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‘Dot-com’ dating

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If you're single and lonely, consider the plight of Angelo DiMeglio. A contractor who built his own house on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., he has had hundreds of people view an Internet dating ad he posted, but in more than a year of searching, there has not been even one nibble.

On the other hand, the story of Marco Sorani, a Silicon Valley worker who was paralyzed in a 1994 swimming accident, offers a more hopeful perspective. When Siobhan Fleming saw Mr. Sorani's ad on Match.com, the two got together, dated and were married.

These two extremes -- and other cases in between -- are the new face of online dating, once almost invisible, but now becoming the way more and more Americans, Chinese and people in Muslim countries are finding relationships and spouses.

While the Internet may not have replaced fully the corner pub "where everybody knows your name," online dating services such as Match.com, which labels its offices "the love bunker," are gaining a lot of attention and business.

Last month, Northern Virginia-based America Online said it would offer an online-dating feature for its instant-messaging customers, which will be free through Valentine's Day.

"Online personals powered by instant messaging are a natural next step in the evolution of online-dating services," said Steven McArthur, executive vice president of AOL Messaging, in a statement. "Everyone is looking for a way to make meeting people and dating less stressful. By their very nature, instant-messaging conversations are more casual, spontaneous and personal."

In the next two years, author Andrea Orr predicts, online dating "will have grown more and become even more mainstream."

Ms. Orr's new book, "Meeting, Mating ( ... and Cheating): Sex, Love and the New World of Online Dating," is the result of her online and real-world explorations.

A correspondent for Reuters new agency who reported on numerous "dot-com" flops from her Silicon Valley perch, Ms. Orr latched on to the online-dating industry as one of the few success stories of the Internet age: "There's not a lot of inventory" involved in setting up a dating service, she said in a recent interview, "it's just a large database."

Those databases contain the hopes and fears -- and vital statistics -- of millions looking for Mr. (or Miss) Right. Many question how truthful these online self-descriptions are, a point made by cartoonist Peter Steiner of The Washington Times, who once captioned a sketch of a dog using a keyboard and mouse, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

Ms. Orr said she was surprised at the candor of most Internet-dating hopefuls: "The majority of people are honest, and are doing this sincerely," she said.

The exaggerations usually are slight, such as shaving a few pounds off the weight statistic, as opposed to transmogrifying a community college degree into an Ivy League diploma. She concedes that there are millions of people online, and some will be massively deceptive.

She says deceptiveness tends to surface most among the "NSHMs," people who are "not-so-happily-married" and troll the dating services for potential playmates. Match.com and Yahoo's personal-ads service won't allow people who say they are married to sign up, but other online-dating services will. But there's nothing to stop a married person from feigning single status, as one woman discovered when her married co-worker's "profile" surfaced on an online-dating site.

For would-be adulterers, what once may have depended on serendipity now may be a few mouse clicks away.

Ms. Orr said she often has heard that 30 percent of the people on dating services are married, "but there's no way to verify this."

Perhaps her greatest surprise, Ms. Orr said, is that online dating has moved from the "early adopters" of Silicon Valley and has "really taken off in all segments of society."

Those seeking to date others with specific religious affiliations -- Jewish, Catholic, Mormon or Muslim -- also are finding their matches online, while others are relying on the Web for even more precise dating matches.

"Finding the right person has become almost impossibly hard," declares Neil Clark Warren, a University of Chicago-trained clinical psychologist who founded EHarmony.com in Pasadena, Calif.

"Most people cannot do it by themselves without more than a 35 [percent] or 40 percent likelihood of succeeding," he said, noting that 20 percent of first marriages in the United States fail in the first five years.

In 3 years, Mr. Warren's company has racked up 2.5 million paying customers who answer -- and pass -- a 435-question profile. About 20 percent of applicants are rejected. "We are conservative and into it for one thing: find the right person for them to marry," he said.

Such exactitude comes in part, Mr. Warren asserts, because finding a true match in a built-to-order world can be demanding.

"The reason it's so hard is because people have become so individuated," he said in a telephone interview. "The effect of the media is just overwhelming in terms of producing people who have attitudes, goals and values and aspirations and opinions on so many things. You need to find them individuated like you are."

The EHarmony folks have developed a list of 29 "critical variables" on which you can be matched -- the list omits "chemistry," Mr. Warren says -- and "we match everybody with everybody every single day," he adds.

Mr. Warren, whose parents were married in 1915 at the State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, and stayed together for more than 70 years, said using an Internet service can revive some of the comfort level felt long ago by those whose parents played matchmaker.

He said the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s cut loose some of the social moorings, and that Internet dating is a way to "give some of that power back to trustworthy virtual matchmakers," as he describes them.

"I do believe that there never has been such a good time for singles because the Internet is such a phenomenal distribution system that makes it possible to do something we never could do before," he said.

 

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