When Strangers Click: from The Annals of Online Dating

Arlene Goldbard

"Surveys show that in the online dating world, women are afraid of meeting a serial killer. Men are afraid of meeting someone fat."

That's a quote from When Strangers Click: Five Stories from The Internet, a new non-fiction film premiering on HBO on Valentine's Day.

Despite the gender-based disproportion (after all, one dread entails mortal danger, the other merely a matter of taste), both types of trepidation make it clear that in the ever-enlarging tapestry of online relationship, the warp and woof are desire and fear.

Desire can speak for itself: boundless, ubiquitous, self-generating, ever-renewing. The film makes clear that by expanding the pool of potential mates beyond anything possible in real life, online dating has at last fulfilled the truth captured in my late grandmother's favorite saying: "Every pot has its cover."

But at a price. The fear that permeates online dating has a special character, precisely because of the anonymity, concealment, and outright deception that are infinitely easier to accomplish on the internet than in the realm those who live online describe as "RL." Yes, you guessed it: real life, in contrast to the vast and remarkable world of imaginary landscapes, meeting-places, and avatars known as Second Life (SL).

The film features five stories:

Kim, who packed a wedding gown and flew to Prague to marry a man she had never spoken to.
Dave, who met scores of women before having to reveal a physical shortcoming.
Beth, who nearly gave up on love before going online at age 30.
Ryan, who Googled “gay” and received a big surprise.
Jonas, whose real life was changed forever when he entered the world of Second Life.

Only the last segment takes place in Second Life, but perhaps because that environment permits such extravagant alteration of identity, it stands out as the most important to the film. It details the love story of Jonas Tancred (a middle-aged Swede who retires to a rural island with his mother, then enters Second Life as the avatar Bara Jonson, a nightclub owner and popular SL musician), and Beth Hayes, aka Nickel Borrelly (a younger American woman who advises Bara on his career, "marries" him in Second Life—and eventually has a child with him in RL). With Beth/Nickel's guidance, Jonas/Bara develops a large SL following, playing daily gigs in virtual night spots and ampitheaters, becoming the first SL singer to be offered an RL recording contract, proffered by an avatar with a white Mohawk so enormous, he would have trouble walking upright in RL.

If you are on Facebook (more than 500 million people are active users), you can visit the film's page, where dozens of people have posted their own stories of online dating. "I met my partner in SL in 2009 and we are now living together in RL," wrote one. "In a world where everyone can look great, it really comes down to emotional and true compatibility connections," another said. And a third: "To know somebody on an intellectual level before things ever become physical is amazing. You get to know the ins and outs ...of the person."

If physicality is as irrelevant to online attraction as so many SLers claim, then why not choose a generic avatar, one that obviates the whole question of appearance? Imagine SL populated with deeply fascinating characters with smiley faces, or blank masks with question marks where the features ought to be. But from every SL experience I've observed, the dominant impulse seems to be the opposite.

Whether an avatar's creator is one of the gray-flannel buttoned up professors I've seen delivering SL-flavored presentations at academic conference (lecturing, for instance, on the educational value of a virtual period house erected as part of an architecture class), or people like Jonas/Bara and Beth/Nickel, seeking love and fame in a world more receptive than RL, the result is likely to be slim, statuesque, with exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics, big hair, and attire somewhere on an aesthetic spectrum ranging from rockstar, hooker, or fairy princess to space ranger. If appearance doesn't matter in this world where intellectual and emotional compatibility precede physical attraction, why does every avatar need to look quite so elaborately gorgeous, overripe to the bursting point?

In RL, for instance, Jonas is a kind and tired-looking man of middle age with gray hair and a paunch. In SL, he's Bara, a twenty-something, well-muscled, spike-haired avatar. Watching his SL romance with Beth/Nickel, whose own online self-portrait bears not the slightest resemblance to her real appearance, is slightly voyeuristic, like watching two psyches stripped bare to the id. But evidently, the self-consciousness is all in the eyes of the beholder. The participants seem purely thrilled with their virtual selves, and unembarrassed by the gap between RL and SL identity.

Although the other four stories take place in RL, the same questions of appearance and concealment or deception arise. Dave, the subject of the second segment, began to go online in the early 1990s as a way to meet women without succumbing to his offline shyness. "What I wanted," he says, "was to be unseen, because I'm short. I'm very short. I'm a five-foot tall guy. The internet has been a place where I've been able to hide that, or to delay that reality from coming out. Be invisible and be heard at the same time."

Dave tells story after story of meeting women online who turned out to be poor matches on account of his physicality or theirs: despite his feeling of being unfairly handicapped by women's response to his stature, he rejects possible partners because they are overweight. Like almost all the stories, his has a happy ending: he met the right woman, they married, they have a child. Another segment recounts the story of Kim, a Jersey girl whose online suitor concealed the fact that his English vocabulary consisted of a single word, "Hello." Nevertheless, four days after Kim flew to visit him in Prague, they were married, and now their New Jersey household includes their four children.

Most of these online stories make a similar impression: that if deception is sustained long enough and convincingly enough to allow a sense of trust to take root, the deceived and deceiver (sometimes the same person) will overlook it. The magic ingredient seems to be time: given enough time to form an attachment, apparently, all will be forgiven.

So do the happy endings justify everything? I wish the film had included give-and-take between the protagonists. Most of them seemed slightly amused and slightly amazed at the uncanny fact of their relationships. Speaking in retrospect, they are comfortably philosophical about what it took to find the perfect match. The film poses implicit questions: is it okay to conceal or disguise one's least attractive features in hope of finding deeper love? Is SL as valid and satisfying as RL? And in this brave new world, whatever can be coming next? Perhaps these questions will be explored more deeply if and when the film becomes a series, as the producers hope.

For a further taste of Second Life, visit the destinations featured in When Strangers Click: high-end shops, a beachfront surf supply, the Eiffel Tower, and the Great Wall of China. At 6 pm Pacific Time on Sunday, February 5th, the director Robert Kenner (who made Food, Inc.) will be interviewed on a virtual reality talk show, Tonight Live With Paisley Beebe. I'm sure it will be archived if you miss the live event.

"It's a weird world," says Bara Jonson, but that feels like a huge understatement. I've learned a lot about online dating (and myself) from a few months of experimentation (go to my blog to see more). I wonder what I would have learned had I done it all in a parallel universe.

Consider that as the evergreen Bettye LaVette philosophizes on love's give and take, "Isn't It A Pity?"