Perhaps the biggest change that online matrimonial services have introduced to arranged marriage is opportunity for interaction. In the traditional off-line mode, once a potential match was identi­fied, the next step would be for the prospective groom’s family (with or without the groom) to visit the prospective brides family at home. In more traditional families this may even be pre­ceded by several visits by other relatives and/or meetings of both families at another relative’s home. Setting up the visit was often a complex negotiation. The prospective partners are usually allowed to spend a brief amount of time alone to talk to each other. Other than that, it was rare for them to get an opportunity to get to know their future partner in marriage better. The bride and groom would also not have much say in any of the decisions about the wedding negotiations and arrangements.

With online services, many ofthese restrictions are being lifted. Prospective partners are often allowed to interview each other online without parental supervision. This represents an interesting shift in the role of the family in determining the compatibility of both partners. By allowing such communication, the responsibility of assessing compatibility and selection are gradually moving away from the family elders to the prospective can­didates. Since the joint family structure is slowly disappearing, the parents often seem content to apply the broad criteria of religion, caste, age, economic background, and so forth, on the choice of a partner and leave the rest (personality, likes, dislikes, etc.) to their children. With the help of online services, a period of online courtship has emerged. Potential partners are allowed to get to know each other by exchanging e-mails, talking to each other over the phone or chatting online. In almost all instances, this was long-distance without any face-to-face meetings. Although most families still do not allow the prospective partners to meet alone or go out on a date, they did not seem to have a problem with electronic interaction. This step of getting to know a potential partner better seems to have emerged with modern communica­tion technologies and precedes any formal meeting between the two families.

we chatted for 3 months23 she sent me an e-mail. and the next day everything was finalized.24

We dated ….(electronically).. for six months. 25

We chatted and spoke on the phone for hours and found that we are a perfect match for each other. 26

We chatted on (name of Web site) and thereafter we decided we r going to marry even before our families could meet.27

Earlier her family was not at all interested in me but slowly with our persistence they were forced to get us married.2S

The norms of matchmaking in India have traditionally been different. After a meeting of the families, the bride’s family would patiently wait for a response from the groom’s family. If the days stretched into weeks and there was no response from the family, it indicated that they are not interested in pursuing the match further. The implicit rejection when a marriage proposal is turned down could also carry a social stigma. There are no such unspoken rules on online inter­action. Chatting and dating can go on for a long time before there is any discussion of marriage. Online interaction allows users to disengage easily without any stigma associated with such rej ection. This can at times create problems and emotional issues for some users who are not used to having such extended relationships.

we chattedfor many months but he never wanted to take it forward.29

The traditional way of finding marriage part­ners through family and friends provides a certain amount of accountability; there is tacit trust which when violated can have social implications. With the search for partners going online, the process is taken out of a social context. While the search can cut across traditional social networks to find potential partners they are otherwise unlikely to reach, it makes judging the credibility of the information online even harder. Many families indicated that conducting a background check was very difficult with online matrimonial services. In some cases, the whole thing seemed to fall apart, after the families met as they did not approve of each other, or the family was different from what they had expected based on the descriptions provided online.

the girl was educated and pretty but she turned out to be crazy..30

the family did not seem as reputable as they claimed to be..

In many instances, it was still possible to get some background checks done through family and friends. While the Web sites themselves did not provide any easy methods to facilitate a back­ground check, some familie s went out oftheir way to do a background check by trying to find mutual contacts in the community who could help them with more information about the family. Also used in lieu of the background check was apply­ing the traditional filters of religion, language, community, caste, and so forth, with the implicit assumption that users similar in background also bore a level of trustworthiness. The inability to validate the information from traditional networks is another reason why families found it useful to allow the potential partners to communicate. Families acquiesced to online and long-distance interaction so that prospective partners could sort out values, norms and beliefs. As long as the potential partner fit the traditional filters, families let the partners do further selection themselves. In my profile, I had mentioned… who happens to be my dad’s uncle and his neighbor in (city name), and a common link between the two families. At that point of time he was in UK and I was in Ban­galore. He called me and we had a conversation… We exchanged all the details about us and both the families through.. uncle32

I received an e-mail stating that she was interested in speaking with me. Soon after…we began to chat on the Internet via Yahoo! Messenger. As soon as we started to communicate… our sessions lasted well into the wee hours of morning.33

Then we started chatting over msn. Which was on for 3 months34

It is evident that online matrimonial services have introduced new elements into the process of arranging marriage that are made possible by technology. The perception of relative anonymity and informal nature of the medium along with the absence of context provided by traditional social networks has allowed potential partners to play a greater role in the process. With the process shielded from the view of the immedi­ate social network of the family and therefore any possibility of social sanction or stigma, new forms of interactions and steps in the process are emerging. Families do not have to engage in elaborate orchestration ofthe interaction between families prior to settling on a choice for partner. The informal nature of interaction and absence of face-to-face communication make it easier to engage and disengage and as an interesting consequence obviate the need for signaling and the ambiguity associated with signaling (are they interested or not?).