When people complain about ’80s movies, my rebuttal always includes the genre’s prescience. In Howard Deutsch’s Pretty in Pink (1986), among the reels of formula, we find an avant-garde scene in which Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy flirt through a computer. While both McCarthy and Ringwald are well past their expiration dates, computer dating has gone on to build a flourishing career. But can relationships catalyzed by net-chatting be equated with those traditionally borne of post-bar bonking? Is cyber-dating just another symptom of contemporary culture’s perennial search for a quick fix?
In Kissing Jessica Stein, Jennifer Westfeldt’s character succinctly described the dilemma facing many young people: how does someone who stays up reading course materials until 4 a.m. meet other people? How do you meet a mate while avoiding clubs, bars or cafés? Behold, the Internet chat room. Here, one can simultaneously be alone and interact with a room full of people. And while finding the right bar requires exhaustive research, Internet chats nip this problem in the bud by uniting people by common interest. More importantly, women in chat rooms aren’t impelled to spend hours plucking and moisturizing various body parts to impress their unabashedly crater-faced male counterparts. Neither must women in cyber-relationships be paranoid about appearing clingy because, as Eve Glicksman says, “e-mail offers the intimacy-challenged man the illusion of closeness, without the reality.”
Chatting allows people to integrate their relationships seamlessly with their work, school and social lives. It’s a method analogous to celebrities like Al Roker and Carnie Wilson getting their stomachs stapled to lose weight. Both are immediate solutions to problems that used to take lots of time and effort to fix. Unfortunately, these immediate results eclipse the advantages of more time-consuming methods. Physicality, the forge of intimacy, is replaced in cyber-dating by the exchange of text. Intimate chatting usurps the hours spent touching, smelling, even just observing one’s crush in the flesh. As with drugs, this missing component of cyber-dating results in a brief high while chatting followed by a lengthy comedown after logging off. This “high” is only reclaimed when the person logs on again.
A(ge) S(ex) L(ocation)
Like traditional dating, cyber-dating has its shortcomings. People generally select chat rooms based on interest rather than on location or age. In a room full of, say, other cinephiles, the one you click with is likely to live on the other side of the country or be ten years your junior. Another inconvenience is the prominence of “emotional retardation” in chatroom regulars. Odds are both you and your interlocutor are Net-chatting to fill some emotional void that may later threaten your relationship. The third disadvantage of cyber-dating is its tendency to breed preconceived notions. While in a bar, attraction is physically based, net-attraction is largely built on a mental image of the person with whom you are “speaking.” Some people spend hours constructing e-mails in order to project an image of faux intelligence to an online crush. This usually occurs in concert with faux beauty projected by way of doctored or misrepresentative pictures. In the end you may be crushing on someone you believe to be Guy Pearce’s twin but who, in reality, has a nose the size of Cyrano’s and wears baggy leather pants.
“What’s your sign?”
Cyber-dating isn’t all bad. My ex-net-boyfriend told me one of the reasons he fancied me was because I “don’t talk crap.” While idle conversation is considered low-brow on the Internet, anything more verbose than a giggle tends to be unwelcome in a bar. Nor do chatrooms have the competitive atmosphere of flesh-and-blood meat markets. In The Governess, Minnie Driver is a “Jewess,” and of the dialogue between a gentile husband and wife, she says: “They speak in symbols, in such cold tongues.” The same can be said of bar banter. Competition for attention in a loud, crowded venue leaves us in the position of 18th-century nobility attempting to outdo everyone with bons mots.
Your place or mine?
I recently asked my U of T friends and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) aficionados for their verdict on cyber-dating. One friend believed her cyber-relationship ended because of distance and religion—he was Jewish and worried she wouldn’t understand “that side of him.” Although the distance factor could not be avoided, his religion argument was awfully weak— a symptom of the aforementioned intimacy-challenged bug plaguing chat rooms. Another friend said: “It’s very easy to either hate or crush on IRC people.” This stems from the medium’s being entirely textual: one witticism amid the usual banality can send an orgasmic ripple through a channel. This same friend is in the fourth year of an IRC relationship and believes its success results from honesty and the long phone conversations they had prior to meeting. In fact, a preconception that Internet chatting alone cannot lead to lasting relationships may be detrimental to otherwise perfect pairings. A male friend started individually chatting with both a male and a female online. As (bad) luck would have it, this girl and guy were involved in real life. While her boyfriend was away, the girl and my friend fell in love. Their relationship was perfect until the male returned and promptly married her. The female’s preconceived notion of Internet relationships probably led her to believe her cyber-ties with my friend were weaker than those with her “real” boyfriend. Despite the successes of cyber-dating, the stigma surrounding it seems to weigh on the relationships it creates.
In Higher Learning, Laurence Fishburne bids farewell to one of his students with the following: “Without struggle, there is no progess.” Our culture seems to have forgotten this equally indispensable credo. In human relationships, as in business, there is no way to achieve success without hard work.