updated 6/1/2004 6:14:23 PM ET 2004-06-01T22:14:23

For the first week after a matchmaking Web site for Bowdoin College students went online this spring, the campus was crazed with the romantic possibilities. Even in the library, students' minds wandered from classwork to the possibility of romance.

"There are rows of computers, and you could just see everyone would be on BowdoinMatch," said Kara Oppenheim, a Bowdoin senior and a sex columnist for the campus newspaper. "It was hysterical."

BowdoinMatch is one of five matchmaking Web sites created by two students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Students who sign up get a list of those the computer thinks they would be well suited to date.

More than 85 percent of Bowdoin students and 90 percent of students at Colby College in Waterville registered for the site.

The surge in interest at five liberal arts colleges that joined the network has prompted its creators to make plans to expand their network to students at larger universities, and maybe even to alumni.

"We probably will be launching in the fall at a lot of schools," said Dan Stillman, a 2004 Wesleyan graduate who created the original WesMatch site two years ago with friend Matt Eaton. They plan to launch sites for students at the University of Chicago, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Five Colleges consortium in Massachusetts. "I've talked to well over a dozen in the last couple of weeks."

Student governments at five schools from Maine's Colby to Oberlin College in Ohio have paid Stillman and Eaton $500 to $700 per semester to join the WesMatch network, and about 9,300 students _ 83 percent of the student population at the five schools _ have registered.

Stillman and Eaton hatched the idea for WesMatch two years ago after discussing ways to make dating easier.

"I said, 'You know, Matt, it would be so much easier to find a girlfriend if I could search a database for what I wanted,'" Stillman said. "We've had a lot of fun doing this over the last two years."

Students rate themselves in 39 categories, some with straightfoward questions asking about their work ethic, politics and musical tastes. Other categories feature less serious questions about their "activistitude" and "eco-conscientiousness." Students describe what they are looking for, and Stillman and Eaton's algorithm produces a Top 10 list of matches.

"It provides enough of an icebreaker to give people an excuse to get in touch with each other who never would," Stillman said. "We see it as a way to break down cliques on campus."

Although the site is aimed at sparking romantic relationships, many students use it to check their compatibility with friends, or as a way to goof off for a few minutes while working on those final papers and reading assignments.

"It's just a way to procrastinate," Bowdoin senior Jen Pelkey said.

Colby student government President Derek Taff said he pushed to join the network because it thought it enhanced student life. He said the Web site was well worth the per-semester fees.

"I've met tons of people in the last few weeks who I would never have initiated a conversation with or gotten to know if it hadn't been for this system," Taff said.

Based on the current level of participation, the WesMatch network could have 48,000 members by fall if UNC, Chicago and the Five Colleges join up.

To an outsider, it may seem strange that college students who have so many opportunities to meet people at campus activities and parties would resort to a computer network to find potential dates.

But current students are so comfortable with technology that the idea does not sound strange to them, said Joseph Walther, a communication professor at Cornell University.

Dating and matchmaking Web sites use different methods they say will help members find the love of their lives, Walther said. But they all provide a similar placebo effect.

"It almost doesn't matter what the superficial match might be. It does provide an icebreaker," Walther said. "In a way this is just like a school dance or a lounge in a library."

And compared to a campus beer bash, he said, matchmaking sites might be a better place to meet someone.

Others are doubters.

Critics at Colby and Bowdoin say the level of enthusiasm for the network has not necessarily had led to a similar level of romance.

"At first, I didn't want to sign up because I thought if people were taking it seriously I didn't want to do it," Colby freshman Liz Coogan said. "But it turned out everyone else was taking it as a joke."

But Bowdoin junior Steve Gogolak said he hopes the matchmaking site will push students to step out of their comfort zones and ask a classmate out on a date.

"There's a lack of willingness to take risks at a personal level," he said. "Around here, it's not difficult to meet someone in person. It's just a matter of taking the initiative to do it."


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