Even objectivists yearn for romance.
Adherents of Ayn Rand's philosophy may strive to live with an emphasis on the power of reason and objective reality, but that didn't stop Stephanie Betit and Jamie Hancock from falling so crazy in love that they'd constantly email during work, talk on the phone until 4 a.m. and drive for nine hours to see each other.
Frustrated with her love life, Vermonter Betit, a 32-year-old special-education coordinator, wondered aloud to a girlfriend, "How the heck do you meet people nowadays who are intelligent, don't do drugs, don't drink and are serious about life?" Her friend recommended that Betit try the Atlasphere, a website for Rand devotees.
Hancock, 35-year-old chief executive of a software development company and another fervent objectivist, had been regularly scanning the Atlasphere for about a year from his home in Toronto when Betit's newly posted profile appeared on the site. He was immediately taken with her "defiant volitional attitude."
"Her profile said, 'I am me, take me as I am or don't, because I value myself and I value my opinion of myself.' That was exactly what I was looking for," Hancock says. "That and the fact that she was a fan of Ayn Rand, Ron Paul and loved animals, since I had an Alaskan white wolf and a lynx-point Siamese."
How the heck do you meet people who are both serious Ayn Rand devotees and serious animal lovers? Or perhaps, a fellow gothic vampire who shares your passion for cooking and jet skis? A serious vegetarian who works in the airline industry? Or a gamer girl who will understand your devotion to "World of Warcraft" and numismatics?
The field of prospective partners who share your same secret obsession may be narrow, but that's exactly what singles drawn to the increasing number of highly specialized Internet dating sites are on the prowl for: a way to increase their odds of success by decreasing the size of their respondent pool.
"If you get together with someone like you in some very important respect, that can be the basis for a successful relationship," says Dr. Robert Epstein, a San Diego County research psychologist who has studied online dating. "A lot of relationships start with that kind of thing, and sometimes people can build around that connection."
Epstein divides dating sites into three categories: the "long bar," the "long test" and the "niche." A hugely popular and well-known site, like the aptly named PlentyOfFish.com would be a "long bar" site — like going to a bar that stretches on for miles, with a nearly infinite number of people to drink, date or flirt with. The "long test" sites, such as Chemistry.com, start users off with a lengthy personality questionnaire that can take up to 45 minutes to complete — a process that tends to eliminate those afraid of commitment — then requires them to wait for the site to dole out its computer-chosen matches.
But a woman who posts an attractive photo on a popular site can easily have hundreds of replies to sift through, and that's where niche sites come in: They're weeder-outers. Users know going in that they'll have at least one thing in common with a prospective inamorata/o, which makes for easier first-date icebreaking.
If Ayn Rand isn't your turn-on, the Net can certainly provide something that is. Sites like JDate, SingleMuslim or BuddhistConnect, which match singles on the basis of religion, are among the earliest and most common types of specialized dating networks. And things have only become more diverse. Neck biters can hunt for bite-ees at VampirePassions. Aviators are promised that they'll "never fly solo again" at Crewdating, a site for pilots and flight attendants. "World of Warcraft" gamers search for love at (the somewhat male-dominated) Datecraft. Cupidtino, the "Mac-inspired" dating site for Apple fanboys and girls, boasts that it's "packed with designers, photographers, musicians, and tons of creative types." Single members of the Bahai faith turn to TwoDoves, and vegans can search for partners on sites like VeggieDate, VeggieFishing or VeggiePassions that cater to their desire for cruelty-free love.
It doesn't hurt that smaller niche sites are less expensive — or, in many cases, free — while larger counterparts tend to cost a lot more. Users of eHarmony, for example, can pay $59.95 per month.
It's easy to see why certain types of people would be far happier mingling among their own kind than they would being thrown into one big matchmaking melting pot.
A sample profile from GothDating.com reads: "I'm a nocturnal being. I like being out of sight of others. Though I like the loneliness it brings me, I also hate it because it makes me so alone. I'm sorta like a mysterious creature from the forest."
By contrast, a listing at FarmersOnly.com says: "I raise hay and apples and love the outdoors. I live in a real small town. I am a volunteer fireman. I love to get on my quad and go for a ride up in the mountains. I like fishing and camping, looking for Indian arrow heads. Looking for a non smoker and non drinker so we can injoy life with a clear head in gods creations."
There are also sites for people with more serious challenges, such as Dating4Disabled or DisabledCupid. OstoDate, a meet-up service for people with colostomies, helps members get a significant disclosure out of the way early, and NoLongerLonely exclusively serves adults with mental illness in search of an understanding partner.
Of course, there are no guarantees in dating, online or off. Despite prominently featured "success stories" and marketing claims that imply otherwise, Epstein points out that no site can offer reliable data on its success rate because people can define success in such vastly different ways. Younger people who aren't interested in marriage might call three good dates a success, while others will settle for nothing less than holy matrimony.
Then there's the problem that some niche sites are more authentically specialized than others — in other words, that spelunkers dating site might not have been created by actual spelunkers. Several companies have figured out an extremely cost-effective business model: Use the same software engine with a different specialty description slapped onto the home page. Some dating-site operators even share the same pools of singles' profiles with one another, so that a new site doesn't have to debut with an empty roster. But dating sites can make up in volume what they lack in precision. "As long as they're introducing people to each other, now and then two of those people are going to hit it off," Epstein says. "As Aristotle said, 'It is the nature of probability that improbable things will happen.'"
Stephanie Betit says that a few people responded to her Atlasphere profile, "but it just didn't seem like they were wholeheartedly understanding all of the principles of objectivism, and living their life that way." Jamie Hancock, however, was the real deal, she says. After three weeks of emails and late-night phone calls, Hancock made the long drive to Betit's home for their first date, and six months later, the two were married. Today, the couple have a 2½-year-old daughter, and they both say they wouldn't hesitate to recommend online dating to others.
"What the online dating does is that it filters out everybody that doesn't share your same values and viewpoints," Hancock says.
Betit — now Betit-Hancock — agrees.
"I'd always meet people who I had politics in common with, but their reason for wanting to vote for Ron Paul was entirely different from my reason for wanting to vote for Ron Paul," she says. "We wouldn't hit it off at all."