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Digital love: online dating evolving for Victoria singles

Maria Manna is a professional matchmaker in Victoria who brings couples together through a company called It’s Just Lunch. - Sharon Tiffin/News staff
Maria Manna is a professional matchmaker in Victoria who brings couples together through a company called It’s Just Lunch.
— image credit: Sharon Tiffin/News staff

November, 1999

Hi there,

My name is Catherine. I am 24-years-old, a full-time student and live in the Lower Mainland. I’m 5’10” and quite attractive. I, like yourself, believe there are great people to be met over the Internet. I was wondering; where is the photo taken? Looks interesting. My address is below if you would like to chat.

Catherine

Hi Catherine,

Thanks for writing to me. You know, it’s quite funny, but I don’t remember exactly where this picture was taken, must be somewhere downtown... It was last spring. You’ve mentioned that you are a full-time student, what do you study? Judging by the number of punctuation marks you must be an English major. :)

...Hope to hear from you.

Cheers,

Boris

Catherine and Boris sit in front of a crackling fire in the living room of their Saanich home. Twelve years since Catherine was first taken by the photo of a handsome six-foot-four Russian man’s dating ad on excite.ca, the married couple reminisce about what was once considered an unusual method of meeting a partner.

“All my friends were single and they didn’t have any friends who had friends, so it was very difficult to meet anyone,” says Boris -- the name he asked to be substituted for his real name. “I was on a date or two, but …(through online personals) you have better chance of meeting someone you really like.”

Boris, a 31-year-old mechanical engineer at the time, had just finished his education in the U.S., moved to Vancouver and was interested in settling down. Catherine, who calls Boris her “mail-order husband,” was a Simon Fraser University student looking for some fun when she came across his ad.

“I was like, ‘Oh! I like your credentials,” she says, noting his height and his masters degree were attractive.

“Up until now I thought it was useless,” he says.

Catherine and Boris paint a much different picture of what dating sites were like during the outset of the service. Catherine recalls sifting through profile after profile posted by busy professionals – not just anyone who would spend their weekends at the bar picking up dates.

They were in the vanguard of Internet dating on excite.ca – the portal that turned down an opportunity to buy Google for $750,000 that year and has since faded from the computer screens of online daters. For this, Boris dubs the era “the roaring ’90s” – a decade that gave way to high-volume sites like Vancouver-based Plenty of Fish. The free website, founded by Markus Frind in 2001 now boasts 145 million visitors a month and $10 million in annual advertising revenue.

Since the rise of Plenty of Fish has come a slew of niche sites that cater to every possible segment of the population from the hearing impaired (Deaf Singles Connection), Jewish (JDate), vegetarian (VeggieDate) and those diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STD match.net). Computer savvy singles young and old are immersed in the trend through sites like Cupidtino (for fans of everything Apple Inc.) and the self-explanatory DatingforSeniors.com.

While online possibilities abound, they might not be the right fit for singles uncomfortable with opening up to a dating community through a publicly-viewable profile.

“A lot of time professionals come to us because they don’t want to take their business online,” said Jacquie Brownridge, co-director of matchmaking service It’s Just Lunch Victoria. “They don’t want people seeing their personal information – their employees, their colleagues, what have you.”

Clients who contact It’s Just Lunch are interviewed and accepted to the database of singles once it has been determined if there are other suitable matches for them available at the time. It’s Just Lunch Singles in Victoria meet with matchmaker Maria Manna, who co-ordinates a private lunch, after work drink or Sunday brunch date at confidential locales – all without so much as sharing a photo of each prospect.

“I’m married and happy and just want everybody to feel the same way,” Manna said, admitting that she has been a lifelong matchmaker, long before she ever landed the official position. “I’ve just always been like that. I love love.”

Brownridge will not share any hard details on just how many people in Greater Victoria are using the service, but offers that the number is in the hundreds. Client age spans from late-20s through to those in their 70s, with the most users in their 30s and 40s.

The name of the service, meant to reflect lower-pressure meetings at convenient times, is contradicted by an important element – the cost. Brownridge will not go on the record with the figure of a one-year membership fee, but likens the financial commitment to investing in a career through a university education.

“When somebody’s also invested in the process, you’re catching them at a time when they’re also looking for somebody and that makes a difference,” she said.

“Both genders take comfort in that. They know that they’re going to meet people who are serious about meeting their match. And our goal is really to get people out from behind their computers to connect day to day.”

Some digital dating tools use technology to set the stage for instant connections, from smartphone apps like Singles Around Me, which uses location services to connect registered singles with others in their immediate vicinity, to Introvert Social, a Toronto-based group of the self-identified introverted, who use the group to connect initially online before meeting at regular social functions.

But even for the traditional online dating sites, the opportunity to bring the relationship out from behind a profile picture and into the real world is usually just a click away – a moment that Catherine and Boris remember well from their first date.

“I tried not to blow it or to say something not P.C.,” he said.

“I didn’t get every word he said,” she added.

Now planning their 10th wedding anniversary, Catherine no longer has any trouble understanding what her husband is trying to communicate through his dry wit and thick accent. The same can’t be said for Boris, who smiles and suggests that he has yet to fully understand his wife since “women speak in riddles.”

nnorth@saanichnews.com

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