The Ups and Downs of Digital Dating

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Valentine's Day has become pretty high-tech and sending your sweetheart a message is just a click away. But is it as much fun? Tech contributor Mario Armstrong examines the pros and cons of Internet-based affection.

ED GORDON, host:

Valentine's Day used to be pretty simple. You bought a card, signed your name, sealed the envelope and mailed it. Today, getting your message to a loved one could be just a click away. But some question is a cyber greeting as much fun. NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with NEWS AND NOTES tech contributor Mario Armstrong about the pros and cons of digital affection.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

What about this online dating thing, how successful is it for people and for companies?

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Tech Contributor, NPR): You know, there's varying degrees. Some people will say, look, I found my true love online, and I'm actually marrying this person, and that would have not happened before because I don't hang out at the bars, or I don't go to the clubs, and I don't look for someone in the grocery store. So some people are finding success.

On the other hand, some people are finding out that people are online saying, hey, I'm 5'8, or I'm 6'2; I'm very athletic; and I'm 180 pounds, all to find out that really they're more like 5'7; 250; and they haven't run a mile in like years. So you're finding some things where it is sincere and it works out well, and others where it's not all that it seems to be online.

CHIDEYA: So how much money are these companies raking in?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, they're doing very, very well. I mean, they're making a lot of money. I mean, some of the recent statistics show that they're into several million dollars. I mean, you look at $640 million is what's projected within the next three years. Last year alone I believe they reached about $516 million. So this whole online dating industry with leaders like match.com and true.com and others are really doing well in terms of their subscriptions. It doesn't know if those subscriptions actually mean they're making more connections.

CHIDEYA: You know, Mario, a lot of us are just much more old fashioned. We would prefer to pick up the phone and call for a date. Now, I understand there's a way of talking as long as you want by phone without incurring lots of costs, and it's by computer?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It's by computer. It's really cool. It's gaining a lot of momentum in Europe. It's called Skype, S-k-y-p-e. And Skype essentially allows me and you, if you download a piece of Skype software on your computer, and I download it on my computer, I can now use a headset or a microphone connected to my computer and call you from my computer to your computer; you pick up and answer; and we talk. We bypass all the local telephone charges, and we talk and yap away for free. So this is really cool and it's really exciting, and it really enables those that have family across the country or international to be able to communicate and stay in touch.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of family, now, you say we can use high tech tools to trace ancestry, as well?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh, there's so much on the internet. I was reviewing some sites for family reunions and things of that nature. There's a lot out there, especially when we start looking at things for Coretta Scott King and others that you may have been doing any history research during Black History Month. There are so many tools.

If you just type in genealogy research or genealogy software, or ancestry software in Google, you'll get so many different pieces of software. Some have different pros and cons for what you're looking for; so you need to determine is this something that you're just on a solo mission, or is this something that you intend to maybe then publish; or are you looking to build a website that looks at showing your genealogy and allows family be members to interact with that website. All kinds of ways that technology is making our families come more closer together and be able to trace our roots better.

CHIDEYA: And what about tracing your roots, can you do that too with tools that people are linking to online?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. But I'm a little skeptical about some of that, because I've seen some tools, and I haven't had a chance to really verify how credible are these tools. So that's one thing that still kind of concerns me. You know, I remember where you could just kind of like type in your last name and it would kind of show you based off of other questions that it would ask you, based off of that, it would then run through a series of checks to kind of say, all right, well, this sounds like this is your family lineage here. But I haven't had a chance to really dig in deep and talk to these companies to find out how this technology works on the back end and how it can be verified.

CHIDEYA: Well, it's always good to keep in open mind, but a skeptical mind, as well. NEWS AND NOTES tech expert, Mario Armstrong also covers technology for Baltimore area NPR stations, WYPR and WEAA. Thanks for joining us, Mario.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai. Safe online dating, folks.

CHIDEYA: Uh-oh.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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