While I thought Jenkins made some interesting points sporadically throughout his essay “love online, ” I can’t say that I didn’t disagree with his core argument, or at least come up with multiple counterarguments of my own along the way. Jenkins makes the statement that “focusing on the revolutionary aspects of online courtship blinds us to the continuities in courtship rituals across generations and across media.” He compares the online interactions between two 15-year-olds, Henry and Sarah, who begin (and remain for some time) as strangers to one another, in terms of actual in-person relationships, to long distance lovers separated by distance or circumstances and are thus forced to communicate via love letters. He also suggests that physical artifacts of love and affection, like rose petal imprints, photographs, and even someone’s voice over the telephone, gain deeper meaning when they are exchanged between individuals trapped within the confines of an online relationship. While I agree that there is some mysterious allure in the unknown, and probably even more so in something that is somewhat known but yet still out of reach, I can’t agree that these mementos of affection are gaining a deeper meaning because of the birth of online relationships. I don’t think that we can really consider online relationships, collectively, as an extension of the history of love and courtship because there are too many situations in which this is not the case.
While it may be true that 1 in 5 couples meet online, according to this NBC news report, so too is the statistic that 1 in 5 children are pursued by a sexual predator while participating in online chat rooms or Instant Messaging. In order to investigate the reality of this phenomenon, Dateline NBC structured an experiment. Researchers designed false online chat room profiles, pretending to be young teenagers whose parents were out of town. In 2.5 days, 18 men (yet the researchers say that they could have had 3x that number) suggested that they wanted to meet the teen they were speaking with to have sex with him/her, then proceeded to show up at the address that the “teenager” gave to them. When the predator arrived at the house, he was greeted by a researcher, along with the NBC TV crew, and confronted regarding his intentions. One of the predators was even a NYC firefighter.
While online dating targets an older crowd, who is to say that this is any safer? Sure, dating websites allow single individuals to sort through hundreds of prospects within minutes, but who is to say that these prospects aren’t liars, sexual predators, or even murderers hiding behind innocent virtual identities? According to a featured article in The National, True.com is one of the few online dating websites that actually run background checks on its members. However, most people think that all dating websites run such scans. Additionally, while I’m sure we’d all love to think that every candidate on a dating website is also looking for true love, there’s no guarantee that the person isn’t simply look for a dinner date or a quick hook up instead.
It’s hard for me to justify online dating, especially at the young age of 15, with arguments like “there were slim pickings at school” or “he could communicate more like himself online”…the dangers to me just seem to overpower the potential benefits. Even sending pictures or video chatting seems sketchy; anyone can send fake pictures or manipulate a video somehow. Jenkins even mentions in his essay that Henry “almost didn’t recognize [Sarah] since she was so different from the single photograph she had sent” (163). To me, dating should begin just as it always has, face-to-face…in person…or maybe online if it’s initiated through family or friends. Chatting with strangers online poses serious risks, and while we tend to hear that some of the online couples work out in the end, I doubt that we hear about all the ones that don’t.