Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Internet: There is Nothing Personal About It

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Digital Dating: The Malt Shop of the Millennium

By Dr. Dave Greenfield, The Center for Internet Behavior

The Internet has been a potential boon for personal ads. The Net allows individuals to narrow their search for love @ light speed to specific geographic or demographic variables affording users to be quite specific (e.g. picky) in meeting their expectations. This greater specificity and choice can run the risk of creating an illusion of endless opportunity and almost relentless perfectionism. It is hard enough to manage our real-time needs and fantasies, but the virtual world adds a new dimension. This unending source of virtual partners can blur the boundaries between real-time and virtual living producing a love-life that can remain socially unconsummated. It is this absence of an actual, physical connection that makes Internet dating less than ideal. The experience is no longer a tool or a means to an end (a relationship), but rather an end unto itself. The process becomes the outcome. There now seems to be an unending supply of potential suitors and mates-the key word is potential , as the electronic dating experience seems to a new-age form of entertainment. People seem to become almost unreasonably picky, and all the while, never actually having to make a commitment of speaking with the person (by phone or in person), let alone dealing with the less-than-ideal aspects of the person. It takes little investment of time and energy (or commitment) to send off a quick email, or to copy and paste a self-description, or to digitize your likeness to spread all over cyberspace. Is this dating? Is this relating? I'm not sure, but the Internet medium seems to mediate communications in some strange and powerful ways.

A human relationship, even the casualness of dating and early courtship, requires some presence and intention. Digital dating can distort what the purpose of the processes is-that is to meet, connect, and possibly develop a relationship. People also lie online; my research indicated that approximately 50% of web users admit to lying online-typically about physical characteristics and attributes. We also loose some of the boundaries and innuendo of face-to-face communication. E-mail cannot reveal context and facial cues which can and do add to the richness of communication. Even so, having hundreds of potential cyber-suitors can be quite seductive. It can begin to feel like you are really dating, when in fact your may be simply engaging in an almost narcissistic process of reflected adoration. Who wouldn't like receiving hundreds of emails bestowing interest (whether real or feigned)?

I have had several patients use Internet personals. Many have had positive experiences. Some have even met the person and hit it off, but many have found the experience to be lacking. In my book Virtual Addiction I describe communicating online as an almost "flat" or two-dimensional experience. It just doesn't seem to capture the richness of human communication, or if it does capture it seems to do so within a narrow range of expression.

For previously noted, personal ads lend themselves to the Internet medium. The Internet allows for a larger potential audience and easier access to people than would ordinarily be available. Our research survey is a case in point. We received over eighteen thousand responses in less than two weeks! There is no communications medium on earth that can reproduce those results with the same cost or simplicity. Welcome to the age of where convenience is the mother of invention, not necessity!

There the stories that you've heard in the media of people who met in chat rooms and fell hopelessly in love and lived happily ever. There are also those stories where your cyber-prince was actually a virtual frog! There are numerous instances where people meet in an interest or topic room and begin a relationship based on mutual interests; this is no different than meeting someone at a class or activity where you share in common interest. Many of these topic rooms have personal ads as a feature of that room or service, which again is the electronic equivalent of meeting at a Sierra club meeting. The topic rooms may certainly include non-sexual areas, but even those with serious non-sexual can seem to have a flirtatious flavor. Here are a few of the hundreds of emails I received regarding love online:

"We Met on WBS and immediately fell in love. We are currently living together,
engaged to be married, and happier than ever in our lives."

"In the early days of the Internet, before the World Wide Web, there were Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) that are similar to the chat rooms of the Web. Rather than
clicking on links and using Java, we had to telnet into a server and constantly check for new messages. I was on it constantly. I was a sophomore in College and, after a promising freshman year, I was spiraling down the vortex of Internet addiction. I stopped going to classes, I stopped doing homework, and I pretty much stopped sleeping. When I wasn't online, I was running up huge phone bills talking to people that I met online from all over the country (the campus provided a free Internet link). Most of my time was spent searching for girls who would feed my ego and excite me sexually. Needless to say, there were plenty of girls who became a lot less conservative online. Finally, after about a year and a half of searching and many Long Distance Relationships (LDRs), I found a girl close by and we have a very strong and loving relationship. In May we are to be married. Because of her, I no longer needed the Internet to feed my desires, imagination, and intelligence. I shifted the focus of my life toward my college education. I have since graduated and got a very good job with a well-known international company. Looking back on that period in my life, I am disappointed at my lack of will and discipline. However, I am glad that I met my future wife and that is also how I learned to type."

"I am amazed at the in-depth level conversations can go between two people basically sitting at a keyboard reading a screen. Once the relationship is established and the two people know enough about each other to feel comfortable, the communication becomes very open. Intimate details of living are discussed openly and advice is given two-ways based on life experiences. Sometimes I have found myself actually sitting here crying and telling the person I'm crying. What I am writing to them about is so intense that they can feel my pain and they are also crying. These are counseling and comforting sessions that real-life friends don't seem to have the time or the inclination to give. I have even developed a very sexual relationship with a man who matches all the characteristics I want in a man. But I don't want one in real life right now because I've just gone through a death. The closeness you can feel sitting at a keyboard is amazing. It makes "Sleepless in Seattle" outdated because you can connect via the Net and reach as far and as deep into each other's lives as you wish. And, ultimately, you can block any further conversations. I have to tell you, I would not dump someone without telling him or her why. That would be my rule in real life, and I wouldn't treat an Internet friend with any less consideration."
An online relationship can develop rapidly and may move to a "private chatroom" where people may engage in more personal and private discussion. If someone wishes to have cybersex (cybering), they can actually retire to the equivalent of an electronic bedroom. These are private chat rooms, where one can privately have cybersex with no one viewing the conversation. But more often than not, if the relationship does not move to cybersex, then it seems to remain a form of relating that's doomed to become "lost in cyberspace."

Back to personal ads. In personal ads any individual can answer an ad and if the listing individual is interested, phone numbers can be exchanged, often culminating in a real-time meeting. This in essence is no different than how it works in newspapers and magazines, except online personals can be more directly targeted to specific interest groups and demographics. It should be cautioned, however, that the Internet is a completely anonymous medium and is therefore not entirely safe or predictable. As I noted many individuals on the Internet are likely to be lying about some aspect of them, often including their sexual identity or other personal circumstances. In some cases our survey showed lying rates as high as fifty percent for heavy Net users! I have been told of many cases where people were not who they said they were, and this is often found out after meeting and having a sexual encounter. Recently I was told of a case where a woman was conversing online and met a man who flew in from Hawaii to see her; they spent a week together and then he disappeared, without a trace! No one knows what his real story was? Stories such as this are not unusual and sometimes they can be worse.

Individuals should always exercise extreme caution when meeting people whom they've met over the Net. I have spoken to many individuals who have indicated that they met over the Net and have established successful and, in some cases, long-lasting personal relationships. However, there are an equal number of horror stories, whereby individuals had met people on the Net who they did not know. It can be quite dangerous as we have seen. I had one patient tell me that she had been communicating with a sexual fetishist (dominance and discipline) who it later turned out to be a serial killer who lured his victims to him via Internet personal ads. In other cases people were abducted, raped or, and killed. Remember, on the Internet, you truly are buying a "pig in the poke" and the high degree on anonymity creates a safe distance for dishonest, as well as honest people!

Guidelines finding for love online
The following guidelines apply to answering any personal ad , but have particular importance for online personals.

- It is strongly suggested that if you intend to have a personal contact with somebody you met on the Net that you do so in a public place.

- It is suggested that you meet during the day, preferably in a busy or crowded area.

- It is a good idea that you spend some time finding out more about the real person and that you verify their information from other sources. Don't be afraid to call references and friend of his or hers. Be direct, and don't be afraid of insulting the person; if they are insulted than run the other way, because they probably have something to hide.

- Remember most people lie on the Net about something.

- Clearly, there are good people on the Net. After all you're on-line and you are a good person. However the Net is also perfect medium for devious and mentally ill individuals to take advantage of unsuspecting victims. Be cautious to not count yourself among other victims.

- It also should be cautioned to never include information identifying your home address or phone number in your personal profile on the Internet. If you put information about yourself on the Internet, you have to assume that people will have access to it. I have been amazed at the trouble that people have gone to in finding out personal information about me, and there may be people whom you do not want to have this information. Do not, under any circumstances, give out your real name, phone number, or address on the Internet without having a sense of who you are providing it to.

- Remember, if they really want to, other people can see everything that appears online that is not encrypted.

- When placing an ad, be specific about your personality and what you want. Don't be vague and cutesy. Try to resist the temptation toward being so flirtatious that it clouds your better judgment, or doesn't communicate what you really want.

The Internet is a wonderful tool for connecting people. It is also a very easy method for avoiding real connection and increasing our social isolation. It is one of the few communication mediums that can separate/isolate us from others while we are attempting "connecting" to other people. The Internet, e-mail, instant messaging, chat, and personals all have their place, but they are not an end to them selves; and they are definitely not a substitute for real-time connection and social interaction.

Dating requires some intention. The gratification should not only come from the ego-boost of digitally-amplified attention and adoration, but rather from the positive and pleasurable experience of sharing and relating. Dating should not become perpetual window shopping. Virtual relating can become addicting in its own right, but in my opinion in will always fall short of real-time connection. Sometimes the path to satisfaction doesn't lead to an electronic bedroom!

1 comment:

Dan said...

There are also tools available for people to use in their "fight." For instance, at relationslip.com, members can submit and search reviews of online daters based on actual dates, so you can find out what someone is really like, not what they present on a profile.