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.
Quan and Janneteau met by signing on to Skype Me, which invites strangers to contact one another. This function has a seedier side as well. Some female users complain that signing onto Skype Me mode invites a barrage of men looking for phone sex who send vulgar pictures or messages. One user complained on an online forum: “I’m sure that at least half of the people who Skyped me could probably be considered clinically insane.”
Some psychologists say a relationship created and sustained by Net phone can be incomplete.
Net phone contact is “simultaneously allowing people to become more intimate and yet have less patience with real life and real-time human fumbles and foibles,” said Linda Young, a psychologist at Seattle University who has counseled many students who have sustained or developed relationships over Skype. Not having to deal with another person’s bad temper or foul-smelling habits makes the Internet pal seem more perfect than he or she actually is, Young said.
Still, Young and others acknowledge that Skype allows people to maintain more intimate relationships over greater distances than ever before.
“Some people go to bars to cruise for girls, but for me, smoke and loud noise is not conducive to meeting people,” Janneteau said. “Online, I can meet anybody from around the world.”
This enables some matches such as Quan and Janneteau’s that would seem unlikely in a computer-generated world of EHarmony and other sites that match individuals with similar backgrounds and interests. Skype seems instead to bring together people who are quite different.
Jared Guynes, a 22-year-old graphic designer in Texas, was surprised when Hannah Harvey, an Englishwoman two years his junior, contacted him on Skype two years ago. He was intrigued by her unfamiliar accent, which seemed like something “from the movies.”
The two became friends over Skype and started dating when they met in Texas eight months later. They’ve continued their relationship even though she still lives in Britain and he in Dallas.
Guynes considers himself a lucky fellow. He rates himself “about a 5.5 or a 6" in appearance, whereas Harvey “could be a model, in my opinion.” He calls himself a “thick, 250 pounds, 6-foot Texan,” while she is less than 5 feet tall and weighs less than half of what he does.
Such relationships could become more common because the stigma about meeting others online is fading. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 74% of Internet users who are single and looking for a partner have used the Internet to further their romantic interests, and that the majority of adult Internet users don’t think that people who are involved in online dating are “desperate.”
The stigma is subsiding more slowly in countries where the Internet isn’t as widely available. Egyptian Salwa Al-Saban and American Mark Passerby, for instance, didn’t initially tell her parents that they met online.
“In my country, it is shameful to marry someone over the Internet. They think, ‘Oh this poor girl, she can’t meet anyone in reality so she has to go online,’ ” Salwa said.
But when her family met Mark, they liked him immediately, she said, and invited him to stay at their home instead of a hostel in Cairo. Since then, Salwa has converted her family and friends to Skype, and uses it to communicate with them from Michigan.
But even Salwa admits that there are some parts of her relationship that just wouldn’t work over the Internet. Soon after she moved to Michigan, she found out that she was pregnant: a happy turn of events that, she said, would have been pretty hard to accomplish over Skype.