I'm starting to think that Internet romances, including Mark Sanford's, are not romances between people at all. They're affairs with the Internet. Watch people who are newly in love, especially any kind of love that requires that the participants keep stealthy and apart, and they're all over their iPhones and Palm Pres. It's P.D.A. with P.D.A.'s. Romance seems to have become an online multiplayer fantasy-adventure game, no less thrilling than World of Warcraft, and open to all ages.
Ignore the lame jokes (from the Maureen Dowd school of technological humor), and she kind of has a point. The Internet, whether you use it to meet or just correspond with a partner, and whether said correspondence is adulterous or not, provides a whole new platform for romance. It allows lovers to communicate with far more frequency and granularity than physical dating affords. You might only see someone once a week — especially if you're not supposed to be seeing them — but in that time you can exchange thousands of e-mails, IMs, and Facebook messages (does anyone really flirt via Twitter?).
These modes of electronic communication don't just augment a relationship — they create a whole new relationship, parallel to and existing apart from any actual face-time. Anybody with both a computer and a heart has probably known someone who sends really charming e-mails but is a dud in person, and anyone who grew up with the Internet has probably had a few IM-only friends or more-than-friends. As Sadie points out, a correspondence can be as exciting as a meet-cute story, and Heffernan notes that frequent e-mailers tends to fall into a certain simpatico groove with one another.
But are they really "with one another"? Or are they just in a relationship with their chosen medium? Maybe a little of both. I know that when I'm stressed out, I find myself checking my e-mail the way others might reach for a cigarette, and I know that online communication itself can satisfy other cravings as well. Getting a lot of e-mail can make you feel successful and desired in a different way than locking eyes with a crush; quickly crafting a witty IM that you can refer back to later is different than simply telling a joke. Especially with the advent of Google's saved chats feature, all my online correspondence can now be archived forever. Critics say the Internet is ephemeral, but the typed word is now more indelible than the spoken one, and lovers can carry on a romance with their inboxes long after the actual affair has ended.
Of course, where there's a new platform for love, there's also a new platform for hate. People are notoriously willing to say things in, say, blog comments that they'd never voice to someone's face, and one reason advice columnists tell you not to break up with someone via e-mail is that it's so (comparatively) easy. The Internet divorces us from the human reality of our interlocutors — we are names typing at names. As such, it's easy to respond to the smallest slight with a burst of vitriol, and to care more about how many followers we have than about whether we've hurt someone's feelings. So has the Internet simply freed us up to express our true enmity for one another? Or have email and blogs and message boards and Twitter actually created a new hatred, a hatred for what other people become when they're no longer forced to deal with us physically, but also for what we've become, and for the medium that has transformed all of us? Is what we have with the Internet a love affair or a hatefuck? Again, maybe a little bit of both.
Love, Virtually [New York Times]