Love special: Modern romance

Love special: Modern romance

  • 28 April 2006
  • NewScientist.com news service
  • Celeste Biever
   
Looking for love online
 

HE WAS a strapping 28-year-old with a mane of brown hair, she a dazzling redhead in a white strapless vest and tight trousers. Garth Fairlight of London, UK, and Pituca Chang of Irvine, California, first met watching fireworks and eating burgers at a Fourth of July party in 2003. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but after protesting against high taxes together, the chemistry became obvious. Two months later she moved in, and by November they were married.

It sounds like a fairy-tale romance, but it actually happened – in the online fantasy world of Second Life, that is. Garth and Pituca are actually screen names, and the pair are at least 20 years older than they look inside the game, where players appear as cartoon versions of themselves – called avatars – and communicate by typing messages.

If the idea of a cyber-romance doesn’t turn you on, perhaps you should take a closer look. The couple insist the feelings they have for each other are real and that they were madly in love long before they met face to face. "The love part happened in the game," says Pituca, but she and Garth are now engaged to be married in real life. Catherine Smith, marketing director at Linden Lab in San Francisco, California, which produces Second Life, says the pair are just one of many couples who have got married inside the game. Others say that getting hitched in real life is rarer, but it happens.

While love in virtual worlds may still be unusual, less intense online relationships have become commonplace. A study completed last month by the non-profit Pew Internet & American Life Project based in Washington DC found that 74 per cent of single internet users in the US have taken part in at least one online dating-related activity, including sites specifically devoted to finding a match, while 15 per cent of American adults (that’s 30 million people) say they know someone who has been in a long-term relationship with a partner they met online. So what’s the big attraction?

The internet has some clear advantages over the real world as a place to meet people, says Dan Ariely, who studies online dating at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. "The problem of meeting people in modern life is very real. Online relationships are a way to experiment cheaply and in a non-dangerous way with romantic life." Moreover, you can meet far more people online than you could ever hope to in a bar or in the office. And because online games and chat rooms often have a theme, they allow users to home in on people with whom they share interests. Some online dating sites, including Match.com and eHarmony, apply algorithms that their creators claim can pick out couples most likely to be a successful match.

However, it is the nature of online interactions themselves that intrigues psychologists and sociologists. There is growing evidence that communicating online is more conducive to openness than a face-to-face rendezvous. "We tend to interact differently online," says Ren Reynolds, a virtual-world consultant based in the UK. "We tend to be more honest, more intimate with people."

“We tend to interact differently online, to be more honest, more intimate with people”

This is known as the "hyperpersonal" effect, a term coined in 1996 by Joe Walther of Cornell University in New York (Communication Research, vol 23, p 3). Walther says that communicating by typed message gives people time to construct their responses. It also frees them from worrying about how they look and sound, so they can focus exclusively on what they’re saying. Without the cues that we rely on to form impressions during face-to-face encounters, such as facial expressions and mannerisms, people can build more positive impressions of each other without being confronted with a jarring reality that might put them off.

Nick Yee of Stanford University, California, studies how the hyperpersonal effect operates in virtual worlds, where people get to know each other "from the inside out". "In real life we judge a person by their physical appearance and then we get to know their character and values. In a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, the reverse is true," he writes on the virtual-worlds blog Terra Nova. This is an experience that Erika, who is in her early 20s and moved to the UK from the US after meeting her husband Damien inside Second Life, has also enjoyed. "In real life you are usually first attracted to someone by their looks," she says. "However, online you can’t touch or look. All you can see is their personality."

Online communication can also encourage people to take risks, because there is always the opportunity to simply disappear if things become awkward or embarrassing. And while it is certainly easy to lie online, it turns out it’s even easier to tell the truth. In a 2002 study, Walther showed that people communicating online were much more likely to disclose personal details about themselves (Human Communication Research, vol 28, p 317). Experts believe that this is because people are shielded from disapproving facial expressions and awkward consequences.

So what happens when online couples finally meet in the flesh? Katelyn McKenna of Israel’s Ben Gurion University suggested in 2002 that an attraction sparked online that might not have taken off in real life can be strong enough to survive even when the relationship moves offline. Her research shows that meeting someone "inside out" might, in some cases, be preferable to meeting them the right way round. When Pituca decided to meet Garth in London, exactly one year after they had first met in the game, things went swimmingly. "I’m there at Heathrow, and when I saw her come out, I immediately knew it was her," says Garth. "It felt like she had been on a business trip but that we had been together our whole life."

However, it seems the hyperpersonal effect also has a flip side. Although it brings greater intimacy and self-disclosure, it also encourages a hyperactive imagination that can result in dashed hopes. "You have less information and therefore individuals fill in the gaps with what they would like to believe," says Nicole Ellison, who is based at Michigan State University in East Lansing and studies self-disclosure in online dating sites.

The internet has pitched us into a new era of romance that offers greater opportunities to meet the right partner and a better environment for intimate and honest communication. But it also plays by different rules. Plenty of people who have tried to make online relationships work in real life have been disappointed. For some, it’s best to enjoy cyber-romance for what it is. Whether or not it’s love, it can certainly be life-changing.

From issue 2549 of New Scientist magazine, 28 April 2006, page 44
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