Cyberlove Breaks Down Romantic Codes of Conduct
By Gwen Ackerman
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Imagine -- an endless "black book" of potential dates, one where the undesirables, the stalkers or possible psychopaths can be dismissed into the void with the click of a mouse.
For the lovelorn, the Internet offers a virtual world of romance and fantasy, an anonymous venue for trysts in the privacy of your bedroom or study.
All it takes is registering for an online chat, picking an icon that shows you're looking for love and you'll find it instantly and in myriad ways.
The accessibility of cyberlove, where anonymity offers a cloak of safety and the possibility to play several roles at once, is likely to whittle away at the concept of monogamy, said Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, the Israeli author of "Love Online."
"You may have an online relationship at the same time as an offline relationship," said Ben-Ze'ev, a Haifa University philosopher. "Then, because it is so easy to form an online relationship, it is very tempting to form more."
As the generation born into the Internet age grows older, exclusivity in romantic relationships will fall by the wayside, or at least change in definition, he believes.
Partners may lay down rules for one another's virtual encounters, or even enjoy them together.
It may take time.
In May 2002, the BBC reported that a woman slashed her husband's thyroid artery as he slept because he was planning to bring a woman he had met on the Internet to England.
The rules of the game are different in cyberspace. Popularity marks go not to the handsome or beautiful but the virtuoso typists and masters of the written word. Intimacy comes through sharing deep secrets and buried fantasies.
Ben-Ze'ev, an expert on emotions who read blogs (Internet diaries) about other experiences with cyberlove to write his book, noted that "human beings have never before had access to such an ambivalent type of romantic relationship."
The danger of predators in cyberspace, he says, is small. The risk comes only when virtual love moves off the Internet and into the real world -- as it did in the death of a 16-year-old Israeli youth at the start of the Palestinian uprising in 2000.
The teenager met a Palestinian woman posing as a tourist on the Internet. The woman lured him to Jerusalem with promises of a tete-a-tete, but instead of romance, the teenager found death at the hands of Palestinian gunmen.
'EVERYONE IS DOING IT'
Israeli journalist Daphna Lewy first entered the arena of virtual love on assignment, creating more than 30 unique personalities ranging from a teenage boy to elderly grandmother.
"Everyone I know is doing it," said 40-year-old Lewy. "At the end I wrote the article and was left with one of these identities I related to most. I really got to know lots of people, it wasn't just romantic experiences."
In Israel, where most surfers choose to communicate in Hebrew, long-term cyberlove is rare, primarily because of the proximity of virtual lovers in a small country.
"What characterises Israelis on the Internet is that they use the chats and dating services usually only to make the first acquaintance, to find the person, not to build a long-term relationship," said Ben Ze'ev.
Lewy, who speaks fluent English, met many new friends by surfing the Net and turned a two-year cyberfriendship with a British man into an offline love story.
She said the Internet's advantage to real-life dating is its initial anonymity that allows for the baring of one's soul -- while also offering a quick getaway.
"If I go too far, expose myself too much, feel uncomfortable or the reaction I get is not really to my liking, then I can click and that is it, the relationship is over," she said.
Still, Ben-Ze'ev notes that online relationships can leave cyberlovers just as deeply hurt and disappointed as in real life.
At the same time, satisfaction is just a click away and the dating pond is infinite. Surfers looking for love get bites on their cyber bait within minutes, although not all the fish seek idyllic love.
"People testify that they had the most intense love of their life or most wild sex of their life on line," said Ben-Ze'ev.
It is that intensity, said Ben-Ze'ev, along with the low cost and low risk of online love, that poses the real danger of love in cyberspace: addiction to living out fantasies and the blurring of reality.
The online dating sector more than doubled in size worldwide from 2002 to 2003, making it the fasting growing content-sales category on the Internet, said Sheizaf Rafaeli, director of Haifa University's Center for the Study of the Information Society. "Something big is happening," said Rafaeli.
As more and more people turn to cyberlove, society will face the challenge of juggling virtual romance alongside offline relationships, said Ben-Ze'ev.
"We will have to change our social and moral norms to accommodate this phenomena."