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Digital yentas seek lonely hearts

Just as online matchmaking services are hitting their stride as a mainstream phenomenon, a cottage industry is springing up to help online sweet-talkers.

Just as online matchmaking services are hitting their stride as a mainstream phenomenon, a cottage industry is springing up to help online sweet-talkers.

Straight-talking Eve Hogan, whose advice column launched Thursday on matchmaking site DreamMates.com, advises would-be wooers who've heated up their keyboards getting to know each other ought to get offline quick--within about two weeks.

"You will know by then if there is something wrong or if it feels right," Hogan said. "Some people think about online dating as a place where the relationship takes place, but the whole purpose of the Web is for introductions."

Hogan is just the latest to tap into the growing popularity of online relationships, the perils of which are famously captured by a New Yorker cartoon featuring a hound at a computer and the caption: "On the Internet, nobody knows you?re a dog."

Hogan says she can help you steer clear of the mutts.

And despite her advice to shut down the computer for real world courtship, she touts the Internet as a great dating tool since it lets people get to know each other intellectually before diving into a physical relationship.

"It causes people to talk about topics that matter to them in a way that doesn't necessarily happen right away in face-to-face dating," said Hogan, whose 2001 book, "Virtual Foreplay: Making Your Online Relationship a Real-Life Success," unravels the art of Internet courtship.

"Virtual Foreplay" is just one of several online dating guides carried on Amazon.com. Among the titles it shares the virtual bookshelf with are "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Dating and Relating," "Wired Not Weird: A Woman's Guide to Dating Online," "Cyberflirt" and "50+ And Looking for Love Online."

The book boom reflects the growing popularity of online matchmaking, which has gone from slightly embarrassing to positively mainstream in recent years.

"We all seem to know a couple that has met that way, whether it's a friend, a co-worker or even a parent," Hogan said.

And online lonely hearts seeking true love could use a digital yenta, since online matchmaking poses unique challenges.

Take Claudia Graziano, who went online with Match.com and found herself overwhelmed with hundreds of e-mails.

"I was so inundated with messages that I lost track of who I found interesting," said Graziano, who lives in San Francisco. "I ended up responding only to people who wrote me first, rather than being proactive."

Hogan has a handful of blanket recommendations for dealing with the unknown of a first-time "real world" date, even if online chats make the two people feel like they know one another. For safety's sake, meet in a public place during the day, arrange your own transportation and plan on paying your own way. And don't sweat it, if sparks don't fly, she says.

"You can't take their reaction personally if the other person formed their own preconceived notions."