Cyber me, baby
Surfing the Internet, you may stumble upon a site called Imaginary Girlfriends.com. It offers a unique service: the provision of girlfriends who are not real. These girlfriends will send gifts, chat online and exchange emails and photographs. To all appearances – and in the eyes of friends and family – they will be long distance girlfriends. In reality they are the virtual version of an escort service.
“The girls are real. The relationship is not,” boasts the site, “With an Imaginary Girlfriend, you can carry on a completely fictitious, yet authentic looking relationship with the girl of your choice.”
The idea may seem ridiculous but what it does is simply take the concept of virtual relationship to the extreme.
Hundreds maybe thousands of dating sites exist, tapping into not only the loneliness of nerds and geeks who live on the Internet, but also the desire of ordinary people of all ages to find that someone special.
When the first of these sites emerged they were seen as a last ditch solution – who wanted to meet a strange person over the Internet (who may turn out to be a weirdo/psycho/stalker) when they stood a chance to meet someone in the real world? Now it seems the answer to that question is “almost everybody”.
Sites like Match.com and Plenty of Fish are in the top 500 sites in the world according to Alexa. Social networking sites with dating and matchmaking functionality fall into the top 100. This explosion of popularity is not completely unexpected, and there are quite a few reasons a virtual relationship is not necessarily second best.
We constantly hear talk of how the world is a “global village”. In recent years it has become so much easier to communicate across great distances. Additionally, the people in the places we communicate with have likely been exposed to the same media, eat at the same take-out places and have similar experiences of life based around global social ideas (what globalisation expert Harvey refers to as “universalisation”) . It is no longer scary or exotic to contemplate dating someone on the other side of the planet.
Intimacy at a distance
What Giddens, another globalisation expert, points out is that “in today’s world, social relations and interaction are not dependent upon simultaneous physical ‘presence’ within a specific location.”
He calls this “time-space distanciation”. One has the ability to form a relationship with someone in a place so distant that neither of you are ever awake at the same time. Not only does modern technology enable such a relationship but such relationships are appealing because they can be slotted into one’s daily life. Virtual partners can be there when you want them to be, and disappear when you have other concerns.
Thompson, writing on media and modernity, refers to such relationships as mediated quasi-interaction, “They are regular and dependable companions who can provide entertainment, offer advice, recount events in distant locales, serve as a topic of conversation and so on – all in a way that avoids the reciprocal demands and complexities that are characteristic of relationships sustained through face-to-face interaction”.
Another point made by Thompson is that virtual partners are malleable. The physical distance helps one shape the person according to your own wishes, feelings and desires. In actual fact is this so different from ordering a virtual girlfriend online?
How real is virtual?
Can dating sites be considered just another part of the Internet shopping phenomenon? After all, most dating sites charge a membership fee before you are free to browse around for potential partners. Or are they the solution to the fast-paced and somewhat dangerous modern world where meeting people becomes a challenge many of us don’t have time for?