JIM LEHRER: Now, finding love, the new-fashioned way: Online. Spencer Michels reports.
SPENCER MICHELS: On a quiet San Jose street, will and Lia McDonald live out a dream that started on the Internet. Six years ago, will, a recently divorced software developer, and Lia, a divorced school teacher, met on a computer dating Web site called Match.com, where each had posted photos and some personal information. Their goals were different.
WILL MacDONALD: I just wanted to date as many people as possible. And, you know, I could go out at night, and you could meet at the weekends, you could meet people in the bars, but, you know, there's a whole week I wanted to fill up.
LIA MacDONALD: Once I turned 30, I needed to get down to business and find somebody who was going to be a lifelong partner, so I really was thinking, I want... I don't want... I'm done dating. I've been dating for a lot of years. I was ready to find my husband.
SPENCER MICHELS: Match.com, where Will and Lia met, is the most popular of about a hundred computer dating sites that were visited by an estimated 20 million people last year. Most browse for free; some register and pay up to $25 a month for an average of five months.
Will and Lia indicated their interests, location, ages, and what they wanted in a partner, including religion, children, smoking habits. The Match.com computer program matched them, and Will e-mailed Lia as soon as he saw her listing. Eventually, they were married in an elaborate ceremony in the Caribbean. Now they have two children, and she's a stay-at-home mom. Will and Lia were pioneers in using online dating, a trend that today is a $300-million-a- year business. It is a far cry from the dating habits of old: The romantic traditions of courting, the careful rules of a formal relationship, the excitement of a Renoir-captured dance. San Jose psychologist and author Alvin Cooper sees computer dating as a major new social trend, with a potential for lowering the nation's 50 percent divorce rate.
ALVIN COOPER: The major reasons that people find and get involved with somebody else are proximity, and the second is physical attraction. And both of those factors are terrible predictors of long-term happiness in a relationship.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Internet, Cooper argues, downplays those factors.
ALVIN COOPER: What we find is that there's less deception on the Internet than in other ways of meeting people, and that people are more open and more honest about more kind of deeply felt feelings, secrets and parts of their lives. People reveal and self-disclose more.
SPENCER MICHELS: Yahoo personals, the second-largest dating site, claims 22 percent of America's 98 million singles have tried Internet dating. General manager Katie Mitic says the potential for profit is enormous.
KATIE MITIC: Online dating is a service where the users generate the content, so it's very low-cost for us to generate these services. The subscribers are willing to pay approximately $25 a month to join the service and meet other singles like them.
ROGER: Hi, there. I'm roger, and I've only got about 30 seconds to win you over.
SPENCER MICHELS: Yahoo personals is the first service to allow subscribers to put their voice and video of themselves on the Web site.
ROGER: So if you're the outdoorsy type, and you have a high tolerance for my bad jokes-- and, believe me, there's plenty of them-- I'm sure we could have a lot of fun together.
SPENCER MICHELS: Competing head-to- head, Match.com is introducing a voice-video system as well, plus a wireless connection for cell phones. Both services review content, written or spoken, before posting or rejecting it, and that doesn't sit well with some users, like Bay area writer Will Harper, who tried to post a facetious statement.
WILL HARPER: One of the most common phrases you'll see is "My friends describe me as happy, perky, and fun-loving"-- you know, "my friends describe me as..." is how it begins. And so I began it as "my probation officer describes me as punctual and fully rehabilitated."
WILL HARPER: And I figured, whoever got the joke would be the kind of person I'd want to go out with.
SPENCER MICHELS: Match.com wouldn't allow Harper's joke. He calls that censorship. His friend, business consultant Catalina Ruiz-Healey, has an even more common complaint.
CATALINA RUIZ-HEALEY: I met a gentleman who looked nothing like his photograph. I think his photograph was about 15 years his junior.
AMBER KELLEHER ANDREWS: I have a friend who is 15 years old, and a woman fell in love with him online. She was devastated when she found out he was a young boy hiding in his room when his parents answered the door.
SPENCER MICHELS: According to Amber Kelleher and her mother, Jill, who are traditional matchmakers, the online dating services are riddled with people lying.
SPOKESPERSON: Hello, Kelleher and Associates.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Kellehers meet and interview every client at length and then match them with other clients. Jill, who has interviewed 40,000 people, says her way is more effective than by computer.
JUILL KELLEHER: People really can misrepresent... I mean, they do misrepresent themselves. I mean, women lie about... I hate to say this... ( laughs ) ...but they will lie about their age and their weight. Men lie about their income, how old they are, their height. We are the go-between. We screen our clients, and we find out who they are, and they can't misrepresent themselves.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Kellehers charge from $3,000 to $10,000 per client, so their clientele tends to be upscale. But it's not just the cost that makes will McDonald prefer the online approach.
WILL MacDONALD: Well, dating agencies in general have... you know, have a bit of an uncool rap about them. It's not a cool thing to do. But somehow the Internet just seems a more high-tech, sophisticated, accurate way of doing that. It's not some old lady choosing the partner for you; you're choosing it yourself.
SPENCER MICHELS: A lot of singles agree. Match.com, which is a division of U.S.A. Interactive, reports its subscriber base grew 91 percent to 725,000 last year, with revenues of $125 million. Tim Sullivan is president.
TIM SULLIVAN, President, Match.com: It's something that really matters to people, right? It's something that is a great personal need, and that is the foundation of a great business. Secondly, it's something that is much better on the Internet than anywhere else.
MAN: I use Match.com.
SPENCER MICHELS: Match.com has tried to boost its customers by airing TV ads that are designed to lure singles to the Internet.
WOMAN: In fact, it's how I met my boyfriend.
TIM SULLIVAN: We are making sure, through our television campaign, that we're reaching people that don't use the Internet every day. Because we actually think that Match.com is one of the reasons that people might come and use the Internet.
SPENCER MICHELS: Live events like this party are among the recent additions to the Match.com package. The $20 price of admission allows online daters to get a real look at each other and allows the company to add to its revenues.
MAN: I own my own company, and I never have time to go out to bars or do anything, so I've been going on these Match.com dates, and so it's worked out pretty good.
SPENCER MICHELS: Like its Web site, the party attracts the 20s and 30s crowd, but match said older singles are welcome and, in fact, are using the online services. Statistics on success are hard to come by, but 5,000 people a month tell Match.com they've found somebody they like, and 75 couples a month write saying they have gotten married or engaged thanks to the Internet. Both online dating services and traditional matchmakers report that business increased after 9/11, as singles decided to reevaluate what they wanted out of life.