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Romance is not in a terminal decline

Money can't buy me love.

Says who? This week's shock stat is the number nine. That's nine million Brits going online to find love and/or sex. While the rest of the economy falters, the internet dating market ballooned by another 6% in 2011 to £170m, despite cut-throat competition. Meanwhile, following a string of acquisitions, the Scottish firm Cupid has just announced it expects profits of nearly £16m this year.

So forget about meeting Mr or Ms Right at the pub quiz or down the gym or at the office water cooler. They're all on Match or eHarmony or Dating Direct. Is it really that simple?

My interest in this subject is purely academic. I've always believed in being able to see the reds of my partners' eyes and revelled in the serendipity factor that brings couples together. For instance, I met my hubby through a mutual passion for Extra Strong Mints. No computer would have matched us in a million years.

So why is internet dating all the rage? Is this simply a modern take on love in a cold climate (because walks in the woods or strolls on the beach lose their romantic charm when it's blowing a hoolie or raining cats and dogs)? Is it Britain's long working hours culture that leaves us no time or energy to look for love? Or the rise and rise of the single parent, stuck at home with the kids? Or simply older singles who find all their friends have paired off, reducing the available pool of partners to a dull puddle?

Increasingly, we shop for groceries, clothes and books online. Why not love? For us uninitiated, it is a strange concept, akin to finding a partner through a catalogue. The free sites I looked at yesterday all seemed to be about looks, with minimal descriptions, just like Argos. Some friends who have tried them warn of thousands of dormant accounts, married men looking for sex, Nigerian swindlers sheltering behind fake identities and greasy lotharios whom they would run a mile from in real life. One divorcee – a rather formidable intellectual – complained bitterly that the computer persistently paired her with guys who were carbon copies of herself, "but with reciprocal genitals", while she longed for a cuddly farmer.

Ultimately, relationships are so subjective. One woman's intriguing stranger is another's creepy jerk. How can a computer programme possibly spot the difference?

My first encounter with the subject was not encouraging. Back in 2002 dating online had yet to shed its geeky image. I was interviewing a librarian at the Carnegie Library in Ayr, who pointed out a boy and girl, sitting at computer terminals in opposite corners. They'd met online and emailed one another daily for a year before agreeing to meet. The boy had travelled from Northern Ireland for the rendezvous but within 30 minutes they'd decided they preferred their virtual relationship to the real one.

However, recently I've been forced to reassess internet dating. My jogging partner, who is gay and in her early 40s, had found herself alone after the long and painful demise of a 15-year relationship. She put up some pictures and a brief description on some free websites and received some bruising comments. As she put it: "I kept on being matched with the same people and I really didn't like them much. It was quite depressing." By chance she was invited to the wedding of a straight couple, who had met online. "It was a great event and made me realise I just needed to keep trying." Then shortly after joining a paying dating site, she went online and happened to see the picture of a woman in Somerset. She clicked on it and they talked for six hours. They met the following week and are now planning their life together. She said: "That picture just spoke to me. It was like seeing someone across a bar, except online there's a lot more choice. I'm ridiculously happy." Money can't buy me love? This transaction set my friend back precisely £77 including VAT. I'm still not entirely convinced about online dating but let's just say that you can't write off the possibility of love at first byte.

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