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A question: How did you meet your romantic partner? Friends have long been society's top matchmakers, with help from parents and co-workers, but they're all losing ground to the Internet. A new study finds nearly a quarter of couples meet online.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the Web may soon become the number one way Americans find a mate.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Technology hasn't shaken up the dating scene this much since the invention of the telephone. But Michael Rosenfeld of Stanford University says even that doesn't compare.

Professor MICHAEL ROSENFELD (Department of Sociology, Stanford University): The telephone made it easier to be in contact, but only really with the people you already knew. That is, you wouldn't pick up the phone and call somebody you didn't know, it would be awkward.

LUDDEN: But Rosenfeld says those connecting online are most often complete strangers, not even friends of friends. Though, of course, dating sites reveal a great deal about them.

Dr. NICOLE ADAMS (Psychologist): You know level of income, life goals, interests, likes, dislikes.

LUDDEN: Nicole Adams is a 35-year-old psychologist in New York and has been dating online while going through a divorce.

Dr. ADAMS: You also kind of want to weed out the real...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ADAMS: ...crazy people, for lack of a better term.

LUDDEN: Sure, she says, people used to trust family and friends to consider all that and come up with a good match.

Dr. ADAMS: But nobody really, really knows what I like, except me.

LUDDEN: Adams says she appreciates being able to reach out to people she'd never encounter in her own social circles, including those from different religions and ethnicities. Then she says there is this very practical aspect: Web dating saves a lot of time.

Adams says if she does meet someone through friends or family, even if sparks don't fly, she's more likely to suffer through a few more dates and let him down gently.

Dr. ADAMS: Whereas online dating, you don't have any of that pressure. If you meet him and something happens to him, mm, next. Thanks a lot, it's been real.

LUDDEN: Ouch. But the smaller the pool of potential partners, the more important those Web contacts may be. Researcher Rosenfeld found a whopping 61 percent of same-sex couples meet online.

Prof. ROSENFELD: So the internet is friend to everybody who is looking for something that's hard to find. And that's true whether you're looking for parts for a '57 Chevy or a partner who has some attributes that are uncommon.

LUDDEN: On the other hand, a recent Duke University study finds online daters are disproportionately white and well-educated; partly because fewer minorities have a computer at home. But that study also predicted Web-dating will continue to grow, as online access expands and successful couples spread the word.

Stanford University's Rosenfeld says it's all easing a social stigma.

Prof. ROSENFELD: It used to be that people who met online had a separate story that they thought was more palatable. It seemed a little seedy and unseemly, and for some reason people used to think that it was more upstanding to say I met him in a bar.

LUDDEN: Bars, by the way, along with restaurants and other public areas are still the third most likely place for couples to meet. Although Rosenfeld says when you speak to people, it turns out many met there after first encountering each other online.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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