Services & Software

Online dating's new love: IM

Instant messaging is becoming a popular aphrodisiac in the world of online dating, and software companies and online personals services are looking to feel the love.

Instant messaging is becoming a popular aphrodisiac in the world of online dating.

In recent weeks, software company PalTalk introduced a personals service for people on its instant chat network, allowing would-be sweethearts to get to know each other with greater speed than through e-mail. Other matchmaking Web sites such as and have unveiled instant chat services for those looking to find dates online, but with anonymity.

Yahoo, the online hub for personals advertisements, attests to IM's allure. At least half of its Personals couples had around 25 IM conversations, but exchanged only five phone calls and up to 10 e-mails in the first three weeks of meeting, the company said. Yahoo set the stage for better communication among subscribers with new IM features this summer.

"We've seen a rise in IM usage (for personals) over time," said Samantha Lazear, senior product manager of Yahoo Personals. "The excitement of IM is that you can get that real-time connection along with anonymity."

As one of the few profitable ventures on the Internet, online matchmaking sites are a hotbed for niche appeal and technological improvements. Instant chat is a potentially perfect mate to dating services because of its near-addictive quality and wildfire-like adoption among Internet users. Not only are teenagers regularly using IM to gossip with friends, but businesses are also tapping the technology to bolster communication and efficiency at work. Now dating sites and their members are using IM as a tool for flirting and weeding out potential partners quicker., a faint rival in the instant chat arena, opened up an area of its chat community to people looking for companionship, with PalTalk Personals. The company's CEO and founder, Jason Katz, calls the service "insta-dating," in which people can meet others for 10 minutes at a time in a chat session to decide whether they would like to get to know each other further. The IM service combines video and audio, too, so people can a better view of reality, he said.

In a free trial period, the service matches people based on a profile people fill out. If there is a potential match in the system, the service will organize people for a 10-minute rendezvous over IM. PalTalk plans to start charging for the service in 2003.

Many other sites use video as a way to improve the matchmaking experience. In October, launched with features that let people use video as well as real-time chat to sift through potential mates. Another site,, lets people call a phone number in their area to hear personal ads or use IM to get to know people.

An instant connection, one of the top dating sites, released Messenger in July, allowing subscribers to reach potential mates instantly when they are online. Kathleen Roldan, director of dating at, said that one of pluses of the service is that it maintains people's anonymity.

"One unique feature is the ability to see the member's anonymous username and photo (if a photo is available) with basic member profile information right in the conversation window," Roldan said.

This summer, Yahoo gussied up IM for Personals subscribers. One new feature, for example, called "IM a Friend" lets people forward personal ads, along with a picture, to friends for advice. People can also add their photo and a snapshot of their personals ad within the chat window when talking with a potential mate.

Yahoo lets Personals subscribers archive messages, so that people can keep track of their conversations, as well as use its popular smiley graphics--features it says sets it apart from rival IM services.

Yahoo's Lazear said

Reader Resources

CNET White Papers

CNET White Papers

that IM was integrated into Personals in late 2000; but the company has seen subscribers quickly warm to the technology as it's caught on.

On the downside, the tool can be much more intrusive than e-mail because IM windows appear spontaneously on a person's computer. For this reason, many people are already discriminating when it comes to revealing their IM name for personal or work use, let alone for online dating. For Yahoo users, handing out a regular IM handle could be potentially more troublesome than using a pseudonym if a meeting does not go well and the person attempts repeated contact. Accordingly, Yahoo encourages Personals subscribers to create an alternate account for IM use. Sites like give subscribers an anonymous IM name that mirrors their online name.

One woman living in Palo Alto, Calif., said that IM helps provide a quick snapshot of a person, if they're a fast typist, that is.

"You get to see how people think and act instantaneously where you don't in e-mail," said the 40-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous. "But I'm a fast typist; if I wasn't, I'd hate it."

She added that IM can get cloying too. "After an hour on this thing it's crazy, and you have to ask, Why aren't we talking on the phone?"