How did people meet each other before the world got online? A survey by the dating service Parship.co.uk at the beginning of this year claimed that two-thirds of the single people using a dating service in 2005 turned to the internet. According to the Times (London), that's 3.6million Brits, making use of more than 100 independent online dating agencies chasing a market that is valued at about and#65533;12million and expected to rise to and#65533;47million by 2008 (1).
So internet dating is big business, and growing in credibility year on year. Parship claims that 50 per cent of single people believe they will meet a suitable partner this way, up from 35 per cent six months ago. A spokesman for the relationship counsellors Relate confirmed to the Times that 'the stigma from dating agencies seems to have gone', and that people are attracted by the advantages of internet dating: having the privacy to 'look around from the comfort of their own home', which means 'you don't have to meet a middleman or go to an actual dating agency office, which takes a lot of courage'.
Of course, there are many areas of life in which the internet seems to be taking over from classified ads and 'real world' agencies - selling cars, finding houses, planning holidays. But the boom in online dating is not simply a more efficient and flexible way of doing things that we would otherwise have done. It reflects a fundamental shift in how people are encouraged to think about their personal relationships and organise their personal lives, with intimacy acted out in public and subject to the contractual norms one might associate with buying a car, a house, a holiday.
The fashion for finding 'love online' represents a redefinition of what we mean by 'love'. No longer is love a spontaneous emotion, a transcendent state of being, a necessary evil on the path to self-fulfilment. Rather, it is recast as a therapeutic virtue - something to be planned and managed in the way one might plan and manage one's career, in the awareness that it might not last forever and moving on is no bad thing.
People seeking love online might not be looking to develop an emotional CV, but that is what the process sells them. And as with many developments online, internet dating indicates some wider social trends. Whether people start out as childhood sweethearts or just good friends, the discussion surrounding love today presents all intimate relationships as somehow virtual, a problematic consideration in the broader pursuit of 'being me'.
In this sense, it is worth trying to separate what has changed about people's experiences and expectations of love today from the sociological and political debate about love, and what it all means. Yes, people date, form relationships, marry (or not) and embark upon family life in some different ways to previous generations. But underpinning the discussions about love today is a powerful streak of bad faith, which assumes people to be less capable of loving, more at risk of harming themselves and other individuals, and more susceptible to dark and dangerous passions and excesses. Why has love come to be seen as a problem, and what does it say about our society that intimate relationships have come to be seen as addictive, and somehow bad for our health?
Latest update on online dating is prepared by Jannie Bristow.