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Will Facebook Steal Online Dating Sites’ Girl?

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Online dating is a big, fat tassled deal. We know this not just because Barry Diller has bought into it (his IAC owns Match.com), but because all the most killer apps on the Internet have been about finding things, whether it’s old snowshoes on eBay, the name of a good locksmith on Google or your exact brand of pornography on those weird sites you stumble across when you  mistype a search term. Why shouldn’t finding a date or a mate be a few keystrokes away?

Except, of course it’s not that simple. Which is why there’s been a flurry of recent interest in Facebook — the 800-lb. gorilla of finding people — and not just from Goldman Sachs.

Dating websites have enormous potential: theoretically, any single person can save him or herself a lot of trouble and odious evenings at the wrong end of the bar, by doing a little legwork online first — weeding out those potential dates whose attributes they could not tolerate and singling out those who look more sympatico. Their pool of candidates is huge, much greater than anybody could ever hope to meet face to face. And several of the sites, like eHarmony.com and Chemistry.com, tout patented questionnaires that help do the winnowing for you. Match.com claims that 17% of couples who married last year met through the Internet. (More on Time.com: See TIME’s Person of the Year package on Mark Zuckerberg)

There’s some neutral research backing up their numbers. According to a Stanford University/City College of New York study released in August, the Internet was the third most popular place to meet a new love interest in 2009. About 22% of all the 3,000-odd heterosexual couples in the longitudinal How Couples Meet and Stay Together Survey who met in 2009 did so through the Web. Only a slightly higher number met in bars, and the biggest proportion met through friends.

The complaints about dating websites, however, are persistent, and written about at length in this week’s Economist. Basically, there are too many people telling whoppers about themselves, too many profiles of people who don’t exist and, you know, the occasional weapons-grade creep. Plus, as Dan Ariely has so eloquently explained, it’s still an open question as to whether people can actually figure out what they want online, since we’re a little more complicated than old snowshoes.

That’s where Facebook comes in. While it doesn’t have an official dating app, it certainly has a bunch of ways to meet people. Men often prefer to to do their date-fishing on Facebook because women are more open to approaches from guys who know somebody they know, even though “friend” has a very elastic meaning in the world of the big blue lower case F. People are less likely to lie, or put up a horribly inaccurate photograph on their Facebook profiles, because their friends will call them out. Of course, not everybody wants their dating activity publicized, so the more successful apps operate beneath the public wall of Facebook. (More on Time.com: Photos: Life Inside Facebook Headquarters)

People aren’t exactly waiting for Facebook to create its own dating arm. Snap Interactive Inc., the makers of Are You Interested, a dating app that has a Facebook component, has seen its stock have a wild ride after Bloomberg ran an admiring profile noting that it was adding more users per day than Match.com. Its share price has grown more than sixfold since last month, although concerns about the app’s real value remain. Zoosk, another dating site, has a Facebook utility as well. Others cannot be far behind.

The Stanford study cited above notes that a quarter of the people who met online already had some kind of social connection. Facebook would seem to present a way of overcoming many of the dating sites’ drawbacks — including the fact that a lot of them charge a fee — while offering almost as many benefits. (Although if you’re into shy introverts terrified of social networking, you might find slim pickings.) Not that the dating websites are exactly hurting. They still have revenues in the hundreds of millions and in 2010 was a banner year for Match.com, the CEO of IAC told Bloomberg.

But would people prefer to trawl in unknown waters or lakes where they had a better sense of the quality and type of fish? The angling metaphor breaks down eventually, because most daters are really only looking for that one special sea bass. A good way to find him, might be to see if any of your friends know him. If a Facebook app of some kind doesn’t replace dating sites, it could certainly offer a reasonable, cheap alternative, always a scary specter for others working the same customer base.

More on TIME.com:

Healthland’s Guide to Life 2011

Study: ‘Hyper-Texting’ Teens More Likely to Have Had Sex, Tried Drugs

Can an iPhone App Save Your Marriage?

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