Timothy and Anna Johnson were married recently thanks to coconuts and the Internet. The Charlotte couple connected about two years ago after Anna came across a picture on MySpace of Timothy standing next to a coconut stand. It just so happens that Anna, who is originally from Jamaica, considers coconut water the “most delicious beverage in the universe.” So on a whim, Anna emailed Timothy, and asked him where the picture was taken. Timothy responded he had been in the Florida Keys for his brother’s wedding when a buddy snapped the picture. This started a playful correspondence between the two, and they discovered they had a lot in common. “We were immediately hooked,” says Anna, who is a customer category manager at Kraft Foods. The following weekend they met for dinner, and sparks flew. “We ended up talking ’til about three in the morning,” Anna says. The couple never looked back, and tied the knot last September. While Anna said she had been ready for a serious relationship when she met Timothy, she never thought she’d meet her husband online. “I had friends who had tried dating websites, but I always thought they were cheesy. Now I would recommend it to anybody in the world.” Anna, 30, is not alone in her new outlook. Once considered a refuge for the desperate and socially inept, online dating has become increasingly popular. Americans spent about $650 million on dating websites in 2007, a figure that has more than doubled since 2002, according to Jupiter Research. Another study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that in 2006 about one in 10 Internet-using adults – roughly 16 million people – have visited a dating Web site, and three million of them started long-term relationships or married their online dating partners. While the online dating industry is dominated by a few large commercial services, like eHarmony and Match.com (which currently has about 15 million members), a growing number of people are also meeting through social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. While not traditional dating sites in the sense that they do not match people up romantically, these online services allow members to create personal homepages, post pictures and use other networking tools. “By the time we met in person I already knew a lot about her and she knew a lot about me,” says Timothy, 32, who’s a product manager for Velux. “We still had fun exploring each other and finding things out, but we had already gotten all the boring, mandatory stuff out of the way.” “Everybody hates the awkward first date,” adds Anna. “A lot of times after the first half-hour you know it’s a waste of time. But (with MySpace) you usually know upfront if it’s something you’d like to pursue a little further.” While the Johnsons got together as a kind of happy accident after joining a social networking site, Erika Herrera, 27, and Brad Wright, 33, went online specifically looking for love, and they found it in each other. Both live in Marietta, Ga., and had busy, hectic work schedules and not much free time to meet new people, so they joined eHarmony. The dating website launched in 2000 and claims that an average of 236 eHarmony members marry every day in the United States as a result of being matched on the site. Based on in-depth personality profiles, the site matches its members based on “29 dimensions of compatibility.” Brad was Erika’s first match, and she immediately liked what she saw on his online profile. “First, he was tall,” says Erika. “I’m 5-7 and I like my heels, and he’s 6-4.” After corresponding online for about two weeks, they decided to meet for coffee. “Coffee is a good first date because if you decide you don’t like each other you can cut and run,” says Erika, who is a bodily injury claims adjustor. The casual coffee date went so well they decided to meet later that night for dinner. Brad, who works for the Weather Channel, said he was hopeful, but had his reservations. “I hadn’t had much luck on the dating scene,” he says. “I was like, well, let’s see how long she decides to put up with me.” Brad had no reason to worry. “He was a gentleman and seemed generally interested in getting to know me,” says Erika. “I knew right away he was the one.” After dating for about two years the couple took their vows last August. It seems only natural that the cultural phenomenon of online dating will continue to gain popularity with so many people today creating an online presence. It makes sense that our cyber activity would include looking for an ideal mate, especially when it’s as easy as clicking a mouse. With the evolution of online dating, many companies have introduced a host of new services, such webcam chats between members. The company OmniDate even arranges dates for its members at virtual bars and restaurants. During the date, both parties, represented by 3-D characters, can chat and interact – including blowing a kiss – by using their keyboard and entering special commands. Just think – if your date turns out to be a real dud, instead of suffering through an awkward goodbye, you can simply hit the off button on your computer.