Cyber dating has grown in popularity and respectability since the advent of online personals in the mid-1990s. Computer dating began in the 1960s, when scientists used mainframe computers to match people based on interests and appearances. Journalist Andrea Orr, however, suggests that cyber dating puts a technological spin on a much older trend: matrimonial services, which matched couples in the 1800s.
More than 40 million Americans visited online dating sites each month in 2003. Americans spent $302 million on cyber dating that year, making it the most profitable market on the Web. This interest is fueled by growing numbers of singles—a record 40 percent of American adults are single, and half of them visited online dating sites in 2003. Cyber dating also signals significant changes in dating and marriage trends: Americans are marrying later in life, which makes them less likely to meet partners in high school or college. Workplace romances are dwindling, partly due to the rise in sexual harassment suits. As singles become more mobile and attend religious services less frequently, community organizations such as clubs and churches have decreased in importance. Cyber dating provides an appealing alternative to singles bars, and new technologies such as broadband and digital cameras have made browsing profiles and uploading photos easier than ever.
Millions gravitate to sites such as Match.com, where users can post a free personal profile but must pay a monthly subscription fee to e-mail other users. Online daters scan hundreds of profiles per visit, limiting searches based on categories such as region, age, ethnicity, height, weight, politics and religion. Although half of Match.com subscribers are under 30, older singles who may be divorced or widowed are increasingly using online services. Specialized dating sites have grown in recent years: Blacksingles.com caters to African Americans, while RightStuffDating.com enables Ivy League graduates to meet others of their intellectual ilk. Gays and lesbians, while represented on mainstream dating sites, also connect on sites such as PlanetOut.com.
Once connected, cyber daters often exchange e-mail messages for weeks or months before talking on the phone or meeting in person: a pace that mirrors traditional courtship. The anonymity of online personals provides safety, but may also encourage fabrication, as users often present themselves as younger, thinner, taller or more successful than they actually are. Up to 30 percent of cyber daters are married—some openly seeking affairs, others posing as single. Cautious cyber daters may search public records to verify the identity and marital status of people they meet online.
Two of the newest dating sites in the early 2000s—Friendster.com and eHarmony.com—made online dating more familiar and precise. After posting a profile and photo on Friendster.com, users invite their friends to join and help create a searchable network of social contacts. Couples who connect through the site can honestly say they were introduced by mutual acquaintances. Founded by a psychologist, eHarmony.com gives users a 500-question survey covering subconscious desires and personality traits, then strategically matches couples for online dates. The questionnaire identifies users who might be liars or otherwise undesirable—16 percent of those who take the survey are asked to leave the site (Mulrine).
Some singles have successful online dating experiences: eHarmony.com reports that more than 1,500 couples met and married through the site in its first three years, and Match.com boasts 90,000 successful matches each year. Others, however, grow weary of endless profile searches and disappointing dates, and opt for a lower-technology, less commercialized way of finding prospective partners.
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