The Presentation of “Dangers” of Relationships Mediated by Online Dating

Online dating conman 'left me hurt and violated'

Online dating conman 'left me hurt and violated'

In response to this week’s prompt, I examined a recently published BBC News article titled “Online dating conman ‘left me hurt and violated’.” The article outlines the latest in Internet scams, the latest being a 59-year-old woman – Vicky Fowkes – who signed up for an online dating website, and fell in love with a man who didn’t exist, or rather, a man whose actual persona did not exist. It is to say that Fowkes fell for a scam in which she was emotionally captivated by someone who then proceeded to swindle her out of nearly £40 000. The culpable man has yet to be caught and the money has yet to be recovered.

The question of framing most certainly comes into play with this article. Where Fowkes is positioned as victim in this series of unfortunate events, one could just as easily point out her faults of not having better implemented uncertainty reduction theory strategies, which include passive, active, and interactive, before becoming both emotionally and financially involved. Granted, there were mentions of telephone calls; however, it is also duly noted that there were no records of photographs exchanged or any instances of face-to-face communication (FtF). For this particular case, the FtF (given that the man was based in Africa) could have been mediated/facilitated/substituted by Skype (acknowledging that it is an in-between medium comprising of both FtF and computer-mediated communication [CmC]).

With regard to the article’s presentation, I feel that it most certainly could have been presented with a much more critical lens, asking questions as to why Fowkes was so ready to provide financial aid without engaging in strategies that would minimize her loss and guarantee authenticity, as well as asking questions of how deceptive this scammer must have been. American academic Nancy Baym outlines in her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age (2010) the possible ways in which men and women are able to draw more inferences out of the one another’s small cues than they would in a usual FtF encounter. These small cues may be a number of things, ranging from a single photograph to a short self-summary or even to the grammar/language in messages. Thus, for Fowkes to have believed such a performance, it would have to mean that “John Hawkins,” as the man referred to himself in conversations with Fowkes, most certainly managed to play to the “right” cues so as to make himself convincing in CmC. Of course, we come back to the question as to why Fowkes was so ready to provide financial aid without furthering her uncertainty reduction by means of crossing FtF and CmC – a question that leaves unanswered in this article.

In some ways, I find the article to be similar to “Life 2.0” in which the conflict of self-presentation and online identities comes to light. Where in “Life 2.0,” the online couple found themselves attracted to one another by the performances given off (Goffman 1959) in a virtually constructed world, Fowkes found herself attracted to a persona that was presented/performed in a bound space. The distinction between world and space, for this purpose, can be noted as the following: the “world” refers more so to the realm of graphic virtual interaction, whereas “bound space” refers to a web location/structure.

Despite the revelation of the “physical world” self of Fowkes’ “lover” being more drastic, the experiences of online dating between Fowkes and the couple in “Life 2.0” are similar in some respects. For instance, both fail to accommodate for the fact that the Internet is more conducive to selective self-presentation (Walther 2006), meaning that only certain facets of personality are conveyed in the online sphere.

However, the main point on which they greatly differ from one another is the consideration of authenticity. Granted, “authenticity” is a difficult topic to broach, especially in the realm of online dating; however, there have been several contentions made over the years. The first being that the intention of online dating is to attract a mate in the physical world; as a result, information, to some degree, finds itself closer to truths than lies (Toma & Hancock 2009, Toma & Hancock 2010). And secondly, online deception is not as rampant as some would like to believe, especially given the consideration that “lying is a daily occurrence.” (Ellison et al 2006 : 420)

That said, it is following to note the following: Fowkes’ case is one that illustrates the subversion of the norm, and the relationship in “Life 2.0” merely illustrates one of the many “goals” of that virtual world of Second Life. In effect, the two platforms have different goals, and we are merely examining the commonality of “dating” between these two platforms for the purposes of this post.

So, the question to ask is how do the two stories differ from one another in their presentation? The answer, first and foremost, comes back to the goals of the two platforms. Second Life is viewed as an open-ended system in which the interactions do not have the end-goal of being romantic, though it is a possibility. As a result, the documentary explains the root of the “love” of the couple and follows them so as to track this “peculiar” development within the virtual world. However, given that online dating’s goal is to assist in the finding of a mate for the physical world, the story is framed in such a manner that exposes, as opposes to follow. Since the nature of the story is one of subversion of the norm, as opposed to “peculiarity/possibility in a virtual world of many facets,” the BBC article immediately paints a darker picture.

What we come to realize and ask ourselves is the following – must all relationships be verified by some sort of FtF, even if it must be mediated? And if the answer is yes, the next question to pose is the following: are we always bound by FtF if there are ways to subvert the intentions of new CmC platforms?

Culture vs. Cult: The Role of Social Media in Our Lives

In an article from October on the Huffington PostKatherine Bindley explores what role social networking and jealousy play in “your” life. Her main argument is that while Facebook is a very powerful tool to help people connect and stay connected to one another, it has equally as much capacity to effectively ruin relationships. Specifically, she points out a few main things that people tend to do (or not do), which lead to their partner to feel either jealous or uncomfortable. Some of these examples included things like over/undersharing about the relationship on the network, having tagged pictures of exes, and seeing ‘worrisome’ things on partners’ pages and assuming the worst.

With all of this, though, it becomes clear that the underlying issue is a lack of communication rather than anything Facebook itself is doing. In fact, Bindley quotes a couples therapist from San Diego, Jennine Estes as saying, “Facebook isn’t usually the problem. It’s the behaviors that are the problem.” This statement is particularly important, because it immediately takes out considerations of Facebook being the ‘active ruiner’ of relationships. Such a blame on Facebook would be a very blatant statement of what Judith Donath (and others) would describe as technological determinism. In fact, Estes goes even further, saying:

“To be clear, Facebook itself isn’t to blame for the demise of domestic bliss. Instead, it’s an avenue by which threats can develop if you fail to communicate about them, and one that can exacerbate problems that already exist.”

Again, this is a very clear way to disprove arguments of technological determinism and instead emphasise what more looks like a social shaping view of technology, where people’s usage of new technology are taken into account. Because Bindley presents this concept early on and comes back to it throughout the article, the general ‘story’ of what she writes does not blame Facebook for strains in relationships, but rather points out how people can abuse its capabilities in ways that lead to a strain of trust.

The jealousy that a boyfriend or girlfriend might feel as a result of something done on Facebook is not very different from the ‘psychological warfare’ that dana boyd describes from the MySpace ‘Top 8’ feature.  Again, however, neither boyd nor Bindley suggest that the social networks are to blame (although in the case of MySpace, it’s hard to imagine a practical use for ‘ranking’ your friends), but rather that people are quite prone to be sensitive in these publicly social spaces. Overall, then, I think she presents the possibilities of Facebook in a reasonable, objective manner.

In the film Life 2.0, however, the users of Second Life are presented in such a way that they come across as if they were members of a cult: that they got into ‘this thing,’ couldn’t stop, and may or may not have made it out. In fact, the way it was put together made me think of the movie Jonestown, (trailer below)  where the people who joined the ‘People’s Temple’ cult were vulnerable for some number of reasons, found a comfortable, welcoming environment in the cult, eventually found out that it was ‘bad,’ and either made it out or didn’t (although obviously there was no mass suicide shown in Life 2.0). Although the stories presented in Life 2.0 had varying areas of success, I felt like the filmmakers generally presented Second Life as something that could be very dangerous, and that it was best to get out of it rather than lose all touch with reality.

Because of the way Second Life seemed to be shown as ‘dangerous’ in the film, I would argue that it takes more of a technologically deterministic view, where people have little or no control of what they are doing once they sign up for the game. To avoid this, the filmmaker could have shown a few people who use Second Life casually and who still maintain normal relationships with other people. This would have given proof that there is nothing inherently wrong with Second Life, but that it may bring out underlying social issues in some people who play it. In fact, I would imagine (or hope) that the stories shown in the film were extreme cases chosen to exhibit an entertaining yet disturbing look into the lives of Second Life addicts, posing them as an ‘other’ character for people to laugh at and maybe feel better about their own interpersonal relationships.

Given these two differing perspectives on social media, I think it is important to study these areas through an unbiased lens and present all sides of the story. Rather than present the audience with predetermined judgements, it would be better to show people how a social network works in its most basic form and how people have changed and adapted this, but most importantly, that all these uses are different for everyone.

Lying by Omission

Fortunately for us, during this past week, America celebrated the most romantic day of the year: Valentine’s Day. During this Hallmark holiday, the web is overrun by fake touching love stories and cliché creative how-to guides, however if you put in a little effort and do a little digging, you might be able to find an article or two with actual blog-worthy content.

On Valentine’s Day, news source Mashable released a video that focused on a study done at Brigham Young University that concerns the effect of online role-playing games on marriages. According to Mashable, the study concluded that 3 out of 4 spouses of online games wished their partner would “put more time into their marriages than their avatars.” Mashable also reports that the primary reason for why online role-playing games negatively affect marriages is not because of the amount of time the gaming spouse spends online but the amount of time the couples spend arguing and disrupting bedtime routine. However Mashable ends the video on a more positive note pointing out that not all relationships suffer from online role-playing games; in relationships where both partners play, gaming actually strengthens the relationship.

For a one minute video Mashable does a fair job in presenting what are probably the most interesting findings of the BYU study, however judging by the title of the video “Study Shows Online Role-Playing Can Damage Marriage,” and the fact that they spent eighty percent of the video discussing the possible damages shows Mashable placed an emphasis on the negative impacts of online role-playing game. From a business perspective, that would have been the appropriate way to market the video since the common view towards online role-playing games and people who play online role-playing games are generally negative and people like to read things that confirm their beliefs, however from an academic standpoint, Mashable’s biased presentation is misleading and can be considered an example of lying by omission.

This also occurred in the film Life 2.0. Like the Mashable video, it portrayed online role-playing games and its players in a very negative light by focusing only on failing stories of Second Life, but in reality, there are a lot of success stories stemming from Second Life. In 2008, Wired Magazine published a story about Second Life user Amanda Baggs who is autistic and does not speak. However when she plays Second Life, she has no problem communicating and behaves like what we consider normal social behavior. This has forced scientists to rethink autism and turn to new unconventional ways to communicate with autistic patients. This made absolutely no appearance in Life 2.0 even though it made headlines back in 2008 and really put Second Life on the map.

Because I found the BYU study interesting but the Mashable video lacking in more details, I searched for more content revolving the study on Google and found on Slate an article titled “How Playing Online Video Games Can Help Your Marriage.” This article is based on the same study as Mashable’s video however the title implies a positive conclusion had come out of this study. This article also goes more in depth than the video in how the study was conducted and not only does it touch on how online role-playing games have a positive impact but it also touches on the negative impacts giving a better complete overview of the findings.

Because one source is an article and one source is a video, it reminded me of our discussion in class regarding social cues and its importance. Many folks find face-to-face interactions more informing because seeing the person’s facial expressions and body movements helps us determine the message’s meaning more clearly however in this case, the article was much more clear than the video even though I was able to see the presenter as he spoke about the content in the Mashable video. This reminded me that even though we spend so much time worrying about what social cues may be omitted in certain mediums, we need to also focus on the source of the message and whether or not content is being omitted. If the content is distorted or tampered with, it doesn’t matter if the receiver understands the message or not because it is ultimately false. I feel like we’ve lost sight of what the purpose of communication is and are too wrapped up in the medium rather than the validity of the content.

Twitter: Homewrecker?

We are all users of Twitter. We are all Tweeters. Consider your Tweets.

Have you ever stopped yourself from Tweeting something after realizing it might offend one your followers? Or have you crafted a passive-aggressive Tweet about someone with whom you were in a fight? Did you end up actually Tweeting it? Have you ever wondered whether or not your use of Twitter is affecting the success of your romantic relationships?

In April 2011, the dating site OkCupid was interested in the lengths of its users relationships based on whether or not they were Tweeters and their ages. The popular dating site collected data from 833,987 of its users and created a study called “How Long Do Your Relationships Usually Last?” They found that OkCupid users who also use Twitter have shorter relationships on average across all age-groups than non-Tweeters. They also found that the difference in the length of a relationship increases between users and non-users as the users’ ages increase.

This study accomplished what it wished to accomplish: to determine how the lengths of OkCupid users’ relationships changed based on whether or not they used Twitter and their ages. I would have completed this study in the same way: by gathering a group of OkCupid users and surveying them. However, this study only surveyed 833,987 people and, while this is a large number, OkCupid has around 7 million users. I would have tried to survey a greater number of users in order to have a sample more representative of the entire population of users.

While I generally agree with the way this study was done, I find problems in the way it was analyzed. This study is discussed in Dr. Gary Lewandowski’s blog post, “Is Twitter Bad for Relationships?” on the blog Science of Relationships. Although he states that “correlation does not equal causation,” he goes on to attempt to link Tweeter’s shorter relationships with their tweeting. Throughout his analysis, he fails to keep in mind that this study was done with OkCupid users who were also Tweeters; Dr. Lewandowski refers to all Twitter users in general. He does not consider that there might be something different about the way OkCupid users, or at least the ones surveyed, are Tweeting, compared to people who are not users of OkCupid. Perhaps OkCupid users are more likely to Tweet in a way that might lead to shorter relationships, but this cannot be determined from this study.

Dr. Lewandowski wonders whether or not “sharing details of your life” on Twitter is bad for a relationship. But this study is not looking into the content of what people are tweeting. There is no evidence that OkCupid users who are also Tweeters are sharing intimate details of their life at all or in a way that could be threatening to a relationship. (I know that I am only one Twitter user out of millions and that I’m not an OkCupid user, but I’ve noticed that I, and a grand majority of the people I follow, do not Tweet in detail about their daily activities. In fact, people seem to realize that Tweets that share details of one’s life, such as, “Going on a date with this really hot guy I met in the subway station,” do not make for interesting Tweets.) This study did not examine what people are Tweeting; it simply examined whether or not they were Tweeting and their relationship lengths. If Lewandowski wants to make the assertion that Tweeters are Tweeting details about their life that are too intimate which may affect the length of their relationships, he will have to observe what Tweeters are Tweeting about.

Lewandowski also says that “frequent Tweeting is indicative of narcissism” and “posting daily updates [to Twitter] could be a sign of narcissism.” Again, Lewandowski seems more interested in what people are Tweeting, but this study does not take the content of tweets into account. And, even if it did, how could a Tweet be defined as “narcissistic” or not? Would a researcher have to search Twitter for certain terms that would make one seem narcissistic? Perhaps they would assume that a narcissistic user would use the word “me” too often, but searching for this word will bring up tweets that are not necessarily narcissistic. Lewandowski seems to assume that Tweeters are the only ones with negative qualities and the ones that are being “dumped” by their significant others, but it could be that the users of OkCupid who are also Tweeters are breaking up with their partners.

Like the documentary Life 2.0, based on users of the virtual online world Second Life, Lewandowski’s analysis of this study makes Twitter users seems obsessed with Tweeting. He thinks that Tweeters are what they tweet and encourages users to step back from Twitter to make sure they are “doing enough to foster [their] relationship.” One user in Life 2.0 stated that he wasn’t defined by Second Life, but that he defined himself in Second Life. Lewandowski seems to think that Tweeters are defining themselves on Twitter as generally narcissistic and careless because they Tweet details about their lives that would be better kept private.  However, since the study done by OkCupid does not consider what people are Tweeting, this cannot be affirmed.

Baym tells us that people who are familiar with technology will be more adept to reading peoples’ signals online. With this in mind, it could be considered that people who are able to understand and use OkCupid and Twitter might be relatively familiar with technology. Thus, they might be better at reading people’s online signals and realizing earlier than those who are not as technologically savvy (or not also on Twitter) that a relationship does not seem promising and should end sooner rather than later.

I would be most interested in conducting a study to find if all Twitter users, not just Twitter users who also use OkCupid, have shorter relationships on average than non-Twitter users. And yet, if a study like this did come out and suggested that Twitter usage was related to shorter relationships, would I feel guilty about my avid tweeting? Would I be persuaded to step back from Twitter in order to focus more on my relationships? This remains to be seen.

I, Facebook

This article, which recently appeared on the website of Men’s Health and has spread across Facebook like a wild fire, references a research study presented at a meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The findings indicate that those who ranked their satisfaction with life after reading their Facebook news feed were much less content with the state of things than those who did not view their friends’ status updates. Researchers also found that happiness declined significantly when users’ friend count exceeded 354 (the “tipping point”). They concluded that because we often judge personal success in comparison to our peers, and Facebook only offers positive self-generated spin of any given person’s circumstances, it hits our self-esteem hard.

This piece positions Facebook in a similar way as that of Second Life in Life 2.0. That is to say, these platforms are deemed absolutely essential to the everyday lives of certain individuals. In the case studies of the film, those individuals either made their living from playing Second Life, were incapable of overcoming repression in the non-virtual world and so turned to Second Life, or engaged in questionable personal relationships in Second Life that may or may not have happy endings. Among the suggestions made by the author of the study in the Men’s Health article, reducing time spent on Facebook or cutting out the social network altogether are not to be found, because apparently those simply aren’t viable options anymore. One must simply try to adjust how their time on Facebook is spent. Try and eliminate the worst of the braggarts, or stick to only the best of your best friends, and hope against hope that someone’s overly positive (and most likely exaggerated) status update won’t send you into a tailspin of depression, denial, anger and self-pity.

The author does not make a definitive judgment as to whether Facebook is causing an entire generation to morph into hot messes with Woody Allen-level neuroses, or whether our already present neuroses have simply integrated themselves into our Facebook use. Nonetheless, I believe that the current state of our social lives being intertwined with social networks is here to stay. That’s not to say it would be impossible to sign off; of course, any of us could choose to press the button (or in the case of Facebook, five separate buttons, over which Facebook will BEG you to stay and remind you that you are welcome back anytime. Kool-Aid, anyone?). But for someone of my generation, a whole host of problems arise when discussion begins of “quitting” Facebook (I use quotes because it actually is quite impossible to have them delete all traces of you without possibility of return).

I am unsure as to whether the discourse surrounding social networks should be one of an addiction and its addicts, or simply another trend or fad that has spread far and wide. This could be attributed to addicts rarely refusing to admit they have a problem. There’s no doubt I’m ashamed of the time I spend on Facebook and other social networks per day, but I also doubt that, barring some incapacitating and horrific accident rendering my fingers unable to type, I am going to decrease time spent online anytime soon. Dan Hoopes“4 Things to Consider Before Deleting Your Facebook Profile” definitely places a point in the pro-addiction theory column. He writes: “Leaving it [Facebook] creates withdrawal not for Facebook itself, but for the aspects of social life it facilitated, and made impossible without it, betting that users will always return just because of the sheer immensity of their existence that is contained within its servers.” The words “sheer immensity of their existence” have haunted me since reading Hoopes’ piece. The amount of time, energy, blood, sweat, tears, stress, anxiety, and money we place into social networks translates into the very essence of us existing solely via these platforms. It’s not even much of a stretch to say we define ourselves (and others) by our social media existence; as I alluded to in my last blog post, it is increasingly the case that if I’m not friends with someone on Facebook (or have at least creeped on their profile), there’s a good chance I’m unaware of their existence entirely. The fact that virtual funerals are held for Second Life avatars points further to the idea that it is a living part of us that exists on these networks.

Hoopes concludes his article by saying, “It’s not that I miss being able to immediately convey any thought or feeling instantly to nearly every person in my life, it’s that I miss the chance, however remote, that they would choose to do the same to me.” Is a mass exodus from social media forthcoming? I think not. I, for one, am far too frightened of the possibilities. I Facebook, therefore I am.