Cyberspace Couples Finding Romance Online Then Meeting for the First Time in Real Life
by Andrea Baker
Introduction to Purpose and Methodology
This study is an attempt to start mapping the features and processes of online relationships leading to intimate relationships. The eighteen couples who provide the data here all met first online and then offline between 1993 and 1997. They met by corresponding in writing and developed their acquaintance into friendship, dating partners and then, for some cohabitation or marriage.
Open-ended questionnaires were sent by email to people who agreed to participate in the research between May, 1997 and January, l998. Individuals became known to the researcher in asking for subjects and colleagues and friends recommended others for a snowball-type sample. Initial contact reiterated the requirement that a partnerŪs permission to join the study was preferred before sending the questionnaire to both. (Note 1) A few responded to a notice on a website asking for volunteers. Of the thirty-four people who answered here, Including two more who replied without their counterparts, only two have I met in person, or in real life (IRL) or (RL). Three I have talked with on the telephone and two of those have become professional colleagues.
The goals are to shed light on how people communicate to escalate their involvement to greater intimacy over time, (see for example, Parks and Roberts, 1998; Albright and Conran, n.d.) and to see how they might overcome obstacles of geographical distance and absence of physical cues. The ultimate aim is to chart the trajectories or žcareer contingenciesÓ (Becker, l963, 1960; Hughes, l971; Goffman, l961) of the successful online relationship. After a brief summary of the research subjects, this article traces the processes of meeting first in cyberspace and then IRL. The couples reveal their attraction, overcoming obstacles of distance and lack of physical presence to become acquainted through writing. They discuss expectations and emotions upon meeting, including how their partners match or diverge from impressions received through written and vocal cues. The final note summarizes future directions for research of online relationships.
Description of the Couples and their Relationships
Two of the couples have separated, (see Figure 1) Minnie and Franklin (#5) (see Note 2) who were engaged right before their break-up, and Cassie and Mike (#14) who decided to remain platonic friends. A few were a1ready married (#1, #10, #16) or married during the data collection period (#6, #11, #18). Some are engaged or seriously committed and living together (#3, #4,#9, #12, #13), while others are not yet cohabitating in the same household (#7, #15). Length of relationship varies from a few months to the more than six years that Jeanette and Andrew (#10) have been together.
The thirty-six subjects range in age from 16 to 57 years old (Figure
1). Respondants are mainly in their twenties (n=15), thirties (n=10),
and forties (n=7), with three in the teen group, and one man in his
Most partners are of similar ages with four men between five and
ten years older, and in one case, thirty years older. Two women are
seven and ten years older than their partners. Another demographic
relates to the high level of education of people in this project:
most have graduated from college, or will soon complete their studies
at the baccalaureate level. A few have Master's Degrees and
two currently pursue doctorates in their fields.
Online Meeting, Attraction, and Communication
Most met in a group in cyberspace with purposes intrinsic to the activity such as playing a trivia game (Kate and Gary, #2) or posting messages to an occupational discussion group, (Joanie and Sam, #3) or in a New Age spirtuality website (Lenore and Roy, #15). A small number met in areas meant to match people up, while two couples were sysops offering technical help to others (#9, #18). What did they like about each other right from the start? Sense of humor, response time, interests, qualities described online, and writing style were prominent, along with having žsomething in commonÓ (Sally and Randy, #18).
Some replied positively to a question about whether they may have revealed more in writing than f2f. Men in particular may have an easier time revealing thoughts and feelings or self-disclosing in writing. Among the men a few mentioned that they wouldnŪt have met their partners offline (Greg, #2) or that they wouldnŪt have interested each other IRL (Andrew, #10).
Moving Toward Meeting IRL and Overcoming Obstacles
The typical sequencing of communication from online to meeting in žmeatspaceÓ or RL goes from public discourse to private emails and/or private chatting to telephoning to finally, getting together in the physical world. The importance of an exchange of photographs varies by person from not that crucial at all because the feelings were already present to very necessary to tell if physical attraction could occur to match the mental and emotional bonding. One writer on cyberspace community has suggested that the sequence is žbackwardsÓ, as the couple gets to know each other before meeting, rather than vice versa (Rheingold, 1993) Others have noted that perhaps the pattern of relationship lengthens into three stages, rather than two: meeting online and writing, then talking by phone and then meeting in person. The second two phases are real time (RT) occurances. In offline circumstances people meet in RT, physically present, and then proceed to talk on the phone and write, perhaps, but make the decision to progress after only that first stage of communication.
Some have suggested that people who meet online may get to know each other better before proceeding with relationships than do those who meet IRL. Looking at the time lines of couples in this data (see Figure 1), seven couples waited from two to four months to meet IRL or f2f (face-to-face.) Some moved a little faster to meet within a few weeks or slower, meeting after six months to a year. At the outer edges of the range, one couple, Shelly and Rich (#8) met after less than a week and two couples waited for over a year (#10, #17). Most have shared traits,experiences, and outlooks for quite a while before escalating their bond, in comparison to couples meeting offline.
The major problem for those who do not limit themselves geographically,
is, of course, distance. For younger people or those without considerable
financial resources these can become major barriers, preventing many penpals
from carrying their writings further. On the other hand, the question
of žsafetyÓ becomes more possible as people can perhaps test communication
by more overt flirtation, knowing they can change their minds about physcial
encounters. For these couples, a few lived near enough, within a
couple of hours drive to make distance a minor problem (Natasha and
Bree, #12 and Shelly and Rich #8). Many came from states in different
regions of the U. S. to visit and then commit to each other such as moving
from Texas to Ohio (Roy, #15), from California to Michigan (Sam, #3), from
Virginia to California (Sally, #18), and from Washington D.C. to Oregon
(Pansy, #9). Some even immigrated from one country into another,
coming from the U. S. to The Netherlands, (Sandra went to Keith, #4), or
to England, (Janice went to Joe, #1).
Expectations, Surprises, and Emotions at First RL Meeting
Most sent a photo before meeting after communicating from a few weeks or months to almost two years online. Expectations among these couples seemed realistic, with very few surprises or differences from earlier envisionings. A few noted comparisons of the real person to out-of date, unflattering, or even artificially glamourous photos. Two females noted that the men were not quite as good looking as their old photos showed. A few thought their partners were just žas cuteÓ (Reggie, #13) or ža lot cuterž (Celia, #18), žmore beautifulÓ (Rich, #8; Franklin, #5) or ževen better looking ž (Cassie, #14) than their self-descriptions or pictures. Mike (#14) found himself surprisingly attracted to Cassie who had not shared a photo. From her writing online, he had imagined an older, žblowsyÓ type of woman, with bleached hair.
The only same-sex couple in the study had not exchanged photos and emphasized how they were interested in the žsoulÓ more than žphysical appearanceÓ (Natasha about Bree, #12). Bree noted that she žnever thought about looksÓ and found Natasha žmuch more attractiveÓ than she expected. The idea that the love existed and would outweigh physical traits was voiced by more than one couple as expressed by Sally (#18) who knew that even before the photos were exchanged a couple of months before meeting, they were žcompletely in loveÓ
Most noticed only slight differences in personal qualities such as the other personŪs greater shyness offline . Josh described Tina (#11) as shy whereas Tina said they were both shy IRL. Keith added that Sandra (#4) was žless secureÓ and shyer than her online image. Reggie said Nina (#13) acted žquieterÓ, and then žwas fun and outgoing once the shyness kickedÓ. After Shelly said how RichŪs (#8) mannerisms matched her expectations, she quipped, žOK, heŪs a little more clumsy, but it's kind of endearing". Lenore thought Roy (#15) was ža little whineyÓ. Only partly in jest, Eve recalled how she had to break Tommy (#17) of his habit of eating spicy foods before their encounters. Sally (#16) said they had already known from seven months of phone conversations that two žstrong personalitiesÓ would have some conflicts, žnot constant calmÓ. Mac (#7) found AllisonŪs žbitchy moodsÓ a bit less frequent in person. Many commented that in modes of communication before f2f, their partners had communicated very honestly with the conscious intent to eliminate suprises or deviations from their written presentations of appearance and personality. In RandyŪs (#18) words, žShe and I were tough on ourselves in our self-descriptionsÓ.
After an initial period of extremely žnervousÓ or anxious anticipation, many couples became very žcomfortableÓ and had that feeling of žcoming homeÓ (Sally and Randy, #18; Janice and Joe, #1). Sam said about Joanie (#3) that he felt like they žhad been living next door all that timeÓ and then meeting. žIt was like I had known him for a long time, which I had, ž remembered Jeanette (#10) about encountering Andrew in person for the first time. Janice recalled that Joe (#1) was žlike someone IŪve known for my whole life., like he had always been there."
Some extended their visits by doubling or tripling the days they had originally planned to stay with their new RL partners. Those who arranged open-ended trips, depending upon how well they got along with their partners decided to return home later rather than sooner.
Directions for Future Research
This article serves as a brief introductory summary of how people can successfully interact and commit to each other after the initial encounter in cyberspace. Such meetings may well become much more common as more people get online and seek partners there. Advantages include a wider pool of people with common interests and the ability to get to know something about others before judging their compatibility based upon physical presentation. As others have noted (Lea and Spear, 1995) older theories of attraction with the emphasis on proximity and physical characteristics cannot account for this increasingly common way of meeting potential mates.
Researchers are now beginning to chart the pathways of close, intimate friendships and love relationships to find out how people can maximize communication in print (Cooper and Sportolari, l997) before moving to other spheres of contact. My goal is to eventually chart the trajectory of these relationship žcareersÓ to illustrate optimal modes of progression from stranger to acquaintance to friendship to love while utilizing the medium of the personal computer. This study tracks this very new way of meeting, knowing, and committing to a partner.
Note 1: Because the participation of both members of the couple was emphasized, this phase of the research tended to draw intact couples rather than those who had already parted. Thus, this purposive sampling method selected from the pool of more successful couples and does not represent all people attempting to form relationships.
Andrea Baker is a sociologist at Ohio University, Lancaster where she does research on Internet issues. She seeks couples who met in cyberpace for her ongoing "Online Couples Project". Please write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 1998 by Andrea Baker. All Rights Reserved.