Love Bytes

"Love Online: Emotions on the Internet" by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, Cambridge University Press, 302 pages, $15.75

"Love Online: Emotions on the Internet" by Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, Cambridge University Press, 302 pages, $15.75

Surveys in the past few weeks have revealed that Israel has 3.2 million Internet surfers, 2.6 million of whom log on every day. The influence of the Web is visible wherever you look: in media consumption habits, in communication in general and also in the realm of romance and relationships. That is the subject of "Love On-Line" by Prof. Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, rector of the University of Haifa.

Ben-Ze'ev writes about love of all kinds on the Internet: on-line romances, on-line flirtation, on-line love and, of course, cybersex. From the outset, he presents his rationale for devoting a whole book to relationships that develop over the Internet: "The appearance of computer-mediated communication has introduced a new type of discourse and consequently a new type of personal relationship has developed."

To prove this thesis, Ben-Ze'ev begins by exploring the basic features of the Web. In the first chapter of the book, he writes about the surfer's ability to remain anonymous, about the atmosphere of desirability that the Web creates, which is very hard to replicate in ordinary circumstances, and so on. In certain respects, he writes, "surfing the net is similar to using drugs."

Analyzing emotions such as love, intimacy, happiness, regret and shame, Ben-Ze'ev shows how they are expressed on the Internet and how they are sometimes changed by it. The Web, for example, allows surfers to break off ties with the on-line partner and disappear without a trace - something much more difficult to do in the "real world."

Ben-Ze'ev offers some interesting insights. He compares, for instance, "love at first sight" and "love at first chat." Are we talking about the same thing? Is falling in love from the first chat really possible? Ben-Ze'ev writes that this kind of love is based on a "personality cult" in which someone who has certain good qualities is assumed to have others. To illustrate this, Ben-Ze'ev provides quotes from people who say they fell in love with an on-line partner from their very first conversation. He uses this effective strategy throughout the book, which is interspersed with hundreds of quotes (some of them quite charming) from people talking about their on-line experiences.

He goes on to analyze the power of emotions in on-line relationships. "The great intensity of cyberlove and the fact that there are many millions of people populating cyberspace lead those who fall in love on the Net to feel as if their meeting was a miracle: a precious gift that God sent or evidence that they were destined to be together." This is a wonderful gloss on the human condition, but one cannot help feeling that it could be just as true for two people who meet on a trek in the Far East.

Obvious point

Despite the interesting analysis it offers, the book suffers from two major flaws. The first is a tendency toward repetition. The importance of the written word in on-line relationships is discussed over and over. This is a well-taken point, but fairly obvious: Because the relationship is based on a written exchange, the vocabulary of the writers, their ability to show passion, their imagination and the mood they convey are all supremely important. Those who are not skilled writers are less likely to find themselves partners over the Internet.

Ben-Ze'ev comes back to this argument countless times in the course of the book. "In online affairs, every activity consists essentially of verbal communication," he writes. A whole sub-chapter is devoted to levels of communicative ability. Someone is quoted as saying "I can't even begin to describe how annoying it is when people can't spell basic words correctly ... My god, it is so irritating. I would never correspond with a person who makes those kind of mistakes." A few pages later, we read, a fertile imagination and a good vocabulary are very helpful. Toward the end of the book, Ben-Ze'ev seems to go back to the beginning, comparing cyberlove to offline love : A net-romance differs from an ordinary relationship, he says, in that external appearance is less important whereas personality traits conveyed through verbal communication become over-important.

Oddly, Ben-Ze'ev never elaborates upon an anecdote about a Canadian woman who left her husband after falling in love with an American she met over the Internet. Later, she went back to her husband when he began to correspond with her over the Internet. What a marvelous story - and the perfect illustration of the point with which Ben-Ze'ev keeps knocking us over the head. If he had added a few more details, he could have spared the reader all that boring repetition about the verbal dimension of on-line love.

The second problem is timing. Anyone with any interest in the field will feel a sense of deja-vu upon reading this book. A click on Amazon will turn up dozens of books on the subject of on-line love and relationships. Here is a partial list: "Virtual Foreplay," "Affairs of the Net," "Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub," "The Rules for Online Dating," "Meeting and Mating and Cheating," "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Dating and Relating." And that does not include dozens, if not hundreds, of master's theses and doctoral dissertations written on this subject all over the world.

Most of the books have been written over the last two or three years. The first ones were published in the mid-1990s. If Ben-Ze'ev had published his book seven or eight years ago, it would have been a textbook on the subject. Today, there is almost nothing new in it from a research perspective. This doesn't bother him. In an interview with Haaretz's Hebrew "Captain Internet" supplement, he said he was very happy when people tell him his book doesn't have anything new to say: "That means that what I've written is accurate, which is exactly what I wanted to do. My goal was to convey the experience of on-line love as reliably as possible." Hence this book will be of interest mainly to those who have experienced an on-line relationship and are seeking some theoretical explanation of what they have gone through.

With all the research that has been done, however, Ben-Ze'ev manages to surprise us in the last two chapters. In Chapter 9, he explores cheating, cyber-sex and on-line romance. Is dirty talk late into the night cheating on the husband sitting in the living room? When does a text on a computer screen become a pretext for divorce? Even if the author does not have an answer to all of these questions, he phrases them in a thought-provoking manner.

Yuval Dror is a journalist and a Ph.D. student in history and philosophy of science at Bar-Ilan University.