Love at First Site
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
May 14, 2001 -- It's a marriage made in cyberspace. She had just returned from working abroad; he was a musician living in Manhattan. In all of New York City, they found each other -- a browser-blessed union made through Match.com.
"I detest the bar scene," says Beth Shair, who tied the knot with Thierry Goyer last year. "When I moved back to New York, I found that most of my friends had scattered. My college boyfriend had married someone he met on the Internet. I thought, 'Why not try it?' It seemed like a good way to meet people."
Shair wrote a brief paragraph describing herself and posted it on Match.com -- purposely minus a photo.
"I didn't want it to be about my looks. I wanted to reach someone on a deeper level," she says.
The next day her email inbox contained 35 replies -- and most of them were indeed on a deeper level.
"I was very pleasantly surprised by the caliber of men who responded -- artistic men, writers, lawyers, consultants, musicians," she says. Ultimately, she checked out 10 of them in person.
"No bad experiences, no lies, no weirdos," she says. "Just no sparks."
Three months later, Goyer's search engine spotted her profile on Match.com. They emailed a bit, met soon after.
"That first date we walked two or three miles," she says. The rest is romance.
Millions of people worldwide are matching and meeting through the comfort of their computers. But what's with these Internet dating sites? How do they operate? Will they bring you long-term happiness or just one-night stands?
Surfing for Love
"Most people say they're looking for a meaningful relationship," says Tom Chapman, founder of SinglesOnline.com. "Others just want to date and have fun. And there's nothing wrong with that. If you meet someone special, that's just icing on the cake."
Chapman met his icing on the cake four years ago -- online, of course -- just before he founded his own dating service. She was a university professor in the Ukraine; he was divorced after a long marriage and not seriously looking. But he immediately was drawn to her photo.
"Photos are really important," says Chapman. "Men are very visual."
Match.com, Matchmaker.com, SinglesOnline.com, and AmericanSingles.com are just a few of the virtual malt shops you'll find online. Others cater to specific religious or ethnic groups; for instance, JDate.com focuses exclusively on the Jewish dating scene, providing "a clean and safe environment to meet others online," reads its splash page. "Contact 1,000 potential soul mates for less than the price of general admission to the movies and a tub of popcorn."
BlackSingles.com offers mixers for members in various cities as well as an online dating service -- and is not just for blacks, founder Michael Brown tells WebMD "Ours is more a networking social club rather than just a dating site, more a community with a dating component."
Sites like WayTooPersonal.com and SaferDating.com provide firsthand accounts of Internet dating, both the love stories and the cautionary tales. On WayTooPersonal, members also share examples of bad ads, really weird responses, and reviews of various dating services.
You've Got (Fe)Male
This is a brand-new pick-up game, where hot adjectives replace flirtatious glances.
"I've seen it happen, where guys who were the exceptional writers get all the women," says Brown. The guy who is just as sincere -- but doesn't have the same way with words -- doesn't make out nearly as well.
And while each site has its own bells and whistles, most Internet dating services work this way:
You complete a questionnaire -- sometimes a lengthy one -- about yourself and the type of person you're seeking. Read several profiles before writing your own, Chapman says. At the very least, you'll write a narrative paragraph describing yourself and the ideal love of your life.
Photos seem to reap lots more clicks and emails, advises Chapman. "In fact, send in several good photos -- not the kind where your face is tiny in the picture, where it's so dark you're barely visible."
Then, sit back and surf for your dreamboat. For about $25 a month (some sites charge more, some less), you can spend as much time as you like looking for love. Join two or three of the better sites.
And ladies, don't be afraid to be proactive.
"Don't be afraid to browse, to start a dialogue with a guy," Chapman says. "Just send a simple message: 'Hey, I saw your profile, thought it looked nice.' You don't have to write a book -- just something to break the ice."
Use those search engines -- most sites have them - because they will make your hunt more efficient. Set the preference settings for your fantasy man or dream lady: "tall, blonde, cute, smart, bicyclist, great job, 40ish, Chicago."
The search engine sifts through the thousands -- if not millions -- of people who belong to the dating service. Voila! You have your own personal catalogue of likely mates -- or at least dates.
In fact, spend at least one hour each week browsing, Chapman advises.
"New members are joining every day," he says. "You can't just expect that it's going to drop from the sky. A lot of work goes into the search."
Update your profile, even your photo, periodically.
"Keep trying to improve it," says Chapman. "It's your representation. You want to put your best foot forward." And don't narrow your geographical search area too much. Area code is too narrow; at least look in your state."
These services have internal email systems that allow you to exchange messages yet still hide your identity. You are known only by your code or email name. Only you can divulge your real name, address, or personal email address -- when you're ready.
A message-blocking feature allows you to screen your incoming messages, sending a "thanks-but-no-thanks" type of message.
Flirting the E-Mail Way
Now a deliriously content couple, Katherine and Don Winters were "VeryDelightful" and "Gr8AlphaMale" when they met online two years ago. Both in their 50s, both divorced, each was looking for a soul mate. One night his Match.com browser stopped at her profile.
"Every single word she wrote was attractive to me," he tells WebMD. He wrote a quick email: "I like your profile. Please take a look at mine and get back to me."
She -- getting 75 to 100 hits a day -- saw something interesting in his approach. He was a humorist by trade.
"Let's do a five-minute walk-by," she suggested, when it was time to move beyond email. "When we met, we just looked at each other. We couldn't say anything."
They've been together ever since.
"Finding your soul mate online is about having confidence in selling yourself," says Fran Green, Match.com's director of flirting and dating. "Think of it as an adventure. Have fun with it."
Email flirting -- flirting anytime -- is about "being playful, being spontaneous," says Green. However, there's also an image factor. "For heavens' sake, run a spell check," she says.
When you respond to someone's profile, pay attention. Use details, a bit of imagery. One suggestion from Green: "I was taken by your profile because of your love of antiquing in the winter. That is so unusual."
Also, make a speedy transition from email to phone calls, she advises.
"Don't hide behind email," she says. "You need to move into a real relationship, if that's your goal here."
But one safety tip: Never get picked up at home or the office, says Green.
"This is a stranger. Meet in a public place where you feel comfortable. Make it a short meeting -- coffee, lunch, a drink -- not a 10-course dinner or the theater. And let someone know where you're going, who you are meeting."
"Dating by its very nature is never a risk-free activity," Green tells WebMD. "Trust your instincts. If you feel someone isn't right for you, for whatever reason, cut your losses."
And if it doesn't work out, don't sweat it. There are many more fish in the cybersea.
Because of the anonymity of Internet dating, there are the obvious hazards. For instance, while you may be looking for love, your contact may just be looking for a quickie. Best to establish upfront exactly that those search engines are really searching for.
If sex is what you're looking for, the Internet is certainly a good place to look. The sexually adventurous are finding each other quicker, easier, and more anonymously than ever before, says CDC researcher Mary McFarlane, PhD. "One thing about the Internet, anything you want is available to you," she tells WebMD.
And some things you don't want -- like sexually transmitted diseases. Studies have shown that Internet dates more frequently turn sexual than do traditional dates, and the sexual behavior is more likely to be unsafe.
The most common complaint about dating web sites: People use photos taken 10 years or so ago.
"Or they use glamour photos that make anybody look good," says Brown. Some cases of false identity are also out there, as well -- people portraying themselves to be judges or lawyers when they aren't, says Chapman.
"The thing is, people can lie and deceive you if you meet them online or in the grocery store," he says. "Ask them the same tough questions you would anyone. As a matter of fact, I strongly recommend that you not invest time in meeting someone unless you've communicated online or on the phone. Ask how old the photo is. Can you send me a few more? Make sure you're on the same page here."
The message-blocking option on most dating sites takes care of any harassment problems. Also, web sites encourage members to report any offenses and will cancel memberships if necessary.
For 30ish types or the over-40 crowd -- for people who are separated, divorced -- Internet dating is "a wonderful way to meet someone," says Green. "Otherwise, the network of single people is often negligible."
"Internet dating is about putting yourself out there," Green tells WebMD. "It's about having hope that it will happen for you."