It sounds harmless enough. You’re nervous before a big date and don’t want the conversation to dry up, so you tap your date’s name into a search engine to see what comes up.
A quick online background check can even do some good: in 2004, US fugitive LaShawn Pettus-Brown spent a romantic evening with FBI agents after a woman he had arranged to meet for a date came across his name through Google. But playing online private eye can cause problems, too. The things you learn through internet investigations could trick your brain into thinking you know someone better than you actually do, which might lead to putting yourself in an unusually dangerous situation. Alternatively, you may have to spend an entire date concentrating on not revealing your prior research so you don’t seem like some sort of cyber-stalker.
But the biggest reason why you shouldn’t delve too deeply into search results is that it could ruin a relationship before it even begins. “It’s inevitable that people are going to google,” says Dr Todd Essig, a psychoanalyst who specialises in the psychology of emerging technologies. “But you have to put a limit on it because one of the joys of going on that first date is the pleasure of discovering something new.” As well as missing those magic moments, Essig says that the back-and-forth exchange of personal information helps people relax and tell each other about themselves. “Self-disclosure breeds more self-disclosure. If you know it already, that whole process gets interrupted. Too much googling will result in extremely awkward first dates.”
Should I share my relationship status?
Facebook profiles let you reveal your ‘relationship status’, with a list of six options that includes ‘single’, ‘married’ and ‘it’s complicated’. This itself can get complicated. Accidental change can cause confusion, alerting friends to a non-existent break-up, while some changes have even proven fatal: at least three British women have been murdered by their partners after switching their relationship status to ‘single’.
Such hazards make some people loath to disclose this information. Others see sharing relationship status as a reflection of their real world relationship – a new partner might interpret not wanting to share your status as a lack of commitment. According to psychoanalyst Dr Todd Essig, whether or not you should share this information depends on who’s in your network: “If your social circle are mostly work colleagues, you might not want to use your relationship status as a guide to what’s going on.” Your decision might also depend on what you use Facebook for – if you’re young, free and single, you might want to broadcast your availability.
But Essig warns that online social networks don’t fully reflect real interactions. “Relationship status on Facebook is just a category in a database,” he says. ‘It’s complicated’, for example, can apply to both married and unmarried people. “These technologies are just tools to let us love who we want,” says Essig. “if we get too involved in the technology then we lose sight of that.”
Is cybersex really cheating?
In 2008, a British woman filed for divorce after she discovered her husband having a virtual affair in the online role-playing game Second Life. Amy Taylor, who played the game in the guise of alter-ego DJ Laura Skye, decided to split from husband David Pollard after catching his avatar (Dave Barmy) cuddling and chatting affectionately with another woman on a virtual sofa. Taylor told newspapers: “It may have started online, but it existed in the real world and it hurts just as much. His was the ultimate betrayal. He had been lying to me.”
Psychoanalyst Dr Todd Essig warns that cybersex shouldn’t be considered innocuous and meaningless: “It depends on the intimacy, intensity, frequency and emotional meaning of the cybersex experience and how that fits into a couple’s understanding of the boundaries of their relationship.” He points out that physical affairs don’t constitute infidelity for people in open relationships, while for other couples, even flirting is considered cheating.
“Cybersex runs the gamut of sexy email exchanges to interactive porn – and it can be within a relationship as well,” Essig points out.
What should I put in my profile?
With millions of people now using online dating sites, how do you stand out from the crowd? Firstly, be original when you specify interests and hobbies. Do you “read books” or is War and Peace your favourite novel? Secondly, back up your claims. If you’re supposed to be funny, your writing should make others laugh. Thirdly, keep your profile balanced. Say enough to pique their interest without providing so much of your life story that they won’t need to meet you in person.
You also need an eye-catching photo so your potential paramour clicks through to your carefully-crafted profile. OKCupid, a free dating site run by Harvard maths graduates, recently used data from members to dispel myths about profile pictures. “The most interesting finding was the value of authenticity,” says OKCupid co-founder Sam Yagan. “Often, those photos that look most natural – taken with a cell phone or webcam – work best.”
It’s also worse to smile: women who made eye contact with a ‘flirty face’ got more messages, while men should have a serious expression and look away. Showing some skin – cleavage for girls and muscular abs for boys – also seems to work.