The easiest kind of relationship is with ten thousand people, the hardest is with one.
-- Joan Baez
Even though the Internet can put one in touch with millions of people and foster increased communication, an issue to examine is its feasibility as a tool for building the singular romantic relationship. Two conflicting visions have dominated popular and academic debate -- that relationships developed on the Internet are either shallow, impersonal, and hostile, or are capable of liberating interpersonal relations from the confines of physical locality and creating opportunities for new, but genuine personal relationships and communities (Parks & Floyd, 1996). Though these visions represent the extremes of the spectrum, they both arise from considerations about how technology affects behaviors and patterns of communication.
Technology has been shown to have some positive influences for individuals who face barriers to initiating relationships, but it remains to be seen whether it has similar posiive effects in cultivating the development of romantic relationships at all phases. Because success at different stages of romantic development depend on different factors, how technology interacts with these factors will be explored. The following table lists some of the factors relevent to different stages along the spectrum of the development of romantic relationships.
According to research conducted by Parks et al., electronic mediums can be useful in the development of relationships in their early stages. Parks et al. examined the relational world created by Internet discussion groups (newsgroups) in particular, and found that 61 percent of those interviewed reported forming a new personal relationship via the newsgroup. Predictors of whether an individual formed such a relationship were the frequency and duration of newsgroup participation. Parks et al. notes, "Online relationships often reached high levels of relational development and broadened to include interaction in other channels and settings."
This research points to the utility of technology in fostering a good environment for the development of relationships in their early stages. First, the anonymity provided by the Internet allows individuals to engage initially without my risk, while the return may be substantial if a fulfilling relationship results from the interaction. Further, technology has made communication, especially across long distances, cheaper and more convenient. As Parks et al. also notes, relationships often developed to the stage where shared interests are explored, and interaction at this stage starts to move from cyberspace to real space.
If we examine the latter half of the development spectrum, however, we see that the factors related to the development of deeper romantic relationships are no longer assisted by technology. Although some people claim to have found ideal mates online and to have cultivated the relationship electronically, the perspective that such relationships are shallow or impersonal are likely based on the fact that the factors relating to the successful development of deeper romantic relationships are not fostered by electronic communication. One can hardly imagine cybersex ever being a truly fulfilling substitute for physical intimacy. When a relationship advances to a certain stage, electronic communication must of necessity give way to personal contact in order for the development to continue. The utility of technology in building romantic relationships can thus be seen as inversely proportional to how deep the relationship is.
In considering the ethical implications of technology on relationship building, it becomes vital to consider the utility of technology at the different stages of romantic development. For individuals who are not within close proximity or who do not have the means to interact in person, the use of the Internet to find romance may end up being a fruitless pursuit. As such, the Internet ought to be viewed simply as a tool to expand one's network on a surface level, and not as a rich source for romantic interaction. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but many may ultimately find only disappointment if they don't approach the use of the technology in building romantic relationships with the proper perspective.