With the undeniable and now thorough integration of technology with our social lives, the term “online dating” has evolved in meaning. At the most basic understanding, online dating refers to a romantic, emotional, and/or sexual relationship established and maintained with an individual online. This is reflected in people’s lives who are apart of online communities such as WoW, Second Life, Habbo Hotel, and so forth. I remember being a tween on the impressive online community of Whyville and having “dated” friends I had established there.
These days, as the Internet has expanded beyond the limitations of a stationary desktop community and the social aspects of the web have merged with our everyday social lives, online dating began to imply not a relationship that is maintained online, rather a relationship that was formed online (and usually transitioned over to the physical realm). As such, I argue that we should now look at online dating to refer to the initial process of forming connection using a dating-specific platform, such as Match.com or Her.
This has been the realm that many articles by both Brad and myself have focused. How to write an impactful profile, how to be safe about meeting someone you met online, managing expectations formed from an image of a person developed via a profile and online chat, and so forth.
However, lately have been observing and considering the deeper and more prevalent examples of online dating that exist not just for folk who met their lovers through a dating app, but for the culture at large – independent of generation and, significantly, independently of where and how a relationship was established. In other words, even lovers who met and fell in love in person are participating in the world of online dating.
How is this so? Through online channels such as Facebook, text messaging (for on an essential level, digital communication is the same regardless of whether it is via SMS or the Internet), and Skype.
Have you ever heard of the term FBO? This stands for “Facebook Official”. It’s that sense that a relationship becomes grounded in reality when it is acknowledged to the social network on Facebook and tethered to one’s Facebook identity (profile). This reflects the importance placed on the online expression of a relationship in making some people feel special, affirmed, recognized, and even that the commitment with their partner is at last “for real”.
If looking at this on a deeper level, it is easy to perceive a degree of insecurity in some folk who might feel anxious if their relationship is not FBO. For others, it is a tool to signal to new and old social connections that they are unavailable for romantic and/or sexual connection, theoretically making their social lives flow smoother. Others identify with their relationship very heavily and therefore wish for this identity to be reflected in their online identity, which is deeply important to some people’s sense of self. This is understandable when we consider the affirmation we receive from social media platforms such as Facebook. Our communities mirror back their awareness and reactions to who we are, what we do, and who we know. And so, in these ways, having a FBO relationship lends itself to one form of online dating, even though this status does not require ongoing maintenance and participation in order to function.
Other more obvious layers exist to Facebook forms of online dating, which are shared by text. When lovers are not together in presence, they are now granted the ability to be in constant contact with one another. This is not something that was true until recent history.
Lovers no longer have to wait to share in space-time in order to connect with each other. Conversations, expressions of love through emojis and stickers, even photos are shared continuously between many lovers. This form of digital contact is, at the core, an extension of online dating, and changes the way we understand what online dating means.
What is the implication of this? On one level, the stigma of online dating is dissolved further, almost into oblivion, as the majority of folk are participating in online dating when the term is considered in this light. And what about long distance relationships? When someone travels for work, school, or just to take a journey, closeness is gifted by means of this type of online dating. Even if this “travelling away to work” means commuting to the next city just to work for the day, later to return home.
Online dating and how it is understood is shifting. The meaning of this term has evolved from purely online romantic, emotional, or sexual communications to implying first contact as occurring on the digital realm and later moving offline. Now, if we look at the reality with honestly, we can see that online dating speaks to a cultural shift much larger. This shift touches on the lives of the majority of people within our western society, through whatever machine we carry on our bodies: cell phones, tablets, laptops. . . This shift points to the depth of which online dating has truly become integrated into our lives.
Experimental Challenge: Avoid digital communication with your lover for one week. See how this shifts the way you relate with your lover. Note how it shifts the conversation style when you connect in person after a day’s work (you might just have more to talk about!). See how this experiment shifts the way you relate with your relationship as a whole, and your sense of self. You may just find that this introduces a greater (and healthier?) sense of spaciousness in the relationship, supporting a stronger sense of self, especially if the relationship is heavily enmeshed and co-dependent. Or, you may find it doesn’t shift much at all. I’m betting it will, one way or another.