You've seen the old black and white movies. Boy meets girl, boy decides to woo girl, boy asks girl's father for permission... and so on and so forth. The mating ritual has seen major evolutionary changes over the course of history. And now, with the advent of technology, another species of romance has evolved:
Few technologies have enjoyed as explosive and continuous growth as the Internet. It didn't take long for people to look past its novelty and see the enormous potential that it offered. Clients in Japan? Forget long, expensive phone calls! Send an email instead. Relatives you've fallen sadly behind with? With an Instant Messenger program you can sit and chat every day with Aunt Melba.
This person-to-person connection defies geographical distances. It was only a matter of time before people looked beyond the people they knew, and started talking to strangers around the world. While chatting online began very early on, with people chatting through systems such as Usenet1, and IRC2, it was still a fairly small segment of the online population doing so. It didn't take long though, for chat rooms to become all the rage; a group of cyber-strangers sitting around discoursing about... well, Life, the Universe, and Everything. It's no secret that chat rooms and online communities have great allure - they provide people with a comfortable escape from their 3D lives, and if it ever becomes hairy or uncomfortable, they can walk away with few consequences.
So with this comfort and familiarity and lack of inhibition, people began reaching out and touching people all over the world. In a time of hectic schedules and hard work, for some people this became one of few ways that people were able to steal a moment of human interaction.
So how did romance come into the picture? Consider that most chat rooms and communities are interest-oriented. You might belong to a Cat Lovers chat, or a Chocolate Haters Community, or an online neighbourhood devoted mainly to your favourite author. One of the most successful ingredients for romance is common interests.
Also consider the ease in 'editing' an online persona. Online, no one has to know that there's been a bowl of pudding sitting in your refrigerator since before the Berlin Wall fell. No one can see the bills piled up on your desk, or the fact that you've drunk 14 pots of coffee in the last 24 hours. You can easily leave out the less savoury aspects of your life, and focus on your great wit, or romantic prose, or your vast knowledge of tin openers. What better way to attract a mate?
Does this mean it's impossible to know someone through online contact? Not entirely. If you spend enough time talking to a person, eventually you can come away with at least enough knowledge that you could compare to a 3D couple that has gone through a month or two of dating. Because even in 'Real Life', the initial courting period is fraught with convenient editing. No one shows off their flaws off the bat; at least not intentionally. But in the long run, there is only one way to know if your relationship can stand the test: meeting face to face.
One of the perils of the Internet is that it is very easily accessible to almost anyone living in a civilised country (and even some who aren't). With the appearance of Internet cafes, library computers and the like, anyone who has a desire to can steal a few moments online. Equal access means that anyone, from nun to sociopath, can get online. And how could you tell the difference? This adds an imperative degree of caution to any online relationship, romantic or otherwise. What steps can you take to make sure you're as safe as possible?
Sharing of Information
It's possible to maintain a degree of anonymity online. However once friendships and romances start blossoming, a natural outgrowth of that is to start sharing information. Be it telephone numbers, addresses or even details about family members, just the smallest amount of information can be enough for someone to find out everything there is to know about you. If you've any doubt whatsoever as to a person's reliability, or motives, before handing out personal details, then don't. This Researcher's approach, when asked for such information, is to ask for the same information in kind. If asked for a telephone number, this Researcher will instead ask for theirs, and initiate the first phone call. Footing the bill for a phone call is a small price to pay to ensure one's safety.
Meeting in Real Life
First and foremost rule of safety - tell someone. Tell a friend or family member where you're going, when you're going, and who you're going to meet. Leave with them as much information on the person you're going to meet as you have - phone numbers, addresses, etc. This might sound hideously distrustful, but if the person you're meeting is honest and trustworthy, they should understand completely (and hopefully, have taken the same measures).
The next highly important rule is to meet in public. Perhaps arrange a dinner in a restaurant, or coffees at a cafe. Some place certain to be inhabited with people. The larger, open setting might also help to set you at ease for this initial contact. Take your time, get to know each other, and use discriminating judgment to decide where things progress from there.
These warnings extended, Internet Romance is beginning to lose its stigma quickly. It is now being recognised as not only acceptable, but increasingly common. Just as in any other relationship situation, some will fail, and some will blossom beautifully. With a healthy dose of judgment, discretion and precaution, you can build rewarding relationships and long-lasting romances as well as you can out in the real world.