The relentless countdown to Valentine's Day in cyberspace has really been getting on my nerves. America Online Inc. hawks flowers and chocolate every time you log on. Your kids visit the Walt Disney Co. Web site and get hit with pitches to send "Pooh grams" to their "hunnies." And the volume of creepy porn spam in my E-mailbox is unbearable.
But for my friend Jan, a 37-year-old Silicon Valley software engineer, love in cyberspace is definitely all it's cracked up to be. She's getting married on Valentine's Day to a guy she met a year ago through an online dating service. Jan's attractive and bright. And her fiance's no Dilbert, either: He's a 38-year-old, very successful, six-foot-three entrepreneur. No wonder her family didn't blink at her intended's electronic origins. "Everybody thinks it's great," she says. "I feel incredibly lucky."
Online romance has gone mainstream. Millions of people now think meeting or wooing over the Internet is about as remarkable as calling on the phone. Traffic is zooming at an array of Internet sites made for everything from finding a partner with just the right religious beliefs to ogling hardcore porn during a coffee break.
But even in Silicon Valley, people are debating: Is all this a great step forward in human relations or the end of romance? Is it hip? Sick? Innocent? Or dangerous? It can be any and all of that, I'm discovering.
IN A HURRY. Right-wing radio poster boy Rush Limbaugh is probably the most famous person to meet his eventual bride, Marta Fitzgerald, in cyberspace, although he is far from alone. Sites like Match.com, Conde Nast Publications' Swoon.com, and more targeted dating sites--like AOL's "Jewish singles," section where Jan met her groom-to-be--say hundreds of thousands of users are trolling their personal ads and connecting. Meet Hugh, a 47-year-old, twice-divorced Silicon Valley real estate executive. He went after a mate the way his fellow entrepreneurs seek venture funds: "I'm a goal-oriented guy. I wrote a business plan. How can I be happily married in the shortest amount of time?"
His answer: Joining more than 100,000 other people who use Match.com. After reviewing half a dozen candidates he found a "smart, very attractive, vivacious" senior executive he wooed for six months with E-mail and weekend dates. Seven months ago they married. One of his favorite moments: When a newly divorced buddy, who was skeptical of online dating, met Hugh's wife. "I could just see the look on his face. He was thinking, `Wow, Hugh's got quite a catch there."'
Not all the love nests in cyberspace are as straightforward or cozy as Hugh's and Jan's, however. For one group of online romancers, high-speed networks give new meaning to the term "quickie." Drop by AOL's chat areas and it's just a few clicks to titillatingly titled rooms such as "Man alone in office." Visitors are instantly grilled for age and sex, and invited to join a raunchy discourse.
There's no question cybersex is invading the workplace. A recent survey from Stanford University found that roughly 20% of those going online for sexual material use their office computers to do so. When you figure about 15% of the estimated 57 million Americans who use the Web visit adult sites, you start to understand why that quiet guy you work with toggled to another screen so fast when you barged into his cubicle.
Not surprisingly, plenty of folks are getting carried away. Judy Fowler, a Silicon Valley human resources attorney and consultant, says companies are asking her for help in dealing with employees' Internet sex adventures. Those can include workday hours spent at adult sites or even more elaborate misdeeds--such as an executive who was using his computer to check sexual escort availability in cities where the company has sales offices. "The issue is not sex. In Silicon Valley, we call wasting time on the Internet a `performance issue,"' Fowler says. To avoid problems, Fowler urges her clients to make clear to employees something many forget: The company owns everything you write on its computers or babble on its voicemail system. It's not private, and it's not even yours.
INNOCENT FUN. Of course, there are plenty of lower temperature chat rooms and sites where people can spend a quiet evening conversing a la You've Got Mail. Maybe they share a love of orchids or like to debate bridge strategies. But therapists are reporting that the ersatz innocent good fun of You've Got Mail rings hollow in several respects. The characters had real-life relationships even as they cooed online, but those neatly dissolved before the big meeting.
In reality, the number of couples seeking marital counseling these days because of the disastrous fallout of one partner's cybersex dalliances is "exploding," according to Al Cooper, a Stanford University psychologist who directed the Internet sex survey. Moreover, Cooper says the allure of the Internet's affordability, accessibility, and anonymity are creating problems with sexual compulsions for both couples and unattached single people. Those can include obsessive viewing of pornography or cheating on a spouse with an online lover. Cooper also is director of the San Jose Marital & Sexuality Centre, which advertises counseling help for "Internet involvements."
Yet another recipe for heartbreak: The correspondents finally meet, but the chemistry crashes like a warped hard drive. Her extra five pounds is actually 50. His definition of a full head of hair proves to be a bit thin. He's married and reveals his wife is actually the author of those sexy stanzas he supposedly wrote.
And there are true monsters online. "Cyberstalking" is when someone uses E-mail or the Internet to harass another person. And there is a small but growing list of crime victims who met their attackers or stalkers over the Internet. Even online romance advocates urge considerable caution: Cybersex "can escalate much faster than real relationships" warns Deb Levine, author of The Joy of Cybersex. She urges couples to take precautions (see table, page 26B) before meeting.
If you feel you're missing the online love boat, also realize that disappointments are not reserved for geeks and wallflowers. Recently, Elizabeth Ferrarini, a Boston publicist and model, issued her own press release to trumpet how her several-month, E-mail correspondence with flamboyant Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison led him to invite her to dinner in his San Francisco home. Their online relationship, she says, was sparked when she sent Ellison, 55, known for dating young women, a letter and provocative photo of herself looking not a day over 30.
What's not in the press release: Ferrarini, who is 50, admits that her date with the billionaire bachelor was cut short when Ellison pled a "family emergency." She's heard from him since, but not much. Oracle had no comment. Of course, Ellison's got a company to run. Time spent with Ferrarini could have turned into a performance issue.