Imagine you meet a stranger on Facebook. You find them attractive from their profile picture, and they say the same about you. You talk with them every day, exchange private information, and laugh over personal stories. After several months of keeping up constant Internet contact, you are on your way to developing a romantic relationship with this person. You think that you might even be in love. You want to try something outside of talking on the Internet, so you arrange to send a gift to the address they have given you. Days later, the package returns, saying that it was not sent to a valid address. You call the company where your partner works in an attempt to send the package there instead. They have never heard of the person to whom you are trying to send the package; they do not exist. Now what? This exact situation has happened. Most of us look to Facebook as a way to get back in touch with old friends, catch up with current friends, and share pictures and videos. Ultimately, Facebook is seen as a means of socializing with friends. But what happens when Facebook is used as a way to meet new people altogether? There are numerous websites used specifically for meeting romantic partners, and many have joined in on this trend using Facebook. However, meeting a background-checked participant on a dating site such as eHarmony or Match.com is different from meeting a stranger on Facebook. As Matthew Sarrel, a man who proved how easy it is to steal one’s information by creating an entirely made up person from his friend’s profile pictures says, “on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog; you can be whoever you wish.”
In 2010, the movie “Catfish” explored the phenomenon of romantic relationships developed on Facebook. The movie began as a documentary of a young man, Nev Schulman, who became interested in a young artist’s work. But when Nev was friend requested by the artist’s older sister on Facebook, the documentary took a turn for the mysterious. Over the course of nine months, Nev becomes infatuated and falls in love with Megan, the artist’s sister, whom he met on Facebook without any previous face-to-face interaction. Without ever meeting in person, the two sustained an entire romantic relationship over Facebook conversations, phone calls, and heated text messages. They developed a trusting relationship based on what they knew about each other from Facebook pictures, text messages, and suspicious phone calls. Without giving away the ending of the movie, Nev’s “true love” did not end up being at all what he expected. It may seem foolish for someone to fall in love with a partner online, but according to Helen Fisher, a professor at Rutgers University “falling in love can be simply a matter of meeting a person who stimulates the right neurons” (Making an E-Match), whether that happens in person or in cyberspace. However, most of those who maintain interpersonal relationships on Facebook already know the person they are communicating with (Kujath). Although the steps toward the formation of a romantic relationship are the same, with online relationships there is always a question in the end: how do you know that the person you love is who they claim they are?
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While online relationships differ tremendously from face-to-face relationships, they still share the same dimensions of romantic relationships, just fulfilling them in different ways. In her book Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters, Julia Wood labels the three dimensions of romantic relationships as passion, intimacy, and commitment (277-279). The first dimension, passion, is defined as “intensely positive feelings and fervent desire for another person” (277). Can this be fulfilled through an online relationship? One might argue that without physical interaction someone in an online relationship may only be experiencing a portion of their partner, therefore not being able to feel real passion for them. It is easy to send a smiley face through text message or say “I love you” over the phone, but it simply cannot take the place of a real hug or facial expression. In “Catfish,” Nev and Megan exchanged sexual conversations, but Nev always commented how it did not seem enough since he could not actually be with her in person. The other side of the argument states that “in the development of personal relationships, computer-mediated communication can…enhance the importance of other factors, such as similarity and harmony” (Chih-Chien & Ya-ting). A respondent in a survey conducted for participants in online romantic relationships quotes, “our love is so strong, I can place my hand on the keyboard and feel his love flowing through each key” (Wildermuth). The enhanced feeling of similarity and harmony leads into the next dimension of romantic relationships: intimacy. Wood defines intimacy as “feelings of closeness, connection, and tenderness” (279). This means feeling comfortable with a partner, not necessarily while expressing sexual feelings. When partners are not able to express themselves physically with one another, they are forced to focus on other aspects of their relationship, which may cause them to feel they know each other extremely well on an emotional level. Nev believed he and Megan had an extremely close bond because of the private information they exchanged with one another. Finally, Wood defines commitment as “the intention to remain involved with a relationship” (278), meaning that partners in a relationship are willing to continue the relationship, as they see a future with each other. It can be difficult to remain committed to a relationship where there may be an inkling of doubt due to the uncertainty of the Internet. Although Nev had his doubts as his relationship with Megan began displaying strange coincidences, he stayed committed, even telling Megan that he loved her without ever having met her face-to-face.
Since online relationships are highly dependent on nonverbal communication, they are still able to establish relationship-level meanings. Wood’s three relationship-level meanings are responsiveness, liking, and power (126-127). Responsiveness is how we react to certain communication. Although one cannot express a head nod or eye contact through a typed Facebook conversation, responses can still be expressed with a frown or smiley face. Liking refers to our “indicators of how…we feel toward others” (126). These can also be expressed through the use of text when face-to-face communication is not an option. However, being expressed through technology, it can easily be skewed. A smile in person may be legitimate, while a smiley face in a text message could be used to cover true emotions. Lastly, power is how we “assert dominance” (127). The benefit of this when it comes to online romance is that neither party can fully dominate the other in a physical aspect. Textual communication, however, can still be used to establish one’s power in the relationship, so those participating in online relationships must be cautious of any signs of verbal abuse. The nonverbal communication that Nev and Megan exchanged was primarily based on their infatuation with one another. They had sexual feelings toward one another, and their conversations reflected those feelings. They always seemed to have positive feelings toward one another for nine months, which could be a sign that something was not right, seeing that conflict is a natural part of relationships.
We all have a need to satisfy personal relationships. When communicating interpersonally, we need some sort of certainty that helps us maintain meaningful, healthy relationships. We work hard to satisfy our face-to-face relationships, so it would seem that online relationships would have to work even harder. According to Wood, there are three main components of how we satisfy personal relationships. The first is investment. Investment refers to “what we put into relationships that we could not retrieve if the relationship were to end” (198). When one invests their time in maintaining an online relationship, they are putting a lot on the line. This rings true for any relationship really, but an online romance can be more exhausting, not being able to see one another face-to-face. In Nev’s relationship with Megan, he was truly invested in the relationship. He was willing to share personal information with her, willing to put himself out there in order to make the most out of the relationship. The second component is commitment, as discussed earlier. The last component, trust, seems to be the most important in an online setting. Trust is “believing in another’s reliability” (199). It is definitely difficult to trust someone whom you have never met in person. How do you know that person is everything they claim to be? With such advances in technology, anyone is capable of just about anything. On Facebook, “profile pictures are easily downloadable and can appear in any other website” (Taraszow, Aristodemou, Shitta, Laouris, & Arsoy). Another survey respondent who was once involved in an online relationship states “…this cyber love is just a game to most of them out there. So beware before you get hurt and spend hours, night after night, crying in front of your computer” (Wildermuth). Especially these days, it is so hard to know if the person on the other side of the screen is everything they say they are. The trust component of satisfying personal relationships is the most important for that reason. If you have suspicions of your partner, there is a good chance that they are not who they say they are, and therefore you will not be able to develop that trust.
While it represents the development of an online romantic relationship through a documented story, “Catfish” is ultimately about consequences (Scott). It shows what forming an romantic relationship with a stranger online can do to a person emotionally. The movie is an eye opening experience, and I strongly urge you to watch it. Before watching this movie, I never realized just how easy it was for anyone to do just about anything with my information, no matter how private I attempt to make it. Although Nev was enticed by his online romance, he learned that the nine months he had spent investing himself in a relationship with a woman he trusted were a lie.
Chih-Chin, &., & Ya-Ting, C. (2010). Cyber relationship motives: scale development and validation. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 38(3), 289-300.
ClevverMovies. (2010, August 24). Catfish movie trailer official. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xp4M0IjzcQ
Kujath, C. L. (2011). Facebook and myspace: complement or substitute for face-to-face interaction? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social networking, 14(1-2), 75-78.
Making an E-Match. (2006). National Geographic, 209(2), 125.
Sarrel, M. D. (2009). I stole my friend’s identity. PC Magazine, 28(6), 1.
Scott, A. O. (2010, Sept. 16). The world where you aren’t what you post. The New York Times.
Taraszow, T.; Aristodemou, E.; Shitta, G.; Laouris, Y.; Arsoy, A. (2010). Disclosure of personal and contact information by young people in social networking sites: an analysis using facebook profiles as an example. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 6(1), 81-96.
Wildermuth, S. M., & Vogl-Bauer, S. (2007). We met on the net: exploring the perceptions of online romantic relationship participants. Southern Communication Journal, 72(3), 211-227.
Wood, J. T. (2010). Interpersonal communication: everyday encounters. Boston: Wadsworth.