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'' If I look for a Pottery Barn quilt, by the time I get to Page 11, they all blend together.'' According to Mr.

Griscom, many Nerve subscribers address the problem by turning their ads into ''constantly evolving marketing channels,'' regularly tweaking their sites by updating photographs and changing text to refine their pitches.

At Match.com, the largest personals Web service, 1.6 million people had posted ads as of April 2001.

A year later, that figure has nearly doubled, with people in their 20's s accounting for a disproportionate share of growth, the company says.

I more or less just threw my profile out there to see if anyone would respond.'' Mr.

Farah quickly learned the first rule of the online personals game: '' Without a picture, nothing happens,'' he said.

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Dating once implied ''a very long process where you disclose things over time,'' said Robert Rosenwein, a professor of social psychology at Lehigh University. Out of curiosity, he said, he signed up with an online personals service and posted his photograph -- an artsy profile shot in which he resembled a brooding Johnny Depp -- and described himself as ''passionate and sexy (and in great shape),'' someone who was ''working on not being an intimidating know-it-all.'' Mr. In just a day, he got e-mail responses from a dozen women.'' It was a great ego boost,'' he said. Tjong, a 26-year-old associate at a major New York law firm, was coming off a breakup and wanted to play the field.Where traditionally personals in newspapers and magazines were seen as last-ditch attempts by the desperate, Americans younger than 30 are using the online services more casually -- simply to make friends or to date outside their established circles.Some ambitious -- or just manic -- men and women play the services as if they were video games or e Bays-for-daters, where the goal is not so much acquiring the goods as simply playing to win. '' It could be just getting someone to write back to you, to meet or to fall in love with you, or it could be getting someone to go home with you on a particular night,'' Mr. Where older Americans are likely to see perusing the personals as a solo -- or downright lonely -- experience, people in their 20's are likely to make it a social event, like going to the mall.'' We call it 'man shopping,' '' said Shelly Parnes, a 28-year-old publicist from Queens, who recently placed her first ad.

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