Theirs was the stuff of romantic comedy plot devices. After living near each other in several East Coast locations without ever getting together Andrew Jacob, 30, and his girlfriend, Jennifer Baker, 29, met when he was in Santa Monica and she was in Culver City. Well, to be more accurate, they met when they were both online.
Chances are none of this sounds avant-garde. Since the first routers connected to the first modems, the Internet has made love (or lust) connections. In July, Piper Jaffray Investment Research predicted that U.S. spending on online dating would reach $1.7 billion annually by 2013 — not hard to fathom, as the study says we spent $1.2 billion on the industry in 2008. Nowadays, "Which site were you on?" has become almost as immediate a response to a friend's announcement of a new paramour as "What does she do?" or "Where did he grow up?" (For Baker and Jacob, the answers would be an emergency room physician's assistant from Italy and Hampton, Va., for her, a business banker/personal trainer from Newport, R.I., for him, and PlentyofFish.com).
The Internet is essentially the world's largest bar, explains Mark Brooks, the editor of the industry news site OnlinePersonalsWatch.com.
The first step could just be figuring out which nightspot is right for you: There are those with no cover charges, such as PlentyofFish.com and OKCupid.com, and hookup spots a la Fling.com and OnlineBootyCall.com. There are "theme nights" that are geared toward particular interests, such as BikerPlanet.com, and "neighborhood watering holes" that are based on religion or culture, such as JDate.com (for those seeking a Jewish mate) or AsiaFriendFinder.com. Behind the velvet rope, there's the comfort in name recognition from the likes of EHarmony.com and Match.com. Or just get a VIP pass and rely on a friendly yenta through ELove.com and BharatMatrimony.com.
"One of our more popular sites as of late is DateaCougar.com," says Stephen Ventura, vice president of First Beat Media, which owns niche sites including GothScene.com, BikerPlanet.com, FitnessDates.com and others that are essentially Facebook fan pages for interest groups, with the added element for potential romance.
Meanwhile, there are even more chances to let the software do the guesswork for you, as the personality-test method popularized by the likes of EHarmony.com and Chemistry.com isn't going away — even Spark Networks, which is famous for JDate.com, now has one on several of their sites, and Match.com uses one on the recently launched MatchAffinity.com.
Although there's some debate as to the usefulness of these tests, you can be sure of one thing: It's unlikely the majority of the users are commitment-phobes.
"EHarmony has [about 250] questions in their questionnaire," says Julie Spira of CyberDatingExpert.com and author of "The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online." "Anyone who signs up with eHarmony is truly serious about having a relationship with someone."
Online dating sites aren't the only way to find that special someone. There will always be the lucky folk who find kinship in the unofficial dating pools of social networking sites. Witness local blogger A.V. Flox, who edits Sexandthe405.com and has vowed to date only guys she's met on Twitter.
"[On Twitter], you're having a conversation with people without any external factors like physical looks," she says. "It's just really raw. It's just who the person is. You edit what you say on your blog [or e-mail], but on Twitter you will tweet 'Ow, I stubbed my toe.' It's really great stuff and indicative of personality."
Flox tweets at @avflox and @sexandthe405, but eager followers should note that she's been in a monogamous relationship for three months. One guess as to how they met.
Want a dash of romance with your social networking? Brooks says to look to something like the social dating site Zoosk. It syncs with a users' Facebook, MySpace or other network's profile page to create a giant cross-network of available matches. As in the days of Friendster, your posse can write testimonials on why you're a good catch on your Zoosk wall. Spark's Kizmeet is attempting something similar.
Still, Brooks says it's unlikely that social networking sites will kill the online dating market.
"If people are anonymous, people tend to be more aggressive and more outspoken," he says. "On an Internet dating site, if you want to cut somebody off, you can easily. When you're on a social network, you have to be [polite] because their friends are watching."
As with so many other things, the instant satisfaction of dating by hand-held device continues in popularity. Match.com's mobile members alone grew 250% from 2008 to 2009, says Whitney Casey, Match.com's relationship expert. But of course, dating via mobile device isn't just about an application that organizes your e-mail responses and winks. As Casey puts it, it's a "singles GPS."
"Let's say you're out with a bunch of girlfriends and you want to find people who fit your profile," she explains. "You can do a search for just your area code. It's not so dangerous because you're not giving them the address to your house. Meeting people at a bar is great, but meeting people at a bar who fit your criteria is even better."
Industry experts Brooks and Spira also praise GPS-based mobile applications like Skout and Foursquare that let users find out what people are doing and where they are so they can join the party at the bar or restaurant and meet new people.
"I'm looking forward to people using Internet dating on the iPad," Brooks adds. "You can look up a profile very easily on that format. The iPhone is still a phone."
For those who want to approximate a real in-person date before spending time and money on what might very well be an awkward first date, CyberDatingExpert.com's Spira says to look to webcams.
"People are so conditioned on the first date to be disappointed that you don't look like your photo," she explains. She lists Speeddate.com or WooMe.com, both meet-via-webcam sites with younger clienteles, as success stories because their users tend to be less inhibited and quick learners of the software platform. "With video, what you see is what you get. But the older people in their 40s and 50s aren't taking the time to do videos. You're just getting them to join online dating for the first time so it's like baby steps."
Virtual sites, such as Second Life, OmniDate.com and Weopia.com, or even gaming sites, such as World of Warcraft (where romances have sometimes sparked between members of the gamers' playing guilds), are perfect for those who are "gadget oriented" but also add another layer of anonymity, Spira says — something that can be a pro or a con. She says that virtual daters should get real pictures of their suitors before getting too serious.
Blame the boom on the economy: Finances have tanked and people might have felt more alone than ever, which could explain why websites like PlentyofFish and OKCupid had a moment in 2009. Hitwise reports that visits to free dating sites like those rose 19% over the previous year.
But there's always been the notion that love shouldn't be something you have to purchase. Jeff Testerman, 28, who met his wife, Melissa, 26, on PlentyofFish.com in 2006, chose free services because "for me, spending money on [online dating] signaled the fact that I was desperate."
Spira says it's also common for online daters to be on several dating sites at once, at least one of which is free. But there might be a lot of abandoned profiles on free sites because "if you are paying $50 a month for an online dating site, you're going to pay more attention to those e-mails. It's economics."
There's also the too-good-to-be-true notion. Baker, the lovebird/ER physician's assistant, says she was skeptical of PlentyofFish because it was free and she thinks people might "prefer to pay for Match or EHarmony because it seems more legit and because it eliminates a certain crowd of people."
"You're gonna have to take the responsibility," she says. "There's gonna be some heavy sifting. That doesn't matter to me because that's true to real life too. I knew what I wanted very clearly. Andrew knew exactly what he wanted. Any dating website in my life would be trying to deal with those people and finding those guys who lined up with my goals."