Surfing For Love Tired of the bar scene and pressed for time, singles mingle on the Web

August 17, 1998|By JUDITH FORMAN | JUDITH FORMAN,SUN STAFF

Marshella and Robert Merritt spend their evenings in quiet marital bliss, back-to-back at his-and-her desks in the living room, pointing, clicking and typing away at his-and-her computers.

It was just the kind of romance Marshella envisioned in June 1992, when she dialed into the computer bulletin board system operated by the the man she would marry.

"I had just broken up with my ex-boyfriend and I thought about meeting people online," said Marshella, 29, who runs a day-care center in their Rosedale home. "I wanted to meet a system operator because he would seem like my type of person - a young male who was knowledgeable and interested in computers and who was a homebody."

After a bunch of busy signals elsewhere, she got an answer from "Moon Base Tycho," Robert's sci-fi- oriented bulletin board. They introduced themselves, met in person, chatted online night after night, got serious and tied the knot on June 27, 1993.

"If I had just met [Robert] out someplace, I probably wouldn't have been as interested in him," Marshella said. "The Internet and the online world are so cool because you get a feel for what people are like. You're not swayed by looks. In a long-term relationship, it's the personality and interests that keep you together."

Robert, 28, an engineering technician, put it this way: "We're made for each other."

It's a lot easier for singles to meet online today than it was when Marshella first dialed around. Internet matchmaking has become booming business that draws millions of customers. But for every happily-ever-after tale like the Merritts', there are stories of disappointment, disillusionment and even danger.

Many singles looking for relationships stop first at an online dating service such Match.com, which has attracted more than 750,000 romance seekers since it was established in 1995.

The San Francisco-based company, owned by giant Cendant Corp., boasts that its online matchups have resulted in more than 300 marriages, 15 babies and thousands of engagements, long-distance relationships and friendships.

After assuming a handle that maintains anonymity, new members fill out a questionnaire about themselves and what they look for in a partner - criteria such as age, height, location, drinking and smoking preferences and religion. They can then compose a profile describing in words who they are, and can attach a digital photograph. For about $10 a month, the company's computer delivers a list of compatible members, or users can browse the database before sending anonymous messages to prospective dates through Match.com's internal system.

Trish McDermott, the company's online dating authority, said 20,000 new members register weekly - mostly 25-to 49-year-old professionals who earn $50,000 or more annually. Match.com's clientele is about 45 percent female and 55 percent male, roughly the same as Web users as a whole. The Web site also offers interactive dating advice columns and off-line singles events.

"We knew we needed to build a site where women would feel comfortable and secure," McDermott said. "Then men would come. It's clean and well-lit wwith a strong community of singles."

The numbers are almost as large at oneandonly.com, a 2-year-old dating service that claims 510,000 registered users.

"The biggest appeal is the convenience factor," said spokeswoman Lisa Kohring. "People are not going to have to go out to a bar and get made up. They can sit down in front of the computer in their pajamas and correspond with someone."

That's what attracted Ryan McClain, 25, a network analyst from Colesville who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1997. "Honestly, I wouldn't want a girl I picked up at a bar," he said. "It's so much easier to meet someone in this atmosphere rather than at a bar or a meat market."

Now that he's no longer in a campus environment, McClain says, it's difficult to meet women. When his roommate and a co-worker found dates through Match.com, he decided to give it a try.

He responded to the ads of two women and has been exchanging e-mails with both. One has the same academic major as McClain and has read some of the same novels, so they've been comparing notes. They've yet to talk on the phone or meet in person.

McClain and his friends are part of the demographic bulge driving the online dating boom. A high divorce rate and longer life spans have created the largest population of single people in history, said Dana Peach, a former marriage and family therapist from Tacoma, Wash., who is affiliated with oneandonly.com. At the same time, the Internet has given them a new forum.

"It's a fabulous thing," Peach said. "More than half of the people online are single. People don't just encounter the people [they usually encounter] in their daily lives - they have access to expanded statistics."

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