Love and Identity in the Digital Age

From online dating to social media sites, the digital world provides new ways of interpreting love, monogamy, identity, and authenticity.

Manti Te’o is a clueless, brilliant, victimized, manipulative mastermind idiot. How dare he not meet the “girl” he was “in love with?” How could he possibly think that “tailoring” the accounts of his tragic online relationship, in which his distant girlfriend died the day of a big game, was okay? Could he really not know he was being fooled, and if he knew, could he not know it was wrong to conceal it from us, his millions of adoring fans? Jerk.

Well, you know: A jerk like us. The Manti Te’o story isn’t just another episode of the popular U.S. past time “build ’em up, tear ’em down,” of which I am an avid player. I still have pleasant memories of the glorious Brittney Spears age, not to mention the flashbacks I get from the Michael Jackson era and his bizarre redemption through ignoble death. What it is, instead, is a reflection of our own uncertainty and discomfort regarding technology and, dare I say it, love. The thing that we need to remember is that what defines love and sex has changed over the past few years alone, not to mention the past few decades. Let’s all fondly remember the media coverage of the Anthony Weiner scandal, which was both less and more vivid, incriminating, and absurd than “Cigargate.” Perhaps more importantly, what defines us has changed, as well. If you don’t carefully manage your personal identity, you’re probably not very good at networking. If you don’t carefully manage your online identity, you’re just asking for trouble. Even my students are slowly realizing that the images of themselves in string bikinis drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels whilst ungracefully straddling a “fireman’s” pole at a bar don’t belong on their Facebook profiles, and God help you if you think that online dating profiles have anything at all to do with the person who created it. The recent State Farm commercial might be my favorite play on that concept, but after all, who isn’t a sucker for French models?

The fact remains that somewhere around 20 percent of all relationships in the U.S. begin on a dating site, and if we expand that to Facebook we’re probably looking at another 10-20 percent, especially for people under the age of 35. This was the case even in 2008, according to a recent study at Oxford, and the numbers can only be higher now. People of all ages simply by human nature attempt to guide others’ perceptions of us, and that only becomes easier when our identities and realities become digital and easily altered. The beauty of Snapchat for many people, for instance, is that in theory images must be taken immediately (and so are “real” or “authentic”), and are deleted automatically to prevent mass-circulation. Of course, the fact that women in particular have been encouraged to hide or construct their physical, mental, and emotional realities for millennia (e.g., in Cosmopolitan magazine, as we see in Laurie Ouelette’s study on the topic) is almost beside the point.

Instead of claiming with authors in The Atlantic that online identities are threatening (or aren’t threatening) committed monogamy, or that it’s different because of the Internet, or that we’re just a changing demographic, we should be thinking about relationships and dating as very problematic cultural constructions. If we assume that monogamy is the norm, and if we assume that people want marriage or what children, then yes, probably increasing availability of partners that might suit our personal preferences (as opposed to, for instance, whoever happens to be near our age at church or in the fraternity-sorority mixer this weekend) will change how that occurs, and perhaps delay it. But what we see as we increase the standard of living and the education of populations is something far more interesting. Marriage numbers decrease, and age of marriage increases. Numbers of children decrease dramatically, with many couples (even including women! gasp!) deciding that having biological children might not be in their futures.

As scholars like Michael Warner argued about the gay marriage debate, marriage itself might be an antiquated perspective on relationships based in economic exchange and rural community, and perhaps the debate should move from “everyone should be able to get married!” to “why should any of us get married, and why on Earth does the government have anything to do with it?”

So maybe we should re-think the lessons of the Te’o story; maybe we shouldn’t focus on the pitfalls of online dating, or the audacity of ineptly manipulating a gullible and lazy news media. Maybe instead we should take a long look at how the fracturing of our identities in the digital age is actually allowing us to search for authenticity beyond geographic access or shared belief set, and expand the way we view the world and our place in it.

Ted Gournelos

Ted Gournelos

Ted Gournelos is a scholar of media and oppositional culture. His current research focuses on the cultural politics and social implications of digital culture. He is the author of Popular Culture and the Future of Politics, A Decade of Dark Humor, and Transgression 2.0.