Lori Cheek was out to dinner with a good friend when he gave his business card to a woman seated a table over.
"I thought it was kind of stealth, the way he just handed off that card and kept on walking," said Cheek, 38, who lives near Manhattan's West Village. "The whole scenario just triggered a bunch of ideas in my mind. Somebody can make your heart flutter, and they can pass you by in a second. Why can't you try and catch them with a card?"
Now you can with Cheek's not-so-ordinary little black cards. Each carries a flirty phrase and adds a personal touch to the electronic world of online dating. Recipients who have received the cards can use the identification code found on the back to go online and find out who their admirer is and to learn a little more about that person.
"Cheek'd" launched in summer 2010 and joined a relatively new breed of social meeting websites, many of them combining social networking with matchmaking. Some bring "real time" communication to the cyber dating scene with webcam chats (SpeedDate), location-based dating (Skout) and personality games (Goodwizz).
Others offer virtual dating, using avatars for people to interact in a virtual venue (Weopia) before venturing out on a real-life date. A few sites capitalize on people's preoccupation with good looks as well as their willingness to vote on almost anything (CanDoBetter).
The 20 million Americans who cyber date are estimated by Online Magazine to go online at least once monthly and are willing to spend money to find a mate. In 2008, they spent $1.2 billion on online dating, according to Piper Jaffray Investment Research, and by 2013 their Web spending spree could hit $1.7 billion.
"We understand singles are searching for quality, not quantity," said Dino Luzzi, CEO of Blast Applications, a Long Island based developer of applications for iPhone, Twitter, Android and Facebook. Luzzi's CanDoBetter app allows singles to upload pictures of possible partners, get immediate feedback from fellow users and consult dating experts along the way.
How major a force is the Internet when it comes to dating? Two sociologists place the Web on par with perhaps the original social networking mecca -- a bar.
A survey of 3,000 people living in the United States who met their mate in 2009 found that a third had initiated contact online. The study, presented to the American Sociological Association in summer 2010, determined that -- when it came to first encounters -- online chatting trailed only friend introductions. Online chatting finished neck-in-neck with first encounters in a bar.
With any form of dating, safety should always be a concern and online dating is no different -- especially since the addition of location-based dating to the Web. It has prompted many states, including New York, to enact legislation to protect potential daters.
The New York State Internet Safety Dating Act, enacted in December 2010, required dating sites to warn users about the perils of romance on the Web, including not giving your phone numbers too soon, not revealing your employer or your last name.
With more than 800 online dating sites, according to Mark Brooks, who edits Online Personals Watch, consumers have many decisions to make before the dating even begins.
The following sites distinguish themselves through their creative capitalization of social networking.
Think of the process as online dating in reverse, making the connection offline -- sparked by the passing of little black cards that can be placed almost anywhere -- before taking it online.
"I've had my hands in people's pockets when they don't even know," said founder Cheek, who works part time for an upscale furniture store in Manhattan. "It's fun handing them out where people can see you, but the element of surprise may be the best."
The cards can be slipped in an order of French fries, on a bread plate, in a gym bag or Cheek's favorite: atop the lid of a pint of beer -- preferably held by the admired drinker. Each carry a fetching phrase like: "Look up. You might miss something," "I am totally cooler than your date," or "I just put all my drinks on your tab."
"The card is a fun ice-breaker," said Cheek, during a phone interview from her office in Manhattan. "It also marks the beginning of the game. There's no turning back. It's done and you don't have anything to lose except that card. Just don't forget to smile and wink."
The Website itself is all about retrieving a person's information, sharing a couple of sentences and hopefully arranging a meet-up. It was not created for long visits. A pack of 50 cards and a month's subscription to the Website is $25. There is no fee for recipients to log on.
A social networking site whose slogan is "Let the World Decide," CanDoBetter allows users to post photos of possible dating partners so fellow members may vote on their physical compatibility. It has a similar feel to HotOrNot, and like BeautifulPeople it encourages feedback.
"People love to vote. They want to give you their opinion," said Luzzi of Blast Applications. "Everyone has been in a situation where a close relative or friend becomes involved with some undesirable and you don't have the heart to tell them. Now you can."
The site offers three choices to vote -- "He can do better," "She can do better," or "A perfect match" -- and immediately shows the percentage of votes for each. In addition, members also communicate with each other through e-mail or blog, and may consult online relationship and sex experts.
CanDoBetter does not match. It is targeted for couples in relationships. Arriving by Valentine's Day, a tutorial called "Rate Your Date" will help with date analysis. CanDoBetter premium subscriptions cost $14.99 per month or $7.99 per month with a yearly commitment.
Real-time communication by Webcam, audio or text enriches this site based on the real-life concept of speed dating, where at the ring of a bell, daters hop tables every eight minutes to chat up someone new.
"Limiting the time of the date is what allows you to meet so many people," said co-founder Dan Abelon during a phone interview from his office in northern California. "You go online, fill out a quick profile, then we just start matching you. Someone just pops up on your screen."
At the end of five minutes -- enough time to assess the chemistry quotient -- daters vote to continue chatting or go on to the next person. Launched in October 2007, SpeedDate has 10.5 million members around the world, according to Abelon, with many concentrated in California and New York.
"This past year, more and more people are using mobile dating and this translates well to SpeedDate considering the process should be fun and efficient," he said. "You'll like the process of someone just popping up on your screen and chatting with them."
It's all about location with this dating app launched in 2009 by 29-year-old founder Christian Wiklund.
It boasts daily traffic of 1 million messages among 2 million subscribers who are introduced to each other based on their proximity. Subscribers spend on average 40 minutes online browsing profiles and contacting other members, whose exact locations are masked for safety reasons. Skout marked the first dating app for the iPhone and the Android.
It is free to use, but members can pay for extras such as virtual gifts and wink bombs, according to Online Personals Watch, which account for 20 percent of revenue and allow the sender to flirt with 500 people at once.
Launched in September 2010 and based in Paris, GoodWizz is a social meeting site that combines a social network, matchmaking and personality games. It has 35,000 members from 139 countries.
"Online dating is really a big chance to open your heart and be heard," said founder Emmanuel Cassimatis, 28, during a phone interview from his office in Paris. "By playing games, you really discover a person's personality and find friendship -- or more."
Based on profiles, members are first matched and then begin to play games developed by psychologists and designed to illuminate their personalities. For example, after reading an excerpt from a book, each dater is asked to interpret it. Role playing games are popular, too.
"Like Facebook, GoodWizz is free, but after your first match you may only play games by purchasing credits," said Cassimatis. "You pay as you go with credits good for buying virtual gifts. You'll meet new friends not only in your area, but around the world."
Virtual dating combines online dating with online gaming. For example, individuals can meet in a romantic virtual cafe in Paris or a karaoke bar and comedy club in Vancouver, B.C.
Virtual daters can bond through activities like riding hovercrafts, watching sunsets or attending the virtual weddings of others. They communicate through voice and text chat via Skype. On Weopia, it costs about $5 for a date, about the price of one glass of cheap Chardonnay.
A study published in 2006 by Harvard Business School showed that virtual dating or "dating by avatar" before going live usually resulted in a successful face-to-face date.
"Meeting people in a virtual world allows you to get to your true self because you are less inhibited," said Brian Shuster of Virtual-Vancouver, an adults-only playground. "You meet someone online, chat with them and then take them to a karaoke bar."