When oscar wilde wrote "When you really want love, you will find it waiting for you," he probably didn't also mean "... in your inbox". Yet a striking number of us are now choosing to go online to seek out our proverbial "other halves".
Even five years ago, internet dating was still, essentially, an embarrassing thing. The prevailing – if unspoken – view was that if you needed to use the net to find a partner, you were somehow lacking, or weird, or both. Back then, in my late twenties, I barely knew anyone who did their dating online (or, at least, admitted to it). Contrast that with now: I've been to two weddings of cyber-matched couples in the past few years and have many more friends who have openly used internet dating sites, successfully or otherwise.
The fact is that while a few still baulk at the idea of finding love online, the majority of single people have now accepted internet dating (or the more upmarket "personal introduction agency") as just another way of finding a mate. Indeed, according to one national newspaper, 4.7 million people in the UK visited a dating website in the past year, while recent research by the Oxford Internet Institute suggests that 20 per cent of all married couples under the age of 25 now meet online.
It is not the case, either, that people are using the sites and then making out that they met their partner via a more traditional route – through friends, in the workplace, or in a bar, say. They are out and proud. Take, for example, one of the weddings I went to recently, at which the father of the groom joked in his speech about how he had viewed all of his possible future daughters-in-law in his son's e-mail inbox.
But when did this social sea change take place? At what point did trawling the net for potential soulmates go from being the preserve of the socially inept to the pastime of, well, pretty much anyone, it seems?
Undoubtedly, social-networking sites such as Friends Reunited and Facebook have paved the way for a more relaxed attitude towards "making friends" online. We have, bit by bit, become arguably more comfortable with virtual interactions than real ones, while close communities and extended families – the ways in which we used to meet new people – have all but vanished. As Heather Heber-Percy, chairman of the Association of British Introduction Agencies (ABIA), says: "We don't communicate with each other the way we used to. If you look at the past three decades, you'll see that the way society has evolved has changed the way we meet each other for ever."
Add to that the advent of more light-hearted dating sites aimed at younger audiences, such as Match.com (the television adverts scream: "Too many women! Men join for free!") and Mysinglefriend.com (Sarah Beeny's brainchild, in which your best mate writes your character profile), and you can see why the barriers have been broken down in recent years. Broadband, too, has played its part, enabling people to fritter away hours on their home computers scrolling through dating profiles.
But the last catalyst is perhaps the most surprising. The recession. All of the major dating agencies report a marked increase in activity since the credit crunched. In the UK, traffic to dating sites grew 13 per cent between September 2008 and February 2009, with MeetIC (Europe's most popular dating site, incorporating Datingdirect.com and Match.com) recording an unprecedented 1.4 million visitors in February alone. ABIA, the regulatory body for personal introduction agencies, reported a quadrupling of interest in the past couple of months, while Plentyoffish.com, the only entirely free dating website, registered close to 800,000 users by February this year.
How to explain this lovers' leap? Heber-Percy thinks a fundamental shift in attitude has occurred. "My theory is that people are fed up of hearing about the recession, and they're saying: 'To hell with it, I'm going to get out there and share what's going on in my life ...' It's a healthy escapism." A recent survey for Match.com found that over 61 per cent said that "finding someone to fall in love with was more important to them now than it was a year ago". Which, put another way, has meant boom time for the internet dating industry. One research body has predicted that within the next two years these sites will be generating revenue amounting to £368m.
Of course, as in life, there are always the dating horror stories – the scamsters and the serial flirters – but as the following case studies show, those who do catch a fish in the net are rapidly becoming the norm.
Liz Hewitt & Julie Falce
Though they didn't know it at the time, Julie (now a 34-year-old process engineer) and Liz (now a 40-year-old emergency medical technician) went to the same school in Kent. Twenty or so years down the line and after being frustrated at the lack of real opportunities to find a relationship in their local area of Westerham, their friends separately wrote profiles for them on the website mysinglefriend.com – and eventually persuaded them to go online and take part.
"I had never used online dating before and I think there was a lot of stigma attached to it," says Julie. "My friends set up a profile for me and at first I was like, 'Whoa! Not me!', but now I feel differently – it was brilliant!
"I didn't want to spend a lot of time e-mailing," Julie continues. "I liked the look of Liz and I sent her a message asking if she would like to go out for a drink with me. In my opinion, anyone can write an e-mail. I wanted to make my judgement based on how we interacted face-to-face. If we hit it off, great; if we didn't, then I hadn't lost anything by spending months e-mailing."
Julie arranged to meet Liz for a casual drink at one of their local pubs, as they both knew the immediate area well.
"I was really, really nervous before I met her," admits Julie. "As soon as I first saw her, she smiled at me and it put me completely at ease – we both knew we were in the same boat!
"I knew before I even met her that, even if we didn't hit it off, when we met for a drink, we would become good friends. Fortunately for us, it was the real thing."
Julie told her friends about Liz and says that they were all surprised at how easily she had found someone through using a dating website.
"My parents knew about Liz and I as well, and they were really supportive of our budding relationship," Julie says. "At first, I don't think they quite got the online side of things – it probably seemed a bit strange to them – but I guess that's because they're from a different generation and, for them, dating was a different process."
Julie thinks Britain's "cheap" culture of binge-drinking could be partly responsible for the number of people who are finding it difficult to find a genuine and meaningful relationship.
"A lot of people in this country do that and, if it wasn't for my friends putting my profile up on that website, then I may have been still doing the same thing..." Julie says.
Julie and Liz were married by civil ceremony in November 2008. "I'm really happy now and I think the experience was brilliant – my advice to anyone thinking of doing something similar is to go for it, show respect and approach people the way you'd want to be approached yourself."
Josh & Rosie Dhaliwal
Josh, who is 36, and Rosie, 31, met on the Asian dating and matrimonial website, Shaadi.com. At the time, they were both living and working in London, but since then they have got married and moved to Brighton, where Josh is a CEO while Rosie works as a doctor in nearby Worthing.
Josh and Rosie both come from traditional Indian families and Josh says that, while their parents never suggested people for them to marry, introductions were made.
"For me, [the website] was a great way to meet Indian girls," Josh says. "I worked in a very male-dominated environment and found it hard finding the time to go out and meet someone. I had gotten bored with going out to bars, too."
One of Josh's friends had suggested Shaadi.com to him as a practical alternative to the London club scene. "Going online was really empowering," Josh says. "It gave me control. Everyone in our families always had our best interests at heart, of course, but it was nice being able to choose completely freely."
Josh met Rosie online two weeks after signing up (Shaadi charges a minimum fee of £17 per month). They had their first telephone conversation a few days later – lasting six hours – and met up the following weekend in London.
"On our first date, we went for a walk along the river. After that, we went for a drink at the British Film Institute and had some sushi at a nearby restaurant," Josh recalls. "I think it was easy meeting Rosie because I'd had several phone conversations with her – it was like we knew each other already." There was certainly no hanging around: Josh proposed just nine days later. "After I proposed, I rang my mum and told her that I was getting married and she asked me, 'Who to?' – not knowing that I was seeing anyone!
"We got married three months later and our families were really supportive – even though I'm sure we raised a few eyebrows by saying that we met on the internet."
Tom & Sammy Brown
I was a single girl living in London," says Sammy, a 42-year-old choreographer. "I had a busy lifestyle as a dancer. I was constantly on the go and often working in the evenings so, come the weekend, I was very tired.
"I wanted a relationship, but I was not prepared to use the internet sites – I had heard some bad stories from friends and wasn't convinced about the amount of screening that went on. I did use the net to research some introduction agencies though, and after hearing about Drawing Down the Moon, I looked it up."
Drawing Down the Moon provides a bespoke introduction service aimed at the higher end of the market (fees range from £1,000 to £7,000). It interviews each member thoroughly to find out exactly who they are and what they want, before a specialist team of match-makers pairs up potential couples.
It was through this process that, six years ago, Sammy met her husband, Tom, now 47, a TV and film production designer. "Tom happened to be my first date," Sammy says. "I was advised to just go on a short date and then look at some other potential people. He was really persistent, though – and after a few more dates I realised I really liked him!" What she didn't initially know was that Tom had been with the agency for a while and had been on the verge of taking a break from it when he was suddenly informed about Sammy.
"He ticked all the boxes," Sammy laughs. "I told my family that I'd met him through a friend of a friend of a friend – I just couldn't get my head round it, I was a bit embarrassed!" But things have changed. Sammy now introduces lots of her friends to Mary Balfour, the owner of Drawing Down the Moon. "If you're thinking about doing a similar sort of thing, get in there straightaway!" Sammy says. "Be yourself, be honest and don't pretend to be happy when you're not," she advises.
Sammy and Tom are now married and live in Ivinghoe in Buckinghamshire with their twin boys, Arthur and George.
Rachel & Tom Warry
Rachel, a 31-year-old PA working in London, had been having no trouble on the traditional dating circuit and had never contemplated going to an online dating website. This was in 2006, when one of her friends was a member of mysinglefriend.com – and Rachel used to meet up with her regularly to have a giggle over all the potential suitors.
One day, during one of their sessions, Rachel caught sight of Tom's profile. " Now you're putting me on!" she told her friend. "I want him!" She registered on the website (fees start from £18 for a month's subscription) and put Tom, 31, straight on to her "favourites" list. Soon after, Tom did the same.
"I was waiting for him to e-mail me for two weeks, but he didn't write anything. Eventually I decided that I would make the first contact," Rachel says.
"I sat there and wrote out a few e-mails but quickly deleted them all. After a while, I just wrote 'smile' in the subject box and accidentally hit 'enter'. To my horror, it sent off a blank e-mail with the subject 'smile' to him – I quickly sent another one, saying that it was an accident and I wasn't normally like that and he found it funny – from that point we started e-mailing each other regularly."
Rachel's busy schedule had given her only one free weekend that month and, after dropping a hint to Tom, he asked her out on a date to have brunch at a café in Spitalfields Market. As they walked around the market after a greasy-spoon breakfast, the date went as naturally as their e-mails had done. Rachel says that she knew then that she had found "the one".
"My family thought it was great," says Rachel. "But I have to admit, at first I did say to people that I had met him at the gym!" Tom proposed to Rachel at the same café a year later and they married in March 2008.
"Online dating has worked so well for me," says Rachel, "and I've introduced a lot of my friends to it as a result – some of them have gone on to meet their own spouses within a month or two."
Darryl & Jane McCarthy
Jane, a 31-year-old who runs a driving school, and Darryl (above), a 34-year-old advertising manager, met on the popular dating website Match.com in January this year. Jane had been recommended the site by a family friend a couple of years previously, but had had a mixed experience leading up to meeting Darryl.
"I didn't think it was for me," Jane says, "but my friends encouraged me so I gave it a go. I was on it for about a year to begin with and in that time I went on five dates with different guys – they were all nice enough but they just didn't have that spark that I feel is integral to a relationship," Jane explains.
"I went off the site for around five months as I was moving house – I didn't have the time and hadn't had much success. However, I always seem to feel quite lonely around Christmas and New Year if I'm not with someone and decided to give it another go in January," she says. "Within a few weeks, I came across Darryl's profile and his description of his ideal woman was exactly a description of me!"
The couple sent several e-mails to each other and then decided to go on a date. They met at a bar during the day and, as they were both driving, did not drink alcohol.
"We hit it off straight away," Jane recalls. "Often a glass of wine will put you at ease when you meet someone, but Darryl and I both knew we were meant to be together from the moment we met."
The couple continued to see each other every day – Jane lived in Harrow and Darryl lived in Forest Hill – and the relationship quickly progressed. Darryl proposed two months after their first date, over dinner in The Ivy.
Jane told her brother about Darryl about a month into their relationship and he, along with others, told her to take it slow as she did not know him very well.
"Lots of people asked questions," Jane recalls, "but when they met Darryl they knew that he was the right person for me.
"I'm a big believer that you have to go with your heart and feel it! With online dating, you have to experience it to know exactly what it feels like – people who haven't done it before won't know.
"Match.com [which charges £22.80 for a month's subscription] was excellent. Everything they did was great, it was really easy to use and contact was always available if you needed it," Jane recalls, though she adds that "online dating really depends on the person. I was never one to go and pick up in bars, so if you want to get to know someone a bit more I'd definitely recommend it. If you're being serious, people will take you seriously"
Jane and Darryl got married in the Seychelles on 17 June and now live together in Middlesex.
Robert & Martina Hammond
I had been using internet dating websites for a few years and had been on various dates which had all amounted to nothing," says Robert, a 52-year-old clerical officer at the University of Leeds. He finally met his wife, Martina, who is 43, when he tried out The Independent's own dating partner, Parship.co.uk.
"I found that most dating websites were just glorified chat rooms. Parship [which charges a basic rate of £14.90 per month] was different, as they ask thorough questions which are part of an innovative psychometric compatibility test," Robert explains. After six months, Robert logged on to his computer during a lunch hour and found an alert from Parship informing him that he was 84 per cent compatible with Martina (who now works as a parish administrator for the Holy Trinity church in Skipton).
"I remember it well," says Robert, laughing. "My friend spotted it while looking over my shoulder and said, 'Oh – she's really pretty!' Martina got in contact with me first and we spent six weeks e-mailing each other before swapping phone numbers."
Martina is originally from Germany and was living in Berlin at the time that she and Robert made contact with each other. She has a son, Ben-Luis, from a previous marriage.
"Ben-Luis was going away on a school trip for a week about two months after we started phoning each other, so Martina and I decided to meet up," Robert recalls. "I went out to Berlin for two days and we had a great time together, it was really natural – the first night we sat down on her sofa and looked through all of her old family photographs."
Robert and Martina got married on 30 May this year and now live, with Ben-Luis, in the small village of Gargrave in North Yorkshire.
"I had thought about giving up on online dating," Robert admits. "I had been on several dates and they had all said that they didn't really want to settle down and have a relationship – and I just thought, 'What is the point of going on these sites if you don't want to do that?'
"If you're of a similar opinion, then don't go for the glorified chat-rooms," Robert advises. "Go for something more professional. You probably won't find what you're looking for in the first shop you go into. But is it worth doing? Yes! I suggest trying a few different sites to find what works best for you.
"I'm more than happy now," Robert concludes. "I've got a wonderful, beautiful and clever wife and I have an amazing son – I've always wanted my own family and now I've got one!"