Is this the future of love?

LAURA WALTERS
Last updated 05:00 04/05/2014
Barney Atkinson-Saul
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

TRAVELLING LIGHT: Wellingtonian Barney Atkinson-Saul says he won’t let his ‘‘interesting experience’’ with a naked Couchsurfing host stop him using social media to help find places to stay around the world.

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An adventurous Kiwi traveller found himself in an awkward situation after the offer of a free bed in London organised through a social media site turned into an offer to share a bed.

Wellingtonian Barney Atkinson-Saul said his Couchsurfing host, who he connected with online, walked around the house naked three hours after Atkinson-Saul arrived. "I declined his invitation to sleep in his double bed, and slept on my tiny two-seater couch instead."

Atkinson-Saul described it as an "interesting experience" but it had not put him off meeting up with strangers through social media.

His positive experiences with Couchsurfing included partying with top scientists and an exclusive tour of Rome's underground social attractions.

Of course, there were "very real risks" associated with meeting strangers through social media, he said, but "it comes down to how much faith you have in humanity and in your own judgment".

Atkinson-Saul said he reduced the risk by checking references, talking to would-be hosts first and meeting in a public place. The possible rewards were love, sex, friendship, free accommodation and learning about a culture from the eyes of a local.

Social media hook-up apps such as Couchsurfing, Tinder, Grindr and LoveRoom, mean meeting up with like-minded individuals is only a touch-screen away but that simplicity came with risks to users' physical safety and personal privacy.

The media is full of examples of when social media goes wrong. In April, an 18-year-old man travelled hundreds of kilometres between Bay of Plenty and Wairarapa to pick up a 12-year-old girl he met in an internet chatroom.

He is now facing sexual grooming charges after he was spotted driving off with her.

In 2009, a 36-year-old German tourist travelled to New Zealand after striking up a relationship on MySpace with a Dunedin man who was not who he claimed to be. The tourist admitted she may have been naïve after the internet romance ended in an armed police callout.

Otago University digital media lecturer Dr Mark McGuire said the risks of using social media dating apps included identity theft, online fraud and the obvious physical risks such as abduction or sexual abuse.

McGuire said the danger was greater if a user was approached rather than making the first move. "Predators don't lie in wait, they target individuals and initiate a connection."

Identity theft, when someone took control of another person's account, was a real problem. "The person behind the profile may be real, but the messages may be coming from the unseen ventriloquist."

And it was impossible to confirm someone was who they said they were before meeting in person, McGuire said. The risks were greater when participants lived in different cities or countries and it was harder to verify contact details, he added.

McGuire said social media dating and meet-up apps were commercial services with a business model to make money.

Tinder used Facebook and collected personal information from the user's mobile device, such as location, product and personable preferences and the URL of the last site visited, he said.

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Tinder also captured the image and profile of Facebook friends, which it then shared with other Tinder users, McGuire said. "This exposes your friends to others without their consent or knowledge."

Grindr, a similar app for gay men, sells advertisers access to gay, tech-savvy, affluent men. The men were grouped according to self-perception and location and targeted with adverts.

"The opportunity to connect with others is the lure but the members themselves, and their tracked activity, are the valuable commodity that is packaged and sold to other companies."

But a new networking site that allows travellers to stay at an attractive stranger's home will make its money a different way - through a production deal for a reality television show.

US-based LoveRoom founder Josh Bocanegra said he started LoveRoom as a "thought experiment". But even before its official launch, the site received negative publicity with international media labelling it disingenuous, a tag that's continued to dog LoveRoom since it went live.

Bocanegra said he thought online dating could be more effective if people first met up in one of their homes. "So I thought to myself, you know, I think a room tells you more about that person than any online dating profile can."

To help offset the obvious risks of meeting up with a stranger in their home, LoveRoom gave users the option to leave comments or reviews.

Despite the steps taken to help keep users safe there were always risks and stigmas associated with hook-up services, Bocanegra said. "Sure, a few creeps may come in, but I think as a community, we'll track them down."

At the other end of the spectrum Cloak helps users avoid specific people.

The anti-social app works by using information from other social media sites Instagram and Foursquare to discover the location of the people the user is trying to avoid - no doubt a useful app when LoveRoom and Couchsurfing adventures end badly.

HOW TO HOOK-UP ONLINE

Couchsurfing

A global service that connects travellers looking for a free place to stay or looking to host a traveller. It encourages users to review their host or guest and has an address verification system. Couchsurfing claims to have 7 million users in 100,000 cities.

Tinder

A matchmaking app that connects to your Facebook profile and uses your GPS location to find potential matches near you. If two people like each other a mutual match occurs and Tinder launches a chat thread between the two users. Tinder claims to generate more than 10 million matches a day.

Grindr

A matchmaking app similar to Tinder but for gay men. It was founded in 2009 and claims to have more than 5 million active users.

LoveRoom A service similar to Couchsurfing but users connect with people they are attracted to and stay at their house for free. LoveRoom launched in November and claims to have more than 10,000 members in 90 countries, including about 800 Kiwis.

Cloak

A location-based app that helps users avoid other people. It works by linking with your Instagram and Foursquare accounts to uncover the locations of people you want to avoid and revealing where they are on a map. According to the New York Times, Cloak was downloaded from iTunes nearly 300, 000 times in its first three weeks.

- Sunday Star Times

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