By Faith Keenan I admit it: I don't have a date for Valentine's Day. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, since having a date can be as disappointing -- often more so -- than not having one. A raft of Web-based dating services say they can change that, promising to irrevocably transform dating the way the Web has car buying and furniture shopping. But with hope triumphing over experience yet again, I decided to try to click my way to that near-perfect creature who lets me talk every so often (and actually listens), bathes daily, doesn't do drugs, and isn't looking for Mommy.
Still, I approached these sites the same way I do most men: warily. What about those women who've been raped, beaten, or even killed after meeting the person they've been doing a cyber-tango with? What kind of creeps might I meet? Why didn't I just say yes 20 years ago to that great guy from home who eventually became a prison guard? The answers: Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are more people who have good or at least nonthreatening experiences with online dating than there are those who run into real weirdos. There likely are plenty of cyberpsychos, but you can screen them out and protect yourself with veiled online addresses. And the prison guard was a good guy, but life in upstate New York wasn't for me.
But like any good relationship, figuring out which of the many dating sites might suit you takes time and commitment. Feeling like Cupid shooting in the dark, I started with the biggest target -- match.com, since it's one other singles I know use. I also decided to crash the Jewish site, JDate.com, because I've always wanted to meet a nice Jewish boy and the odds seem better in New York than even in Tel Aviv. I also dipped into rightstuffdating.com -- a site for Ivy Leaguers -- but was quickly turned off by its pretentious offerings, including online galleries for members to "present their passions, interests, and ideas in a unique way," and steep price of $3.10 per referral and $70 up front (for a six-month membership).
WHAT PRICE LOVE? Most sites charge a flat fee. For JDate, it's $19.95 for the first month, $99.95 for a year. Match.com costs $24.95 a month, $99.55 for a year. At the other end of the spectrum was Socialnet.com, which is free but made me feel like I was searching for guys at the Jersey Shore. My match-search turned up Captain Mojo, who said, "We could be heroes..." and Arya40, "In Search of my Destiny." Apparently, you get what you pay for.
Who wins this dating game? So far, it's match.com. It's the easiest to use, they don't ask cheesy questions about love and life, the price is reasonable, and the site sends invitations to meet-and-match wine tastings, parties, and other events where you can size up the field in one evening. And best of all, I received a response from a prospective date who's a structural engineer, makes a respectable $100,000 to $149,000 a year (or so he says), and knows where Uzbekistan is. You gotta love that in a guy.
To get anywhere on these sites, you have to fill out a profile that tells something about yourself. Most offer a click-down menu for vital statistics, such as age and ethnicity, and require that you fill in dreaded short essays to describe yourself in more detail and specify what you want in a partner. JDate's lengthy registration process, with questions asking political views, salary, personality traits, synagogue attendance, and much more made me feel like I was applying for top-secret security clearance in Heaven.
And the editorial content director got carried away with the body-type choices. There were 17 for women alone, from cuddly to Rubenesque to firm and toned to zaftig. Whatever happened to thin, average, above average? Then you have to describe your sought-after sweetheart. The essay questions were the probing type: "What's the ideal relationship? What have you learned from past relationships?" One guy's posted essay summed up my feelings: "Naaaaaaa. I'm not going there."
Match.com seems to really understand the Net. It knows the importance of quick, catchy headlines, and it gives you a choice on the amount of detail used to describe the perfect mate. First, though, you have to pick an online name, which is intended to attract others from a safe distance. All sites do this and allow you to use an onsite e-mail address or provide your own to avoid being badgered at work or home. Mine is bwbiker (which the site misspelled as uwsbiker), but more creative types pick monikers like musicalmoment or powderboy. You also add a headline: The ones I saw ranged from the stupid, "Whose Glass Slippers is thi- (Smash!)-Oops. Sorry," to the unimaginative, "Hi I'm Dave. Let's Get Together and Have Some Fun."
APPEALING BICEPS. Then you can decide how detailed you want your search to be: You can designate whether height, ethnicity, smoking behavior, religion, body type, and children are important to you and then get into the specifics. The "essay" topics are straightforward: tell something about yourself and what you're looking for in a mate.
When it comes to mixing and matching, though, match.com seems to be missing a link. I specified what I was looking for, but the site didn't match me with guys who were looking for women my age -- 39. (And not a Jack Benny 39, either. I won't have to lie about my age for eight months more). Imagine my disappointment when I clicked on eyedoc900, age 42, who calls himself "professional, honest, warmhearted," only to find that his cutoff point was 36-year-olds. What a jerk.
Had he been more open-minded, contact would have been only an e-mail away. Then it's up to the parties to decide where to go from there. I contacted three potential matches at JDate. One who seemed reasonable in print responded with an automatic reply saying "Wassup pussycat?" That was the end of that. Another posted three pictures of himself -- one in a tux, one holding a beer bottle in one hand, wine glass in the other, and one in shorts and singlet. Sure, the biceps were appealing, but what really kept me clicking was that he seemed to have an interesting mind and a winning way with flattery. He said he was looking for women who tend to be smarter than the guys they go out with.
TATTOOS? When we met for coffee, our conversation turned out to be the usual 20 questions (from him): What book is on your nightstand right now? Eating Chinese Food Naked. What magazines do you subscribe to? The Economist, Columbia Journalism Review, and soon the New Yorker to support my nephew's school fund-raising drive. Do you have any tattoos? No comment. No second date, either.
Bachelor No. 3 didn't get that far. I contacted him mainly because he said he liked to cook. His response sounded promising at first: "I'm intrigued by your name. Keenan doesn't sound Jewish! Don't worry, I won't report you to the rabbinical cops at JDate." Phew. But then he admitted to a simple "repetoire" (sic) in the kitchen. No Paul Prudhomme here. No speller, either. Let that be a lesson: Be sure to check spelling and grammar. It can be a real turnoff if you don't get it right.
That leaves Mr. Uzbekistan. If he doesn't work out, maybe I'll have to splurge on rightstuffdating after all. Faith Keenan covers the Internet for BusinessWeek from New York