The Joys And Dangers Of Love On The Internet

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I met my husband online!' In the world of dating and mating, technology is an important

I met my husband online!' In the world of dating and mating, technology is an important element in connecting couplesAFTER falling in love with the woman of his dreams, Carl Miller sublet his apartment and made the 1,200-mile drive from Louisiana to Maryland to be with Tracey Hale, the woman who had stolen his heart. Six months later, he asked her to marry him. What's different about this seemingly simple tale of love and happiness is how this couple met.

While singles were looking for love at singles clubs, on blind dates and in personal ads, this couple was building their relationship on the Internet. Carl, under his username, "downsouthhustla'" and Tracey, under her username "silkyvelvetvoice," met for the first time in a chat room. Downsouthhustla' was drawn to Silkyvelvetvoice because she had an opinion and wasn't afraid to express it. Silkyvelvetvoice was drawn to Downsouthhusla' because of his "realness" and the strength of his character. The two made an immediate connection, and after two years and several separations in contact, Carl knew that he could not live without Tracey Hale in his life.

Fairy-tale stories like Carl and Tracey's are among the reasons that African-American singles have broadened their range of dating options, turning to the World Wide Web for meeting, matching and sometimes marrying their soul mates. "We are a living testament to the belief that love can be found on the Internet," says Hale. "It's not all sexual deviants, liars and folks with pretenses."

BlackVoices.com, the Web site where Hale and Miller began their nontraditional romance, recognized the needs of an underserved audience and created a market that didn't exist. "African-American women, in particular, have become much more aggressive in seeking mates and they are determined to find just the right guy," says BlackVoices.com CEO, Barry Cooper. "Once we started hearing this ... we had to add dating to BlackVoices.com."

The success of BlackVoices.com, which recently partnered with 91agri.com, has given rise to similar projects, including BlackPlanet.com and HappilySingle.com, each offering ease, convenience and a user-friendly format. Interested singles are able to create a personal profile of who they are, what they want, and a search of available singles (who are also registered on the site) is conducted. The result is a detailed list, including photographs, of prospective "matches." From height, hair color, hopes, dreams and fears, you can specify exactly what you want in your ideal mate. "Few of us would approach a stranger in a bar and hand him a double-sided card listing our likes and dislikes, but the Internet allows us to do just that," says Cooper. "In just one week, you can screen 100 to 200 prospects, all with a few clicks of a mouse."

But everyone who logs on isn't necessarily looking for love. Some are simply seeking comradery, an opportunity to connect with people who understand the ups and downs of the single life. "Unfortunately, society puts so much pressure on people to be in relationships, especially women, that we forget that being happy with ourselves is necessary in order to be happy with someone else," says Michael Baisden, CEO of Happilysingle.com and the best-selling author of God's Girl to Women. "I created Happilysingle.com to assist mature adults in finding compatible mates who have one common goal to be happy and drama-free."

Catering to an increasingly selective mature-adult dating pool, BlackPlanetLove.com, a branch of BlackPlanet.com, attracts more than 1,500,000 singles looking to make that special connection. In addition to 2,000 new sign-ups per day, BlackPlanetLove.com offers speed-dating, an instant messenger service, and a mutual admirer system that matches more than 7,000 couples per day. "I'm convinced that our focus on getting people to have fun, meet new people and flirt is what's made us so successful," says Zakia Washington, marketing coordinator for BlackPlanet.com.

The success of Love in a Hurry, BlackPlanet.com's version of speed dating, has also increased connections among singles looking for love. With Love in a Hurry, participants have a chance to meet, greet and date up to 25 eligible singles in one night. The concept involves an equal amount of men and women participating in a rotating dating schedule at a selected club or lounge. Each date is 3 minutes long and is rated using a scorecard given to each participant. At the end of the evening, all scorecards are collected and singles are notified via e-mail, if there were any matches. "With Love in a Hurry, you're able to meet single individuals just like you without an extended date commitment," says Arul Sundaram, executive director of member revenues for BlackPlanet.com. "It's a comfortable atmosphere, there is face-to-face interaction and there is a discreet way of rejection if the person is not a match."

Neal Correia met his wife online at BlackPlanet.com and encourages others to try online dating. "My wife and I chatted for almost one month before we met in person," says Correia. "It was love at `first type.' We fell in love immediately and were married after 3 1/2 months of online dating. We threw caution to the wind."

Despite the growing popularity of online dating and its services, experts suggest that parents monitor the use of these services for teenagers under the age of 18. Careful investigation of a Web site's offerings and requirements, experts say, is also essential in making a decision to use specific services. As with the use of any online service, including dating, researchers advise adults to use caution in providing personal, professional or financial information.

But mature adults, armed with the insight and experiences to build new relationships, are taking advantage of online dating and its benefits. "The thing I like about online dating is getting to know someone's mental state before you dive right in," says a Happilysingle.com user. "Without the pressure of dating or a sexual relationship, you can go at your own pace. Building a solid friendship and foundation is essential."

Ultimately, the success of these online dating services rest at the fingertips of those who log on. Neal Correia, whose whirlwind romance led him down the aisle, advises singles to be positive, open-minded and honest, admitting that there was an amazing chemistry and attraction between him and his wife. "We clicked online instantly, so when we met, it was the best feeling in the world," says Correia. "We are both very much in love and recommend this form of dating to all of our friends."