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Cyberspace Romance: The Psychology of Online Relationships

Author: Monica Whitty, Adrian Carr
Publisher: Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
Review Published: March 2008

 REVIEW 1: Rhiannon Bury
 REVIEW 2: Michele Hammers

The romantic potential of computer-mediated communication (CMC) became part of the Western popular imagination with the release of the 1998 film, You've Got Mail. Business rivals in real life, the characters, played by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, unknowingly meet in a chat room and over time become soul mates offline. Although the cover of Cyberspace Romance evokes a similar romantic narrative with an image of two computer mice with their cords entangled in a heart shape, Monica Whitty and Adrian Carr deftly discuss a range of aspects also associated with online relationships, including deception, harassment, and infidelity. They also tackle a range of forms of online engagement from flirtation to cybersex in various online environments from MUDs to online dating sites.

They begin with a survey of theories from the late 1980s and early 1990s that attempt to explain differences between face-to-face communication and CMC and the perceived effects of the latter, some positive but most negative, on social relationships. Eschewing approaches that emphasize a rigid distinction between the real and the virtual and that celebrate or bemoan the supposed experience of disembodiment in cyberspace, Whitty and Carr argue that the cyber-world is a place of play: "This can be liberating for those anxious about forming relationships offline. However, the freedom of cyberspace can be problematic for some -- especially when they venture too far into the realms of fantasy" (28). As psychologists subscribing to psychodynamic theory, the authors do not mean "play" in the usual sense of a light-hearted or fun activity. They draw primarily on the work of object-relations theorist David Winnicott, who advocates the separation of play from ordinary life while emphasizing its rules and its seriousness. Whitty and Carr see cyberspace as operationalizing the "potential space" in which such play takes place.

The authors deserve credit for recognizing that readers will not necessarily have a background in psychology and so they present their theoretical framework clearly and succinctly in Chapters 3 and 4. In Chapters 5 and 6, they provide concrete examples of relational play from previous studies, including their own, as well as from news stories. The emphasis, though, is not on the liberatory aspects but rather "cyber-cheating" and deviance. Whitty's 2003 study on attitudes towards online infidelity, for example, showed that while distinctions were made between cybersex and surfing the web for porn, "real life" sex and cybersex were placed in the same category of infidelity. At the same time, differences between online and off line affairs were noted, such as the relative ease in carrying on the latter and the relative amount of control. Her study also attended to gender differences, with more women being upset about the emotional betrayal of an online infidelity than men. Chapter 6 begins with the cautionary tale of the "Numa Numa Dancer" -- the bespectacled, chubby, young Russian who placed a clip of himself on the web lip-synching and bouncing along in his chair to a Romanian pop song. The clip spread like wildfire, fanned by the major American news media. The moment of international celebrity that is the dream of every American Idol wannabe turned out to be a nightmare of humiliation and ridicule for this shy man. Whitty and Carr provide interesting commentary on so-called "internet addiction," arguing that no solid empirical evidence exists to support the theory, as well as cyber-stalking and sexual harassment.

Chapter 7 is the strongest in the book because it addresses the central theme of romance most directly and because it is solely based on a new case study by Whitty on an online dating site. She interviewed over 60 members of the largest online dating site in Australia. Her findings do not reflect the progression model that states online relationships gradually shift to become offline. As Whitty notes, people go to dating sites with the intention of seeking out a "real life" relationship, whether casual or long term, and therefore 65% reported a face-to-face meet up within a week of initializing online contact. Given the importance of what participants described as "physical chemistry," many felt that getting to know a potential romantic or sexual partner online was pointless and could lead to an uncomfortable first meeting. Whitty discusses at length issues of misrepresentation in the profiles posted to the site. Male participants reported at least one meet-up where their female dates turned out to be heavier and "uglier" than indicated by their profiles; similarly, women reported their male dates often turned out to be shorter and balder. Whitty also points out that the rules of play are also very much in line with gender norms, men expecting and being expected to pay for the costs the site charges for email communication between participants to give one example.

Cyberspace Romance is a strong publication overall; nonetheless, there are a few problems worth noting. First, the focus is not always sharp enough. While the authors should not be restricted to a discussion of romance in the narrow sense, they tend to bend the stick too far the other way, in a few chapters adding issues not related to online relationships but what they vaguely refer to as "online relating." The "Numa Numa Dancer" story is a case in point. While interesting, these instances are not dealt in much depth and seem like filler as a result. Other sections, by contrast, are more topical yet are underdeveloped. "Rape in Cyberspace" (discussed on page 120) is a scant paragraph and only contains a thin recounting of the Lambda Moo incident so nicely dealt with by Julian Dibbell (1996) in his article from which their section title was borrowed.

Finally, the book's strength in clearly drawing on and explaining psychological theories is also a weakness in terms of broad audience appeal. While I have noted that readers do not need a background in psychology, some chapters, particularly Chapter 4, "Object Engagement and Dysfunctional Aspects of Relating Online," and Chapter 8, "Characters and Archetypes Online" may be of little interest to those outside the discipline. Moreover, academics who engage with critical social theory -- feminist, postmodern, poststructuralist, Marxist and even psychoanalytic (Lacanian) -- may find some of the interpretations through this essentially positivist, modernist lens overly simplistic or merely descriptive. For example, there are numerous references to one's "real" self or one's "inner" self, the notion of a coherent, authentic self left unchallenged. Judith Butler's (1990) theory of gender performance would have been useful in working through Whitty's data on the dating service participants' multiple representations of self as well as to probe more deeply into the connections between gender norms, heterosexism, and power relations. I would have liked to have seen the heteronormativity of online dating sites critically interrogated or at least the inclusion of studies of gay/lesbian/queer dating sites and online relationships. After all, the gender ambiguity of the entangled computer mice on the cover left the door open to such an investigation.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Dibbell, J. (1996). A rape in cyberspace; or how an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards, and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society. In P. Ludlow (Ed.), High Noon on the electronic frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace (pp. 375-395). Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Rhiannon Bury:
Rhiannon Bury is Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at Athabasca University, Canada's Open University. Her book, Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online (2005) was published by Peter Lang as part of the Digital Formations series, edited by Steve Jones. She has articles on Six Feet Under internet fandom in the forthcoming collections: It's Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era, edited by Leverette, Ott, & Buckley (New York: Routledge) and New Directions in American Reception Study, edited by Machor and Goldstein (New York: Oxford University Press).  <rbury@athabascau.ca>

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