Match made in cyberheaven

network; You, too, could find love on the Net. Mike Hewitt goes in search of romance online; 'Hi, I'm Cheryl! I'm into books and long walks in the country. I'm looking for a non-smoker. Looks aren't important, but he must have that special "something"'

Around this time of year, newspapers are full of stories about couples who have met, fallen in love, and subsequently married thanks to that hi-tech matchmaker, the "information superhighway". It doesn't happen often, but it is true that romance and cyberspace can go well together.

Just now, there are all sorts of opportunities to express your passions electronically. If your beloved is connected to the World Wide Web, design your own card and whiz it across from http://holodeck.maxonline.com/cgi- win/card32.exe. Go a step further and create a "Personal Valentine's Web Page" for $9.95 (http://www.cyspace malls. com/Valentine/vmake.html). More subtly, send an anonymous e-mail via the Cable Communications Association (http://www.cable.co. uk/ valentine). Or use high technology for a low-tech end: send flowers via Sainsbury's (http:// www.j-sainsbury.co.uk), or send some virtual flowers, that is a picture of them, from http://www.virtualflowers.com.

For the tongue-tied, Cyrano (www.nando.net: 80/toys/cyrano.html) may conceivably come in handy. "If you are shy or unimaginative, but would like to tell someone how you feel, Cyrano is here to write your love letters for you." Which he does, with varying degrees of success. A prompt screen comes up into which you enter details, including the name of the object of your affection, favourite body parts, clothing, food and so on. Hit "send", and the computer produces a tacky love letter incorporating all the items in your list.

If you have yet to find a suitable correspondent, you can turn to other bits of the Web. Select Connections runs the public.com personal ads, found at www.public.com/personals. The homepage greets you with the message, "This is a sanctuary, a gathering space, a sun-drenched meadow soaked with sounds and smells of springtime ..."

Specify the type of dream partner you require by clicking on a range of search criteria, including sex, race, and age. At the end of the search, you are presented with short biographies of 25 potentials ("Hi, I'm Cheryl! I'm into books and long walks in the country. I'm looking for a non-smoking man. Looks are unimportant, but he must have that special "something").

Many are accompanied by low-resolution images, giving you a rough idea of what you'd be letting yourself in for.

Another option is to try one of the online "chat" services, such as CompuServe's CB simulator. It is on such systems that most of the genuine success stories have been reported. But given the arid, soulless nature of cyberspace, how can a person's true qualities come across in nothing but text?

"The sort of nuances that can be conveyed in face-to-face conversation, or by voice inflexion over the telephone, simply can't be employed online," says Frank, who first met his wife on a system called Diversi-Dial. "Because you're not influenced by such aesthetic considerations, you're left to explore each other's opinions and philosophical feelings. For two people to truly get along online, they must be both emotionally and intellectually compatible. That, surely, is the basis of any successful relationship, online or off."

Surely, however, it is these very aesthetic considerations that ultimately come into play when, and if, the couple meet up in real life? The crunch has got to come some time. Suppose, online, he thinks she's Julia Roberts while she sees him as Richard Gere, but in reality they're David Mellor and Jo Brand?

"It was surprising to me that one could actually get to know someone else so well without ever having seem them naked," says Natalie (again, not her real name). Natalie, who lived in the US, first met her husband, a technician for a large UK conferencing system, while playing an online Multi-User Dungeon game. Following a whirlwind romance, she came over to the UK and the two of them were married in November 1994.

"I do think it might be easier to find a friend, a soul mate, or even a romance online," she continues. "This is because there is immediately common ground, something to talk about: 'How are you accessing this system?', 'What comms package are you using?' and so on. It's not having something to talk about that prevents most relationships either gelling or getting started in the first place.

"But however you meet, face to face or modem to modem, what determines the outcome is always the same thing: do you still like them after you've seen them naked? I've seen my husband naked, and we're still married. It says it all, really."

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