Has online dating lost the “weird” stigma?

Living in a big city, we are privileged to often be the first to watch social change happen.  Over the past few years, I’ve noticed this being true when it comes to online dating, especially for young adults such as we in college or freshly starting our careers.  The understanding of what “online dating” entails is changing as the social media arena opens up in this sector as well, as discussed by Kelly House in an article written out of another big city, Portland.  She discusses how sites like Match.com still cater to older generations who are established in their lives and looking for a serious, stable relationships, however, it is becoming more and more popular amongst younger generations to utilize sites like OkCupid and Plenty of Fish for more casual networking.  This is because more serious sites, many of which charge membership fees, match their users based on very specified reasons that they would make a good couple.  As the Internet is becoming ingrained to our lives more every single day and social media networks are becoming solidified as our own personal networks in “real” life too, House notes that “savvy web entrepreneurs are betting that young singles represent an untapped revenue source.” Thus, these smaller, more casual sites have sprung up to cater towards them.  She explains that “they tend to be more tech-savvy, carefree and interactive” and focus more on location and shared interests to create potential matches.

The story is presented in a manner that shows examples of different sites and explains the basics as to how online dating has been changing, but it doesn’t dive enough into the reasons why.  Although she explains that the stigmas of online dating have changed somewhat  because “today’s 20-something grew up online. Using the Internet as a dating tool seems natural,” House fails to express enough how online dating can lead to and potentially create meaningful relationships via the ways we are now able to contact each other online and share ourselves as well. It is indeed correct that these sites and the way views have changed about them have allowed for more casual connections to occur offline like meeting for a concert you both enjoy, however I think it is more important to note how the Internet has allowed for connections to deepen in the online realm as well.  For example, an online dating site is very much its own community as its users share something in common: no matter how casual or serious of an interaction they are looking for, they are trying to make social ties in some way.  Nancy Baym explains that “online, we bump into the people who share our interests rather than those who happen to be in the same physical location. This leads to connections that might not otherwise form.” It is important to look at this alongside how our social cues have changed as well.  In 2012 as opposed to 1980, it isn’t as common to spot someone at your favorite coffee joint and ask them on a date because we seem to have become much more avoiding of strangers than in the past (a blog post could be written on this topic alone.) If you spark up a conversation on the Internet, however, about the latest YouTube video that had you in tears laughing or the awesome new band you found on Spotify, you might be more apt to meet them later in the week and see how you hit it off in person.

What House fails to discuss is how important it is to think about online dating in juxtaposition with the self we are creating online. With our own networks, it is very easy for Internet savvy individuals (ones who would be more inclined to use dating sites) to show exactly who they are in “real life” on the Internet via the unlimited content available to be shared as well as the networks that can be used to display who we are (such as our Twitter feeds.)  It is possible that Internet dating is becoming more generally “accepted” in society because of how “normal” other Internet communities like Twitter and Reddit have become and how the social interactions we have on them can so often make us feel close to strangers in a way very different than ever before.  “Strangers” in 2012 can become “friends” in the matter of seconds and with new features like Facebook Timeline, we have the ability of finding out almost anything about someone in a matter of minutes (*cough “Facebook stalking” cough*.)  In my eyes, the stigma once associated with Internet dating is breaking down so quickly in front of us because the Internet has become a means of documenting every part of oneself, and thus it is easy to get to know someone without physically having the chance to do so.

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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?