Click Here for Cupid

If you had three minutes to evaluate a candidate for romance, what would you say? How would you act?

That dilemma is no longer the province of fantasy for millions of online daters. Unless you know how to present yourself - or is that "package" yourself? - in a compelling way, and do so post-haste, you may be spending your Saturday evenings alone.

Once upon a time Internet dating was for the geeky and the seedy. Today it's gone mainstream. Last year 17.2 million people viewed online personals and 2.5 million actually paid for a self-promoting ad, according to Jupiter Research. A few heavily trafficked Web sites - notably Match.com and Yahoo Personals - draw the biggest slice of the lonely hearts club. But specialty sites - such as those catering to African Americans, Jewish Americans, and gays - also are becoming popular. (Perhaps Sojourners should start a dating service for faith-based activists?)

If you are cynical about the potential of online dating, consider the benefits. Why set aside a perfectly good evening only to find out that your date shows zero interest in spirituality and is a charter member of the NRA? Join an online dating service and you can establish up front what's most important in your life, as well as profile the qualities you're looking for in a companion. Maybe it seems a bit like buying a sweater out of a Lands' End catalog, but it's a terrific way to weed out non-compatibles.

In 1998 I created a cross-country ethics course, a class run simultaneously for students at the University of San Francisco and at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. I made extensive use of live Web broadcast and online postings in a format now touted as a blog. I required students to dialog with each other throughout the semester around selective moral dilemmas. Each time a student made a posting, that student had to not only express his or her own ideas, but also take into account the position(s) already posted on the blog.

A swarm of students - especially females - reported back to me how much they appreciated the online platform because it gave them confidence to express, and then defend, their point of view. In a conventional classroom, on the other hand, they often felt dominated. One of my African-American students added another twist: "I like the fact that other students have to judge me first on the basis of my ideas before they see the color of my skin."

MY FRIENDS who use online dating services tell me that they typically have lengthy e-mail exchanges with those "profiles" that interest them before meeting up in a F2F (face-to-face) date. (Full disclosure: I met my wife of 16 years in a halfway house for street kids where we were both volunteering.) Writing letters back and forth - that sounds like a healthy foundation for a relationship.

Online daters do not focus exclusively on character and values, of course. Personal photos are undeniably an influential element in the sifting process. Never underestimate the power of creative fiction. Online daters report that the people they meet often do not resemble their online photos, nor does their online persona always match real-life character.

Hence the genesis of "speed-dating," which brings otherwise online romancers together at a restaurant and arranges a series of three- to 10-minute mini-dates. At the end of the night, suitors designate whom they'd like to see again based on their short encounter and, if there's an expressed attraction by the other person, the wooing begins.

There's a lot to like about online dating, but it also brings to the surface what's awry with romance and relationship. We hold onto the perverse notion that finding the right companion - independent of the course that we are pursuing with our lives - will bring us happiness. That rarely happens. Companions can be wonderful journey partners, but are unfit destinations. The highway is littered with sacred unions that combust due to compatibility exhaustion.

It doesn't surprise me that the fire-bright enthusiasm that online daters experience early on - I have friends who arrange as many as four different dates in a weekend - so often flame out in a matter of months. The burden of choice and steady wave of expectations overwhelm them.

The Internet is a fabulous search tool and enables serendipitous connections. Yet we can comb a worldwide web and never discover our own heart.

David Batstone, executive editor of Sojourners, is author of Saving the Corporate Soul & (Who Knows) Maybe Your Own (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

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