Web of Love 

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A young, attractive, professional Richmond woman decides she wants a millionaire. She specifies as much on an Internet dating site -- "millionaire only" — and gets what she's looking for. Presumably, so did the millionaire.

Bob, a retired university professor, has been dating online for a year. He's found three great relationships, one serious. "I have had a great time," he says, "met some wonderful people I would have never met on my own."

Dave, fresh out of college and working his first full-time job, gets lots of bites. "After a year, I had two wonderful matches and then stayed with one of those," he says. "You have to be patient … but I met a wonderful girl and we are dating steadily."

Welcome to the spamtastic world of online dating, a wild and woolly open-air market that stretches across the United States and the globe. Once relegated to perverts, the industry has fast gained mainstream acceptance — and money. In 2006, online dating sites grew revenues by 10 percent to $649 million. Owners of Internet dating sites hold conferences in places such as Shangahi, San Francisco and Barcelona.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project concludes: "Of the ten million Internet users who say they are single and seeking a romantic partner, 74 percent say they have used the Internet in one way or another to further their romantic interests."

Bob, the retired professor, had 240 matches his first year on eHarmony. David, the college grad, gets an average of six to eight matches a week, or about 400 a year. Autumn, a professional in her 20s, reports 150 matches a month.

Taking niche marketing to new levels, online dating boasts sites for the "big & beautiful," gay, Catholic, Jewish, "sugar daddies" and seniors, and that's just an appetizer. There's even a Web site for those who carry STDs.

Does all this variety and opportunity make for happiness? The illusion of finding the perfect person is enhanced by the concept that there are endless choices online. Relationships are disposable. Cheating has never been easier. Long, deep, satisfying relationships are forfeited for variety, novelty and fantasy.

"When you have 400 cable channels, you just keep surfing and surfing," one dating-site user says. You wind up feeling really frustrated. It is hard not to do that with Internet dating. I was getting 45 hits [new matches] in a month … it was all I could do to keep up with my new contacts."

Variety equals sensory overload? Byron, a successful middle-aged entrepreneur, says yes: "I have since stopped Internet dating altogether, not because of that experience, specifically, but I think I like the old-fashioned way of meeting and seeing people daily, getting to know them gradually, developing a real dialogue and over time discovering who they are. The guided communication formats do not really relate to the essence of people. … It is not their real personality. I think Internet dating shortcuts a process that needs to occur over time."

Bill sees it the same: "I like to meet someone in a setting where I can observe them, get to know them as a person over time, like in a work setting or a class."

While it's possible to pay $10,000 for a series of introductions to mega-wealthy potential partners using a service such as Valenti International, you can pay as little as $24.95 per month for some services. (See chart.) Sites such as Craigslist or Plentyoffish.com offer searches for free, if you're willing to be subjected to sleazy ads.

Autumn Young, 24, of Oakland, Calif., reports 150 matches per month. "Match.com delivers a lesser quality of people than say, eharmony. I think Perfect Match does a bit better job with the over-50 set based on people I have known who have tried both. I like the quality of screening and matching that eHarmony does. Price makes it more exclusive. The lower you go on price, the seamier it gets. For example, Craigslist, a great resource for many things, has some of the raunchiest personal ads I have ever seen. When I was younger, I answered one of the ads on Craigslist and later found that the guy was a registered sex offender. It can be a cesspool."

Byron says: "I had gone on an Internet site and met a person who was attractive to me both for her appearance and also her spiritual side. … I flew to Iowa, she met me at the airport and we drove for miles and miles to somewhere in the boondocks. We finally arrived at a compound where she lived. It began to dawn on me that I was trapped in the middle of nowhere, completely at her mercy. We went inside and after chatting awhile, she began to tremble and shake. It seemed like she was in a trance. I was concerned … actually terrified. After a few minutes, she came out of it. She told me she had been communicating with her 'angels' to determine if I had the right stuff to be the new leader of her social peace movement. Apparently, I passed the test. I asked — no, begged — to go back to the airport. She seemed disappointed but brought me back."

"If someone skeeves you out … drop 'em," Young says. "Google their name, check sex-offender lists, ask last name and address before you meet someone. Ask about STDs."

As Dave puts it: "Be patient, be positive, do not settle. Most of all, know what you want. … You may find this out only after meeting and dating for a while." His advice: "You can be deadly honest! What an [opportunity] to clean up your act, clear out all old expectations, assess your story and go from there." S

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