Sex sells – now global online dating sensation targets Britain

Instant hook-up site Badoo is sweeping the nation. But Rhodri Marsden is unimpressed

Birds don't do it. Bees don't do it. Educated fleas aren't that keen, and so far the British haven't shown much interest either. But Badoo, the social network that replaces the supposed romance of online dating with instant hook-ups based on physical attraction, is now gaining some ground in the UK.

Although the service is run from London, its current membership of 113 million consists predominantly of users in Brazil, Spain, France and Italy. But word is spreading; 300,000 people join daily and, unusually for this type of venture, they bring with them a solid revenue stream. Users happily part with cash to promote themselves on the site and hopefully collect a stack of flirtatious messages; not the most virtuous business model – indeed, some deride it for pandering to our basest of instincts – but it's one that works.

Well, it works for some. I'm probably not Badoo's target market, but I felt a certain weariness as I signed up and realised that you can't even attempt to impress potential beaus with well-crafted prose; your appearance is your sole calling card. My completed profile contained a photo of my balding head, a map of where I live and two sentences about me: "Crusading, fearless urban warrior with a tendency to be wracked with self-doubt and anxiety. Enjoy going out, staying in, and using my pancreas to produce insulin." Surely one of the "541,134 people in and around Mitcham who want to meet up right now" would be interested?

The site was founded in 2006 by the enigmatic and now very rich Russian businessman, Andrey Andreev. Back then, it was just another social network; competition in the sector was intense, and the success of what Badoo's director of marketing, Lloyd Price, calls "the 800lb gorilla of Facebook" prompted Andreev to focus specifically on flirtation. Another of his online start-ups, the dating site Mamba, had demonstrated to him how willing the public are to pay for self-promotion, and the Badoo business model was born. "We're trying to replicate a nightclub experience," says Price. "You get introduced to someone, you chat, you might flirt, and yes, some people end up going home together."

As a site, it's refreshingly transparent about the mechanics of attraction, but after a few hours I'd dropped so far down the search results that no one would be able to find me, let alone fancy me. I could have spent £7.49 on 500 Badoo credits, 100 of which would have propelled me up the listings, instead I bought the smartphone app which granted me one week of "superpowers". These don't extend to making nice girls like you, but they do allow you to find out whether they've bothered to read your messages. They didn't.

The killer feature driving Badoo's success, however, is location. "Badoo isn't based on interests," says Price. "Dating sites have those 19-page profiles where you tell everyone that you're vegetarian or like watching Mad Men, but Badoo's just about asking who's around – who is physically within a 1km or 5km radius. In Britain we're suspicious of the idea of strangers wanting to meet us, but the site isn't about casual sex. It's a meeting network."

While it isn't as overtly sexual as the infamous phone app for gay men, Grindr – which can identify smartphone-wielding gay men nearby – Price's claim is a little disingenuous. Badoo is clearly geared towards sex; the default profile strapline on its iPhone app doesn't read "wants to meet..." but rather "wants to talk about sex with..."

Roya Dabir-Alai, founder of dating website, Sitting in a Tree, notes a trend. "There's a similar site called Flirtomatic," she says. "They're both engineered to make you think in a temporary way, to make you wonder who might have joined the site in the past hour. The old-fashioned granny in me thinks it's horrendous – but maybe I'm just out of touch."

Just as I was giving up my phone buzzed. "Hello," the message read. "How are you doing my dear?" I ignored the syntax and looked at the profile; a suspiciously beautiful twenty-something Irish girl. "I have never lied," it continued, "and I am not going to do so in the future." Uh-huh. "What is your name," she typed, showing a degree of persistence – and stupidity, as my name was next to the chat window. "Steve," I replied, mysteriously. "Nice to meet you," she continued. "I am living in West Africa, Ghana." At which point alarm bells started sounding loudly, and I logged out.