Strange Love

Jul 22, 1999 |Steve Watters

Ever thought of having a virtual fling? It may be more than you bargained for.

A college student in Colorado (let's call her Jen) recently visited a chat room to blow off steam after being dumped by her boyfriend. Jen entered the chat under the name "Katie" and started flirting with someone identified as "Jeremy." At first, their chat was mostly sexual banter, but it broadened over a few months of correspondence. She thought, at times, about telling the man that she was still in college, but didn't want to sound immature.

After a year of an exclusively email relationship, the two felt they had found their soulmates. Jeremy said he was willing to leave his wife. Jen was nervous at first, but decided she didn't care how old or ugly the man might be because she loved him. The two agreed finally to meet each other in person — planning a rendezvous in a popular ski town. Jen arrived first at the appointed hotel room and lit candles for a romantic surprise. But the real surprise came when her guest arrived and turned out to be ... her dad.

Urban myth? Maybe. This story is being distributed anonymously by email, but it sounds spookingly plausible. Following the sexual revolution, it became conceivable for strangers to have sex without learning each other's name. In the brave new online world, strangers can have (something like) sex without even meeting each other. If people can get close without getting real, dramatic surprises are inevitable.

Digital Camouflage

Why would anyone settle for a relationship based on electronic text to begin with? I think it has to do with the sense of control that Internet communication gives us. I remember becoming an email junkie when I first went online in college. Too often I had stumbled through face-to-face conversations with girls I was eager to impress. Finally, I had the opportunity to plan my comments, to come up with ideas that I thought were humorous and notable. I could even edit the words that were poorly chosen — a tool I wish had been available for a number of real-life encounters.

Moving on to chat sessions was a new thrill. Trying to type quickly and cleverly was a little challenging at first, but it was still easier to handle than the high-jinx of face-to-face conversations. I didn't have to worry about what my non-verbals were saying. It didn't matter what I was wearing or what might be hanging out my nose. I even felt new boldness to flirt, to pen witty lines I never would have said in person. It was an overwhelming sense of control.

Students who have spent time in newsgroups and chat rooms report that they can get close with people online in a way they never could in real life. One chat room regular writes, "I've found a guy who actually wants to talk about the things I care about." Another writes, "Without our relationship having to be based on looks, we are able to go much deeper." Faceless communication on the Internet allows individuals to bypass a lot of shyness and awkwardness. Wallflowers can become the star of the chat room. Those who are self-conscious about their body image can choose to share only the things about themselves that are flattering.

A Picture Can Negate a Thousand Words

But this camouflaging technique is also the drawback of online relationships — it gives people the temptation to hide all their weaknesses while exaggerating their strengths. "Without a full picture of who someone really is, it's easy to use your imagination to fill in the gaps," says Jonathan Bolton. He should know.

When Jonathan was a freshman at Colorado State University, he plugged in to his dorm's Internet service to explore the chat room scene. Within a few minutes, Jonathan received an instant message from a girl in California. The two started chatting and found themselves typing away until 4:00 in the morning. The next day, Jonathan called her. "She had a sexy voice, I was intrigued," he says.

Then Jonathan asked his new friend what she looked like. "I'm a blonde — an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10," she said. Jonathan shared updates of his virtual liaison with his friends. The big news he shared was that he was going to trade pictures with this girl. He began waiting anxiously for her picture. When it came, he was greatly disappointed. She looked nothing like he expected. "I just told my friends that her picture never came. The picture reminded me just how little I knew about this person. The chemistry I thought we had was just a fantasy. And that's the dangerous part about online relationships — 99% of the relationship is developed on fantasy — there's no accountability or integrity."

Jonathan got out of the relationship without too many problems ... except his phone bill. "I ended up with such a big phone bill, I had to get a job in the college cafeteria. It was a real waste of time and money."

Making Time For Strangers

Rebecca Antonek, a senior at Purdue University, says that losing time was the most substantial problem in her friend's online relationship. "A Christian friend of mine met a guy in an interactive area of the Caedmon Call's Web site. They traded messages about the band's lyrics and eventually delved into theological issues." The relationship accelerated quickly over the next month as the two talked intimately about spiritual and worldview issues.

The "relationship" was implicitly platonic, implicitly spiritual, but it was also implicitly time consuming. "She spent a tremendous amount of time on her computer — waiting for new email and composing her responses. It began to cut into her friendships. Although she was talking about God a lot — she was too distracted by her email to spend time with Him." Finally she decided to call it quits. She told her online friend that their correspondence was simply consuming her.

Since having his online fling, Jonathan encourages his friends to invest their time in face-to-face relationships. "As a communications major, I've thought a lot about the way people interact. I believe that God created communication to be much more dynamic than just words on a computer screen."

Would An Online Friend Say "God Bless You" If You Sneezed?

A clandestine Internet relationship can seem fun for a season — swapping faceless messages can create the exhilaration of a masquerade ball. It's tempting to stay in an environment where our strengths can outweigh our weaknesses. But after that season is over, what most people want is someone who will love them for who they really are. Especially when they're not at their best — when they're throwing up, when they have morning breath, or when they've just tripped up a flight of stairs. They desire the kind of intimacy where they are known for who they are — warts and all — and are still loved.

Intimacy of that kind requires a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction. In the real world, couples pick up on non-verbal communication and evaluate little habits and routines that can bring new depths of excitement and appreciation to a relationship. Of course, these interactions can sometimes be tedious or awkward. That's life. But cyber fantasies can never match the rewards of real life relationships.

As you read this story, there are 2,500 strangers waiting for you in the Yahoo! personal ads. According to their profiles, they are attractive, adventurous and fun to chat with. You could easily spend the next year of your life working through these ads and trading exciting electronic messages in pursuit of a mate.

Meanwhile, your future spouse could very likely be in your neighborhood or on your campus waiting to be asked out; waiting to grab a cup of coffee and talk about life. Before you stay up all night staring at words scrolling across your computer — don't pass up a chance to stare into the eyes of a real person. As Internet pioneer Clifford Stoll says, "Life in the real world is far more interesting, far more important, far richer than anything you'll ever find on a computer screen."

Copyright 1999 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.

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