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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Technology has transformed the ways in which we form, interact in, and maintain romantic relationships. In contrast to the great number of unknowns involved in meeting people at parties, through friends, or at school, online dating now allows us to carefully browse potential mates and use matching algorithms to make our search more efficient. The most popular dating websites and apps are visited hundreds of millions of times every month, with monthly subscription fees of up to $125. Currently, 37 per cent of single American internet users report using online dating services and 22 per cent of heterosexual American couples who met between 2007 and 2009 started their relationship online. But while many are busy meeting people online, others are more interested in using technology to maintain relationships. Video chatting software brings relief to couples in long-distance relationships and is becoming more popular, with Skype call traffic growing by 44 per cent in 2012 and 50 million users reported to be concurrently online this year. Couples can even share intimate moments when miles apart with connected pillows and shirts. These budding online relationships demonstrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of using technology in our quest to meet and keep that special someone.

Image: Murph4513
Online dating seems to offer it all: access to millions of user profiles, quick and convenient use of computer-mediated communication (CMC), and matching algorithms to screen for compatible mates. But recently, researchers have begun to question the superiority of online dating to conventional methods of meeting a partner. For example, although online dating provides us with an endless number of choices, we are notoriously bad at making a selection when the number of products on offer is too high. This is known as ‘choice overload’ and can cause us to come up empty-handed when we are overwhelmed at the prospect of evaluating so many options. One blogger claimed to become “more picky than an Arabian sultan” as he waded through vast numbers of online dating profiles, discarding women based on small and perhaps insignificant flaws. Indeed, a recent paper published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Eli J. Finkel and colleagues remarked that profile browsing caused mate-seekers to objectify candidate partners and calculate the relative risk and reward of pursuing a relationship prior to contact. Although it might be appealing to evaluate certain aspects in a new partner before meeting him or her, research shows that the romantic process doesn’t always work that way. In most cases, even when we find a profile that meshes with our ideal version of a mate, we are often disappointed by the reality in a face-to-face encounter. Several studies have demonstrated that there is a mismatch between the qualities we believe we desire in a mate and the qualities of the person we ultimately end up with.

Image: Christian Sodergren
Even if we do meet ‘the one’ online—is emailing and Facebooking a good way to start a relationship?

So, if we have such little insight into what we want, why not simply rely on the matching algorithms employed by many online dating sites? Unfortunately, many sites match people based on similarity in particular attributes, though there is only weak evidence that this contributes to satisfaction within a relationship. Despite this, dating websites like eHarmony state that their “bold, scientific approach to matching means more quality dates with deeply compatible singles that truly understand you”. This has been a cause for concern to some in the scientific community, like UCLA social psychology Professor Benjamin Karney, who believes regulatory agencies should more actively investigate the claims of dating sites. Even if we do meet ‘the one’ online—is emailing and Facebooking a good way to start a relationship?

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According to Finkel and colleagues, CMC can be a useful tool during a budding relationship, increasing a couple’s intimacy and attraction for one another. But if CMC continues for a prolonged period without a face-to-face meeting, it can have a detrimental effect. In these cases we build up exaggerated expectations of the other person, based on potentially misleading profile photos and carefully planned responses in online conversations. After all, romantic relationships can only start when two people ‘click’ offline. And what makes a couple ‘click’, according to the authors, is based on “experiential attributes, chemistry, and gut-level evaluations” that can ultimately only be assessed in person. Despite its limitations, online dating has undoubtedly changed the way many of us form romantic relationships. No doubt it will continue to do so as it has entered the mainstream. But going further, the way we maintain our relationships, especially long-distance ones, has changed with technology as well. Before the advent of Skype, couples had limited options when separated by land and sea. They could write letters or talk on the phone—landline, that is.

Image: Petras Galigas
In the US, 14 million people report that they are in a long-distance relationship, 4.4 million of whom are students. These numbers are reportedly on the rise, partly due to the growing number of options available to keep the romance alive. Skype and other software for video chatting is ubiquitous, as are mobiles and smartphones with their capabilities for texting, sending video messages, Snapchats and anything else you can think of. As one blogger posted about her new long-distance relationship, “there’s literally an app for that”. But one thing that technology can’t provide is intimacy. Or can it? Cuddling, hugging and even sex don’t have to go completely out the window when your partner isn’t physically close. There’s Pillow Talk, in which a sensor embedded in a pillow causes it to glow when one of the pair has gone to sleep. It also lets each person hear the other’s heartbeat in real-time, as they drift off to sleep. Then there’s the Hug Shirt that communicates the touch and warmth from the wearer’s shirt to the partner. If a long-distance couple is after something a little more intimate, there are several sex devices that use computers or game console remote controls that may be more appropriate. Durex is even developing a product called Funderwear: vibrating underwear controlled by an app on a partner’s phone. The range of products and options for communicating long-distance can’t quite replace a real-life companion though, as many bloggers and columnists have reported. One advised that “throwing money at airline tickets” was still the best way to make it work and warned against missing nights out with friends to stay in and Skype. After all, while technology can change how we get and stay together, it can’t change what we need from a relationship. Managing our expectations of technology and recognising the advantages and disadvantages of online dating, email, text, video messaging and other forms of digital communication may be key to satisfying our needs.

Jordan Ramsey is a 3rd year PhD student at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.

Featured image: ChrisGoldNY