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With pictures, long essays, sometimes even videos -- and a cut-to-the-chase etiquette that encourages pointed questions in e-mail messages -- singles say they can learn far more about potential partners online than they can by sizing them up across a crowded room or wringing information from a friend.'' The traditional institutionalized means for getting people together are not working as well as they did previously,'' said Norval Glenn, a sociology professor at the University of Texas.

'' There's a need for something new and the Internet is filling that need.'' Two or three decades ago, most American couples met in high school or college, Professor Glenn said.

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Carrington, whose husband died several years ago, said she recently had dinner with an investment adviser she met through the service and felt drawn to him because of a shared experience with a family member's mental illness.'' Just to have someone in the running is nice,'' she said.

As it did for book buying and auctioning used toys, the Internet reduces the transaction costs of meeting romantic prospects.

'' And if the person's cute it's hard not to give it some thought.'' But for Jonathan Gerstel, 40, a university fund-raiser who was looking for a Jewish woman in Durham, N.

C., with a kind disposition and at least shoulder-length hair, JDate proved the perfect tool.

Not prepared to cede the potential of a better love life to youth, older singles are also logging on to dating sites in growing numbers.'' We're at a time of life where nothing's structured where you can mingle,'' said Judith Carrington, a public relations executive who lists herself on as in her late-50's.

'' And as you get older it's hard to find a deep bond with people because you've had rich lives and you haven't lived them together.'' After a few unremarkable dates, Ms.

But as more people choose to marry later in life, few social institutions have arisen to replace the role that local communities, families and schools once played.

Internet dating may finally be stepping into that breach.'' The Internet gives the impression, and it may or may not be truthful, that you can find someone who is more specifically tailored to your desires,'' said David M.

'' Then in real life it's a completely different story.'' After enough of such encounters, many online daters burn out.

Those who do find partners say they are often plagued by the insidious sense that they might find someone better -- if only they paged through a few hundred more profiles.'' If you get unsolicited e-mails coming in it's hard not to look,'' said David Kleinbard, a researcher for a credit ratings agency in New York who has dated several women from JDate, a Jewish online dating service.

Of the 120 men she traded messages with online in her first four months of Internet dating, Kristen Costello, 33, talked to 20 on the telephone at least once and met 11 in person. Costello dated four several times before realizing she had not found ''the one.'' It is one of the first lessons learned by many in the swelling ranks of subscribers to Internet dating sites: soul mates are harder to come by than dinner and a movie. Costello, a fourth-grade teacher in Florham Park, N.

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