Digital Displays of Affection

Photo by Courtesy Twitter/Facebook

In fall 2010, a New Jersey-based pastor by the name of Cedric Miller made national headlines after demanding that married church leaders in his congregation give up their Facebook accounts or resign. The blogosphere reacted with a variation of ridicule and support. Rev. Miller said he pushed his congregation to leave the world's most popular social networking site because he felt it was becoming a reoccurring issue in marital counseling sessions.

While many people felt Rev. Miller was using Facebook as a scapegoat for poor moral decisions, his assertion was not without merit. Over the past two decades, the Internet has come to play an integral role in our lives. We use the Internet to pay bills, communicate with friends, find employment and, in some cases, even order groceries. It should be no surprise that the Internet and social media have come to play such a major role in relationships. Match.com reports that approximately one in five relationships now begin online, and dating sites are more popular than ever.

Since the early days of the Internet, people have found it an effective way to meet potential partners. Long before match.com and okcupid.com or flirting in 140 characters via Twitter, people were using primitive bulletin-board systems to run defacto dating services. After the Internet explosion of the 1990s and the introduction of chat rooms, instant messengers and social networking sites, online courting became a thing of relative norm.

Social media provides people with "safe" spaces from which to make contact. However, one of the drawbacks to online dating is the ease in which people can misrepresent themselves. Whether it involves uploading old or fake pictures, lying about marital status or simply pretending to be someone else, it is much easier for a person to mislead a potential partner online than in person. Over the last month, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o has been in the headlines after allegedly falling victim to a hoax and entering into a romantic relationship with a person who, he would find out later, never existed. Criminals have used dating sites to lure potential victims.

Phyllis Carter, a 27-year-old accountant, says she believes one can find love online, but it is important to use common sense and discernment. "I've done online dating before and met a few crazies, but I was happy to knock a few people off my list based on their profiles alone," Carter says. She also warns against using sexually provocative pictures. "If you are serious about finding a mate, putting provocative pictures up there won't help you get any closer."

While many people have learned how to use social media to find love, using it to maintain relationships has proven a much trickier task. Accusations of digital flirting, concerns about pictures of former flames and arguments over passwords have become points of contention for many couples. Cyberspace is still evolving, and the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior can often be blurry.

Is it wrong for a person in a committed relationship to comment on the picture of a member of the opposite sex who is not their partner? These are the types of questions that persist.

In a 2004 article published in the BT Technology Journal entitled "Public Displays of Connection," social media expert Dr. Danah Boyd states that in the real world, people use time and space to separate incompatible parts of their lives, but those lines are often removed on social networking sites. A married man may be hesitant to give a flirtatious coworker his personal cell phone number, but he may accept a Facebook friend request because it is seen as less harmful--even though it can offer almost the same access as the cell phone.

As the Internet continues to play an expanding role in maintaining and starting romantic relationships, people are still struggling to learn the dating rules of cyberspace. Like love, it's an ever-evolving beast.

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