They Met on the Net

It's better by far than a bar, cheaper than a cruise, less strenuous and humiliating than a mixer. Singles are turning to the hottest matchmaker in town: the Web.

March 03, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Richard264 was at the bar, nursing a cranberry juice when in walked Janel803.

Janel803 recognized Richard264 from a photo she'd seen on the Internet. They talked. They ate crab cakes. Afterwards, she made sure he left first -- a single woman can't be too careful. Revealing last names was something they'd work up to on another date.

From such awkward roots, great relationships sometimes blossom. Richard and Janel Radford (their real-life names) are happily married now, living in a 4-bedroom house in Ellicott City with a first child due in July. And they are living proof that Internet romances have begun to redefine the very basics of courtship.

"I don't think of this as an online romance so much as a successful online introduction," says Richard, 33, a 6-foot 6-inch engineer and part-time musician. "The computer just happened to be the friend who introduced us."

There was a time when the notion of meeting your mate by computer was quite novel. So too were the personal ads, the singles bars, video dating, and so many other cutting-edge social inventions of the 20th century.

But in recent years, online romance has become far more mainstream, more commonplace than could have been envisioned as recently as a half-decade ago. One online dating service, Match.com, boasts 2.5 million members and its member profiles -- brief autobiographies -- are viewed an average of 5.5 million times per day.

Some hail this development as the best thing to happen to singles since the invention of happy hour. They talk of the "inside-out" courtship where people can fall in love without regard to looks, social standing, or even geography. Online romantics share their feelings first, and find out what their date looks like later.

"We think we're revolutionizing the way people fall in love," says Trish McDermott, co- founder of the Texas-based Match.com. "It used to be dating was about judging people from the outside in. There had to be something external to attract you. In online dating you look for something funny or something that touches your heart."

Neither Match.com nor its industry peers have documented exactly how well this kind of matchmaking works, however. The cyber-services, which typically charge about $25 per month to subscribers, merely provide a forum for people to meet online, and anonymously at that. They don't track outcomes. Few academic institutions have chosen to tackle the subject either -- research in online courtship is scant at best.

A decade ago, such a concept seemed like something out of Brave New World. Early reports of web-connected crime spurred forbidding headlines in the media. In 1996, 35-year-old Sharon Lopatka of Hampstead was murdered by a North Carolina man she met over the Internet. The lurid details made news across the country and raised questions about whether this new form of electronic communication threatened women.

"Cyberspace can be a pretty dark place after all," read a headline in the Dallas Morning News that was typical of the time.

But the Lopatka murder didn't presage a trend of cyber-dates as criminal prey. Rather, it served more as a reminder to potential victims everywhere that it's seldom wise to trust strangers -- even those who have shared their deepest secrets. Today, online dating services routinely warn their clients never to share personal information, at least not until you've checked each other out thoroughly in real life.

While no police agency tracks exactly how much crime is perpetrated as a result of social contact between adults on the Web, the assumption is that it is not a major problem for law enforcement.

"We do see things on occasion, but it's hard to say in the scheme of things how really significant it is," says Bill Carter, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington.

Instead, what has developed is simply a new method of courtship -- one that has clear advantages but some disadvantages as well. Online dating has become so mainstream that some people buy computers expressly for that purpose. Bookstores routinely carry guides on how best to enter into an online romance.

"My impression is that people who are looking for someone are finding the Internet to be a useful tool," says Esther Gwinnell, a Portland, Oregon psychiatrist and author of Online Seductions: Falling in Love with Strangers on the Internet (Kondansha, 1998). "It's becoming more acceptable. The less weird you feel about doing it, the more common it's going to be."

Finding that love

Experts say an online romance usually begins one of two ways. First is through a matchmaking service where, for a monthly fee, you can exchange anonymous e-mails with potential suitors whom you find out about by perusing their profiles. Perhaps even more common are the more casual encounters (chat rooms, bulletin boards, or other group discussions) where one user develops an interest in another and the relationship takes off from there.

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