As American society continues to strive for greater efficiency in all things, can even romance become streamlined? Busy young Americans increasingly rely on the Internet as matchmaker.
Increasingly, in the United States and around the world, the Internet and so-called "speed dating" are considered legitimate and efficient ways to find a mate, or at least a date.
On a Wednesday night at home in her one-bedroom apartment in Washington, Ashley Smith, 25, surfs the Internet, looking for "Mr. Right".
With her outgoing personality and southern charm, Ashley seems like the type of girl who would have no problem finding a date. But she says looking for a date online allows her to select the type of person she wants to go out with.
"I can say that I want someone who is 6' 2" (one-meter-88), makes between $75,000 and $100,000 a year, is a Protestant Christian, who attends church either on the holidays or regularly or once a week, who does not smoke, who drinks one or two drinks socially, who is looking for someone with short hair who is fun and outgoing," Ashley said. "I mean, I can specify exactly what I want. It's dial-a-date!"
Internet market research firm ComScore Media Metrix says each month, roughly 23 million people in the U.S. use the Internet to find a date. Web sites such as Yahoo!-Personals and Match.com are leading the pack. Match.com has 15 million members in 240 countries and local country sites in 18 different languages.
According to Match's Web site, more than 60,000 new people register each day - people such as Ashley.
As she scoured her closet for the right outfit to wear on her date, Ashley explained why she turned to Internet dating. "When I moved to Washington, I didn't know anybody," she said. "So, it just seemed like online dating might be one way to get out there and meet people."
As she got ready to meet a Match.com date in Washington's trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood, Ashley explained that even though has not yet found the person she would consider the perfect boyfriend, her dates have been successful, and more important - fun. "I joke that I'm a [professional dater]. Number of dates? Forget it. I couldn't count," she exclaimed.
While some of Ashley's friends are skeptical of her meeting men on the Internet, she says she prefers it to traditional dating.
"At bars, you look at someone, you smile, you wink, but not much ever really seems to come of it," she noted. "With Internet dating, you kind of know that someone is interested in dating, and you are interested in dating, so it kind of gets that first step out of the way."
Until the second step - when they meet in person. "I'm meeting this guy at a bar, and it's the first date, and I guess we are going to have some drinks," she said.
While Internet dating has been around as long as the Web itself, only recently have niche sites started popping up to accommodate various interests and fads.
For instance, the site DateMyPet.com connects fellow pet lovers. Then there's DharmaDate for Buddhists and GrapeDate.com for wine lovers.
For those who prefer meeting for the first time in person, there is a Web site called HurryDate to facilitate that. People register online and pay $35 for an evening of 10 four-minute dates. When the event's organizer blows a whistle, each participant moves on to the next date for a quick, get-to-know-you conversation.
After that, they have the opportunity to connect online with Hurry Daters they liked. Chris Cole, 30, who works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, attended an evening of Hurry Dating.
"I've met several people I want to put on my list [of people to contact]. There are a lot of very interesting, very smart, intelligent women here," he said. "I don't have a lot of time to go to bars, and this was a chance to meet a number of people of varying backgrounds in a short amount of time, who are also interested in meeting other people."
Traditionalists criticize these dating practices as being too hasty or too shallow. Others say they are too revealing, giving personal details about people to others they have not even met.
As a result, dating sites have begun to police themselves for sexual predators, and independent watchdog agencies like SafeDate and HonestyOnline have sprung up to run background checks on individuals.
But users say Internet dating is just another way to meet people.
"I'm not dating my computer," explained Ashley. "I'm meeting somebody that way, and then you meet in the real world, because that's where we have real relationships."