Americans who are looking for love are increasingly searching the computer Internet to find it. A service that tracks such things estimates that almost 30 million Americans each month log into an array of matchmaking services on the Net.
That's how dating used to go in America: You see someone by chance, or you're "fixed up" on a date, as the saying goes, and find the other person attractive. "Online dating has in many ways reversed the getting to know you process, and I call that 'falling in love from the inside out'" said Trish McDermott.
Trish McDermott has the charming title "vice president of romance" at Match.com, the Internet's largest matchmaking service. Every day, more than five million people check out personal profiles that others, also looking to meet someone, have filled out on Match.com. "Traditionally when we would meet someone, it would be height or hair color or a dazzling smile that first attracted us to someone," she said. "And then we would spend the next five minutes - or, in theory, five years - getting to know what's on the inside: Are we compatible? Do we communicate well? Do we share life goals? When you date online, you go for the inside stuff first, so you fill out a profile, and you say, 'Hey, this is who I am. This is what I'm all about, and this is what I'm looking for. And you connect with people based on those attributes and interests. And then you exchange e-mail and really delve into the who you are part of chemistry. In fact, many of our members talk about having 'online chemistry' before they physically meet someone and see that dazzling smile or stunning hair."
Old and young, heterosexual and gay and bisexual, well-educated and uneducated people of all races and creeds register at this supermarket of online dating services. There are also many smaller, or "niche" dating sites, catering to a particular religion, sexual preference, or other common interest.
Trish McDermott says the idea of going online to meet strangers took some getting used to, back when Match.com started in 1995. "Some of our very first successful - couples - people that actually met on the site, fell in love, and got married, would tell us that they would lie to their friends and family members about how they met," said Trish McDermott. "They were afraid that they would be stigmatized or their relationship would seem less legitimate somehow for having used this technology to hook up. The stigma was associated with uncertainty about the type of person who would use an online dating service, almost as in, 'Who would resort to using technology to meeting this very personal, meaningful [need], probably the most important need that you have in your life?'"
Last year Sarah Hill, a 24-year-old teaching assistant at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of the people who wondered. "Do only losers look for love on the Internet?"
She was studying human mating behavior for a psychology course and checking out Match.com to see what men and women said they wanted out of a relationship. "Just for sort of a laugh, I decided to just put something up [on the website] and see what happened," she said.
The most successful online postings include a photograph, but even though Sarah Hill is, by all accounts, a stunningly attractive young woman, she was reluctant to include her picture. She blames that "computer nerd" stigma. "I was, like, 'I do not want any of my friends to see that, and I do not want any of my students to see that,'" said Sarah Hill.
In the cyber world of dating, prospective matches e-mail each other through a system that protects their identities. Sarah Hill got several messages from men. But she says each of them seemed to lack an adventuresome spirit she was looking for. And then . . ."Voila! I heard from Greg," she said.
Greg is Greg Eickholt, who was then a 31-year-old graduate student in business school. After years of the "singles scene," dating many women, he had decided it was time to seek a long-term relationship. At a friend's urging, he took a look at Match.com. "They kept on sending me these e-mails," he said. "They called them 'venus e-mails.' And they would have kind of a top 10 list of women who seemed to fit my profile. And one day, Sarah's profile showed up, and it seemed like it was an immediate click. She seemed a little fearless. She said that she was very attractive and very smart, and most men found that to be intimidating. Her words were, 'I'm very hot, and I'm very smart.' That naturally interested me, because I've always been interested in people who are very self-confident."
Greg and Sarah e-mailed each other, talked once on the telephone, and established a comfort level. Then came the first date - dinner at a nice restaurant. Greg arrived to pick up Sarah. "When she opened the door, she just - she took my breath away," said Greg Eickholt.
Sarah was also impressed - sort of. "I opened the door, and he kind of froze a little bit," she said. "And then he started talking really fast. So I was a little bit trepiditious [a little concerned] because I'd never done anything like this before. I had never imagined meeting somebody this way. So I kept thinking that there was probably something wrong with him. But as our first date progressed, I really started to like him."
"Like" turned to love. Sarah and Greg have a wedding date in August.
Greg says that because of Sarah's beauty and self-confidence, he would never have had the courage to approach her in person. The computer allowed him to tell her about himself and discover the strengths, ambitions - and quirks - they had in common.
Another couple who met on Match.com 31-year-old Ohioans named Doug and Tonya. Doug is a personnel manager for a chain of auto parts stores. Tonya is a homemaker. Both were divorced - with five young girls between them - when they found each other online.
In his profile, Doug described himself as an outgoing person with a big heart, seeking what he called a "fierce relationship." "The whole Internet thing's a little bit scary," he said. "You don't know what you're getting into. You don't really know the person that you're talking to that well. You always have your guard up. But for whatever reason, I never really had my guard up with Tonya. I was able to talk openly about my life, and she was able to talk openly about her life. And I think that that helped us to connect pretty quick. It's a new way of experiencing relationships. As long as you're open and willing to try to a non-traditional way, I think it's a very positive way of doing things."
After her own divorce, Tonya says, she decided she had had enough of loneliness and the unhappy "bar scene" dating ritual that some people call the "meat market." She was willing to give online dating a try. "Fortunately, I'm one of the lucky ones, and I got a very good man," said Tonya.
Tonya and Doug and Tonya's girls now live together in Delaware, Ohio, and there is talk in the household of wedding bells.
Internet dating has its drawbacks. The logistics of actually meeting can be difficult if two people make a cyber-connection from hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. And Match.com's vice president of romance, Trish McDermott, admits that as in any situation in which one is trying to make a good first impression, the profiles posted on the Net are sometimes embellished. Not everyone is as physically fit, intellectually stimulating - or as single - as he or she claims to be. "In the off-line world, right this very moment, there are men and women slipping their wedding rings into their pockets and, I think very sadly, pretending that they're single," she said. "And I don't think entirely you can prevent that at nightclubs, at bus stops, or on the Internet." But Trish McDermott says, as much as we might like to think that Prince Charming or a beauty queen will magically appear in our lives, love seldom hunts us down. We have to search it out. What better tool than the Internet to go looking for love?