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.