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COMMITMENTS : Cybersea of Love : In the kind of world that makes it difficult for the unattached to find each other, romance is blossoming in the community called on-line. Could it be the singles bar of the '90s?

August 07, 1995|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Andrew Rosen met his future bride, the moment was hardly the stuff of romance. In fact, the two were hundreds of miles apart staring at computer screens, separate souls adrift on the cybersea of the Internet.

"1955. Great year," Rosen, an advertising consultant from Agoura Hills, e-mailed to Tucson schoolteacher Gina Margolis. The missive, referring to their shared birth year, became the first of a correspondence and friendship that blossomed into romance in the increasingly popular realm of on-line chat rooms.

They plan to marry in December, a year after they met and began writing back and forth in the Jewish singles chat room of America Online. Over the past several months, at least half a dozen other couples from the same chat room have announced their engagements.

And as more people venture onto the computer networks--America Online alone boasts 3 million subscribers--love is turning up alongside stock prices, soap opera digests and sports scores.

For some, the on-line world has taken the place of smoky bars and cocktail parties as they search for a mate. Although computer and human behavior experts warn of the well-publicized dangers of on-line encounters, they agree that electronic relationships can be just as healthy as those that start in more traditional ways.

"It's a wonderful way to meet people," said Gilda Carle, a Yonkers, N.Y., psychotherapist who hosts a weekly advice show on MTV. Carle particularly admires the way on-line relationships tend to start by baring the soul instead of the body.

"Many people now run right into a bedroom scene and they never get to know each other," Carle said. "This may help put values back in dating. I think it brings romance back to the fore."

Or as Rosen put it, on-line relationships allow couples to "get to know someone from the inside out instead of the outside in."

Rosen and Margolis corresponded several times in the relative safety of the chat rooms before Rosen asked Margolis for her phone number. By the time they finally spoke on the phone, the pair knew enough about each other for the conversation to flow freely.

"There is a certain kind of intimacy about meeting somebody on-line," Rosen said. "You are writing to them and they are writing to you. It's like a level playing field. When you meet someone on-line you don't know if they are 6-foot-9 or 4-foot-5. You don't know if they are blond or brunet. You're just meeting people."

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Chat rooms are among the most popular attractions of commercial services such as America Online or Prodigy. They are virtual parties that host large numbers of people with common interests and allow them to send instant messages to the whole group or privately to each other.

When Margolis stumbled into the Jewish singles room for the first time, she had no idea what to expect, but she quickly made herself comfortable. Even so, she was taken slightly aback when Rosen struck up a conversation with her.

"I thought this was very weird," Margolis said. "There I was in the privacy of my house talking to somebody in California. It was fun. It was safe. I could have ended it whenever I wanted to. I had a lot of control."

A few weeks later, Rosen drove to Tucson to meet Margolis. The two spent a friendly weekend together--Rosen stayed in a hotel--but neither felt any sparks. Over the next several weeks, however, as they chatted more on-line and over the telephone, love blossomed. Margolis' 5-year-old daughter and Rosen's 8-year-old son also hit it off.

They were engaged in April and Rosen moved to Tucson last week.

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The two still enjoy telling their computer-phobic friends how they met. But Margaret Ryan, an America Online spokeswoman, said she sees nothing odd about Rosen and Margolis finding each other on-line.

"The service is a reflection of the real world," Ryan said. "Chances are you'll find someone you are compatible with as people understand more and more that it's a community. It's not just people on computers."

But others caution those looking for love on-line to be careful. Many times, all anyone in a chat room knows about the other people is what they choose to disclose.

"There is a lot of role-playing--people pretending to be male or female," said William McCarthy, a classics professor and on-line enthusiast from Washington, D.C.

Those sorts of dangers can be overcome, McCarthy said, as the computer networks increase in speed and power, someday allowing live video to be transferred from terminal to terminal. "It all comes down to being just another place to meet people, like singles bars."

That's how Danny Gold and Jessica Marks of New Jersey look at it. Like Rosen and Margolis, they met in the Jewish singles room and chatted back and forth before Gold, a chef, asked Marks, a special-education teacher, for her phone number.

They talked for six hours and then met for coffee since they lived only a few minutes from each other. Marks said she was apprehensive about a date, but felt more comfortable when they agreed to meet at a busy bookstore.

"I was so nervous," she said. "But his smile made all that go away. It's like we went through the first couple of months of dating on the computer. We didn't have to do all that when we met. When we met for the first time, the main thing we were looking for in the attraction department was whether we were physically attracted to each other. Since we were, it went farther than just being friends."

They plan to marry in June.

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