This week, I found out what it felt like to be a beautiful 21-year-old brunette.
Posing as Charlie from London’s fashionable Ladbroke Grove, I posted a photograph of a model on a social networking site called Badoo, and described myself as a fun-loving, easy-going, fit, athletic girl who worked in sales and was in an ‘open relationship’. I loved parties, sport, dancing and cinema, I said.
The site invited me to describe my drinking habits, and I chose the option that read ‘Yes please!’.
Fantasy: 'Charlie', the model whose picture was posted on Badoo
It’s free to join, but I paid £7.49 to ensure my photograph was prominently displayed and, within seconds, watched as man after man clicked on my profile.
Soon, I was inundated with messages. Having posted Charlie’s profile and photograph at about 6pm on Wednesday, by 5am the next morning I had received a staggering 1,500 messages. Hundreds of men, sitting hunched at their computers at all hours of the day and night, scouring the internet for women they can sleep with or, in many cases, just talk to.
As I write, 50 new men have viewed my profile in the past half-hour. But they have been gulled by a chimera, because I am in fact a middle-aged mother. I created ‘Charlie’ as a means to investigate Badoo, the fastest-growing social network in the world.
Facebook has more than 500 million users, but Badoo is fast catching up, with more than 114 million since its launch in 2006.
Its primary aim seems to be bringing men and women together, often with casual sex in mind. And because an element of the site involves stating your location, it effectively allows its members to seek liaisons with like-minded members of the opposite sex living nearby.
Logging on: Many men were desperately lonely and seemed convinced they would find genuine friendship and even love online
Sure enough, less than a minute after I posted Charlie’s profile, I received a message on the site from a London-based 26-year-old. He bluntly asserted that I looked as if I would be ‘great at oral sex’.
The second, a couple of minutes later, from a 22-year-old from Bristol posing without a shirt on, asked: ‘Fancy a f***, babes?’
Given Charlie’s appearance, I half expected the messages to be crude — and there were plenty of those over the following two days. But what emerged most strongly for me was that among the many men who clearly now use sites like this as little more than a conduit for meaningless sex, there were hundreds who were simply desperately lonely.
So many seemed convinced they would find genuine friendship, even love, among the millions of faces in the Badoo membership lists. Here were men, young, old, professional — or so they said — and otherwise, all seeking to fulfil unresolved longings for companionship, and all seemingly willing to suspend their disbelief that this beautiful young woman they were sending messages to might be real.
No wonder, then, that only last week it emerged that the majority of people living alone between the ages of 45 and 64 are men, largely thanks to a decline in marriage and spiralling family break-ups. How many of these seek solace in the unedifying — and heartbreakingly shallow — world of internet sites like Badoo?
Some of the men who contacted me sensibly questioned whether I was real, wondering why on earth a good-looking girl like Charlie was trying to meet men online, when clearly all she had to do was walk down the street to start heads turning.
I was offered many clichés, such as ‘You’re too beautiful’, ‘You ought to be modelling’ and ‘What brings a girl like you to Badoo?’. Others had clearly made contact with scores of women before, only to find they were troubled, dysfunctional or — like me — faking the way they looked or even who they were. For the internet allows you to be whoever you want to be.
A 48-year-old man from Leeds wrote simply: ‘Please, please, please be normal.’
Only one suspicious 22-year-old asked if it was my real picture. When it comes to a pretty face, men clearly abandon any sane instincts in the blind hope this might be the woman who fulfils their dreams.
The website which has attracted so many desperate people is the brainchild of a Russian businessman. It’s run by a staff of 65 in Soho, with a total of 200 staff worldwide.
Desperate hunt: Hundreds of men had scoured the internet, hoping to find women to sleep with or talk to
Under three photographs of serious-looking, respectable executives on Badoo’s website is a mission statement which claims that its aim was ‘to use the most advanced technologies available to create an elegantly modern, fast and easy way for people to meet new people in their area — and have fun doing it’.
The site has an option to state your location — and next to your photograph is a map on which you can pinpoint where you are. The idea is that you can ‘hook up’ with people within your area, though I received messages from all over Britain, and as far afield as Rome and Belfast.
When you log on to the site, you can see how many people have joined, and the numbers increase on a ticker as you watch. At one point last week, the site claimed to have 114,373,600 members around the world. Five minutes later, it had 114,373,800, which means, if you believe it, that 40 people a minute are joining up.
But isn’t there something deeply troubling about the fact that, instead of socialising with their families or friends, hundreds of thousands of men and women are sitting alone throughout the night engaged in this fantasy world where, I have no doubt, so few people are what they seem? One of the men who contacted me looked handsome in his photograph and claimed to be a wealthy 31-year-old global human resources manager of a well-known multinational.
Perhaps he was — who can tell? He said it was his first day on the site and didn’t know what to make of it yet.
Lonely: People are replacing traditional social interaction - such as the pub - with an online world
Even those who use the site expressed reservations. Rob, 25, described it as having ‘lots of weirdos’, while Sandro, a 25-year-old from West London, asked: ‘What you doing on here anyway? Is this site normal? I don’t get it. Everyone on here just wants to have sex. Trust me, everyone here’s just looking for sex.’
Sadly, that seems to have included him: I logged off once he began asking if we could meet.
Others tried a deliberately soft-soap approach, with one man in his late 20s from London describing how he wanted to eat chocolate with me, walk in Hyde Park and go to the movies. ‘There are so many things we have to do together,’ he wrote.
Then he worried he was not interesting enough for me, although he still offered to text me his number.
If there was one message that summed up the unhappy sub-culture that Badoo revealed, it was from David, a 51-year-old in Reading, who wrote to me: ‘Not sure why I’m here. I think this a nice place to have a chat when you’re a bit down. Life in the UK feels isolated sometimes, and friendship is important.’
Yet it is disconnection — rather than connection — that sites like these serve to highlight. Loneliness is rife in modern Britain, which makes it all the more disturbing that so many people are replacing traditional means of social interaction — the pub, the evening class, even the golf club — with this murky online world of false personas and fake photographs.
Sites like Badoo give married men — and women — an opportunity to be unfaithful, and married and single people alike the chance to indulge fantasies and dream up new identities. More alarming still, the women at least are putting themselves in the sights of lurking online predators.
Technically, you have to be 18 to go on the site, and it does offer a few safety guidelines that advise that you only meet other Badoo members in busy, crowded places, remain sober and not give out too much personal information. But the link to these is in such tiny print at the bottom of the page they’re easy to miss.
And though there is an option to block and report anything alarming you receive, this is hardly going to deter a determined teenager who could easily pose as someone older — then go out and meet someone.
Far from enriching our social lives, these sites are degrading them hugely by dealing in superficial values, make-believe and fantasies. One 23-year-old even asked me to marry him on viewing my profile. Laying the foundations for a relationship on such shifting sands is not a recipe for success. Frankly, I felt like a cow on show in the marketplace.
If proof were needed that the internet is warping our view of marriage, commitment and, dare I say it, love, recently a friend of mine in his 40s, an otherwise sensible, professional man, left his wife and children for a woman he’d met online.
He admitted to me sheepishly he had still not met the mystery woman in the flesh, yet the way she had portrayed herself online had been compelling enough to destroy his marriage. I found his story to be ludicrous, and I dismissed him as being in the throes of a pathetic midlife crisis.
But today, after my time on Badoo, I can see how easily an online fantasy can compel people to lose their grip on reality. The ugly contradiction at the heart of these websites is that lonely people can only become more isolated by trading in mirages, rather than stepping away from their screens and engaging in face-to-face conversation.
And the more marriages break down, and the family bonds that once stitched our society together fall apart, the more men will find themselves alone with their computer in the small hours, hoping against hope that this time ‘Charlie’ might just be for real