Since its inception the internet has affected nearly every aspect of society so it is only natural that it would eventually impact on our most intimate of relationships: romance. In just a short twenty years the internet has nearly revolutionized the dating process and determined who and how we meet each for purposes of establishing both casual and permanent romantic relationships. The internet dating business is one of the few to not only survive but also prosper in these precarious economic times (Carpenter). By 2012, the industry is expected to reach $1.9 billion in consumer sales (D. Card).
In the context of this paper internet dating is defined as the use of a database of potential dating partners, usually located in close geographical proximity, to find someone with whom one feels some connection.
The format of most dating services is similar. The sites, whether of the free variety or requiring a paid subscription, require their users to create a user profile which includes demographic and sociological information, descriptions of physical attributes, relationship preferences, photographs, and background information regarding personality and lifestyle. Most sites maintain the anonymity of its users and leave personal contact to the discretion of the individuals.
There has been no shortage of studies on the impact of the internet on dating and relationships. Every day a new appears in the professional journals covering a different aspect of the process. The purpose of this paper will be to examine how internet dating has affected the physical attractiveness factor that ordinarily accompanies the dating relationship.
Prior to the inception of the internet dating was done through largely traditional methods. Meeting at work, through church or social activities, blind dates, or classmates were the usual ways that relationships were initiated. Once the introductions were made, telephone conversations, letters, and weekend dates were the essentials of the courting process. Modern technology changed all that. First, there was the cell phone, followed by texting, and then the internet. Suddenly, dating was an immediate and constant affair and the development of relationships was greatly expedited. No more waiting for the mail to arrive or waiting to get home to call your intended. Now, texting and the email made one's desk a dating site much to the chagrin of employers everywhere.
When the internet was first developing dating sites were not a part of it. The progenitors of internet dating were the chat rooms and specialized forums (Jayson). Here singles would gather and email back and forth in an effort to spark a relationship. Chat rooms and forums were not particularly secure or private but they eventually developed into what have become modern day dating sites. These sites were originally where the dating desperate used to congregate but in just a few short years they become the place to be (Sautter). In the modern digital age, dating sites have become the sophisticated way to meet your mate. Through internet dating, one is no longer limited to meeting one in a hundred potential mates but is now able to expand that search to several thousands.
Detractors of internet dating would argue that choosing a date through the use of a computer is a cold and highly logical method and that human relations should be more personable and generated from the heart. The same arguments were used to describe communicating through the use of the telegraph, the telephone, and texting, yet, human relations kept on developing and the popularity of the internet as the new device should provide evidence that it is as successful as any of the earlier devices were.
In traditional dating, physical attraction was undoubtedly an important element. In internet dating, there is little opportunity for physical attractiveness to be much of a factor. Most sites request a photograph but it is not a requirement. Surprisingly, many users opt not to include a photograph either out of embarrassment or security concerns, so even this mild evidence of attractiveness is removed from the equation. Many users are cautious about placing much weight on photographs. Photographs are easy to alter and often dated. Instead, most first impressions in internet dating are based upon personal profiles. In an era where advertising has dominated our lives the ability to sell oneself on the internet has become a dating skill.
The beauty of the internet in the formation of relationships is the anonymity that it provides. Many people who would be otherwise too shy to initiate or otherwise participate in conversation feel comfortable interacting over the internet. Others, who are ordinarily not threatened by face-to-face conversations, may be far more open over the internet than they would be in person. The result of both scenarios is that the internet promotes communication and, as a result, in many cases potential dating partners know more about each other before they even meet than couples did participating in traditional dating.
The ability to sell oneself through emails and texting is an important element of the present day internet dating scene but, in the end, the individual must live up to the rhetoric and must pass muster when compared against one's photograph. The anonymity of the internet is eventually lost if the relationship is to develop. The potential couple must meet face-to-face. Arguably, the relationship may have already developed to a high level of intimacy prior to a face-to- face meeting but the likelihood is that, in most cases, if the face- to- face meeting does not progress well the hours of internet correspondence will do little to overcome the lack of physical attractiveness but studies have indicated that a strongly developed internet relationship can minimize some physical unattractiveness. These studies indicate that if the couple has developed a healthy level of intimacy that such intimacy will override a lack of attractiveness. On the other hand, there are studies to the contrary that indicate that physical attractiveness is a major determinant in couples' pairing. Experts in the field such as Rutgers University professor, Dr. Helen Fisher argue strongly that brain chemistry factor greatly in how we choose our mates and, if this be true, no amount of intimacy developed through internet conversations can displace effects of brain chemistry (Franks).
Any examination of physical attraction must consider the fact that such attraction is only a small element in the formation of relationships (Toma). Studies in this area place physical attraction as being an important component in the initial stages of a relationship. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has examined the role of physical attractiveness in the development of long and short-term relationships and points out that, over the long-term, physical attractiveness has little impact. Other factors such as intimacy, commitment, and passion are more determinative of the success of the relationship than is physical attractiveness (Sternberg). Oddly, the importance of physical attractiveness has been found to be more important among those considered to be attractive than among those who are less attractive. Those considered less attractive place a higher emphasis on other relationship elements such as sense of humor or intelligence (Lee).
The importance placed on physical attractiveness appears to have little impact on the use of the internet for purposes of dating. What is seemingly more important is the capacity for the individuals utilizing the internet for dating purposes to develop a sense of intimacy. In this regard, the internet may serve to perform this function more effectively than more traditional means of dating. The internet provides that anonymity that promotes openness but there are some disadvantages to internet dating that are often overlooked by those who expound on its advantages (Epstein).
First, it is possible that the advantage of anonymity may also be a disadvantage in that it may create an artificial sense of security. Individuals participating in internet dating may actually be willing to be uncharacteristically frank about themselves and reveal details that they would, under normal circumstances, not reveal until they were much deeper into a relationship. Revealing of such information early exposes one to potential abuse later if, and when, the relationship either does or does not develop. Sensitive information is sometimes left for the later stages of a relationship when certain understandings have been developed and safeguards instilled.
The system of internet dating is also subject to a high level of dishonesty. Dishonest related to a person's history, background, education, and appearance. All important details and details that are difficult to verify until it may be too late. There are horror stories of people who begin talking pursuant to a dating site, fall supposedly in love, and then later discover that the person they thought they had fallen in love with was not the same person presented on the dating site. This can occur in a traditional dating situation as well but the fact that traditional dating is a slower, more careful process, makes this development less a possibility. The simple fact of the matter is that most individuals, even the best of liars, find it more difficult to do so face-to-face.