Love on the Internet


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This is an assignment I really didn't want. I'm not sure why some editors feel they have to celebrate Valentine's month with a nod to romance. But they do. And with the popularity explosion of the Internet, I should have seen it coming. Love on the Internet. There's got to be a story there.

It was my job to uncover it. Do people really find lovers on the electronic highway? Do they actually get married? Who's out there looking? And how do they go about it? What are the risks of exposing your tenderest feelings to a world of the anonymous lovelorn?

The first risk when you enter an electronic "room"-such as one called "The Flirt Nook" on America Online-is that you will be overwhelmed by boredom. Conversations in these chat rooms go something like this:

"Are there any sexy guys here?"

"Hell, yes. I'm a guy, but so much more, so much more."

"Do you remember me?"

"Go home. Your mother's calling."

"Don't you remember me?"

"No. You are wasting my time."

"Hehehehee."

The second thing you realize is that several conversations are going on at once-just like in a bar. People are talking (typing) across one another, and the drift is just as jumbled as bar talk:

"Since my divorce, I'm much better off." ... "Where are you from? South Carolina?" ... "You can marry in SC at 14 ... no waiting ... no blood test."

You can try to join a conversation if you like, but you might be told to get lost.

If everybody in the room gangs up on you, it's called "flaming." A 40-year-old divorced guy with the screen name of Lonesome is being picked on by his chat mates:

Lonesome: I check my mail all the time hoping for a letter.

Attagirl: The first thing you need to do is change your screen name. Desperation is not attractive.

Lonesome: Who said I was desperate?

Attagirl: Your name. It's like a big neon sign.

Lonesome: Names are deceptions [sic] sometimes.

Attagirl: CHANGE IT. [Upper case is considered shouting.]

Rebelyes: You just want to whine and moan.

Attagirl: You don't want any help.

Badguy: Some people are just hard-headed.

Lonesome: Sheeezzz, why does this SN [screen name] bother you so much?

A few minutes later someone realizes Lonesome has left the room.

Rebelyes: I guess Lonesome is gone.

Attagirl: Can you believe that guy?

And they go on to another topic. Somebody takes Lonesome's place (the rooms are limited to 23 participants). Across the screen comes the newest entry:

"HELLO, ROOM!"

Hello, room? What an incredible greeting. These people really believe they're engaging in a social encounter. What can be wrong with their lives?

After what feels like thousands of hours of eavesdropping on similar conversations, I came up with these tips and rules for chat-room participants.

Players are not limited to the written word. There are symbols, called emoticons, for physical action:

{ } is a hug.

:( is a frown. (Hint: Turn it on its side.)

:) is a smile.

:* is a kiss on the cheek.

:P is sticking out your tongue.

There also are symbols for moving around the room. One entire episode depicted a coffee break, complete with participants offering one another cream and sugar. (???-denotes author puzzlement.)

Then there are the abbreviations. LOL means laughing out loud. ROFL is rolling on the floor laughing. BRB says "Be right back." WTG means "Way to go!"

It all sounds pretty harmless-if a little juvenile-until somebody gets pornographic. Then you can either join in with embellished smut of your own, call for the taste police via the room's host, or switch to another chat room.

As characters like Lonesome and Attagirl enter the room, you can click on their profiles, self-descriptions that answer certain questions: gender, age, profession, favorite movie, favorite book, what they like to do, hobbies. An individual named Hardbody says he likes to get his friends drunk and, for a hobby, leave butt marks on windows. A real gem!

Another AOL feature is Show 'n' Tell, a gallery of photos with profiles. There are thousands, listed alphabetically by screen name. But can you really believe Navydoc's favorite movie is Room with a View and his favorite book A Prayer for Owen Meany when he's looking for "a Morticia Addams type who looks great in black with a kinky sense of humor who teases in French"?

For that matter, can you believe anybody on the Internet? AOL allows you to use up to five screen names. Men have been known to claim to be women, and vice versa. Seventy-year-olds can pass themselves off as thirtysomething. Perhaps that's one of the charms of love on the Internet-you can play any role you like and lead a fantasy existence. But others can get hurt. One respondent confided he'd been miserably tricked when the 17-year-old he fell in love with turned out to be 12.

Debra Winkler, with a staff of 30 trained social workers and psychologists screening candidates for her Personal Search matchmaking business, laughs at the self-descriptions in most profiles and personal ads. "It's so competitive," she says. "Nobody can just be attractive, they have to be gorgeous. And everybody says they look 15 years younger than they really are."

Winkler claims a huge success ratio in her own matchmaking: 30 percent marry and another 30 percent find significant others within a candidate's first year. But her methods are labor-intensive. Dating "coaches" not only screen and interview for the perfect match, they do follow-up work: Why wasn't a particular candidate asked out a second time? Hints are in order. "A man doesn't walk in front of a woman when entering a restaurant. A woman doesn't spend the entire first date complaining about her ex."

With her full-service search group, Winkler hasn't noticed any drop-off in business because of the Internet. "I guess the Internet and personals are okay if you're just getting your feet wet about dating again," she concedes. "But the Internet sounds just like 900 numbers. It's puzzling to me that anybody would trust unknowns. They could be crazy people with any agenda at all. Don't forget, the definition of a sociopath is that you never know they're sociopathic."

Here are AOL's "Dos and Don'ts of On-line Dating":

Don't give out your telephone number or address. If you get obscene E-mail, don't respond to it. Report the screen name of the obscene e-mailer to AOL. Change your own screen name, so you can't be found.

But if you do want to be found, the next step is to click on IM, or instant message. This sets up a private talk between two chat-room members-a little like stepping out into the hall. Or as AOL puts it, "like passing notes in class." From there, e-mail is the logical development.

he story now takes a different turn. Gone is the chat room. You've found what you were looking for; you don't need the group anymore. Now you chat back and forth by e-mail, delving deeper and deeper into each other's thoughts. Some say this is a better way to get to know a prospective lover than in person. Mind talks to mind. There are no distractions caused by physical appearance or mannerisms.

"You get to know the person inside first," says one Internetter. "You start talking, and little by little they become more important to you. Like a drug."

"Then you find yourself on the phone all the time. And you find yourself with large phone bills!" says another.

Inevitably, plans will develop for a personal meeting-a date. Some say you should chat for months before a real date occurs. But one woman complained she and her new friend were so accustomed to talking in paragraphs-first his view, then hers (or vice versa)-that when they finally met for dinner, the conversation went the same way. He expounded for a few minutes, then paused for her. She responded in a thoughtful paragraph and paused for him. It was unnerving.

We've had no word on the outcome of this meeting.

Dating consultants we've interviewed feel that the Internet is fine for fun and games, but serious relationships might not so readily occur. "It's for meeting somebody new, not for settling down," says Julie Wingo, a partner in Wingo International, a La Jolla search firm. "It's so safe. You never have to stick your neck out. Everyone's anonymous. It's a fairyland." Her opinion, naturally, is that emotionally available people with serious intentions of marriage are better off with a good matchmaker.

Sally Gary, author of the Singles Guide to San Diego, calls the Internet "an avenue for sleazy stuff. You can get into trouble chasing pipe dreams." In her own private consultations, Gary focuses on commonality-looking for situations where you'll meet members of the opposite sex with similar interests: financial seminars, community meetings, sports. You might have a better chance of finding your mate on the Internet, she says, if you begin not in the romance chat rooms but in groups discussing travel or computer technology or the stock market.

What else does AOL's romance section offer, aside from steamy, sexy chat rooms? Click on Bare Essentials, where you'll find advice on composing the perfect love letter. Or visit the Love Ship, where you can find romantic gifts for your on-line lover. Or pull up message boards that even AOL admits are "not for the faint of heart." Sample: the first of 10 questions being "Do you believe in waiting more than 48 hours before sleeping with somebody?" Respondents get plenty of space to answer.

Other on-line love help: You can search for your significant other by profession, ethnicity or looks. And as an extra fillip, America Online even gives you the occasional pick-up line: "Excuse me, I seem to be lost. Can you give me directions back to your place?"

Entering an on-line chat room is like putting your image inside a hologram. You are not really there. Neither is anybody else. But they seem so real. They talk, they bluster, they get offended. They leave the room. They come back.

Kristine, one of our San Diego Magazine staffers, confesses to spending many hours in chat rooms. "Not all the romance ones," she hastens to add. "I went into the travel rooms when I was going to Italy. And even now, I keep up a correspondence with someone in Germany."

But despite her protests, Kristine knows her way around those flirt rooms like a regular. "Only seven people in this room," she says disdainfully. "There won't be much action there." We surf until we find a room with 20 participants. "This is better," she announces. "Sometimes you find someone in the room you've talked to before. Then it's like an old friend. Maybe you don't see them for two or three months." (She's using the word "see" as a blind person would.)

Does this entire experience exist only in the imagination? Yes-except that occasionally it produces real-life results. People do find their mates on the Internet. It may be fun and games. But it sometimes has real-life repercussions.

There's my friend who's tried them all-the personals, professional matchmakers, you name it. She dated a matchmaker candidate for about six months, but it didn't pan out. Now she's starry-eyed about the Internet. A friend of hers met her fiancé on-line. And this is a case where the wedding date is set!

So serious on-line love affairs definitely do occur.

Zeldadoll: "I found love. We have a great long-distance relationship. He lives in CA and I live in TX."

Lazysue: "I want to fall in love on AOL."

Zeldadoll: "You can't look for it, Sue. It just has to happen."

Sdmag: "How often do you see each other?"

Zeldadoll: "About every 3-4 weeks. The longest was 7 weeks, and I almost died. He's 27 and I'm 36. But he's mature. I hope he moves here. I have a 5-year-old son. It's a bit complicated, but I'm sure something will pan out."

Meanwhile, this (relatively) lengthy recital seems to have lost our audience. For a few moments no words appear on the screen.

Sdmag: "We seem to have scared everyone away. Are there 20 people here or 2?"

Just as at a regular party, people drift off in pairs-to the hall, out to the landing-or, in computer land, into instant-message mode, talking to each other one on one. Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they don't.

And thus it goes. Sometimes serious talk on one subject empties a room. Many of the entities loitering around us are accustomed to single-word utterances. "Huh" and "Yeah" are, to them, fulsome responses. That's part of why every minute on-line isn't crammed with excitement.

You get the picture. AOL isn't the only on-line service for lovers-but it seems to have the greatest number of chat rooms, many running 24 hours a day. But there's also Prodigy and Compuserve. There's an infinity of cyber-space out there, and a seemingly endless supply of lonely souls.

Well, that's my report. Love on the Internet is a babble of inanities. It's a chaotic churning of empty banter peppered with bad spelling. It's for the lonely and the dreamers, for the serious and the silly. It's a cartoon world peopled by garrulous ghosts with ridiculous names.

I didn't want the assignment, and I didn't make any new friends. A couple of people tried to Instant Message me, but I panicked when I heard the beep.

It's now 3 a.m., and who can sleep? I wander over to the computer. My right hand closes around the mouse, and my left hand drifts to the keyboard. Oh, well... what else is there to do? I begin typing:

"HELLO, ROOM!"

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