The romance of online dating

A new book says the stigma around finding your partner on the Internet must go – it’s just another place to fulfil the human need for love and friendship

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

Published 2 September 2016

Late January. The couple met on a dating website. Back and forth, back and forth went their banter. Via email, via phone. Soon enough it was time to schedule that first date.

The man in this soon-to-be coupling was versed in devising unique first date ideas. On this occasion however, his creative concoctions were completely unnecessary.

“The sunglasses section at Myer,” she said. “That way, if we get together, we can honestly tell people we met at Myer.”

2016 and the story still makes my brow furrow. 2016 and years and years into dating online and hook up apps, and stigma endures. 2016, and having written a couple of hundred thousand words on this topic, and each time I hear a new version of right and wrong ways to do love I’m convinced that we’ll forever remain a little prejudiced.

Technology has changed the way we experience relationships. Picture: Paul Burston

My newest book, Intimacy on the Internet, examines how online technologies have overhauled how we experience love and sex and friendship. While the Web has become a default meeting place – be it on a dedicated site, via an app or through social media – a disconnect exists between perceptions of this mode of meeting and the reality of our fervent embrace.

Somehow we still perceive that meeting someone in a bar, at a cooking class or in the sunglasses section of Myer is a more “real” way to connect – that it offers a more serendipitous story to tell our friends – than being matched by a string of code.

Education, church and workplaces feature in lists of real world places couples commonly meet. Unsurprisingly, those shared activities – those shared miseries – frequently work to bond. Education and church, however, don’t help much if you’re an atheist non-joiner who’s done with the classroom. Equally, there’s the world’s most dramatic downside to ever being naked with a colleague. When it all turns to dust you’ll need to keep seeing them. Day in, day out, for a period akin to eternity.

While bars still exist to let loose your inner Neil Strauss, and allegedly people still speed-date, going online provides an administrative solution for the time-poor, for the shy, for the multitaskers who want to swipe through possibilities while binge-watching Netflix. It isn’t any more than this – no more revealing about your social skills, no more telling about your worth or attractiveness – and yet it remains behaviour laden with negative connotations.

The subtitle of my new book is Media Representations of Online Connections. Much of my research examines the interplay between pop culture portrayals and real life. I don’t have a monkey-see, monkey-do view, nonetheless, film and TV certainly have a role in helping to shape our thinking about social behaviours.

At the most sensationalist end of the spectrum, media provides lessons on danger. While films offer up a steady supply of cyberspace predators grooming young ’uns for abuse, the news media also zealously probe the ‘Internet angle’. Be it in the reporting of a rape, a murder, or a terrorist attack, search histories and dating site clicks will be voraciously examined.

Yes, the Internet boasts the ability to conceal identity. But so do bars. And cake-decorating classes. And department stores. And yet, no one is doing police checks on the folks we encounter in public space. To conceive of a nightclub or a bookstore as somehow a safer place to meet a partner is foolhardy.

There is still a perception meeting on the Internet is not ‘romantic’. Picture: Dan Hankins/Flickr

And even for those not devoting energies to fearing love scam embroilment, the perception of the Internet as an unromantic place to meet tarries.

When asked about their attitudes to dating online, research participants often mention the lack of romance. A sentiment undoubtedly fuelled by the Hollywood meet cute, kismet apparently is essential in true love. A match predicated on postcode and on cat/dog preference seemingly bears no semblance to the shiny magic of eyes meeting across a crowded room.

Despite the ubiquity of the Internet in creating connections, a stench of ‘last resorts’ still hovers. As though if you were genuinely desirable, you’d have been snapped up by now in a more bricks-and-mortar mate-meeting fashion.

This perception isn’t entirely rubbish. In the earliest years of the Internet, users were indeed skewed towards the typical computer geeks and thus, meeting a socially awkward nerd was almost guaranteed. For our sins, however, in 2016 we’re all geeks and nerds, and we’re each doing the bulk of our intimacy-ing online. It’s our new normal.

And yet, the stereotypes endure.

Despite all of those highly dodgy made-for-television films, the Web isn’t a nefarious badlands where lads in hoodies pose as a Nigerian princes. It’s just another tool, another way to fulfil the human drive of connecting. The same rules, the same pitfalls and the same chances of calamity and heartbreak apply.

Stereotyping and fear-mongering make for a good frame in a news story, for useful hooks in a film. These ideas continue to have resonance, not because they’re true, but because we remain a little bit technophobic and a tad too enamoured by the rom-com.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne is the author of Intimacy on the Internet: Media Representations of Online Connections. It can be ordered here.

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