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Can Folks Virtually Find Their Valentine On-Line?

Some who 'meet' on Internet do wed, but cyberdating poses a new set of ethical questions

Cyrano de Bergerac would have loved the Internet. He could woo and woo and maybe even win a few hearts before ever having to show his face (and his nose). Of course, the fictional Frenchman would have had plenty of competition nowadays.

Courtship is going on-line in the 1990s. And it goes far beyond exchanging virtual flowers, cards, and gifts on Valentine's Day. Men and women are using the Internet to find a partner for real life.

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The trend creates new twists on the rituals of dating. But it also raises some ethical and moral issues around a deceptively simple question. Can you really fall in love in cyberspace?

"It definitely does happen," says Daniel Barrett, author of "Bandits on the Information Superhighway."

In the first week after meeting Lisa Feldman on-line in 1993, the two had exchanged more than 100 electronic messages and shared several telephone calls. The first one lasted eight hours. After the second call, Mr. Barrett had purchased plane tickets to go visit her.

"You can fall in love with a person's Net personality," he says. But "until you meet them in person, you don't really know the person. You think you do, but you don't."

On the plane ride, he wondered what she looked like. "I was very pleased," Barrett recalls. In 1995, the couple married.

"We have had dozens of people get married," says Todd Krizelman of New York-based WebGenesis. The company runs The Globe, a large Internet chat community that has attracted some 500,000 people to "talk" about love, romance, and life in general.

"We used to [ask]: Who are we attracting? Are they lonely people?" says Mr. Krizelman. "It turned out that these are mainstream people." In one recent happy ending, a man from Denmark met a woman from Japan on the service and eventually married her.

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Other services are vying for the Valentine's Day trade. America Online has several activities planned at Love@AOL, including heavy use of its romance chat rooms and love advice from columnist Richard Rogers, who met his wife in cyberspace nearly two years ago.

CompuServe, too, has planned several Valentine-related activities (Go Valentine), including offers from an FTD flower shop, American Greetings Cards & Gifts, and Music Boulevard compact discs.

In several studies of on-line romances, Erika Anderson, instructor in communication sciences at the University of Connecticut, has found that one of the key attractions of the medium is its anonymity. "Women, in particular, enjoy it," she adds. "They don't have to get dressed up. They don't have to do their hair - at least for the first several dates."

Several people in Ms. Anderson's studies have corresponded a year or more and still have not met face to face. "But they certainly consider that person their 'significant other' and won't date other people," she says.

Not all that passes for love is the real thing, however. The same anonymity that lets people ease into a relationship also allows some to pose as someone they're not. In a small minority of cases, it has led to physical harm, researchers say. The medium's anonymity also allows people to drop all their inhibitions and engage in smutty computer chat.

Internet relationships raise a new set of ethical questions as well. Anderson is preparing to study what she calls "cyber-cheating." What happens if a husband or wife begins an on-line relationship with another person that is deeply intimate but doesn't happen in physical space? Is it cheating?

"My theory is that it depends on how much it takes away from the real relationship" with the spouse, Anderson says. If the person does it secretly, then it probably is cheating, she adds. "Yet they justify it. Because they say: 'Nothing happened. I've never seen him. I've certainly never kissed him."

Can someone really fall in love in cyberspace? Yes, says Malcolm Parks, an associate professor of speech communication at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It's a powerful medium for creating relationships. It's a very easy medium to disclose personal information. It's a safe medium. It has a certain seductive quality."

As an unmarried professor has he ... well, you know ... sent an on-line Valentine to someone special this year? "Yes," he says. Has he gotten a response?

"It was very sweet," he adds. "Love never exists in cyberspace. It exists in the heart. And it doesn't matter what medium you use. People really do fall in love on-line."

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