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COLUMN ONE

You Can Date Now, Meet Later

Skype, an Internet phone service, lets singles hook up all over the world for free. Using webcams, some even watch each other sleep.

October 12, 2006|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

It started as so many relationships do -- the long phone calls, the movie dates, the tentative introductions to family and friends.

But the courtship of Mark Passerby and Salwa Al-Saban was hardly ordinary. The two were separated by the Atlantic Ocean, a time difference of six hours and vast cultural contrasts. He lived in Lansing, Mich., she in Cairo.

They say they fell in love over Skype, a service that allows people to call each other for free over the Internet.

In November 2005, one month after they first "clicked" online, they were married.

"Everyone around us thinks we're crazy," said Salwa, a 25-year-old doctor who just moved to Lansing and took her new husband's name. "But it is much more perfect than anything I could have ever wanted."

Software like Skype is creating a world of online dating that enables relationships between people who live all over the globe, some of whom may never meet in person. By allowing free phone calls between those who share a common language and a high-speed Internet hookup, Skype has spawned love connections between Belgians and Japanese, Germans and Israelis, Americans and Egyptians and even a Guatemalan nail technician and a Canadian member of the Raelians, a group that advocates human cloning.

The software routes calls over the data network, substituting voice for e-mail. Web mail services such as Google, MSN and Yahoo also allow customers to make Net phone calls, but Skype has kept a few steps ahead of its competitors by being one of the first to offer this for free. Skype also lets users put money in an account and call land-line phones and cellphones.

Since it was founded in 2003, Skype has added features such as voice mail and video communication. The service says it has more than 100 million users.

At first, Skype was used mostly by people who already knew each other: spouses on business trips, camp friends and college students. Then specialized dating websites discovered Skype, and its role as a matchmaker started growing.

Singles send messages to one another on most online dating sites, but "it takes an awful long time for them to find out if they're compatible," said David Finlay, co-owner of someonenew.com, a 14,000-member dating site. Finlay says that by using Skype, people on his website are able to determine whether they're compatible after one or two phone calls.

"The natural thing to do is to talk to one another, not to type," he said. "It's a little bit of nostalgia here -- we're actually speaking to each other again."

Salwa, the Egyptian doctor, said, "You can hear the laughter, the way the person talks -- if he's tired, depressed. It really is much better than e-mail."

After discussing their shared interests online (exploring caves, crying during romantic movies, pop music), Salwa and Mark began to operate on the same sleep schedule. Mark, a 41-year-old technology developer for real estate company Re/Max, set up a movie projector and trained his Web camera on it so they could watch movies together.

He bought a ticket to Egypt to meet Salwa, and they were married on his first trip after they convinced her conservative family that this American who had shown up out of the blue was a suitable match for her.

There is something in the idea that people get closer by speaking on the phone, said Nancy Baym, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.

Voice can be more revealing than e-mail, she said: "It's going to be harder for a 45-year-old man not to notice that he's talking to a 12-year-old girl and vice versa."

That's what appealed to Marcel Janneteau, a 41-year-old man from Montreal.

Janneteau, who gets tested in medical experiments for a living and is a member of the Raelian Movement, a religious group whose members believe in UFOs in addition to proselytizing for human cloning, said he'd been "burned" when he communicated with a woman online who put up false photos of herself and pretended that she was a millionaire. He decided to require from then on that anyone he dated over the Internet have a Web camera and a microphone so he could see and hear that she was legitimate.

He soon found Mimi Quan, a 42-year-old nail technician in Guatemala who lives, by his count, 3,777 kilometers (2,347 miles) away. Quan said she was immediately interested when Janneteau contacted her, especially when he sent photos of himself -- something others didn't do.

Quan said she felt secure because she knew that if Janneteau made her uncomfortable, "I can just turn the computer off" and stop talking to him, something that is harder to do when dating in person.

They've never met face to face, but they talk over Skype four hours a day and watch each other sleep using Web cameras. He's met her three children over Skype; she's invited him to visit Guatemala.

"It's exactly the same as having a real relationship except that you can't touch," Janneteau said.

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