“Fifty years from now do you really want to tell your grandkids you fell in love using a Facebook app? No, you want to show them the heartfelt love letter you wrote her one night at 3 a.m. Followed by an Instagram of your junk. It’s the Sepia that makes it so romantic.” — Stephen Colbert
Although Stephen Colbert jokes, or at least that is what I am told he does, he echoes a sentiment that is still prevalent in our society. There is still a basic assumption that the internet is incapable of being a respectable and proper medium for romantic relationships. That connections generated between individuals through the world wide web are not as valid as relationships with their genesis rooted in more traditional terms devoid of modern technology. The common thread of criticism always seems to have as its fulcrum that technology adds a falseness to virtual courting. The assumption then is that human courtship has remained in a constant state of behaviors and expectations throughout time which modernism cannot address and that something has been lost.
The problem with this assumption is that human courtships have varied wildly over time and cultural boundaries. When we explore romantic relationships throughout time and place we can find no constants or absolutes. Even obvious things like ‘kindness’ do not seem so common when we consider the cruelties that have often accompanied courtship practices in individuals and societies. In fact, courtship itself is not even a constant part of human relationships and pair bonding, as we can clearly see from arranged marriages that still happen in many cultures today. As it turns out there is no common thread amongst humanity in which technology may disrupt. We remain as adaptive as ever to the constraints and advantages of our immediate environment in seeking out romantic relationships.
The next assumption that is often related to this erroneous line of reasoning is that the internet, social networking and virtual courtships are just a fad. The above quote by Colbert refers to the sepia tone quality of film associated with the middle of the twentieth century, a time also associated with modern ideas about ‘dating’ and yet preceding the sexual revolution. As if in fifty years we will return to a Leave It To Beaver like existence, having shed the false trappings of the twenty first century for a romantically simpler time in which most of its vocal proponents never even lived. Although it is quite likely that modern humanity is on a collision course with its own avarice and hubris, should we survive this critical mass of our humanity in the death knell of the industrial age and birth pangs of the age of information, the internet and its social structures are unlikely to be going anywhere. In fact they will likely advance into degrees of sophistication which make modern internet romance seem dreamy and pastoral to the critics of those future technological paradigms.
The sort of coupling that is now associated with social networking and internet dating may be closer to our traditional courting behaviors than those immediately preceding the internet. Until the early part of the twentieth century is was the custom for courtships to be held mostly remotely via letters, sketches, photographs, poems, autobiographies, etc.; all of the same behaviors associated with online romance. In the nineteenth century and prior a ‘date’ was a term associated with prostitution and those in a courtship only saw one another on rare, special occasions. When dating became popular in the Jazz Age it was associated with chaste associations with multiple partners in order to ‘play the field’. As a result of the sexual revolution and advances in birth control the chaste nature of these dates was no longer the norm. Today dating is strongly associated with ‘hooking up’ and is often not intended as a means towards building permanent bonds between individuals. This is not to say that modern dating is a negative or immoral practice, but only to illustrate that what critics of internet courtship think of as traditional behaviors are in fact very modern ones. The practice of meeting and courting an online partner through exhaustive communication bears far more resemblance to traditional western modes of romantic genesis.
The greatest contributing factor to the success of online dating is it’s ability to connect like-minded individuals in a growing human population that alienates people through specialization. While we have continued to grow our species at an alarming rate we have also set conditions for the specialization of the individual. This has been done in many ways. Economic paradigms insist on specialized educations and career fields that narrow an individuals knowledge and interest. At the same time the sheer amount of culture (art, music, literature, cuisine, lifestyle) available to us means that we have less in common. Globalization of culture has meant that culture itself has decentralized. No longer does geography determine our cultural identity so much as our free associations with a multitude of cultural icons. To put this idea simply, a hundred years ago a person was likely influenced almost entirely by local customs and culture, while the modern human has for their influence a plethora of customs and cultures perpetrated internationally by modern media. The human of today, at least in western society and its counterparts, largely chooses their own interests rather than having them foisted upon them by locality and necessity. When we consider the size of the human population we find that it is highly unlikely that we will meet complimentary companions merely by local searches. The internet provides a forum for highly specialized individuals to meet the most likely candidates for courtship.
At the same time, many of the social institutions in which the like-minded were likely to meet have also eroded. Community activities, church and even traditional workplaces are no longer as prevalent in our society as they once were. And it does not appear that these institutions will return to classical forms any time soon. In their place, modern courting began to root itself in the leisure industry. Bars, resorts and travel became the new grounds for courting rituals. This trend meant that human romance had adopted for its breeding ground the marketplace and became another form of western consumption. We had become burdened with the price of purchase as the cost of romance. Our social institutions gave way to economic ones as in many other areas of our life. Considering the ability of almost any western human to freely access internet, social media and dating sites we are seeing a trend in which love is being removed from the marketplace and being made freely accessible by these new social institutions.
Criticism of internet courtship is often validated by the superiority of traditional values. Yet as we have seen, online romance bears far closer resemblance to those traditions than does the meat market of the twentieth century. While there is little doubt that web-based love will continue to evolve in strange and unthinkable ways, this is the course that humanity has set itself down and criticism of it is as hostile and sterile as any other form of neo-conservatism. By embracing these new paradigms we can contribute to steering them towards more positive interactions and avoid the mess modernism made of traditional human values in the meaningless and promiscuous marketplace partnering. Meanwhile the liberals engaged in social satire, like Mr. Colbert, will continue to ironically lambaste internet courtships like the good little neo-con puppets they may or may not realize that they are. That is fine by me. Let them have their skepticism and anger and misery. I have love. And I have social networking to thank for that.