Fancy a boink?: Making the first move in person can be difficult, so people are turning to their computers. Christopher Wain reports on love notes with a difference

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Each era brings a new approach to seeking partners. The computer offers us the Internet, the system whereby users at their terminals are linked with others across the world.

There has, for some time, been an American-dominated news- group called soc. singles on which people talk to each other and seek compatible partners. There is also uk. singles, a British-based group, sometimes likened to a cocktail party at which everyone is wearing a blindfold.

The way the system works is that people post messages which may be read and replied to by anyone who has access to the net. When you find someone whose message attracts you, you can talk to them directly and personally by electronic mail before meeting them face to face.

Is this a promising way to find the love of your life - or even a significant other? At first sight it is far from promising - there is an imbalance of the sexes; around 80 per cent of the regular posters are male, although it is thought - without much proof - that a significant number of women read the group without posting - 'lurkers', as they are known.

Because of the nature of the Internet, a large proportion of the posters are computer scientists, while the academic world is also well represented. Most are based in the UK, although the messages can in fact be read elsewhere, and a small number post regularly from North America. The majority are in their 20s, although there are a number in their 30s and 40s.

The archetypal personal advert of the style of: 'John, 30, solvent, GSOH, likes pubs and music wishes to meet women aged 25-35', is likely to be met with good-humoured derision, since the regular members are well aware of the statistical problems that face them.

The atmosphere of the electronic conversation is generally one of flirtatious banter, and sometimes the outright bawdy. One woman recently teased: 'Kate and me were wondering, does anyone fancy a shag? Are we joking or not? (There, that'll give you something to think about.)' This provoked a long string of remarks about carpets, tobacco and sea- birds from men who understood the rules of the game and deliberately misunderstood the question, as well as propositions from the nave and gullible who did not.

Similarly, when someone asked: 'How long do you think it is appropriate to wait in a relationship before jumping into bed?', another woman replied 'I've just realised that I've hardly ever waited beyond the first date, if that,' to which another commented: 'on, Kent and Staffordshire, (about 40 per cent women including some unexpected 'lurkers') gathered at a pub and subsequently picnicked in the Parks. Despite the artificial way in which previous communications had been made, there was a very relaxed atmosphere and the day was felt to have been a success.

Do people get dates from this group, and do they form genuine relationships through it? This is not easy to answer, since one of the principles upon which the interchange is based is the cultivation of irony and ambiguity. It was once suggested that amongst the unwritten rules of the group were: 'If you're looking for a significant other, pretend you're not. If you're not looking for a significant other, pretend you are.'

Nevertheless, some people have found dates, and one woman has recently admitted to having started a real-life relationship with one of the posters, following a meeting arranged by direct e-mail.

So if anyone out there has access to the Internet, why not join in?