-mail more often than they talk over the phone or see each other in person.

How people date, too, is being revolutionized by the Internet.

There probably isn’t a country riper for innovative solutions to dating than here. In Korea, there aren’t as many outlets to meet new people as in other societies, because Koreans’ social circles tend to be determined by work and school. It’s not easy to break into already established circles, and it’s even harder to form new ones.

The pressure to marry at a young age, especially for women, is palpable. All of this presents unique challenges for young people when it comes to dating. In fact, those serious about dating are usually set up on blind dates by people within their social circles or their family members, which somewhat limits the dating pool. The process is known as sogaeting in Korean.

“It’s not like meeting a total stranger. The person I’m being set up with is a friend of a friend or a friend of the family. It’s someone I know or I know of,” said Tony Lyu, a 31-year-old businessman.

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Bachelors and bachelorettes say the high number of dead-end sogaeting dates adds up to a lot of money spent on dinners and movie tickets. Plus, the pressure is there for additional dates, because the reputation of the matchmaker - often a close friend of one or sometimes both of the daters - is on the line.

The Internet, however, has started to break down those barriers, and that is having profound implications for how Koreans meet one another. Rather than being limited to dating friends of friends or friends of the family, young singles are increasingly going online to find their future spouses.

It wasn’t until recently, though, that Internet dating companies were able to dissociate themselves from a negative “meat market” image. Online dating services have long been associated with providing a platform for people to hook up, have sex and not worry about the hassles of relationships.

One online service that has established itself as a legitimate company for those on the lookout for “the one” is called i:um (i-um.net). Ieum is a Korean word for connection or relationship.

Users of i:um say it has vastly expanded the pool of people interested in serious relationships. The idea is simple. I:um replaces the nagging mother or overly helpful friend as the matchmaker. But unlike a mother - who often has a different concept of who would make an ideal partner for her offspring, perhaps inhibiting her ability to establish a successful match - i:um’s computers utilize data users provide to automatically select potential partners.

Call it online sogaeting.

This isn’t KoreanCupid.com. An i:um user can only send only one message to another member after both agree to communicate. There’s not even a database of profiles to sift through. Registration takes hours and membership approval takes up to a month for men.

Once your profile is filled in and approval is granted, a computer program selects and sends you a profile - minus the person’s name and contact details - at 12:30 p.m. every day. The pair then has the option to click “OK” or “pass.” If both parties approve, their names and phone numbers will be released to the two members. From there, i:um’s work is done and fate takes its course.

In order for i:um to take the high road, it maintains a strict registration process to weed out those not interested in relationships. The profile page has nine fields, in which users must enter up to five keywords. For example, a member can select up to five words to enter into the “I like” field. Those fields are personal in nature and are designed to give members insight into each other’s personality. Two optional fields include the ever-important information on education and employment. The company does not make those mandatory because it wants to emphasize connections based on personality.

When this reporter registered with i:um, it took upwards of two days to consider what to enter on the profile page. Up to five photos can be uploaded. Waiting for membership approval is nerve-racking. That part of the process took another one and a half days. It was exciting waiting for the first profile to be delivered, and it didn’t take long before checking the daily selection became a ritual.

As much as the company tries to emphasize connections based on personality traits, this is Korea, and Koreans are practical when it comes to selecting mates. So to make their profiles “competitive,” members reveal their strongest assets in their profiles: for some, that is their education and employment status.

Further, some members slyly enter information into their profiles: in the category “I have,” one user put “Father who is a doctor,” while others entered “a diploma from Seoul National University,” “52 pyeong apartment overlooking Han River,” or “BMW M3.”

Not exactly the building blocks of long-term relationships.

“I just put down ‘luxury bags’ in the ‘I want’ category,” said Song Hye-min, a meteorologist who started using i:um last July. “I actually don’t own any luxury goods, so when the person actually met me, he would know I’m actually very frugal and not extravagant, which will be a pleasant surprise.”

But the Web site suggests people be up-front, letting other users know what they are really like before they meet. The men this reporter was introduced to through the Web site were straightforward.

“I won’t be able to take calls or return texts when I’m working or in class, so just wait if I don’t pick up the phone,” said one man. “Too much effort trying to look cute actually makes me nauseous,” said another. “I’m shy at first, but that does not mean that I’m not interested in you,” said the last.

“It’s good to have certain information before actually meeting in person. I can just make a decision if I like this person or not without wasting my time,” said Song.

The Web site maintains a ratio of about 1.2 men to each woman.

“Men sign up no matter what. So we only do marketing to attract women,” said i:um’s CEO, Park Hee-eun. The more women sign up, the more men it can accept.

I:um was launched last June and now has close to 100,000 members. Over 4,000 men are on a waiting list to be accepted.

The most exciting feature, say its users, is that the Web site offers them a chance to meet people outside of their social circles.

Meteorologist Song said her occupation was often the subject of conversation when connected through i:um. “People usually show a lot of interest in what I do. I guess it’s refreshing for them that someone who appears on television is sitting right in front of them,” she said.

I:um has benefited from a sterling reputation among those in their 20s and 30s, who perceive it as a place for “smart people” to meet. The founder is a graduate of Seoul National University and recruited her friends at the school to use the service.

“Even though it wasn’t intended, I think the rumor built a good image for the business, as it was spread by word of mouth,” said Park.

To increase trustworthiness, users can have their own information verified by the administrators of the Web site. When information such as school and company is verified, a mark will be shown on the profile indicating that the user’s data is accurate.

“This Web site has control over many things that people are worrying about. The biggest doubt people have would be the trustworthiness of the person they’re being introduced to,” said Lyu.

Many dating Web sites have sprung up recently, hoping to latch on to i:um’s success.

One, Cougarncub.com, matches older women with younger men. Cocoa Book offers a similar service to i:um, but provides three possible dates each day.

To be a member of i:um, users have to be single and be over the age of 19.

Because a high number of expats in Korea have inquired about the service, i:um is in the process of setting up a system to allow foreign nationals to register.

Thorough data is not available on the number of marriages the service can be credited with, since the onus is on the users to report the marriage to the company. No survey has been conducted.

So far, though, over 60,000 connections have been made (120,000 people have clicked “OK” to release their contact information).

“I openly tell my friends that I use this service, and even recommend others to use it. Going online for relationship is not something you need to hide from the public anymore,” said Song.


By Lee Sun-min [summer@joongang.co.kr]

한글 관련 기사 [중앙일보]
‘이상형’ ‘가까이 온 남녀’ 만남 주선하는 앱 북적
1km·후즈히어·이음 등 소셜데이팅 인기인터넷 기반의 ‘소셜 데이팅’ 서비스 ‘이음’
스마트폰과 인터넷에 기반한 ‘소셜 데이팅’ 서비스가 젊은이들 사이에 큰 인기를 끌고 있다. 지금까지 소개팅이란 상대가 어떤 사람인지 잘 모른 채 일단 만나 이야기를 나누는 방식이었다. 하지만 소셜 데이팅 서비스가 소개하는 상대는 나와 취향이 통하는 이성일 가능성이 크다.

 ‘이츄’는 회원들의 이상형과 연애 성향을 분석해 잘 어울리는 이성을 자동으로 추천해 주는 애플리케이션(이하 앱)이다. ‘나의 연애성향’이나 ‘내가 좋아하는 영화’ 등 자신에 대한 정보를 업데이트하면 그때마다 그에 걸맞은 상대를 찾아 알려준다. 지난해 8월 아이폰용 앱으로 출시된 후 20만여 명이 내려받았고, 7만5000여 명이 회원으로 가입했다.

 지난해 11월 서비스를 시작한 웹사이트 ‘이음’의 회원 수는 10만 명을 넘어섰다. 이 사이트에 가입하면 매일 낮 12시30분에 한 명의 이성을 추천해 준다. 그 상대가 마음에 들면 3300원을 결제한 뒤 OK를 눌러 데이트를 청할 수 있다. 상대도 OK를 하면 두 사람은 상대의 이름·나이·연락처 등 상세 정보를 볼 수 있다. 두 사람이 동시에 OK를 하기 전엔 별명이나 좋아하는 것 등 대략적인 정보만 확인할 수 있다. 이음은 지난달 모바일 상품권도 출시했다. ‘OK’를 할 수 있는 이 상품권을 KT ‘기프티쇼’와 네이트 ‘기프티콘’에서 내려받아 친구나 맘에 드는 이성에게 선물하면 된다. 1회 OK할 수 있는 ‘OK 1회 회수권’ 가격은 3630원. 7일 동안 최대 일곱 번까지 OK할 수 있는 ‘라이트 패키지’는 5900원이다.

 위치기반 서비스를 활용한 데이트 상대 찾기 서비스도 인기다. 앱 ‘1㎞’는 현재 내가 서있는 위치에서 1㎞ 거리 안에 있는 이성의 사진과 간단한 정보를 볼 수 있으며 즉석에서 대화도 가능하다. ‘후즈히어’ ‘하이데어’ 등의 앱도 젊은이들 사이에선 맘에 드는 이성 찾기 용도로 많이 쓰인다.

 소셜 데이팅 시장은 급속히 성장하고 있다. 미국의 경우 연 20억 달러 규모를 넘어섰다. 미국의 이 분야 대표 사이트인 ‘매치닷컴’은 뉴질랜드·일본 등 25개국에 2000만 명의 회원을 갖고 있으며, 지난해 4억 달러 이상의 매출을 올렸다. 또 다른 사이트인 ‘주스크’는 페이스북과 연동돼 약 4000만 명의 회원을 확보했다. 지난해 매출은 9000만 달러다.

 이음을 서비스하는 이음소시어스의 박희은 대표는 “미국의 경우 데이팅 산업은 온라인 게임, 디지털 음원과 함께 가장 빨리 성장 중인 3대 온라인 산업”이라며 “국내는 아직 도입 초기 단계지만 성장 속도는 매우 빠르다”고 말했다.
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