When Theresa Ellis dreamed of love, it usually involved a modern-day knight sweeping her off her feet.
She was young, attractive, and had started a successful nonprofit. But after countless set-ups by friends and a miserable "singles night" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, she was still unattached. So last fall she did what any assertive 21st century woman would do: She went online.
In the course of a couple of months, she had 30 dates.
"I was very systematic about it," she says. Most yielded nothing. A few, like the man she calls "the rice spitter," made for later laughs. But sometime in October, she met Adam, and the two have been dating ever since.
"From a purely efficiency perspective, it seemed like kind of a good marketplace," she says. "You figure - there's got to be somebody."
Efficiency? Marketplace? As Americans exchange millions of heart- and calligraphy-adorned cards today, those words won't likely be on them.
From Romeo and Juliet to Sleepless in Seattle, the lexicon of love has always been about Cupid's arrow and love at first sight.
But if some used to believe romance was "in the stars," today it is apparently in the stats. In a web-linked world, a $25 subscription fee provides instant access to tens of thousands of eligible singles - and the digital tools to sift candidates based on height, age, income, or a penchant for macramé. Love remains an art, but the rise of online personal ads is bringing a new level of science to the realm of romance.
"I'm calling it digital Darwinism," says E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist for Elle magazine. "It has really, truly, right in front of our eyes revolutionized sexual selection."
Charles Darwin, she notes drily, had a choice of only four or five women when he married Emma Wedgewood. "Now, he would have not four women, not 40 or 400; he would have 4,000. I think he would be knocked out by this. It's letting us choose the best people for ourselves."
While online dating is not new, the practice has been skyrocketing as its early stigma fades. Fewer people believe posting an online personal labels you a desperate loser or a basement-dwelling cyberfreak. Now, the practice is freely discussed on Hallmark cards and the pages of O magazine (where a woman this month documented the selecting and dating of 100 men). Nearly 27 million Americans looked for love online in December, according to comScore Media Metrix.
If looking for a mate suddenly seems more head than heart, some people say that may be a good thing. "Falling in love has changed," says Judy Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dating." "People [are] having to be Cyrano de Bergeracs. They're falling in love with people's words before they ever meet them."
Trish McDermott, vice president of romance for Match.com, calls it "falling in love from the inside out." The traditional way, she explains, might be to notice someone because of the dazzling smile or blond hair, then to hear the voice, and then get around to testing for true compatibility. Online, that process is reversed, with the physical meeting often coming after people have talked about their deepest fears and cherished values.
But online matchmaking puts a checklist in the driver's seat, as time-pressed singles try to sort through "Sexy Saxophonist" and "Searching for a Soul Mate," and weed out, perhaps, the unemployed, the untruthful, the unattractive, or simply unremarkable. Many will delete an e-mail simply for failure to spellcheck or a misused apostrophe.
"That's the downside of it," says Dr. Kuriansky. "You may have skipped over a few people who could be absolutely fabulous. But that's what happens when you get a big sample."
Michael, a young software-industry professional in San Francisco, chose to tailor his search by looks, education, income, and age. He wrote off anyone with a screen name like "hotgirl" or "lotsoflegs." A disastrous date with a woman who called herself "honeydog" led him to rule out people who were too attached to their pets. "I tend to be a pretty analytical guy," he admits.
But what about Julie, the girl he eventually met online and has been dating for months? Michael didn't fit her criteria - he was too young, and lived farther from the city than she'd specified. But his straightforward e-mail appealed to her. "He went back to everything I'd written [in my profile], and I knew he got it." She took a chance, and is glad she did.
Other cyberdaters say their sieve is looser than Michael's - based more on intuition than itemizing. Jennifer Guberman, a New York information services director whose friends refer to her as the "online dating guru," looked for e-mails that blended sarcasm and wit. In her ad, she wrote that she was looking for someone who "does crossword puzzles in pen" and "hates Watership Down and is not afraid to admit it."
The one fixed rule she had - no one younger - was broken by the man she's dated for six weeks now. "I'm amazed we met," she says, noting that he had come across her ad as he was preparing to take his down. "In that way, fate, or whatever you want to call it, still played into it."
A few sites do some of the narrowing for you. Jdate.com, a Jewish dating site, allows subscribers to specify Sephardic or Ashkenazi; Hassidic, Conservadox, or Reform. GoodGenes.com requires proof of graduation from a brand-name university. There are sites that cater to black, Latino, gay, or plus-sized singles. One of the more original is Ms. Carroll's brainchild: Greatboyfriends.com, "where every single man comes with a woman's stamp of approval." Men appear on the site only if vouched for by a female who assesses his looks, ego, "boyscout rating," and how he feels about his mother.
Even on sites with less screening, though, most cyberdaters say fears that people would lie about their looks or marital status never materialized. They'll get bad dates - like the one who cooked Ms. Guberman a dinner in an apartment littered with his ex-girlfriend's stuffed animals - but say most people are honest (give or take a few pounds).
But plenty of singles sour on the Internet for other reasons. Stav, an online producer for a New York education company, says she got fed up after three or four months of intensive cyberdating.
"Theoretically, it's a numbers game," she says - but the numbers can be deceiving. "People tend to go onto the Internet the day after they break up with someone, so you get this whole population of rebound people."
Also, some prospects simply disappear. One New Jersey guy cut off communication with no explanation after weeks of intensive e-mailing. "If you meet someone through a friend, you at least have those ties, no matter how remote they are," Stav says. "[The Internet] is good for casual dating.... But the pool of people who were like me was small."