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Online dating is no longer the domain of the sad and ugly. You can find your perfect partner on the web, says Andrea Semple.
Two years after her divorce, Karen Riley decided she was ready to meet someone new. However, being in her thirties with a small child and a demanding job, she wasn't getting much opportunity.
"As I didn't feel up to loud nightclubs on a Saturday night, I decided to give an online dating agency a go," she explains. "Although I was the last person on earth to use an offline agency, using the internet helps rid you of your inhibitions."
Following a couple of near misses, it proved third-time lucky when she started chatting to Jon on the DatingDirect.com site. "He lived in Leicestershire where I had grown up, and had a daughter who was a year younger than my son," she says. After exchanging emails for a few weeks, they eventually decided to meet and (yep, you've guessed it) fell head over heels in love. They tied the knot last year and are both now keen to spread the word about the merits of internet dating. And, as the number of similar success stories continues to rise, it would appear they are not alone.
Until recently, however, internet dating was a taboo subject. It was always something other people did, and these "other people" were often perceived to be sexual deviants, axe murderers and paper bag wearers.
Now this prejudiced view of cyberdating is being challenged by the sheer popularity of web-based matchmaking services. Consider the figures. Match.com, one of the largest international online dating agencies, now boasts more than 3.25 million registered users and receives, on average, more than 75 reports each month of its members getting married or engaged. The UK's largest web dating service, Dating Direct.com has more than 350,000 active members. On most weekday evenings, the increasingly active Love@Lycos service has more than 3,000 UK singles logged on simultaneously, ready to flirt with whoever takes their fancy.
It is reasonably safe to assume that the majority of these people are not axe murderers or perverts, and are able to walk safely out of their house without a paper bag over their head.
According to Alex Kovach, the managing director of Lycos UK and Ireland: "Online dating is now a mainstream activity and, if anything, the internet has helped make dating services more legitimate by adding a fun element." There are increasing signs that the UK is following the US, where online dating is stigma-free. Match.com's fantastically titled vice president of romance, Trish McDermott, claims that, "in the US, the single scene is the internet."
For those who have tried it, the main advantage of online dating is that it helps them cast a wider net. Just as users of Amazon welcome the greater choice of books, toys and DVDs, subscribers to web dating services have access to a wider variety of dating potential.
"You meet people you would not normally come into contact with, perhaps because they live in a different area, do a different job or mingle in different social circles," explains Kathryn McElhinney, who met her partner through WheresMyDate.com. She also adds that the internet enables you to "filter out" those people with whom you have little in common. If dating is, as Match.com's Trish McDermott puts it, "a number's game", there can be no denying that the numbers are increased online. The speed and affordability of these ser vices are further attractions.
This helps confirm the theory that the internet is no longer "a last resort", but an enhanced dating environment. Indeed, new research from Bath University reveals that online relationships have a better than average chance of success in the real world.
"Contrary to popular belief, chatrooms don't lead to shallow and impersonal relationships," says Jeffrey Gavin, the lecturer who headed the research project. "They lead to really close relationships because people express themselves more freely on the internet."
Dr Adam Joinson, a psychologist from the Open University, agrees. "The specifics of internet communication help explain the comparative success of online dating," he says. "Not being able to see the other person means we don't need to worry about controlling our physical appearance and can concentrate on the actual communication. After all, trying to sound and look interested, while at the same time holding in your stomach, can play havoc with your ability to actually listen when courting in 'real life'."
Match.com's McDermott goes even further, claiming that matchmaking sites can radically change the nature of relationships. "Sites such as ours have helped people to get to know each other from the inside out," she says. "Traditionally, it has been the other way around."
However, the freedom of identity offered by the internet also leads to security concerns if a romance is to be continued offline. Sites such as Safer Dating Saferdating.com and WildXAngel.com provide invaluable advice for anyone taking cyberdating seriously. But, according to Kathryn McElhinney, the risks need to be kept in perspective.
"Although people are nervous that the person on the other end of the keyboard is a psychopath, this isn't any worse than meeting someone in a nightclub after 10 vodka Red Bulls," she says. "Also, the issue of security can be partly mitigated by joining a subscription site, where your profile is shown only to other paying members."
Because of this paid-for element, subscription-based dating sites are big business and, along with the Friends Reunited phenomenon of tracking down long-lost classmates, are proving that paid-for communication-based services do not deter web users.
As Match.com was set up in 1995, when women made up only 10% of the online population, the company has seen the online dating business come of age. "In 1995, the concept was not necessarily understood and probably even deemed questionable," says McDermott. "We've come to realise our subscription-based model is probably one of the better business models out there." With more than 17m registrations since its launch in 1995, it is hard to disagree. Even those services that do not charge for web subscription, such as Love@Lycos, are able to generate revenues through advertising. After all, given the nature of dating sites, advertisers can get a very clear idea of who they are targeting.
Match.com, along with many others, identifies the UK as a "key market" for online dating services. Indeed, some even suggest that the UK population is uniquely suited to this type of dating. Not only is there now a larger number of female web users (according to March figures from Jupiter Media Metrix, 42% of British women use the internet), but it has been suggested there could also be something about our national character that makes us "compatible" with dating sites. "We tend to be more reserved in the UK, so online services are bound to be more popular than their offline counterparts," says the founder of WheresMyDate.com, Toby Jones.
However, most dating sites still claim to have more men than women signed up. Which means, of course, that male users have to try that little bit harder to win the hearts of their potential matches. One trend that Lycos's Kovach has spotted has been photos of men with dogs. "When we first added a picture service, we were surprised by how many men had a pet by their side," he says. "Then I was directed to a recently published piece of research which had found that women trust men with dogs. And as trust is a big factor in online communities, it sort of made sense."
A more sensible approach for both men and women is to make sure you are using the right service to begin with. There are thousands of dating sites out there, catering for different needs. At one end of the scale, there are such sites as NoMore Frogs.co.uk, which uses psychometric personality tests in place of photographs to ensure members are matched with compatible partners. At the other end, there are fun "flirt-based" services such as Love@Lycos. Then there are successful offline contact services such as The Guardian's Soulmates, which are now also included on the web.
As cyberdating has taken off, a number of specialised sites have also emerged. Ivorytowers.net is the UK's graduate dating service. ChristianConnection.co.uk is for those who want someone's knee to squeeze during Sunday mass. There's even HorseCouples.com, for people "looking for someone who shares the wonder and amazement of these great animals."
Many of the most popular dating sites have hundreds of success stories under their belts, including some marriages. For instance, NoMoreFrogs.co.uk has claimed two marriages since its October 2000 launch, while Match. com has a string of UK success stories, including that of Suesie and Steve Glagow, who married six months after discovering they had a "compatibility rating" of 98%.
But if things eventually turn sour, the internet can still help out. A UK divorce site, Divorce-Online.co.uk, was launched earlier this year to allow couples to separate over the web with minimal negotiation.
Do:
Be secure: "Ask all the questions you need to ask your potential date and feel very satisfied with the answers before revealing any contact details," says Match.com's Trish McDermott.
Select the right site: Check the privacy procedures of each site before signing up.
Be realistic: "The relationship has to be practical," advises Karen Riley, who met her husband via DatingDirect.com.
Use any additional services: Many sites offer optional extras to potential daters. For instance, at Love@Lycos, users can submit their mobile number and arrange for date requests to be forwarded to them on the move.
Don't:
Idealise: "Like other geographically separated relationships, online lovers are suspect to a process of idealisation about their partner," warns Open University's Adam Joinson.
Be put off by registration forms: Registering before browsing helps sites cut out non-serious use of their services.
Underestimate the technology: "Already, technology has allowed people to change the initial process of desire," says Match.com's McDermott.
Forget dating etiquette: You may be more than a convenient slapping distance away from your potential date, but queries such as "What underwear are you wearing?" are still generally unwelcome.
· Andrea Semple's forthcoming novel, The Ex-Factor, will be published by Piatkus, priced £6.99