If you’re browsing the web at the moment, the chances are that you are not spending the 14th with your soul mate, unless conversation really is running dry…
Yes, many students are looking for love, just like everybody else and, just like people beyond the bubble, we can sometimes struggle to express our true feelings. Contrary to popular belief, an extra sambuka or two can often do more harm than good when it comes to attracting a potential partner on a night out. Furthermore, sometimes it can feel like there is nobody who shares the same passions as you, such as your enthusiasm for the entire corpus of Terry Pratchett. This kind of problem can lead to extreme feelings of isolation.
Ex-students Anthony Purkiss 28, and Tom Witcherley 26, recognised a gap in the online dating market. Their website, Freshmeet, which was launched in October of last year, is unique in the fact that it only accepts users who have an ‘ac.uk’ email address. The question is, why did Tom and Anthony not decide to target the ‘last chance saloon’ mature age category, or the busy market of single parents who do not have enough time to meet people outside the virtual world? Students don’t lack that spare time which is required to meet people. And we’re presented with countless societies and teams full of potential dates. For the two founders, FreshMeet is not just about creating bonds between young people, it is about breaking the ties of stigma which connects the concept of online dating to those who are perceived to be either desperate or terminally “uncool”.
“We try to emphasise that it is not a serious site. We know you’re at university, you’re not wanting to get married to the first person you meet”.
As a graduate of Liverpool John Moores University, Anthony recognises the expectations which freshers hold when arriving at university. “I think there are lots of preconceptions about going to university – you’ll go there, you’ll be single, you’ll have some fun for three years. I suppose a lot of people think that: a) you go there to learn, and b) you go there to meet new people. In some cases that is not as easy as it should be”.
Ironically, Anthony was part of the minority who did not arrive single. He spent the first two years at John Moores with a long term girlfriend from his hometown. They made the decision to go university together and it wasn’t until the beginning of Anthony’s final year, that the couple went their separate ways. “I would say that it put a strain on our relationship when we both went to university together when everybody else was enjoying being single. It was sad”.
Once he had fully-recovered from the break-up, Anthony threw himself into the simultaneously exciting and terrifying world of student dating, which up till that point had been unknown to him. He gained an understanding of what students really wanted. He began to realise that the double-lives of students, who spend half of their time at university and half of their time at home, encouraged casual dating rather than long-term commitment. He stresses the “fun” factor as a major part of FreshMeet’s identity. “We try to emphasise that it is not a serious site. We know that you are at university, you’re not wanting to get married to the first person you meet”.
As students, most of us are aware of the implications of a dating site which is “not serious”. Another site, which enables users to meet people for somewhat short-term purposes, aptly named ShagAtUni.com, does not attempt to disguise what its clientele desire from the site. Anthony wishes to banish the preconceptions of the older generation, who may attach base connotations to the name “FreshMeet”. “The message that we’re trying to get across is that it’s not a hook up site. I mean, obviously students are going to have sex with each other at some point, that is a given. Our’s is more of a social networking website – it’s for meeting new people. I mean obviously once this meet up has taken place they can go and do what they want”.
According to Anthony and Tom, sites such as ShagAtUni and other small dating websites can easily deceive their users. It is not uncommon to see users whose profile pictures are strikingly similar to underwear advertising campaigns, however, as Anthony explains, even the people who create the websites have been known to fabricate the truth. “When we were looking for somebody to build the site for us they originally offered us “free users” or “fake faces” which were users who were signed up to dating websites in other places, so their faces would be linked into our site. They would have existed somewhere on the dating framework. They may have joined another dating website, but in the small print it often says that your face can be used across a network of social dating websites”.
Anthony and Tom decided to reject the offer of thousands of apparent users. They’re building FreshMeet the old fashioned way and as a result can boast of just under 200 users. Anthony insists, however, that the site is growing every day, with students from a collection of twenty different universities. But in an age when dating websites are criticised for preventing shy people from “stepping into the real world”, why should such a medium of dating prove appealing to students? Anthony explains about how by communicating with student unions, Freshmeet will banish the online dating “recluse” stereotype. “When we’re targeting specific institutions, we plan to know all of the nights and all of the events that are taking place – we are trying to put people together that way. We want users to say, “Look, I’m going to this night on Tuesday, do you want to meet me there?” Students shouldn’t just stay in and have a virtual life, but they might see somebody they like in a bar and not have the confidence to be able to go up and talk to them. They might, however, feel confident enough to talk to them virtually before they have a proper conversation in person”.
The UK is arguably backward in its views regarding online dating. In America, one in three marriages stem from relationships which start online. More than anything, Tom and Anthony want to change the UK’s perception of internet matchmaking by showing the younger generation how they can benefit. This will present a challenge to both the website creators and the online users. “We think everybody should feel secure about it, we don’t want somebody going, “Oh god, online dating, what is my mate going to think of me”. Online dating is changing – it’s not especially for the loner shacked up in his/her bedroom looking out the window with binoculars anymore!”