Years ago, the personal ad pages suffered from an image problem. Deserved or not, the common perception of those who used classifieds to find dates was that they were completely desperate, utterly unattractive or wildly depraved -- or all of the above.
But that was before the Internet. Out were the coded come-ons like "DWM, non-smoker, seeks SWF for a good time" snuck discreetly in the back of magazines and newspapers. Suddenly, there were chat rooms for people with similar interests and sites with personal profiles including psychological evaluations of potential matches, all available at the click of a mouse.
In 2005, it's almost a given -- and certainly socially acceptable -- that if you're single, you've tried finding dates online. And while the Internet obviously has an element of sleaze, there are plenty of options for those truly looking for love -- people like your friend from college and your widowed neighbor and the person you broke up with last year.
"It's amazing," said Carrie Wenzer Littman, 52, a real estate agent from Wilmington, Del., and a divorced mother of two grown children. "I'm just floored by the amount of people who are out there."
Vic Cividini, 32, an engineer working in construction management, was reluctant to try online dating when a friend who had met his wife that way suggested he give it a try. "He was trying to get me on it, and I was just like, 'Ah, forget it,'" said the Hoboken, N.J., resident. "I thought, you know what, it's too contrived."
But he reconsidered and joined Match.com when another friend was going out on dates once a week with women he'd met through the site. "I think having a profile, a couple of pictures and a quick blurb on what they're about is probably a step above just a blind setup," Cividini said.
He's not alone. According to a January study by JupiterResearch, 14 percent of adults online -- or 21 million users -- said they had browsed personals, while 11 percent of adults online -- 17 million users -- had posted personals.
Online dating is a big industry, though it is not seeing the 70-plus percent growth of 2002 and 2003, the study found. The market grew by 19 percent in 2004 to $473 million, and it is expected to increase by 9 percent in 2005 to $516 million, fueled increasingly by "serious daters" -- defined in the report as "those consumers hoping to find a long-term relationship or marriage."
For some, the idea is much simpler: an expanded social circle. Carla, a New York woman who asked that her last name not be used, has been separated for two years. She said that if she does not reunite with her husband, she will likely try online dating. "It's not that I'd be on the hunt for a husband," she said, adding, "It's a lot harder to meet people at 35 than when I was in my 20s."
Still, she doesn't think she'll tell her family if she tries it. "There doesn't seem to be as much of a stigma attached like there was with personal ads in the paper, but I know my parents and siblings would think I was crazy," she said.
For many, the sites are a welcome alternative to bars and singles events. Caryn Hirsch of Pennington, N.J., met her husband, Jeremy, through the Jewish singles section of AOL in 1997 -- the Paleolithic era of online dating.
"I was the kind of person who always thought that after college I'd get married right away. I don't know why. That was my parents' generation, and my brother ended up doing the same," Hirsch said. "There I was, 27 years old, with no prospects, nothing going on, and I was getting tired of going to bars."
Jeremy Hirsch, also 27 at the time, was already an online dating pro, having tried AOL singles and Jdate and finding it was a good way to meet and chat with lots of women while maintaining a busy schedule.
The couple did not tell most people how they met until six months into their relationship, as the whole concept was still new. "At some point it shifted and it went from being not so much something for younger people … to being something for people in their 20s, 30s, professionals, working people," he said.
Nearly eight years later, they have two sons.
After taking the plunge and joining a dating site, there are many tactics to take: sit back and let others find you, contact everyone who seems appealing or do something on the spectrum in between.
Some sites, like Match.com, allow users to virtually "wink" at other members -- a more coy way of initiating contact than sending an e-mail. But once the conversation moves to sending messages, spell-check can be a suitor's best shot at making a good first impression.
Littman, who has been using various dating sites since 1998, said she is immediately turned off by men with poor spelling and grammar. "To me, that's really important," she said, noting that she's received messages that say "your pretty" rather than "you're."
And it was good spelling that moved things forward with Hirsch and her future husband. She closed an e-mail by asking whether she had piqued his interest. "I spelled piqued correctly," she said. "He told me anyone who knew how to spell piqued was worth another e-mail."
After e-mailing -- which many Internet daters say should not take place on Friday and Saturday nights (see desperation, above) -- at some point things move offline, and that's when the real fun, or lack thereof, begins.
"I feel I'm a real good judge of character when I see someone and talk to them," Cividini said. "I thought that translated to reading profiles -- this girl's really nice, sweet, graceful."
He found that is not always the case, like with one woman who spent their entire first date complaining about her job. "I knew within the first half hour that she couldn't have been further from graceful."
The How-Did-I-Get-Here Moments
When people meet through something as anonymous as the Internet, it's inevitable that some are dishonest, be it about marital status or looks or height. "A lot of people I find are deceptive," Littman said, noting that men she's met have lied about their appearances and finances. "I'm not. I tell it like it is."
Cividini said he's met several women whose profile photos were up to five years old. "I walked past two of my dates," he recalled. "I looked them in the face and said, 'That's not her.' They're looking back at me like, 'Hey …'"
And sometimes, being too forward is the problem. Cividini said he received many messages through Yahoo! Personals from "Russian strippers" who "can't even spell" saying, "'I want to have family and be your wife forever.' I can't tell you how many of those I've gotten."
For Wylie Smith, 35, of Milford, Conn., the trouble started when her photo was posted on eHarmony. She'd been corresponding with two men and was having trouble uploading a picture to show them. She e-mailed it to the site, and they said they'd take care of it.
Soon afterwards, Smith received an "unnecessarily nasty message -- 'People like you wreck it for everybody else.'"
She was taken aback and concerned, then the other man simply wrote, "What's up with the picture?"
It turned out the site had uploaded an image of a 40-ish man instead of her photos. "The guy thought the whole time I had pulled the wool over his eyes."
The second man, patent attorney Michael Blake, is now her fiancé.
Expect the Unexpected
Not everyone who tries online dating will find a match, let alone marry someone. But sometimes surprises happen.
One of Cividini's dates didn't go very well. After they said goodbye and the woman left the bar where they'd met, he decided to stay and have another drink. "I hear a couple girls laughing," he said. "There was a beautiful blond girl." They got to talking, found they had things in common, and he left with her number.
"I went from the new way back to the old way in the same night," he said.
And in the end, you never know who might be out there. Littman said she's had relationships with men from her area as well as long-distance, and a few times she's even sold homes to people she met through Match.com.
"I figured all the good ones are married, but they're not," Littman said. "There are a lot of nice ones out there. You just have to keep an open mind."