In the age of the Internet, who writes love letters anymore? The romantic epistolary tradition has gone high-tech; online love is all about the Instant Message (IM) window, with its unique language of shorthand endearments: BRB (be right back), IMHO (in my humble opinion) and the ultimate phrase representing devotion and commitment potential, the coveted LOL (laughing out loud). But at the end of an e-communication, can we trust our memory of what happened? Absent intonation and physical cues, how do we discern if a sentiment is mutual? And how real is the connection for today's daters?
"Electronic media is a double-edged sword," says Laya, 23, one of the bloggers at Jewlicious. "People can hide behind it or let it empower them." IM, in particular, she says, often functions as a "virtual shield that allows us to express what we might be uncomfortable saying in person," and the resultant ambiguity of meaning "gives us an 'out'; because we didn't have to look them in the eyes when we said it, we can always say 'just kidding.'"
And there's your basic problem. Due to the absence of intonation in both e-mail and IM, there is a tremendous potential for misunderstanding. (Smiley faces as mood indicators do not count.) And in misunderstanding lies irresponsibility.
"People can hide behind IM," says Natasha, 30, in Los Angeles.
"Many people are more interesting over e-mail but can hardly string two sentences together during an in-person conversation," agrees Annabel Lee, 26, an L.A.-based blogger.
"E-mails, profiles, even phone calls, are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional people," says Bob, 34, a NYC Webmaster and software developer. Still, Roz, 23, a graphic designer in Massachusetts, prefers IM "because you are talking in real time without having to give away too much personal information."
Today, most of us have escaped the tyranny of dialup for a broadband or DSL connection without an off-button. We rely on our computer to notify us of our network connection's signal strength. But when it comes to connecting emotionally, technology often results in mixed signals.
"Internet conversation allows a false intimacy," says Gatsby, 28, a Wisconsin-based blogger. "You talk about emotions and such that you would normally build up to in real life."
Avi, a 26-year-old law school graduate from Queens, maintains that technology lengthens the courtship process. "The ultimate goal is to get the phone number. Now a potential date can give you an e-mail address or an IM screen name instead."
On JDate in particular, he notes, "IM conversations with potential dates turn into a game of 20 questions." Recently, after a few exchanges, he asked a JDater if she wanted to speak on the phone. "I construed her use of smiley faces to mean that she was interested. She responded, 'Maybe in the future.' After that, she started to ignore my IMs."
"One guy broke my heart into pieces through IM," Roz shares. "We were getting to know each other and then he told me he had decided to commit to his 'on-again, off-again' girlfriend. I felt like my time was wasted, especially staying up late hours just to talk to him. I'm never going to do that again."
"If someone is a jerk in real life, it will show through," says Brooklyn blogger and technology enthusiast Passionate Life, 32. "The key is to not fall head over heels and miss the red flags."
Ultimately, today's daters use the technology as a tool. But they also recognize that, as a gauge of personality and intimacy, the medium is as flawed as the users themselves. Just as there are people who accidentally click "Reply to All" on confidential e-mails, others haven't developed a sense of responsibility when it comes to instant messaging. That's why it pays to protect our online expectations by girding them in offline reality. Don't offer information or emotion in IM that you aren't willing to stand by in person. Don't assume you're the only message window open, either, no matter how intense the emotional discussion is: the other person may be talking on the phone, checking e-mail and, yes, even IM'ing with friends, business partners and other potential love interests all at the same time.
Of course I understand the temptation. The potential of the IM box is seductive. When you're starved for social interaction and immersed in your work, and an interesting someone opens an IM window, the conversational breeze refreshes you - especially if it's been a long time since you connected with someone in "real life."
Even if you know the interest isn't reciprocated, you may invent reasons to linger, no matter how disciplined or realistic you are. Sometimes you'll lose yourself in the conversation, which can have consequences that are tragic, redemptive, or disappointingly neutral. And other times you'll find that your experience reinforces your conviction that it's important to live a life that's social and somewhere outside the box.
As a freelance writer in Manhattan, Esther D. Kustanowitz spends lots of time on the Internet, trying to resist the lure of instant messaging. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column originally appeared in The Jewish Week.