The boon of the information age has seen the popularity of internet dating propelled from the fringes of social acceptance to being a part of everyday life.

UP UNTIL recently, meeting potential partners in a bar or nightclub was the accepted way of bringing new people into your life. Things certainly have changed. Of course, one can still make one’s way down to a bar and try one’s hand in the minefield of game playing, posing and strutting of stuff, but more and more people these days are turning to the internet to fulfil their needs, sidestepping such hassles. After enduring years of social scorn, online dating has emerged to become the place de rigueur for like-minded people to connect, resulting in a marked shift in the local dating culture.

“It’s more relaxed these days,” observes sociologist Anna-Maija Castrén, from the University of Helsinki’s Department of Social Research. “It was totally different back when I was a teenager in the 1980s. It was more that either you had a partner or didn’t have a partner – an exclusive system. Now, there is not so much pressure. You can be single and go out and meet people and go on dates. It is easier to use dating sites. In a sense, social media has brought a dating culture to Finland.”

Love without restrictions

Once seen as something attempted by those who were perhaps more mature in years and unlucky in love, or divorcees, nowadays age is no longer a barrier for people willing to meet others on the internet.

“Online dating is definitely worth trying,” explains Satu Karjalainen, 26, having met her current boyfriend online via deitti.fi. “It’s just another way to meet new people and, if lucky, to find that someone special. I commenced using online dating about a year ago. I had heard some experiences and stories from a friend who had been online dating for a while. I got curious and made an announcement just to see what it’s all about and if there really is someone I could be interested in.”

In keeping with society’s changed perceptions, Karjalainen didn’t feel awkward when she started to look on the internet for prospective partners. “Online dating didn’t feel weird or difficult – like anywhere else, you just have to know what kind of people you are interested in and what kinds of things you appreciate in a partner. Online dating also makes it possible to learn about another person’s hobbies and personal life in a much shorter time than in a bar.”

“It’s more of a common thing now,” states Maija, who successfully tried internet dating some nine years ago. Although she actually met her husband on the very first date she organised back then, she doesn’t feel comfortable having her real name published for this article, perhaps as it may still bring back some awkward memories for her from the early 2000s. “At that time I felt I had to explain I had met this guy online. These days everyone has at least met someone online – at least for one date. It’s nothing special.” Now happily married with children, Maija has blazed a trail for a number of people she knows. “Nowadays people talk more openly about online dating than nine years ago. My sister found her boyfriend that way. I also have a friend who separated and has been dating again. The main difference than when I was online is that she only wants to go for dates that are fun, so she looks for someone who can enjoy the same things as her. She looks for someone to go on a jogging date. She does not go to bars or dinners and does everyday things.” Love and money Aside from bringing people together, online dating is also big business, with the industry now worth an estimated 4 billion dollars worldwide. In contrast to services provided in many other countries, however, the majority of dating websites here in Finland do not charge their users a fee. “I’m sceptical that Finns would ever want to pay for it,” states Maija. “How would you evaluate the amount of money that brings you what you want? ‘I paid ten euros, I didn’t get the beautiful guy that I wanted – only ten euros’ worth!’”

Although a service charge perhaps would take some convincing to be accepted here, there are some who believe it could bring added value to the experience. “As long as there are people willing to pay, then why not?” suggests Paula Puranen. “The downside to it being free here is that there are more people who are not so serious.”

Meeting her fiancé through online dating four years ago, Puranen had preferred to look for potential dates without actually creating an online profile herself. After growing tired of the dating game in day-to-day life, she was determined to control the number of people she had contact with via the internet, wary of those seeking something less serious than what she was. “There were a lot of people just looking for a fling or whatever, you really needed to go through a lot of profiles before you got to the people who were really serious. These services that charge you would have more people who are really serious about dating.”

Going the distance

The phenomenon of social media as a whole has also provided the opportunity for people to meet who are living in different corners of the globe. Having originally becoming acquainted on Myspace in 2007, Finn Henna Tötterman and Chilean Daniel de Santiago eventually met face-to-face in 2008, when Henna moved to Chile for a work placement, after chatting online for over a year.

“I was excited to meet her,” remembers de Santiago. “It was quite exceptional as I had never met someone like that. My closest friends thought I was a bit crazy, ‘you don’t even know this girl, what are you doing?’ It was an adventure.”

“Previously only it was people selling themselves in magazine advertisements,” Tötterman states. “Now it’s so common to meet online, there’s nothing weird in it.”

According to de Santiago, however, online dating is not as prevalent in Chile as it is here. “Normally the Latin culture is outgoing. We were raised to go up and meet the girl. At a club you go up and ask the girl for a dance. If you don’t do that then, well…”

“Down there it’s so important to get the girl,” Tötterman interjects. “Here in Finland the boys don’t try so much to get the girl, even if they want to. In Latin America, it’s more social and outgoing. People are more with friends and with families. That could be more why they use the cyber world in Finland, to replace this.”

Aside from the globe-hopping possibilities presented by the internet, online dating is also bringing people together locally who live in remote areas. “There is a quite widely scattered population here in Finland,” notes Samuli Koiso-Kanttila, project coordinator of Väestöliitto’s youth advice hotline Poikien Puhelin. “There are areas where it is really hard to meet anyone, as there aren’t many people living there. But, if you have the internet then it multiplies your chances to meet someone.”

Dispensing advice for young males predominantly under the age of twenty on all manner of topics of concern, including dating tips, Poikien Puhelin commenced operations in 2007 and currently fields over 20,000 calls per year. As people in Finland have also traditionally met through shared hobbies, Koiso-Kanttila recommends that the youngsters try chat rooms connected with the things they like to do. “It depends on what you are interested in, your subculture. If you are a kid interested in computers, or live action role-play, or football, or some kind of band, there is a different kind of chat room. Just find your own subculture.”

However, Koiso-Kanttila is quick to emphasize the inevitability of serious dangers on the internet. “Boys have to understand that not everything’s what it seems to be online; there might be a totally different person at the other end than they say they are. They do understand the limits quite well, but when they really fall for them they tend to forget that there might be something wrong with the person who looks quite nice in the pictures and they start to send pictures of themselves back. Then they get more bold pictures back, and then themselves start stripping down for the camera, and so on. It’s not very common that boys will meet up with these people, but it does still happen. In those cases sometimes it leads to sexual harassment or abuse.”

Dating in future

With the technology advancing at a rapid pace, it appears as if the dating culture here will soon have another tool to embrace – one that further enhances our addiction to smartphone applications. A glance across the Atlantic to America sees the dating scene there enhanced by a number of popular apps that incorporate the tried and true method of meeting people at a bar. By utilising such applications as Tingle, Skout and the wildly popular gay dating app Grindr, people in a bar can ascertain who around them is single, who in the bar is actively looking and who in the bar is straight (or, in the case of Grindr, who isn’t). With the fifth generation iPhone around the corner, and other leading smartphone developers scrambling to keep up with public demand, it appears that online dating is barely the tip of the romantic iceberg.

James O’Sullivan