In the search for love, the internet opens up a whole wide world of opportunity. But, as Rhodri Marsden discovers, finding online companionship is easier said than done.
In 1966, the Supremes explained that you can't hurry love. Sixteen years later Phil Collins concurred: "You just have to wait," he sang, noting that love don't come easy. Those words of wisdom still apply, particularly so if you're one of those participating in the seemingly eternal worry-go-round of internet dating.
The adverts for such services, featuring blissfully happy couples pushing each other on swings, would have us believe otherwise. American-based site eHarmony likes to stress how many members get married as a result of being matched via the service (236 every day, according to data gathered in the US in 2008.) Match.com did a survey last year indicating that an impressive 58,500 people found a partner on the site over a 12-month period - and they still offer a six-month guarantee of "finding love", albeit underlined (understandably) by a 500-word list of conditions.
And we're suckers for all this. When Britain's Time Out magazine recently ran a cover story offering free online dating for every reader, it was dangling a huge metaphorical carrot. We all want to be loved, after all.
But you rarely hear from those who, having failed to find a partner online, back away from the computer shaking their heads at the way the process distorts social conventions and leaves you slightly shell-shocked. Those 58,500 lucky members of match.com were vastly outnumbered by the 286,000 unlucky ones. Yes, anecdotes of hair-raising internet dates have become dinner-party staples - you know, like "he turned up wearing a toolbelt and immediately burst into tears" - and many were collected in a book published earlier this year. But what about the mental strain? The plunge in self-esteem when your ideal partner remains as elusive as a taxi on New Year's Eve?
A quick disclosure: I have a couple of dating profiles online. It's not going that well. But this isn't therapy masquerading as a self-pitying article by some bloke in his late-30s - well, not much, anyway. I've got a number of friends and acquaintances who share my feelings about the way online dating plays fast and loose with your emotions. These people are relatively undamaged and sane, without many skeletons in their cupboards. Some of them are model-like in their beauty, rapier-like in their wit or both. All of them have approached internet dating with the most honourable of intentions: they're lured by the promise of romance, be it jazz and croissants on Sunday morning, or leaping out of a plane strapped to someone nice. Whatever. They'd just like somebody, but somebody hasn't shown up.
The search for love in any context is a lottery, of course. The odds are stacked, Jenga-like, against us. What are the chances of two compatible people turning up in the same place at the same time?
Internet dating is meant to tip those odds in our favour - and it can work, of course it can. But the people I've spoken to who've been bruised by it are unanimous as to why that happened. They believe it's a problem inherent to the process. So if you're doing it, and you're feeling down, don't worry. It's not you. Well, it might be. But it most likely isn't.
Adam: "It's blackly comic: we all say we're fun-loving, up for a laugh, just seeing how things go - when everyone knows that we're on a dating site because, to varying extents, we're all lonely."
Internet dating pivots around profiles; lists of attributes, paragraphs where you attempt to make yourself sound appealing, a handful of flattering photographs. But there's already a problem. Dozens of books and websites offer advice on how to write profiles; third-party services even charge a fee to save you the bother.
As a result, the uniformity is hilarious. Everyone loves travelling, particularly to Machu Picchu - which, if the profiles are to be believed, is an Inca site swarming with thousands of backpacking singletons. Men are singularly obsessed with skiing. All of us love to curl up on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a DVD.
The vernacular of online dating makes everyone sound the same. Rather than reflecting what we're like, it reflects what we think other people want - because we're trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Men will lie about their height, men and women will lie about their age, some people even upload photos of other people and pretend it's them. It doesn't correlate with real life. And once you realise this, internet dating suddenly feels as random as approaching strangers in a car park and asking them if they fancy you. Which, believe me, is never a good idea.
Ruth: "I don't want someone like me. Why on Earth would I want someone like me?"
Searching for a partner online has inevitable similarities to searching for a product. Computer algorithms have the herculean task of returning a perfect match from a database based on our own vaguely truthful submissions, and such copper-bottomed compatibility guarantees as whether both parties are fond of cats.
Our natural impulse, encouraged by the way these websites work, is to seek people who like the same things as us. But while I wouldn't want to date someone who gets a kick out of attending far-right political rallies, it's certainly true that opposites can attract. I went out with a wonderful woman for seven years who loved Barbra Streisand. I can't stand Babs. In a relationship these kind of things aren't an issue, but internet dating makes them into one. After all, when I meet someone in real life that I like, I tend not to say, "Hi, I'm Rhodri, and here's a list of food I don't like eating." The rules of attraction are just too complex to be held in a database and analysed by a computer.
Thomas: "The idea that someone likes to spend weekends mountain biking or, I dunno, shaving lions - that's the kind of thing that would send me up the nearest bell tower with a sniper rifle."
But we're forced to filter the mass of potential datees, and we do it savagely. We start to adopt a power-shopping mentality, disregarding people for arbitrary reasons. As my friend Sam put it, we cruise past people's pictures as if they're caravans in Trade & Exchange. "Yeah, no, no, yeah - ooh, yes! - no, no, ugh." It's a compelling, but ultimately exhausting, process that these services have adapted, refined and streamlined because it's a brilliant way for them to make money.
While a service might lure you with a strapline saying "Meet sexy singles in your area", the truth is more like, "Reject perfectly decent singles in your area while waiting for the maddeningly elusive sexy ones." Everyone is trading off current opportunities against future possibilities. In a thoughtful moment, you might even realise there are people you've had relationships with in the past who, if they appeared as an online match, you might reject. And when you're the one being rejected, it can hurt.
Charlotte: "It's a brutal process. You join thinking you'll be nice and civilised and honest with people, but once people don't reply to your emails, you start doing the same to other people."
Rejection may be a strong word to use. It doesn't approach the horror of being told by a partner that they don't love you anymore. But despite our inclination to present ourselves as optimistic - verging on an almost deranged bubbliness, in some cases - we enter the process on the back foot.
We're not part of a couple, and we may have hang-ups about our attractiveness. Suddenly, every unreciprocated gesture hurts way more than it should. Unreplied-to messages sit in the "sent" folder as a grim reminder of your failure to connect with someone, almost prompting you to fire off another message saying "What's the problem? What's wrong with me?" So we have to develop a thick skin. But, you know, having a thick skin is overrated. Thin skin is just fine. It's just that thin skin isn't compatible with internet dating.
Francesca: "It's also a horrible feeling knowing that there are potentially a lot of other people in competition with you. It's like being in a deck of Top Trumps cards - what are my stats? What is it about me that might or might not trump someone else?"
If you live in a city, the seemingly inexhaustible array of potential beaus strewn across these websites is part of the appeal. But that very abundance is also why the rapid cycle of rejection can feel so disheartening.
"Plenty more fish in the sea" isn't just a well-meaning phrase uttered by a kindly relative after you've been dumped. Internet dating presents you with rock-solid evidence. Thousands of them, right there, smiling at you. (Except me. I'm kind of glumly staring at you, which may be one of the reasons why I haven't done so well.)
Long-term internet dating participants know only too well, however, the cycle of knock-back followed by a speedy return to the site in search of someone else. You start seeing the same faces across multiple sites, and some people (especially men) will start to play the percentage game, firing off multiple cut-and-paste emails in the hope that someone will reply. One friend of mine was even sent a cheery message of introduction from a man who she had already had a disastrous date with via another dating website.
Richard: "But you get that thrill when someone responds. For a short time you're on top of the world - and that's followed by a low point. It's like a fast-working drug with a terrible come-down."
It's an addictive process, there's no doubt about it. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the burst of elation associated with a stranger suddenly deciding that you're attractive, amusing, a good prospect. New members on these sites receive a flood of attention that can be exhilarating. As one friend said to me, there was a time when she felt like the most popular woman in the country. After a while, though, you develop a more realistic view of the thing. You realise that, for example, the match.com "guarantee" isn't so much a guarantee as a hard-headed business decision based on probability and likely cost. But the knowledge that it's working out for some 17 per cent of members brings hope, and makes you loath to pack it in.
The other undeniable reason: with options dwindling as you get older and friends start families, giving up on internet dating feels like giving up on love altogether. But sticking at it can seem to reinforce your single status.
Sarah: "Internet dating is essentially a lot of single people, with varying degrees of loneliness, blundering around and hoping to bump into someone."
Sarah's right. In that sense, it's not much different to real life. It's the usual random process of love-seeking, but cleverly tarted up with psychometric testing and percentage matching and with a monthly fee slapped on it.
I suppose it works out cheaper than going out every night and keeping your fingers crossed.
But if it's not working for you, do take heart from me - and from Thomas, Pip, Catherine, Charlotte, Matthew, Steph, Sian, Francesca, Sam, Vanessa, Richard, another Richard, Jane, Adam, Juliet, Tim, Michelle, Sarah, Courtney, Michael, Helen, Vicki, Claire, Saj, Juliet, Stuart and Ruth, all of whom contacted me to get their feelings off their chests. We're not bitter.
If anything, recognising the improbability of finding the perfect internet date makes participating a lot easier.
In fact, we're all magnificently well-adjusted. Maybe I should start trying to match us all up.