Rhonda Lillie and Paul Hawkins have been madly in love for four years and continue to this day, in the very environment where it they met: the online alternate reality of Second Life.

The love story of Lillie and Hawkins is described by Jessica Bennett in  an extremely sweet piece that examines the way we connect to each other, and how the online world can often provide oppotunities for love and friendship that the "real" world seems to block out. Both Lillie and Hawkins joined Second Life without the intention of meeting anyone; both were single parents who felt lonely and bored enough to give the service a spin. "I just needed someone to talk to, and I couldn't afford to make long-distance calls every day," Lillie recalls. "It was a way to break the boredom," Hawkins agrees.

The two soon found each other began dating in the Second Life world, and eventually had a Second Life wedding. Though the two have met in person, (and Hawkins officially proposed) the world still conspires to keep them apart: financial issues, family obligations and the Atlantic Ocean are standing in their way. Yet they can still live the life they dream about online. "Four years ago, Paul and I joined Second Life to fill the loneliness in our hearts, and we found what people search their whole lives for," Lillie tells Bennett, "Yes, there's an Atlantic Ocean in between us, but we know we're meant to be together. So right now, this is as good as it gets."

Perhaps the best thing of internet relationships is that they are, at first anyway, based solely on one's words: we connect through cartoon representations of ourselves, behind dumb but protective screennames, and use the anonymity to perhaps express the most honest sides of ourselves; things we'd never say in front of our "real world" friends for fear of being mocked or misunderstood. The lack of physical pressures and judgments also comes into play: as Bennett notes, "In one survey of gamers in online relationships, 60 percent said they didn't think their unions would've formed in real life because a physical attribute would've turned them off."

There may have been a few really successful stories of couples finding love on the web wave, but in the time I've known, acquaintances of mine who have struck an internet relationship got along better via the net, but when it came to the reality of facing each other, things became awkward - there must have been a reason to why these people hide themselves from the real world while the internet provides you the exact cover you need - you could be skinny or fat, sexy or nerdy, blond or brunette, tall or short, loser or winner, and your correspondent would never know - unless he met you, right?

In other cases internet dating has been a source of comfort to the lonely, and a great help to an inner self-esteem. But is it really helping one, or is it merely pacifying the fear of physical dating? In some cases, internet socialites gain more courage from chatting and attracting men from the internet (and as they progress, through the phone), but in some, it's an avenue for escapism.

I knew a girl who dated her e-partner for two years after meeting him in person. He was a person of few words, and when he did speak, he sounded like an intelligent, creative person. But what differed was that his life was mainly spent on the internet - on Secondlife amongst other things, while she liked doing more social things. More time was spent at home than outside and their relationship hit rock bottom. They had nothing in common besides sex-talk and cuddles in front of a screen - computer vs. television

So is internet dating ruining your social life?

A Geek Love Story [Newsweek]