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Click here for romance

It's anonymous, yet intimate. Online dating is entering the culturalmainstream.

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I'm a bit of a sports nut, but never let it run my life ...' 'I'm a kid at heart.' 'I've got everything from Depeche Mode and The Smiths to Tracey Lawrence and Enigma in my CD player.' Dwight, an Internet developer in his 20s, sure hopes this online personal ad will pique some young woman's interest. Especially one who could ignite a few romantic sparks in his life and just maybe turn out to be the woman of his dreams. Dwight is one of millions of singles of all ages who are playing the cyberfield. Unlike newspaper personals, often seen as the domain of the desperate, online dating appears to have entered the mainstream. Singles Web sites all report a dramatic rise in traffic within the past year. Since Nora Epron's romantic comedy "You've Got Mail" opened in movie theaters last month, some sites report as much as a 30 percent surge. The film's attractive stars, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks (who meet in a singles chat room on America Online), make the online route to romance look downright appealing. Ultimately, anyway. So it's no wonder "You've Got Mail" has been to online dating sites and chat groups what Oprah's Book Club is to authors and publishers. But isn't this just another case of Hollywood making love look easy? Can denizens from Mars and Venus really connect in cyberspace? There are no guarantees you'll meet a man as successful as Hanks or a woman as adorable as Ryan. But you can get to know someone anonymously, in the comfort and privacy of your own home, and perhaps most important, from the inside-out, says Trish McDermott, dating expert at Match.com. Last week alone, 30,000 singles registered with this online site. "Rather than falling for someone's height, hair color, or weight," she explains, "people who form relationships through online correspondence first connect based on shared ideas, experiences, and values. They get to know each other's hopes, dreams, thoughts, and feelings. Then, when they do finally meet in the off-line world, they tend to be a little more forgiving of minor physical imperfections." Andrea Baker, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University who is working on a book about couples who met online, would agree. "The written word tends to promote frank conversation in cyberspace," she says. "You can get a sense of the person's thoughts, feelings, and style of communication.... Online chat can sprout real-life romances that begin with surprisingly honest communication and realistic expectations, traits many relationships lack at first." Honesty is what most appealed to California resident John Dwyer about the online approach. Disillusioned with the bar scene, he decided to give it a whirl. He posted a personal ad and photograph, got hundreds of responses, and eventually connected with Debbie. They married this past New Year's Eve - a year and a half after she answered his online ad. "If you are honest when talking online, you can strip away all the superficial stuff and really get to know someone," says Debbie. How did she know John was being honest? "I got a sense from the conversation whether it was real or contrived," she says. "I could tell after a while that he wasn't just someone trying to land a fish." Dating cautions "You have to be careful, even when you meet someone through friends," adds John. "But online, it's wise not to give out any personal information, and if and when you do meet, always go to a public place." Ms. McDermott would add these additional tips: Pick an online service with high standards, use an anonymous handle, don't misrepresent yourself, and above all, trust your instincts. This last suggestion is particularly important when moving from written messages to telephone to a face-to-face meeting. Her service recommends that the decision to meet always be mutual and a natural process of the online relationship. The Dwyer's first date evolved after six weeks getting acquainted online. Of course, not all Internet relationships turn out like the Dwyers'. Plenty of singles would no more advertise online than show their faces on the big screen in Times Square. But they might consider a more traditional route - hiring a company that handpicks dates such as "Let's Go Dutch!" in Philadelphia or "Lunch Dates" in Boston, for instance. While comparative statistics aren't available, the Singles Press Association did report recently that business has dipped 25 percent for such off-line services. That doesn't ruffle Zelda Fischer, who during her 20 years as a matchmaker in Boston has insisted on a highly personalized approach. "We don't work with computers," says the gracious owner of the upscale Gentlepeople, and its more affordable offspring Creative Connections and Creative Allies. "We meet with people face-to-face and spend a lot of time getting to know them. It's the only way." Longtime marriage counselors Beatty and Elliott Cohan would agree that there's no substitute for looking someone in the eye. "Online dating is a dangerous and totally impersonal shortcut," says Ms. Cohan, also co-author with her husband of "For Better, for Worse, Forever," and co-founder with him of Compatibility Consultants seminars in Providence, R.I. "The popularity of this approach is just another symptom of our quick-fix society," adds Mr. Cohan. Ideally, they say, single people will meet the old-fashioned way - through friends, family, work, or church. But no matter what, they urge couples to look hard at 10 key areas including family history, communication and problem-solving skills, and emotional baggage leftover from previous relationships. And always, they say, take at least six months to a year to get to know someone. Sounds like common sense, but the Cohans have worked with many troubled couples who don't do this premarital homework. "The warning signs were there all along, but they were blinded by romance!" says Ms. Cohan. Online pacing Such blinding doesn't happen as often with couples who get to know each other online, says Professor Baker. "You can pursue stages of the relationship more gradually, deciding to write more frequently, then perhaps phoning after several weeks or months, and then sending a picture. So the length of time people who meet online put into developing the relationships may encourage the possibility of more lasting relationships." In that respect, the characters in "You've Got Mail" are on the right track. And so are the Dwyers, who saw a lot of themselves in the movie. Debbie's daughter Lyndsey recognized their story on the big screen too - with one exception. "It's sort of like you guys," she said as the credits rolled. Then, with a wink to her new stepdad, she added: "But Mom, why couldn't he have a fancy boat like Joe's?"

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