Love in the Time of Connectivity

This is the first in a series of four posts. See Euro RSCG Worldwide PR's latest white paper, "Love (and Sex) in the Age of Social Media," for more analysis about how Americans think about online romance.

It's Valentine's Day once again, when lonely hearts turn to thoughts of love, Cupid's lets his bow fly, and e-dating across the U.S. and the EU approaches a whopping $1.6 billion market.

But even as cyber-matchmakers here grow e-dating conferences and invent netiquette for the ethics of finding romance or dissuading cyberstalkers, this engine of moving parts raises a lot of questions. It's a 21st-century McLuhan-esque stage, and the medium might still be the message, but will this expanding e-universe for love succeed at making the full scope of our romantic, erotic and/or sexual human desires possible?

Will the e-frontier prove any better than "real life" at taking the inefficiency out of chance encounters or at compressing our complex needs into a single partner? Or is one of e-dating's long-term implications -- considering the myriad permutations of love, sex, romance and eroticism found online -- that we flawed humans will start compartmentalizing all the more, showing parts of ourselves here and other parts over there?

We see a huge trend in all of us creating and building new relationships in our real lives thanks to our digital lives, and that includes love. In this time of widespread anxiety, insecurity and fearfulness, the deep craving for closeness is hugely real. Mobile apps for dating are surging. The place and time to hook up is everywhere, and it's now. If e-dating has accomplished anything, it's this: Social relationships that used to take time to form, especially over long distances, can now be rendered immediately. My grandmother used to quip that every pot has a lid. Thanks to the power of super-social networking, you can now run an automated search in real time for your own lid match.

Some new research from Euro RSCG Worldwide, the parent company of the PR agency I run, shows fascinating trends in this area, too. We surveyed Americans on their behavior and attitudes toward e-dating and changes in the way love looks for leads, then negotiates and closes the deal. These days, e-dating relationships, like all deals, are coming in for more cold-eyed consumer assessments. And these go to peoples' concerns over time well spent, when they have less and less of it.

In 2006, an online lifetime ago, a Pew research study found that 7 million American adults had gone on dates with someone they met through an e-dating site; 52 percent of the e-daters reported mostly positive experiences, while a significant 29 percent reported mostly negatives. Our January 2011 survey results show that this could be becoming a gender-centric phenomenon: Only 14 percent of women compared with 26 percent of men report having experienced strong feelings of attraction online, and the spread is similar (12 percent women, 23 percent men) as to actually having had romantic, sexual or erotic relationships online.

Women express higher doubt about the potential for Internet romance or eroticism, with more than a third disagreeing that such emotions can be generated through e-channels, versus 28 percent who agree that it could happen. Yet, strikingly, Americans of both genders, while slow to report personal positives, say in far greater numbers that they know others whose relationships have begun online (49 percent of men, 52 percent of women), acknowledging even that those interactions, conducted by others, can be, in the words of the survey, "really intense" (37 percent of men and 30 percent of women agreed).

If love still makes the world go round, gender differences are what can make you dizzy and want to get off. Consider it an image thing: Men still report being more titillated by images online than women (26 percent versus 9 percent). Obviously, your gender is that thing that no amount of profile-fiddling can change. But as Americans believe e-dating has gone thoroughly mainstream (only 14 percent of men and 12 percent of women disagree), it follows that attitudes about whom e-dating forums are for have shifted widely. (This weekend ads ran again and again, informing us that one in five couples meet online.) No longer do Americans think e-dating is only for "losers" or people lacking "a life"; now some 40 percent of men and 44 percent of women disagree. Trust in this number means e-dating sites will keep gleaning new members, as hearing your best pal's success story might lead you to lay down your cynicism. This growth will likely come not only from those who describe their current relationship as leaving them "itchy," or "bored," but from others who, although they consider themselves "totally committed," also report themselves "open to better offers."

In other words, we live in a time -- and this is increasing -- when the Internet has enabled preview dating, an endless shop-till-you-drop comparison of possibilities. That extends to serial e-dating. Whether it makes potential matches good or bad at intimacy, many would answer that intimacy is of course the wild card, that e-dating is just a Web 2.0 efficiency as likely to lead to long-term romance as any other venue for finding love. Wired predicted way back in 2002 that old notions of dating would die out like card catalogs for browsing library stacks, with serendipity, as romantic a notion as that might be, actually representing a characteristic of inefficient markets. I have to admit that I, too, predicted that face-to-face random meetings would be upstaged by the computer-mediated search and secure, but I didn't know it would be in love catalogs versus the chat rooms that were the original social hookup sites of yesteryear -- if you can call 1994-95 ancient history.

So then, in the dating field -- or market -- it should come as no surprise that niches representing a wide variety of offline passions are sprouting. Everybody recognizes the names eHarmony, and JDate. But have you heard of Trek Passions for sci-fi fans and for those nurturing an environmental bent? Even, among all its nostalgia indulging, offers a destination for clicking with your high school prom date after his or her divorce. It's the SoMe behemoth Facebook, though, that ranks first in our survey, above any e-dating site, as the place to find romance.

One of the big questions about the future is whether, mainstream or not, e-dating is really just a morality-free zone. I believe we're going to start seeing more shades of e-dating advice on everything from its courtesies to its heartbreaking (and public) infidelities. The results of the Euro RSCG survey found fairly widespread attitudes that offline rules don't apply online. Some 65 percent of women and 62 percent of men think the Internet has made it easier to cheat. And there's also a widespread sense that e-encounters can "distract" from offline soul-matings. On the other hand, there is no greater efficiency enabled than by those sites that help you hook up, woo and marry inside your religion and/or ethnic group; find fellow gay, bisexual or transgender singles; or meet that Trekkie with whom you can grow old in turtlenecks.

In "Net Gain," one of my trends for 2011, I forecast that in the face of a huge loss-of-faith crisis, especially in the United States, we are all building on our cascades of connectivity through e-channels -- and this extends, of course, to love.