SHELLEY HOWELLS braves the netherworld of internet dating and finds many well-adjusted enthusiasts as well as a few weirdos.
Few words so rapidly conjure images of sad, desperate geeks/weirdos/social cripples.
We've seen the TV documentaries featuring assorted oddballs telling their tales of woe or joy, we've been told again and again how dangerous it is out there, and so many of us have shunted net dating into the "too weird" basket.
Yet dating sites keep growing. January web stats from Hitwise show that the top two local sites, NZ Dating and Findsomeone were 3rd and 9th respectively in a ranking of Kiwi sites' market share, with both having gained popularity since the month before.
Has there been a geek population explosion, or is net dating going mainstream? It was my sad, desperate mission to find out.
your net - deaf to cries for mercy, blind to faxed copies of wedding certificates - had me join the fun, armed with nothing but my dog's name and firm instructions not to return until I had convinced dating site users to talk.
Many of them didn't need much convincing - there is a lot of anger out there over a television documentary on the subject a while back. Apparently the show's participants were a rather strange and sad lot and the web dating community is still smarting over it.
No wonder. It quickly becomes clear that net Datingland does not necessarily equate with Geeksville or Pervert County.
There's a lot of sleaze out there. That we know already. But there are also a lot of normal people.
I talked online, or received messages from, a dazzling variety of people, including intelligent, witty, attractive (assuming they were authentic photos) people. I had very entertaining chats with some very cool men and women.
Then there were the stupid, rude, the egomaniacs, marrieds looking for some extramarital fun and two men who sent nude photos along with some startling ideas of how we could spend our spare time.
Reasons for joining dating sites are as varied as the individuals.
One 34-year-old Leo says she has no problems finding dates in the real world. "I joined because I thought the internet might be a useful way of getting to know someone fairly well before meeting them and having the whole sex issue clouding judgment," she said.
Rachael Truman, 25, joined a variety of online dating sites to meet people before moving cities. She met her two best mates online, as well as her partner.
One woman, 26, met her de facto husband in a Yahoo! chat room but joined dating sites to catch him cheating after discovering that his previous relationship had broken up because he was cheating with women he was meeting online.
She caught him cheating on her too: "I went through the profiles of 300 men and I picked his out. Got a girlfriend to ring him and arrange to meet him.
"Now," she says, "he knows I'll find out if he does anything else."
Paulo, in his early 40s and studying for a masters degree, says he joined a dating site "because I'm not a good approacher of women in bars or clubs". He has been on a few dates, but has found face-to-face meetings disappointing.
"I have come to the conclusion that I have a snowball in hell's chance of meeting 'her' here."
But he does believe that internet dating is a good way of casting the net wider than the traditional ways of meeting potential partners. And his profile is still up on the site.
A 39-year-old professional says that time is of the essence in his life. "I'm very 'time poor' so it suits me as a social release," he says.
"I have met a number of really cool people. None turned into a 'Bogart and Bacall' but, then again, none have ended up as rabbit-boiling experiences either."
One of the main advantages of online dating sites is the Try-Before-You-Buy element - the chance to chat online and get some idea of who you are dealing with before splashing out on the corsage or bikini-wax for the first face-to-face.
Thirty-year-old Jack had tried Table for Six before but disliked being stuck at a dinner table with five strangers. "The advantage of going online is that you get to chat first and get some idea of the person."
Rachel puts it plainly: "It makes it easier to weed out the weirdos. You can get a good feel for people through talking to them for quite a while prior to meeting them."
The flip-side of that, she is quick to add, is that not everyone is exactly honest. "A lot of people aren't who or what they say they are. There are a huge number of genuine people on the internet but also a lot who aren't."
One guy goes so far as to warn women to "watch out for predatory males. It is very easy to get sex on these sorts of things if you profess undying love when you meet them".
"A large proportion of the people on these sites present themselves, if not dishonestly, then at least by stretching the truth."
Then there's the fact that shuffling through profiles of potential dates can take on a summer-sale atmosphere in which it's easy to forget you are dealing with actual human beings.
Leo woman says: "It's easy to adopt a 'supermarket' attitude to people. We can only go by what little we see in this forum: you may not like the packaging [looks] and go 'nah' and move right along.
"Next, you might not like the ingredients [say, smoker] and move on to the next without so much as having said a word to them.
"In real life I would like to think we are less shallow, and you have more of a chance to know a person as a whole."
Separate threads on the Findsomeone community message board reflect the contrasting sides of internet dating. One was a load of happy farewells and good luck messages to a couple who had met through the site, were moving in together and quitting their membership.
The other was a torrid tale of broken hearts, bitterness and the usual pain and rancour that engulf all when it goes wrong.
"SB", 26, summed it up: "If you are a positive, realistic person, this is a fun way of meeting people. But it can be depressing, or worse, for people with too high expectations."