Mary Wakefield: The modern love letter is written online

The more I look into it, I’m forced to realise that there’s real love in the virtual world
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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago I met a nice young couple, just married, who seemed unusually devoted – without any of the sniping I've come to associate with newlyweds. So a little damp-eyed, in the manner of a grandmother, I asked where they had first met. Oh, they said, exchanging a bright, loving look, we met online.

A log of my internal response to this news would report the following: first surprise, then embarrassment and a definite twinge of revulsion. But they looked so normal! I thought. Never mind, there's clearly something wrong with them. Thereafter I stayed away, and shot them curious, semi-hostile glances from the other side of the room.

But with a fortnight's hindsight, I've begun to suspect that it might be me that's wrong, not them.

Like most people born before 1980 I have a reflex distrust of electronic romance. The internet is clearly for buying books and holidays – only porn addicts and weirdos find love online. But honi soit qui mal y pense; and the more I look into it, the more I'm forced to realise that there's real love in the virtual world. So in honour of St Valentine, I've been setting about the uncomfortable business of dismantling my prejudice.

The first stage of my reconditioning was to twig that at least part of my aversion was born of outrage. How dare today's teens – who pair up in chatrooms – have so completely escaped the public humiliation of landline love? It seems deeply unfair that they'll never know the wriggling agony of dialling a boyfriend's home phone and getting a parent, or the pain of being summoned by sing-song shout: "Oh Mary, it's Jake on the phone."

The second stage was the realisation that love in cyberspace just can't be any more delusional or depressing than it is in real space (or "meat space" as diehard net heads call it). Flirt in pub. Get pissed. Have sex. So much for modern British romance. In fact, instead of degrading the mating game, there's every reason to think that the net is paving a way back to the more romantic past.

It's a well-recognised fact that this new technology enables old patterns of behaviour to re-emerge: polemicists hold forth to disciples online much as philosophers did in ancient Athens; mums meet up to yak on about babies; boys test their skills in combat. And lovers have rekindled the lost art of wooing each other. Just reading this strand of a discussion about dating made me ashamed of my former cynicism: "The internet has brought back that most noble English institution the love letter," says Mr Walt O'Brien from Barre, Vermont.

"It's the modern form of having a 'pen pal' romance," explains Stephen Corlett. Mr Ronald Bockhorn of southern New Jersey has a good point too: "I think it's good for people to get to know someone without seeing them. Sometimes you judge people on their looks which is wrong. On the internet you get to know the real person."

"And simulated sex is free from health risks," adds ZB from California. Enough already, ZB.

If emails or instant messages lack the elegance of ink on paper, in their own way they're just as carefully constructed. It takes a lot of rewriting to strike the perfect, casual tone of voice, and not to frighten your target back into the ether.

And now I'm on a roll, is there something of the old-fashioned dance about an email relationship: the exciting proximity to a stranger, the feeling of risk in a safe context? Perhaps not. But the usual course of a serious intercontinental net date seems touchingly nostalgic: a six-month correspondence followed by a flight to the other side of the world to meet up. That's a great deal more effort than most British baby-fathers would ever dream of putting in.

Even in countries with strict dating protocols, the internet doesn't seem to be subverting traditions so much as reinforcing them. In India, the arranged marriage industry has been turbocharged by the web: astrologers employed to check for crossed stars can now knock up horoscopes a dime a dozen; newspapers have always carried ads for brides and grooms but now the net is bulging with them. Indian families often employ the help of a go-between, a "nayan" to help fix the right match. Well, as far as I can see, the internet is India's new, benevolent and omniscient nayan.

Without breaching the protocol of not meeting in the flesh, Indian teens can chat way and bond before committing themselves to a life locked in each other's company, and for once the girls have as much control as the boys. They can ask questions, sieve through photos, discuss the details with their pals. Yes, it's true, divorce is on the rise in India, the inevitable result of more women in work, but where once no decent marriage-fixer would deal with a divorcee, now there's a site called SecondShaadi.com – a shaadi means marriage – which acts as a non-judgemental go-between.

Even in creepy Saudi Arabia, where women are not seen or heard, technology is quietly playing cupid. It's not that the young Riyadh jihadis are any less misogynistic than their dads, but just that mobiles and instant messaging are softening their approach.

Getting caught with a woman who isn't your sister can mean arrest, perhaps flogging, definitely dishonour in Saudi Arabia; but there's nothing in the Koran that prohibits text messaging, and The New York Times recently ran a piece about the culture of covert messaging between engaged couples.

Stage three, the final nail in the coffin of my prejudice against online love, was a new survey from something called the American Life Project which says that the fastest-growing group of users and online daters is the 65-75 year olds. Quietly, probably unbeknownst to their less net-savvy offspring, the lonely old are finding each other online. Like teens, they've grasped the fact that the internet is not just a mail-order service but a hotbed of old-fashioned romance. And it would take a very cold heart indeed to object to that.



Mary Wakefield is the deputy editor of 'The Spectator'

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