Love Online: Emotions on the Internet by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev

Love: actually or virtually?
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The Independent Culture

It's worth remembering Alexander Bell's first words down the telephone: "Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you." Stripped of their context, they have always seemed strangely charged, almost erotic. Indeed, add a computer screen, an internet protocol and a chat room to the end of Mr Bell's phone, and they might stand as the beginnings of a particularly steamy cyber-sex session.

Whether it's a whisper down the line or a flutter of fingers on a keyboard, communications have always thrummed with romantic and sexual potential. As an executive at the internet portal Yahoo! recently commented, sex and love are the "killer apps" in cyberspace. That means not just downloaded porn, but also psychological yearning and dreams of blissful union. The French, appropriately enough, realised this pretty early. Minitel, their Eighties anticipation of the internet, soon became as useful for Parisian speed-dating as it was for informing citizens about affaires d'état.

With the "Evernet" of ubiquitous connectivity taking shape, it's time to speculate about where love online is headed. Aaron Ben-Ze'ev is an Israeli philosopher of emotion who has taken an interest in those who seek more than information from information technology. This clearly written and dryly witty book, though avowedly a work of scholarship, is also packed with anecdotes and smart quotes, and displays an evident empathy for its keyboard-clattering subjects.

We all have our anecdotes about cyber-love. I have single friends who have broken romantic droughts through online friendships, the sharing of passions about a hobby becoming ever deeper, sometimes even bringing emigration and new life. I also know of a stable relationship that broke up when the male partner's inbox revealed an 18-month chat-room affair, about to become a real-world tryst in the US. And for some of my acquaintances - particularly far-flung souls adrift in the talent sectors of the developed world - online dating seems to have become as normal as the wine bar or hotel lobby as a locus for romance and sex.

Ben-Ze'ev's analysis of love online encompasses both the banal and the dramatic, but it does identify a few unprecedented areas. For one thing, has imagination and interactivity ever been as much a part of the media of lovers as now? The stylisations of the love letter are too static and inert. The telephone allows for relatively little simulation: those voices are too breathily insistent, too direct.

The textual character of the internet resolves many problems. Fashioning a persona live and online means that Cupid often favours the fluent stylist with a one-hand touch-typing technique. At times, reading these accounts, it seems that the courtly traditions of romantic love have simply been awaiting Instant Messaging for their full realisation. "My cyber-lover is as complete as a human being has ever been to me," says one typist.

Yet with the introduction of real-time response, the textual healing can go horribly wrong. Anyone whose emotional life has found its medium online can testify to how a badly-phrased, ill-thought or wrongly-timed sentence can turn a perfect exchange of souls into an inferno of misunderstanding. Ben-Ze'ev notes that the gossipy element of online contact - the way it can exist in the nooks and crannies of our lives, always potentially retrievable - places high standards on the cyber-lover. "When we paint our online soul, we must use subtle brush strokes," he writes. "No coarse or harsh elements belong in this enchanting world."

Going by the testimony collected here, no face-to-face meetings should ever occur either. "Online affairs are like a new toy with which the human race has not yet learned how to play," suggests Ben-Ze'ev, "but people may confuse the toy with reality and ruin their life." The tales of meeting cyber-lovers in the flesh are mortifying: one crestfallen maiden writes that "he walked off the plane looking like he hadn't washed his clothes in a month".

One imagines that, in the age of picture-phones and webcams, this anecdote comes from the early days of online love. Certainly, the more organised net-dating services demand a full-picture portfolio and often video clips. But Ben-Ze'ev is good on the tremulous idealism that net communication engenders: that peculiar skill of using language consciously to project our best selves. The bad poetry and clumsy narrations that we perpetrate online are only what lovers have always done with each other - except all these negotiations, misprisions and cock-ups are now captured in a dialogue box.

The author does have a faint intellectual agenda here. Ben-Ze'ev elaborates a thesis from his previous work on the subtlety of emotions: we are witnessing an inexorable rise in "flexible relationships", where the challenge of "whetting your appetite outside while eating at home" (ie long-term commitment and short-term randiness) achieve a better, less duplicitous balance. For him, cyber-love is the perfect solution. Can we really "betray" our fleshly lovers, when the only fingertips our digital lovers experience are those which overload their text boxes?

Movingly, much of the testimony seems to be from cohabiting men and women over 40. Many are excited to find this outlet for the fantasy and flirtation that has died in their real relationships, and some even share the experience with their partners ("after cybering, we have GREAT sex!").

Yet others, discovering emotional and sexual infidelity, express the kind of hurt and bewilderment which any era would recognise, whether the revelation comes by perfumed letter, an overheard conversation on the hallway telephone, or an instant messaging archive. It seems doubtful that that the virtualities of the internet will make "romantic exclusivity" - or love, in other words - any less painful. Indeed, in an age where our mobility in space, time and the market is presumed, cyberspace is as likely to become a medium for the most ardent, even traditional, of romances as it is to herald some new, plastic form of love.

As a long-term cyber-romantic, allow me to exemplify. You turn on your computer, the broadband kicks in, and you're in real-time with the loved one, hundreds or thousands of miles away. If she has put her webcam on, you might even see her as she busies around the room, tending to her child, reading a paper, perhaps even laughing delightedly at your appearance.

If not, you have to be content with the emoticons that your service provides for you: in this case, a happy-face from the Seventies counterculture. Day after day, at this time, it's the full yellow icon: you click the face to open a text box, and the unwinding proceeds. Some days, the face is grey, occluded: if you're feeling insecure, you have recourse to the mobile. But even then, it's best to text first and talk second, punching out the apposite words. After an agonising wait - surprise, surprise - all's well that ends well.

And the point of this confession of my cyberhabits? Simply that Love, Virtually demands just as much care, calibration and bravery as Love, Actually. In the words that Sam Cooke would undoubtedly be singing, had his spurned lover's bullets missed their mark: Cupid, reboot your hard drive.

Pat Kane's book 'The Play Ethic' is due from Macmillan in June