I had enough trouble finding a dog person. Catherine Norman was holding out for a horse person. "I had played around on Match.com and Matchmaker.com, always looking for horsemen," says Norman, 57, a retired nurse in Austin, Texas, with three equine buddies in the backyard. "I was trying to find someone who shared my passion, but no one in my area mentioned horses as a significant part of his life."
Through a friend's suggestion, Norman found EquestrianSingles.com -- and, eventually, Jerry Lee, who trains horses for a living and owns 11 himself. "Only a horsewoman will tolerate the amount of time and money I spend on my horses," read his profile. Norman hardly tolerates it -- she embraces it. "I love learning from him and helping with the workload," she says. "We have a rich sharing of work and play and knowledge -- in addition to very compatible personalities and nonhorse values."
Norman is just one of the thousands of discriminating online daters who are looking for love in smaller places, with more selective tools. According to Internet tracking firm comScore Networks, online personals now represent the highest-revenue category of paid content on the Internet, beating out, yes, even porn. Megasites such as Match.com and Yahoo! Personals, with their combined 9 million users, have cornered the superstore online dating market. But now a mini-industry of, well, corner markets, is starting to thrive. In an October 2003 survey by Jupiter Research, in fact, nearly a third of online singles said they prefer so-called niche dating sites. No longer content to "check all that apply" and merely hope that like-minded people respond to their profiles, singles are seeking out -- and finding -- dating sites that help narrow the field for them.
More and more sites now employ some sort of virtual velvet rope to screen out undesirables; others focus around hobbies, interests, tastes and lifestyles -- and not just dirty ones. These niche sites are more eclectic still than personals services devoted to specific ethnicities, religions, basic sexual preferences, or readers of the same online magazine. Looking for fellow bikers? Why they're right here. For doctors? Armchair astrologists? Raw foodies? Geeks? Fans of "Buffy," "Smallville," "Lord of the Rings," "Star Trek"? Just a click away. People with pets can go to KissyKat.com, which is for single animal lovers willing to use a site called KissyKat.com. There's also -- my personal favorite -- the Ayn Rand Online Dating Service (part of the Rand-admirer community "the Atlasphere"), whose members, fans of Rand-flavor reason and rationality (and perhaps Objectivism), would totally win a rumble against the "metaphysically minded people" searching for their "twinflames" at Astral Hearts Metaphysical Personals.
This trend makes sense in terms of both business and, well, pleasure. "The large general space is locked up, so niche sites are the places where a lot of [online dating businesses] are looking for growth," says Nate Elliott, an associate analyst at Jupiter. (Trend watchers and investors do have an eye on "social networking" sites such as Friendster, Tribe and Tickle, which allow users to interact with their friends' friends -- and so on, and so on -- over interests platonic and professional as well as more prurient. Still, while we know folks will shell out for a shot at a soul mate, when it comes to bonding and schmoozing, the jury's still out. "Whether people will pay for networking services as a stand-alone offering, we're still not sure," says Dan Hess, senior vice president of comScore Networks.)
Many of the smaller niche dating sites are actually still free, but that's not the only draw. Everyone's always telling singles to meet people through their "hobbies," which sounds reasonable, but do you know how many people I met through snowboarding who were both single and didn't need me to buy beer for their friends? (Let's just say way, way fewer than the number of people I've met whose hobby is stating the obvious to single people.) Likewise, people of faith -- but not the organized kind -- can't just "meet through church" the old-fashioned way; folks for whom "The Fountainhead" represents a way of life have -- according to Atlasphere founder Joshua Zader -- only one national conference, or tiny local groups, where they can bond over Ayn face to face. Sure, one could dig around online -- but searching a giant dating site for a specifically kindred spirit (within a digit or two of your ZIP code) can be like looking for a needlepoint enthusiast in a haystack.
That, of course, is where sites like EquestrianSingles.com come in. But they provide even more than a shortcut to an "activity partner." For some it's a matter of stocking the pond with fundamental compatibility. "I've come to the inevitable conclusion that for me unless there's a solid philosophical connection, a relationship doesn't hold much interest for me. I don't think this is a dogmatic position, but really quite practical," says Samatha, 41, who defected to Ayn Rand Singles from the larger sites. Similarly, users of ConcernedSingles, which brings progressives together (also see GreenSingles, "for singles in the environmental, vegetarian, and animal rights community"), won't risk winding up at Starbucks with a suitor saying (to paraphrase my friend Alex's worst nightmare), "That David Brooks has the right idea." There's also the hip, smartassily political LoveinWar.com personals ("for people who take their politics seriously, but don't take themselves too seriously"), which may appeal especially to those who "dated Dean, slept with Kerry."
Even everyday pursuits can serve as wee windows into a suitor's soul. To me, for instance, a "dog person" -- dog "owner" or not -- is someone neither squeamish nor skittish nor likely to kvetch on a hike, someone who doesn't think humans know everything there is to know about everything. I trawled for snowboarders not because my dream man specifically must know his way around a half-pipe, but rather because, hey, it's one way to weed out the shivering indoorsmen. And I always liked guys who like country music -- or, more to the point, don't knee-jerk "hate" country -- as that "means" they're open-minded, think for themselves, and are maybe even a little bit moved by human drama.
The new (and still central-California-centric, as it was test-marketed in Bakersfield) site MyCountryMatch, is explicitly based on similar, if more conventional, logic. "We believe it's time to bring 'country values' back to a society that seems to hide from words like character and loyalty," reads the site's introduction. "People who listen to country music are generally people who share those traditional values -- love for America, for animals, for family -- not just people who have horses and chew tobacco," says Jim Harrer, president and CEO of Specialty Match Network, which owns MyCountryMatch and will soon add more niche sites (such as Christian singles and fitness-minded singles) to its family. "You're saying 'I'm not a swinger; having one person in my life is the lifestyle that I choose." In other words, they're not just trying to find you a cute taker for your extra Rascal Flatts ticket. All members take a "pledge of honesty" before joining; no married but looking, no single but lying. During the sign-up process, if you click no, you can't pledge to be truthful in your profile (or that you're married and considering divorce), you'll get a pleasant little "sorry" page letting you know that you're not in a very MyCountryMatch place right now.
In that sense, MyCountryMatch joins other sites that function less like interest groups, and more like gated communities. They trumpet not the size of their selection, but the degree of their selectivity. DreamMatches, for example, has a "team of judges" who accept only hot photos, rejecting, subjectively, all "not" hot ones. (E-mail inquiries regarding "hot" criteria were not answered in time for publication.) TrueBeginnings will, my goodness, screen members for criminal records. Cherish and VeronaStreet allow you to limit the folks who can visit your profile to the types you indicate interest in, which to me sounds a lot more complicated than the time-tested technique I call "simply not responding." These bells and sirens seem to play on the trumped-up, lingering fear that singles on the Internet are creepy, and worse: are not who they say they are. (As if you don't meet creeps in bars. As if the lovers you meet on terra firma don't have hidden hairpieces, girdles, probation terms, wedding rings. As if everyone at the museum mixer tells the whole truth upfront: "Hi, I'm into mountain biking and film noir, and I'm not at all over my ex." Please.)
Other sites offer better chemistry through technology, featuring fancy tools that match traits far less tangible than "keeps kosher" or "into swing" (as in lindy). PerfectMatch will run you through a Myers-Briggs-type assessment measuring characteristics such as risk tolerance and optimism and then point you to profiles of singles deemed compatible. eHarmony's 436-question "Personality Profile," based on extensive research on married couples (and bordered by unsettling testimonies such as "I was amazed with the accuracy of my profile. It nailed me to the wall!"), ranks you in "29 Dimensions of Compatibility" to match you up with appropriate eHarmonees. Before you start, you are duly warned that the service rejects 20 percent of applicants as unmatchable -- which, on the surface, sounds like a command from God to change your user name to "loser." Who doesn't make the cut? (Well, me, but that's because my brain almost exploded mid-questionnaire when I had to decide what it meant to answer "not at all" for whether I'd call myself "uncomplicated.") According to the site's founder, psychologist Neil Clark Warren, eHarmony mainly screens out those whose profile results raise "not marriage-ready" flags. Such as: people under 21 (an age group with exceptionally high divorce rates), people ranking off-the-charts high -- suspiciously so -- in their own positive self-assessment, and people showing signs of acute depression or delusion. Warren firmly dismisses rumors (perhaps arising from the fact that Focus on the Family has published his books) that atheists and non-Christians are shown the door, but defends the fact that eHarmony serves only folks ready for the kind of marriage that's legal in all 50 states. "We don't really know how to do same-sex matching," says Warren, explaining that eHarmony's research to date has involved only straight couples. "We don't think the same matching principles work." (Fair enough, but how about ... more research?) In any case, eHarmony's no-nonsense, flirt-free tone ("We don't have a single 'sexy' thing on our site," says Dr. Warren) is selling. With 3 million members and counting, it's sneaking up on Match.com, even though it costs $49.95 a month -- two and half times Match's monthly price.
All of that said, there's a brand-new service called SocialGrid that takes this conversation from "niche" to universal -- and threatens, at least in theory, to eat all of the above sites for breakfast. "It has the ability to destroy Match.com, Monster.com, anything. It's like the Skynet of social networks," boasts creator Chau Vuong, referring to the big bad computer in "Terminator" that, um, nearly destroys humanity and sends a Single White Cyborg Assassin to finish the job. Vuong initially created the Soulmate Calculator, which used demographic data to calculate your not necessarily reassuring odds of finding your soul mate. All along, Vuong's been hinting, with characteristic drama, at his dating domination plan, and Social Grid is the killer app at its core. The basic premise: You can find anything with Google -- now, how about love? SocialGrid helps you create (or update) a personal Web site tagged with your own internal HTML-based code that describes everything from your age and gender preference to levels of musical talent and risk tolerance; SocialGrid's search tool uses Google's engine to find people coded for the traits you're looking for -- not just dates, actually, but also peers, mentors, long-lost friends. Sounds very Matrix, but it's more Linux: free, adaptable, a system working behind the scenes. While other services go mini, SocialGrid is meta. "This will ramp up to a hundred million members across the world, and change the world," says Vuong, whose ambitions are both grand and base. "We're gonna get a lot of people laid."
And frankly, with so many services now available to singles of all tastes, pursuits, goals and lingering biases against Internet dating, I'd be surprised if you're not getting laid -- or at least having a really hot conversation about Objectivism.