For the single, the unrequited and the love forlorn, Valentine's Day can be a bleak 24 hours. Restaurants are filled with cooing couples, toasting their happiness. Storefront windows blaze with satin red hearts and dangling cherubs pointing their itty-bitty arrows. Roses appear like bombshells on the desks of co-workers. The newly in love are insufferable. The long-in-love cannot even be tolerated.
What's more, finding a last-minute date on this Hallmark holiday can become an option shrouded in horror. Would it be better to ask out that special someone and tempt fate with a newly earned rejection? Or would it be more sagacious to lie low, rent a movie like Fatal Attraction or In the Company of Men and gloat in the wisdom of remaining single? And why, on any day, should the ego be sacrificed in the name of sex? the generalist might ask. Why should one's self-esteem be maligned for the sake of a little romantic companionship?
Thanks to the ever-entrepreneurial Internet generation, a humiliation-free, high-tech approach to these quandaries is available. ECrush.com, which launched on Valentine's Day last year, lets visitors post notice of their crushes anonymously. Geared toward the sensitive, Web-savvy love seeker, the free site sends an e-mail notice informing the object of your affections that an unidentified person has a crush. The crushee then visits the site, and if that person enters your name in return, a "match" is made and you may proceed in your courtship with a modicum of confidence.
ECrush.com has had a tremendous first year for a new Web site in a crowded market. Co-founders Clark Benson and Karen DeMars boast 200,000 users and have facilitated 30,000 matches. Every day, more than 2,000 new people sign up and 400 people with crushes are electronically notified of potential amour . Advertising revenues are putting the site in the black; TV people are calling; and an offer to purchase the company, foreboding riches, has landed on the bargaining table.
Benson and DeMars are as startled as anyone by the success of their Internet venture. But like any idea that works, Ecrush, they say, was born out of a need and a desire. "Clark got shut down a lot," jokes DeMar, who has known her business partner, a 31-year-old blond with All-American looks, since high school in Chicago. "I'm an entrepreneur," responds Benson, unflustered. "I started three other businesses in the music industry and was looking for something Internet-oriented when I had a particularly gruesome dating experience. Someone who I thought was really interested in me turned out to have no interest in me at all. I thought, 'This is so annoying. You never know what the other side is thinking.' And then it just sort of hit me: We could make this work on the Internet." Worked it has. Benson invested $100,000 of his own money and less than a year later has succeeded in raising half a million in investor capital.
Ecrush.com may say just as much about the bubbling-over Internet economy as the current state of long-term romance. According to a Rutgers University National Marriage Project study, there has been a 43 percent drop in the marriage rate from 1960 to 1996. Although this high number is largely due to later-in-life marriages and unmarried cohabitation, it also likely indicates a growing number of single people who want to get married but for whatever reason don't.
"Our generation saw the marriages of our parents' generation disintegrate," says Benson. "I think we all want to find the right person, the perfect person. And in some cases, it's too extreme. You might be looking for someone that doesn't even exist. But at the same time, we just don't want to settle down and take whatever is handy. We want to hold out."
DeMars adds that part of the drop in the marriage rate--and the success of ECrush--stems from the fact that young people are working long hours and have less time for dating: "A lot of our users are people working 24/7," she says, though she notes she can't be sure of this since ECrush requests only the age and residence of those who log on. The average age range of ECrush visitors is 18-22, and many are from fairly small towns. "But we also have users in their 80s," says DeMars.
Benson and DeMars, who are both single, seem to get a lot of joy from the responses of their users. The site offers an archive of pick-up lines, a celebrity fantasy crush list (Jim Morrison is listed as No. 7) and a mini-database of horror dates, with tales of men with waxy ears, toothless escorts and a young woman whose silicon breast pads popped out of her bikini while she was trying to attract a potential boyfriend.
The setup they are most proud of is a garbage man who sent an e-mail explaining he was infatuated with a woman he spotted while collecting trash. "She was so beautiful and successful. One of those career women. Every once in a while we would strike up a conversation, but, boy, I would just never have the guts to ask her out," says DeMars, paraphrasing the e-mail. After being urged to "e-crush" this unattainable woman, the garbage man's wish came true. She e-crushed him back, and "the last time we heard," says DeMars, "they were still dating."
Stories from their site are not all in the fairy-tale mode, however. Demars says she recently got an e-mail from a person who was pregnant with the baby of someone whose affections were confirmed through the site. "It was the first ECrush baby!" cheers DeMars. But there was a glitch: The mother is a mere 14 years old. Though this pregnant teen reports to be happy, DeMars says she feels uncomfortable having had anything to do with the setup.
If DeMars and Benson were ever interested, ECrush could become a treasure trove of sociological factoids on love in the Internet age. Men, it turns out, are much more likely to name multiple crushes than women ("One guy sent out literally 20 the other day," says Benson). Fifty- seven percent of respondents to a recent ECrush poll said it was okay to take a first date out for fast food. And, in an ongoing "Dream Date" Valentine's Day contest, which rewards winners with $500 to spend on a date, entrants are sending in such descriptions as playing hacky sack "until we puke" and eating Cheerios by candlelight.
You can just hear a blue-haired lady clucking, "Times have changed." Perhaps, one might add, for the worse. Yet what ECrush and other popular Web love sites like Match.com and Lovestories.com show is that the Internet is quickly becoming a huge, virtual locker room with endless layers of graffiti and little chance of being harassed by the "it" girl or the school bully. Surfers can indulge in adolescent longing without pain. Anonymity, voyeurism and sexual titillation can make the three-way handshake.
DeMars and Benson, of course, emphasize that ECrush is a safe, fun way to meet people. The site offers "a hip, 20s dating community," says DeMars, who adds: "A lot of our users have grown up with the Internet, so it's not necessarily a shift in thought for them. It's, 'Sure, you use the computer to do this.'"
But for people whose first experience with the Internet came in middle age, the success of ECrush.com represents new evidence of social fear and alienation. As Nina Pelikan, a 56-year-old SUNY-Purchase professor put it, "It's the human being as a gated community." Deidre English, a former Mother Jones editor and feminist scholar, expressed less dismay. "People in this world are alienated," she said. "An electronic yenta is probably useful."