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Love's Road Is Bumpy, Even When It's High-Tech

October 11, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a New York writer. Her Web site: www.norah vincent.com.

Placing or answering a personal ad used to be a cause for shame. If you did it, you did it on the sly and lied about it. More often, though, you ridiculed the very idea, reading aloud the back pages of your local free weekly with the same campy tone of condescension that you reserved for the dirty parts of pulp novels. And there was a good reason for such disdain. Advertising for love represents the nadir of the romantic ideal, the cynical commodification of that most precious and mysterious of human emotions. The stigma surrounding such ads was justified.

But now that stigma is gone, or so the proliferation of high-tech personals on the Web would seem to suggest, and that has led to the kind of debased and panting free-for-all that makes good old-fashioned promiscuity look quaint. The Internet has ushered in a brassy new world of dial-up, free-market romance that far outstrips its clunky and geeky predecessor, the computer date. Personal ads are infinitely more sophisticated than they used to be. Most now come with color pictures, detailed profiles and instant messaging capabilities. And people are placing them in far greater numbers. What's more, they're doing so with exhibitionistic abandon, consenting to have their mugs and foibles beamed around the globe via the Web sites of publications like Salon, the Onion, LA Weekly, Jane and Time Out New York. Each day, some new ripe and marketable face appears, complete with a quirky teaser dripping with hip innuendo, until you begin to wonder whatever happened to the joys of anonymity.

The brains behind the blitzkrieg is Spring Street Networks, which has made a business of repackaging personal ads and selling them to publications whose audiences fit the sought-after demographic: young, savvy, cool. Spring Street Chairman Rufus Griscom says the personals account for 50% of the income of Spring Street parent Nerve.com and probably a considerable portion of subscriber publications' incomes as well. Love for sale, anyone? Add money, money, money, plus a lot of desperate people and the technological know-how to sell the bejesus out of their insecurities, and you get the "catch of the day" following you through the ether with his virtual fly open.

Spring Street Vice President Brian Battjer ascribes the company's success to something he calls the "credit-based" model of personal advertising. Users browse ads free but have to buy credits to send messages to the irresistible "hottie" who, they've just learned, happens to be online at this very moment. Contact happens and the register goes cha-ching! as the users buy more credits to keep up the badinage.

More people are meeting their dates and mates online, which seems like a good thing on the surface. Epistolary romance is making a comeback, as are the staid courtship rituals that went with it. Instead of jumping into bed with someone they met in a pickup joint, people are learning about each other's childhoods, likes and dislikes and even personal habits long before they meet. But then comes the kicker. All too often, people fall in love with what has been hyperbolized in cyberspace and inevitably are disappointed when they meet their keyboard pals face to face.

How could it be otherwise? Some real and lasting encounters happen but with the same frequency as they happen in real life: rarely. Blanketing the Internet with your psychosexual resume may get you more dates, but it isn't going to change the brutal odds of true love.

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