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Guest Editorial:
Yes Virginia... there Really is Online "Dating"
by James Houran, Ph.D.

 

(February 2006) It’s exciting to be a new member of the team at Online Dating Magazine; everyone has made me feel so welcome. I also appreciate our publisher, Joe Tracy, allowing me to take the soapbox this month. Mine is not so much a gripe, but rather a clarification about the term "online dating."

I recently read a poignant article(6) in the San Francisco Chronicle about the conversion of a once true believer. For 11 years, the so-called father of web logging (blogging) and online diarists, Justin Hall, was dedicated to documenting his life online. He was one of the most committed advocates for the bonding powers of interactive, web-based writings and online interactions. Hall even explored online dating, like millions of other modern day romantics out there. But now, Hall has expressed serious doubt over the Internet’s ability to foster intimacy. As a result, the father of blogging has sadly ended his online presence.

My take on this media report is that Hall concluded that genuine connection among people in cyberspace is pretty much a facade. What’s this have to do with clarifying the term "online dating?" Well, online dating and relationship services both fall under the rubric of the "online matchmaking industry." As such, the industry’s primary mission is to provide a comfortable forum for people to meet and get to know each other. What I’m talking about is promoting genuine connections. However, I’ve heard many people claim that online dating is a misnomer – that people don’t really "date" online but rather simply meet there. They go on to say that online dating sites are basically nothing more than "online introduction services." Frankly, I couldn’t disagree more. Contrary to Justin Hall’s unfortunate experience, and what others may say, I’m convinced that online interactions can be just as powerful, meaningful and lasting as their real-world counterparts.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines a date as "an appointment to meet at a specified time; especially: a social engagement between two persons that often has a romantic character." No where does that definition restrict social appointments or engagements with respect to place or context. So, the real question is whether two romantically-minded people can actually have a meaningful and productive social interaction online.

The answer to that question seems to be a resounding "yes." Furthermore, some authorities even hint that Internet is the location of choice for today’s social gatherings. For example, Stowe Boyd, the charismatic and deeply intelligent President of the Corante think tank, argued that cyberspace is the new "third place"(3). Third places are settings that are psychologically and physically apart from home and work(9). They are the core settings for informal public life – places where people relax and network like coffee shops, bars, hair salons, beer gardens, pool halls, and civic clubs.

Involvement in informal public life has important psychological, social, and political consequences, and such involvement is made possible by the existence of third places. Yet, sociologists(9, 10) suggest that capitalist society has been eroding traditional third places. Nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century reveal that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations requiring our physical presence, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently and even socialize with our families less often(10). Consequently, those in the know like Stowe Boyd are not surprised that many people seeking human interaction flock to online communities, such as chat rooms, discussion forums, and online dating and social networking websites(3).

Obviously, cyberspace is not a healthy "third space" for everyone, but there are research studies demonstrating that deep and lasting relationships can develop over the Internet. Of course, it’s only fair at this point also to note a few caveats. First, some people may have quite inaccurate perceptions of other people’s personalities when in communicating over the Web(11). In other words, some of us aren’t that good at drawing accurate pictures of others over the Web. Second, Internet socialization may promote certain individuals to develop "fantasy identities." I’m sure you know what I mean here already – older men posing as younger men or even women and married people posing as eligible singles.

But notwithstanding caveats like these, sociologist Michael Hardey(4, 5) found that the disembodied anonymity that characterizes the Internet can act as a foundation for the building of trust and the establishment of real world relationships. Other experts have come to similar conclusions. In a clever series of experiments, McKenna and colleagues(8) showed that individuals meeting for the first time online are more likely to reveal their "true selves" (who they really think they are) rather than their "actual selves" (how they think they should be seen). In addition, people tend to like each other more when they first meet over the Internet, as opposed to face-to-face. Finally, by researching actual Web users, McKenna’s research team found that deep relationships do form over the Internet. When those online relationships are integrated into one's real world social life, they remain stable over time—indeed, often proving more long-lived than relationships formed through face-to-face introductions.

Taking this further, researcher Andrea Baker examined the question of what factors differentiate successful and unsuccessful couples who first met online(2). She concluded that four general variables signaled a couple’s capacity for long-term "compatibility:"

» Where they meet: the overlap of specific interests as represented by the type of site they enter for a first encounter online signals long-term compatibility.

» What they will do to be together: obstacles of distance, jobs and finances, and other relationships are negotiated so that past attachments are diminished and at least one partner will relocate.

» When they interact: taking a lengthy period of time to get to know each other online before meeting face-to-face and postponing sexual involvement promotes longevity of relationships.

» How they communicate: learning to handle each others’ styles of communication even when conflicts occur online enhances online and then offline satisfaction and cooperation.

My interpretation of Baker's findings is that prolonged and non-superficial contact can help counter the inherent drawbacks of "hyperpersonal communication." This dry and academic piece of jargon reflects the unique characteristics of online interactions and communications. To be sure, many social science experts believe that online interactions are fundamentally different from other forms of interpersonal or mass communications. Specifically, individuals in chat-rooms and newsgroups have much less information about other participants (verbal and nonverbal cues) with which they might make attributions or form impressions of others. For example, in a chat room, the only information one has available about a conversational partner is information the partner chooses to make available, such as a screen name that may or may not be a useful cue and personal information that s/he chooses to disclose that may either be truthful or intentionally deceiving. This all doesn’t mean that people can’t date online; it's just means it can be a tad more complicated than dating someone offline.

Online daters are inherently hyperpersonal communicators. What this means is that they’re forced to rely on broad assumptions in order to make inferences about the other, as well as inflate these perceptions of the other based on the restricted cues that are available(12). Therefore, online dating and social networking companies sincerely interested in promoting authentic and long-term relationships should emphasize prolonged communication among its customers. This is especially true given that individuals tend to develop trust with others fairly quickly online(15).

Research has only recently begun to address the subject of online relationship development. It should also be noted that the nature of online relationships clearly varies. However, it’s also clear that flirting and dating and other forms of social networking constitute an important aspect of the Internet phenomenon(1, 13, 14). To my way of thinking, the "tools" of online dating such as detailed personal profiles, personality and compatibility testing, digital photographs, webcams, real-time chat capabilities and email and Instant Messaging help overcome the so-called restricted cues in online impression formation. What this does is reduce many of the limitations of hyperpersonal communication. In fact, the tools of online dating and social networking nicely promote – and may even prolong – authentic communication among individuals. To me, this is the crux of the definition of dating and is the necessary first step to a long-term relationship.

There's no question that the tools of online dating can promote prolonged and meaningful communication among netizens. And there is also no question in my mind that many online interactions meet the definition of a "date," since we’ve seen that online interactions can be valid social engagements between two persons that have a romantic character. In fact, the myriad of online dating tools may well help online daters maintain rather realistic expectations of relationships when online relationships are taken offline. For instance, in a study I published with statistician and social psychologist Rense Lange, we found that attitudes of online daters’ toward online dating don’t significantly distort the anticipated quality and quantity of their computer dates(7). Moreover, on average the participants in our study reported an anticipated 50% probability that individuals rated as "perfectly compatible" by online testing methods would prove satisfactory when met in person. Holding a 50% probability in one’s mind is akin to the classic philosophical question: "Is the glass half empty or half full?" When you consider that, it appears that online daters are at once optimistic and realistic about online prospects and relationships that begin on the Internet.

The bottom line: the Internet can foster deep and lasting platonic or romantic relationships. Online matchmaking facilitates this process by providing ample technological tools and features that encourage and sustain meaningful communication among online daters. Not everyone will find a soul mate, but hopefully most online interactions won’t end in significant disappointment like that of Justin Hall.

Yes, Virginia… done responsibly and correctly there really is online "dating."


 

Related Links:
» The Truth About Compatibility Testing

References

1. Ahuvia, A. C., & Adelman, M. B. (1992). Formal intermediaries in the marriage market: a typology and review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 54, 452-463.

2. Baker, A. (2002). What makes an online relationship successful? Clues from couples who met in cyberspace. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 5, 363-375.

3. Boyd, S. (2004). Social tools and the ‘third space’ in Europe. Paper presented at the iDate 2004 International Dating Conference, Nice, France, July 15-16.

4. Hardey, M. (2002). Life beyond the screen: embodiment and identity through the Internet. Sociological Review, 50, 570-585.

5. Hardey, M. (2004). Mediated relationships. Information, Communication and Society, 7, 207-222.

6. Harmanci, R. (2005). Time to get a life – pioneer blogger Justin Hall bows at 31. San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, February 20, Section A-1. http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/02/20/MNGBKBEJO01.DTL. Accessed 2/20/05.

7. Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Expectations of finding a ‘soul mate’ with online dating. North American Journal of Psychology, 6, 297-308.

8. McKenna, K.Y.A., Green, A.S., & Gleason, M.E.J. (2002). Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58, 9-32.

9. Oldenburg, R. (1991/1999). The great good place. New York: Marlowe & Co.

10. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

11. Rouse, S. V., & Haas, H. A. (2003). Exploring the accuracies and inaccuracies of personality perception following Internet-mediated communication. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 446-467.

12. Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3-43.

13. Whitty, M. T. (2003). Cyber-flirting: Playing at love on the Internet. Theory and Psychology, 13, 339-357.

14. Whitty, M. T. (2004). Cyber-flirting: An examination of men’s and women’s flirting behaviour both offline and on the Internet. Behaviour Change, 21, 115-126.

15. Whitty, M. & Gavin, J. (2001). Age/sex/location: Uncovering the social cues in the development of online relationships. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 4, 623 – 630.


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