It seems safe to say most people want love of one kind or another, and this consistent, compelling demand has made romance a profitable area of commerce since the dawn of time. Human nature being what it is, it's inevitable that each new advance in communication technology and media will quickly be incorporated into the mass mating dance. With the invention of mass media in the 19th century, romantic communication was drawn into the realm of business with elaborate, mass-produced Valentine's Day cards. In 1915 Alfred Barrett, the former editor of Family Circle, founded a magazine, Link, to help lonely soldiers in the trenches connect with lonely girls back home through personal ads (in 1921 it was shut down and Barrett was jailed for two years on charges of corrupting public morality). I'm not sure when the phenomenon of mail-order brides started, or when the first marriage proposal was delivered over a sports stadium Jumbotron, but I'd be interested to find out.
Even more recently, technology has allowed personals ads to go from a sort of marginal, fringe phenomenon to the mainstream. The persona-casting capabilities of the Internet are so remarkable, so accessible, and so cost-efficient that you'd be crazy not to do it. From the tawdry to the sublime, all kinds of romantic interaction are just a few short well-crafted paragraphs and more-or-less honest photos away (or just photos, on some sites). And dating sites are just part of it: if you're not actively on the hunt but receptive to flirtation, social networks can become de facto online dating channels just by toggling the relevant setting on your profile. In fact, just about any kind of social forum can be quickly repurposed for romance -- witness couples meeting over World of Warcraft (and breaking up after a mission goes awry).
Clearly things are just going to keep getting simultaneously weirder, more specific, and more efficient (I don't mean "weird" judgmentally -- I'm a big believer in online romance, and also weirdness of any stripe, provided its basically benign). The very latest new weirdness that I know of: Twitter dating. When I first heard about this, I was taken aback -- how would that even, like, work? I wondered. But whatever I might have imagined wasn't nearly as bizarre as what was described in a recent article from Reuters.
Basically, "Flitter" (flirting + twitter) parties bring together prospective singles equipped with smart phones in lounge-like settings. Everyone gets a white tag with a number (rather than a name, I think). When an individual is interested in someone, they Tweet a flirtation which is then projected on a large screen at the front of the room, which they can sign with their number or post anonymously. After some circling and confirmation, some people actually end up talking to one another. The Reuters article quoted one attendee who explained, "It allows people who are a little more shy to put themselves out there," which is one of the virtues of online dating generally.
But as with more run-of-the-mill online dating schemes, Flitter can only be a very limited means to an end -- two people (or more, hey) meeting and interacting in actual physical space-time proximity through their true corporeal beings. And this is a real problem: I have talked to any number of people who expressed disappointment with online dating, focusing on occasions when "things were going really well" during the digital interface, but then fell apart during the face-to-face meeting. Whatever the cause of the social turbulence (and there are myriad possible reasons, including wishful thinking, excessive neediness, dishonest photos or stats, over-composed, too-clever editorial content that can't possibly be lived up to in a real social situation, and/or sheer unannounced craziness on the part of one or both parties) the fact that these sorts of expectations form before people even meet is both understandable and potentially damaging.
Sure, it's human nature to be hopeful going into these situations, but frankly the extent of disappointment I hear about (anecdotally) sometimes make me afraid people are unwittingly allowing social media to colonize parts of their interior emotional life which should be reserved for "real" people, i.e., people you have met face to face. I wonder if this will happen more often as time goes on? Or maybe it's just a peculiar affliction of people who came of age before social networking, and are therefore more vulnerable (myself included)? Meaning, teens who grow up with online dating and social networks will naturally form suitable emotional defenses, sort of like people of my generation learned to tune out TV advertising which our elders found intrusively insistent? I'd be interested to hear what other people think, and what their perceptions and experiences of social networking and online dating have been.