The truth about virtual romance

The truth about virtual romance

Photo Credits: KAITLYN PANG / AGGIE

Can we find love online, or is it virtually impossible?

If you’ve ever been romantically involved, you probably know what it’s like to get butterflies when someone flirts with you or gives you a certain look. And in this day and age, it’s not uncommon to experience this when you’re not even with the person — whether it’s a Snapchat, text or phone call, you can develop real feelings for someone based on virtual interactions. But how do these feelings compare to those established in real life?

 With the uncertainty of a global pandemic and the subsequent increase in permanent at-home work, the way we make connections as we know it may change for good. Everything from work meetings to class is online, leaving less time for socializing, which means less potential for new connections.

These changes to the way we build relationships makes romance seem increasingly out of reach. The ways we meet might someone, in a casual setting like a discussion section or a shared table at the CoHo, have vanished. And even when starting out on Tinder, you typically meet up in real life soon after. 

Day-to-day socializing — including scoping out partners — will return one day, but for now, anyone interested in finding a partner or deepening their relationship with one has to go about their endeavors online. 

This doesn’t mean romance is dead. We can, in fact, sustain an intimate connection online, even if it’s not exactly how we do so in person. 

Bo Feng, a professor of communication at UC Davis, has done research on the way we develop personal relationships in technological environments. 

“The core elements [of developing a relationship] are not restricted by the particular medium through which we develop intimacy,” Feng said. 

When we are just getting to know someone, the way we appeal to each other online isn’t so different from how we do so face-to-face. According to Feng, sharing information about each other virtually and leaving a positive (or negative) impression can be equally as effective in indicating your interest in pursuing that person — and, in some cases, more effective. 

“On the surface, people may see [texting] as a downside of online communication, but it can have its positive impact,” Feng said. “When people rely solely on textual communication, especially at the early stages of a relationship, that may allow people to develop a more positive impression if the information is shared selectively.”

Choosing specifically positive traits to share is called selective self-presentation, and we do it across all contexts, whether online and in person or professionally and casually, to project the best version of ourselves. When communicating online, this can lead to what’s called hyperpersonal communication, where virtual communication allows for a more personal connection than face-to-face interaction does. 

According to Feng, through “hyperpersonal communication, people may develop intimacy at a greater level online compared to offline.”

So, virtual connections have the potential to be stronger than those in person. But this can have its downsides. It’s one thing to portray yourself in a positive light to attract a partner, but it’s another to deceive or omit relevant information. In extreme cases it’s known as catfishing, but it can also just be lying about certain parts of yourself, which is harmful at the outset of a romantic relationship. 

We can also use non-face-to-face communication to enhance what we say to potential partners. Because millennials and Gen Z are so centered around virtual life, now more than ever we know the ins and outs of communication through social media and texting. From subtweets, or indirectly sending someone a message over social media, to the difference between ‘Hey’ and ‘heyy’ when texting, we know how to send strong signals about our interest in a person. 

“People have the luxury to craft what they say, which means more time to plan messages,” Feng said. “Better planning leads to better quality messages, and better communication leads to more positive impressions, and that can elicit intimacy.”

It seems like online communication isn’t so detrimental to romance after all. We can still get to know someone on an intimate level and develop deep feelings without in-person contact. 

But primarily online relationships are less common than those in person for a reason. Despite certain advantages of deepening the connection online, it’s easy to idealize a person without meeting face-to-face.

Steven Brunner, a lecturer for the Department of Communication, explained, “Part of the reason why [we can become more intimate online] is because we have this over attribution of similarity. There are lots of holes when you’re interacting with someone online, there’s lots of information you don’t know. But we fill in those holes by just presuming similarities that we haven’t proved are wrong.” 

Even if you know everything about a person, there are going to be inaccuracies in your idea of them until you meet in person. Beyond just discovering mannerisms or traits only visible in real life (that you may either love or hate), a physical bond is necessary in almost any romantic relationship. 

“At some point, if you want to take a [romantic] relationship to a certain level, you have to move it offline,” Brunner said. 

The emotions we develop toward someone online can, initially at least, be just as legitimate as those developed in real life, but they are only sustainable for so long. Other drawbacks of exclusively interacting online persist, but there are ways to curtail conflicts that prevent authentic relationship growth. 

“Making sure people are honest in face-to-face contexts is important, but it’s extremely important in the online context,” Brunner said. “It’s super easy to misrepresent yourself when you have such high abilities to edit what you put out there.” 

Selective self-representation can be useful, then, to attract and connect to partners, but make sure you understand the importance of sharing a genuine version of yourself — and that your partner does, too. 

And be careful not to confuse the potential for deeper intimacy online with flawless communication. The nonverbal ways we communicate in person are absent virtually, so we have to make up for those missing signs.

“Online, there are more challenges associated with the transitioning from one type of relationship to another,” Feng said. “In the online environment there can potentially be more confusion and misunderstanding so it requires more effective communication from both parties to redefine the relationship and communicate expectations.” 

Whereas we can touch one another or give certain looks that show romantic interest in person, we usually can’t see those online, so moving forward with someone requires explicit conversation about what both parties want. 

The ways we develop romance online seem to be effective, if complicated and susceptible to failure, but is it so different in person? There are countless reasons why relationships end or never begin in person, some which are solved online, and some that are exacerbated. At the end of the day, no matter the medium through which you communicate with your partner, your ability to foster romance and intimacy with a partner comes down to how much you like each other. 

“If the quality of communication is good, whether it’s online or offline is not that important,” Feng said. “It’s really about how much you enjoy spending time interacting with someone. That is the defining predictor of relationship quality.”

If your only route to romance right now is via online communication, don’t be wary, just make the effort. It’s how you spend your time, not by which channel, that dictates your success of falling in love. 

Written by: Allie Bailey — arts@theaggie.org