Oh no: I've got cyber-male

He's friendly, flirtatious and he's always on the Internet. There's a reason for that.
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The Independent Culture
This week sees the release of You've Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan playing two people who hate each other's guts. Then what do you know? They fall anonymously in love on the Internet. E-mail romance is shown to be a dating triumph. Their cyber love, confronted with reality, is a resounding success. But, like sex on celluloid, real life invariably falls somewhat short. Virtual love is the great technological rip-off. I know, I tried it.

OK, so in America over 1,000 marriages have taken place, thanks to the American service provider AOL's Personals database. But then this is a country where people give their lovers "to do" lists for the bedroom, and dating agencies are one of the most popular ways to meet a prospective lover.

I met tom.conat a couple of months ago. But before you label me a lonely misfit, let me say that chancing upon an online chat-room is as easy as ordering a drink. Anyone can become an addict. All it takes is an unchecked moment of boredom, a yearning for (testosterone) appreciation and you too can become sucked into the world of virtual romance.

It all started when my flatmate told me she was having a virtual affair. From then on, evenings were spent dissecting her latest e-mail. I admit I was jealous. She had that wet-lipped glow of the hormonally awakened and the phrase "just going upstairs to check my e-mail" began to sound like a stuck record. The only thing for it was to get a virtual man for myself.

I had to plough through many cyber-frogs before I met my virtual prince. Apart from the usual stalkers offering free cyber-smut, and the inevitable dullards, I finally e-mailed Tom. What can I say? Tom was at times candid and kind, then, just as I was getting into a feisty stride, he would come back with a commanding, caustic one-liner and I would again be his submissive cyber-babe.

Soon I had acquired my very own cyber-glow. People asked me what I was on. Virtual endorphines and online pleasure hormones, I said. They thought I was mad. I just smiled.

Tom and I had been playing verbal ping-pong for too long. Our e-mails, once so full of wit and mild flirtation, soon turned to sincerity and frank desire. We disclosed our innermost fears. Liberated by the anonymity of the screen, we talked about childhood, our disappointments, and what we expected in bed. It was intoxicatingly seductive. The obvious step was to put a face to my gallant stranger. So, I made the big e-mail mistake. I asked him for a proper date.

Two days later I was sitting at the corner table of our designated bar. He had said he had the body of an athlete and the rugged features of an Italian mafioso. Visions of Tommy Lee Jones and Oliver Reed (in his younger days) sprang to mind. Suddenly a slow voice jolted me out of my reverie. "Hi, I'm your homus cyberus," it said. Then as I turned round, someone more reminiscent of Joe Pesci and Danny De Vito smiled hopefully at me. He was in his mid-forties (he claimed to be 36) with a goatee beard, dressed in a "mad for it" cagoule and drawstring trousers. I had been lusting for a fashion victim dressed like an adolescent hip-hop fan. I had wasted two months revealing my innermost secrets to a charlatan.

But who was I trying to kid? E-mail dating is all about illusion. Hidden from reality, we enhance ourselves and tone down our bad points. Even the most verbally challenged can prepare a witty e-mail.

Imagining that love can be based on the written word is to delude oneself. Sexual chemistry - that elusive X-factor - depends on many unquantifiable ingredients. How we talk, move and even smell is just scratching the surface. So deprived of most of these elements, e-mail is a highly inadequate method of matchmaking. Needless to say, Tom and I never got round to a second drink. My e-mail facility is now used purely for business purposes and as for finding Mr Right, it's back to the security of the time-honoured dinner party.