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Fictional dating fad comes true for ‘toothers’

It started as a prank, but spoof stories about people using their mobile phones to hook up with strangers have come true.
Man keys in message onto mobile phone in Milan bar
A man keys in a message onto a mobile phone in a Milan bar.Daniele La Monaca / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

It started as a prank that tricked the world's media but spoof stories about people using their mobile phones to hook up with strangers have come true.

A British Internet journalist set up a Web site two years ago filled with fictional accounts from friends who claimed to have used Bluetooth technology to make contact for a chat, romance or even sex — a practice the site dubbed "toothing".

News organizations across the world, including Reuters, the Guardian and the BBC, fell for the story and reported that "toothing" had taken off among commuters.

A year later the journalist behind the site published an online confession claiming it was an elaborate hoax to prove he could create a new sexual buzzword.

Gabriele Petino, 32, a disc jockey from Milan, told Reuters that when the story first emerged in 2004 he assumed it was false but gave it a try.

"I tried some tests on the underground and pubs and found lots of cellphones were turned on and used for 'toothing', which was strange because I thought it was a joke too," said Petino, whose Web site now includes a page for toothers.

To play you need you need to activate the bluetooth facility available on your mobile phone, which will then show a list of people within a few meters (yards) who are also active. Then write a message and press send.

Young men in Dubai have been using the technology to contact women in public places, according to the BBC's Web site.

"In our country it's very rude to go up and talk to them," the BBC quoted Ahmed Bin Desmal as saying. "I sent some notes, they liked them — they took my number and they called me."

'Toothing' for real
At L'Elephant, a bar on Milan's popular Via Melzo, toothers gather once a week with manager Massimo Maruccia on hand to explain the technology to beginners.

Taking out a phone belonging to one of his waitresses — "Pantera", or panther, to her fellow "toothers" — he tracks down two other toothers in the room — "Cinghiale", or boar, and the less imaginatively named "Nokia 7700 Alberto".

A third, "Diabolik" sends "Pantera" a message. The first note, Maruccia says, is usually just an invitation to chat.

"It's all good fun," Maruccia said. "From behind the bar, we have a good laugh too, especially when you watch people scanning the room discreetly for the sender behind their messages."

"It's cooled off from the early days, when we'd easily have 30, 40 people in the room sending messages ... What started as a joke became a fully fledged trend."

Fabio Moretti — an architect who runs what he says is Italy's top "toothing" site,, with a 2,500-strong community — says the technology offers people a new way to meet and advertisers a way to reach target groups.

"It's about having fun, another way to meet, to have a chat in a nightclub," he told Reuters. "And then there is the business side, which should not be underestimated."