Plug In, Turn On, Go Out 

'Twas the year you could finally seek love online and not get laughed at.

It wasn't a good year for Norman Mickey.

Mickey runs a dating service out of a Concord storefront topped by a sign that reads "Video Introductions," with hearts where each "o" should be. For 25 years, he's provided local singles what he considers a safe and effective way to find love, offering not only videotaped personal profiles, but relationship counseling, verification of clients' identities, and his own specially designed "partner compatibility" software. A 63-year-old with a background in social work, Mickey believes that he offers a quality, well-priced product to people looking for prospective mates. "I'm just trying to do the right thing for singles," he says.

But lately, fewer and fewer customers have been stopping by Video Introductions. Instead, they're opting for what Mickey calls "inferior ways to meet people." What he's referring to, of course, is Internet dating. A few years back he launched his own dating site, videointroductions.com, but lately realized he can't compete with the big, slick personals sites. "I really do think our system is superior," he says, "but we can't generate the members." The competition has gotten so bad recently that Mickey doesn't even bother calculating his losses. "I'm not in denial. It's been discouraging," he admits. "The Internet is making it very hard to compete. The future is online."

Unfortunately for him, that future arrived in earnest in 2002. Over the past year, Internet dating has affirmed its spot as the biggest innovation in romantic coupling since safe and effective birth control. As a result, locally owned dating services like Video Introductions are in their death throes. And their older sibling, the classified personal ad, isn't faring much better. Check out the back of any local newspaper if you need proof.

It's no surprise that online dating has eclipsed these old-school matchmaking services. After all, who wouldn't rather spend a few hours surfing full-color, full-page personals than scouring cryptic fifty-word blurbs in the back of a local weekly, or sitting alone in a cubicle fast-forwarding through videotapes? What's perhaps most surprising is that online romancing has attained a level of respectability its brick-and-mortar and ink-and-paper predecessors never had.

The ranks of local lonelyhearts seeking love online have swelled in the past twelve months. "We have seen a big urge -- uh, surge -- in our personals," quips Craig Newmark, founder and namesake of Craigslist.org, the popular San Francisco-based community bulletin board. The number of free personals on the site more than doubled from 50,000 per month last fall to 110,000 in November '02 -- and its personals section now gets more than 1 million page hits per day. It's not just a local trend, of course. This past year, between 15 million and 20 million Americans visited dating sites every month, according to Jupiter Research, and more than $300 million was spent placing the ads. Considering census takers tallied a total of 86 million unmarried adults in 2000, those are some pretty impressive numbers.

Newmark theorizes that this boom in online dating is proof that it's been stripped of its social stigma. "About a year ago, it suddenly became somehow much more acceptable to meet someone online," he says. "Enough people had done it with great success and they started talking about it and we hit a tipping point. Before that, it was viewed as a loser thing."

While the tipping point -- author Malcolm Gladwell's term for when a trend abruptly takes off -- happened this year, an attitude adjustment has been in the works for a while. Four years ago, the blandly wholesome duo of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made AOL chat rooms palatable for Middle America in the movie You've Got Mail. But things didn't reach critical mass until the generation that came of age online embraced digital dating as just another killer app. Sure, it might be kind of geeky, but there are worse things than being a geek these days, and being single is one of them.

Young, urban, tech-savvy Americans aren't uptight about letting it all hang out online, says Louis Kanganis, CEO of Spring Street Networks, which provides Web personals for Salon.com, Nerve.com, and also for New Times, the parent company of the Express. "When I was back in college in the '80s, the personal ads were entertainment," he says. "But people under thirty now use them all the time."

An unscientific survey of East Bay users of online personals turned up plenty of people in their twenties and thirties unashamed of their online exploits. "Five years ago, I would have been a lot more reserved about whether or not I'd let someone know I met someone off the Internet," says Robb Glunt, a 35-year-old from Pleasanton.

Becka Stroud, an Oakland 27-year-old, met her girlfriend Jessica through the personals on Planetout.com. "I was a little worried about online dating but I figured what the hell. I really didn't care what others thought about me going online for a date," she says. "Others now know where I met Jessica, and they seem to be doing the same."

The thing that made print personals fun to read but a pain to use was the dearth of information they included. A serious aversion to emotional baggage could be condensed into three words: "no head games." What makes online personals alluring can also be summed up in three words: "free head shots." And for those who want more, many sites will soon feature video personals. "If I'm sitting around with a bunch of buddies drinking beer, we'll go online and laugh at a bunch of girls' profiles," says John Wahl, who sells video technology to Bay Area dating sites. "But it blows my mind to see the caliber of girls out there."

And mind-blowing moments like those help smash stigmas. A recent study by American Demographics magazine notes that, for all of our Maid in Manhattan fantasies, we tend to date and mate with people of the same ethnicity, educational level, and income bracket. So when we see someone who looks like us on the computer screen, with nice hair, a cute smile, and maybe a tight-fitting sweater, the search for romance loses that aura of desperation.

Web-dating gurus realize this. With their relentless reminders of the thousands of hot singles looking for people just like you, they are marketing safety and success in numbers. And their customers intuitively understand it: The more people posting personals online, the better the odds they'll meet someone.

Yet the thought of being just one face in a huge herd of online singles can be pretty depressing. Thus dating sites have tried to put a romantic gloss on what can be a dehumanizing and random endeavor. Match.com, the Net's biggest personals site with 600,000 members, cleverly walks the line between portraying itself as the world's largest meat market and a purveyor of marriage material. This fall, it hired Alex Michel, the smarmy stud from the first season of The Bachelor, as its celebrity spokesman -- the message being that even if you can't bear to admit how you met your mate, you can still find someone to bring home to the parents. It's apparently working, too, since Internet dating sites logged a record number of visitors this past February, just in time for Valentine's Day.

Back in Concord, Norman Mickey of Video Introductions isn't buying the hype. He's spent much of his professional life trying to get people to overcome their aversions to admitting they're "hard up," and he's not convinced people change so fast. "We're a society that feels ashamed to admit our deficiencies, especially something as personal as our ability to attract somebody," he says.

Mickey, in fact, thinks people are going online as a way around the old stigmas. "People don't want to walk into our doors because they're ashamed," he sighs. "They'd rather stay at home in their pajamas and go online with an anonymous name."

There may be something to his theory. Either way, it appears 2002 was the year old-fashioned matchmakers like Mickey officially became an endangered species.

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