I used to troll dating sites for sport. A combination of boredom, morbid fascination, and frustration at my own inability to effectively communicate online led me to hop from one to another in a halfhearted attempt to find the Rosetta Stone that would allow me to decipher the strange scribbles these members left in their profiles.
I doubted the sites' sincerity, and I doubted the veracity of their claims. Their success rates I called inflated; their "matches" I was sure were paid actors. But more than that, I doubted that humanity was capable of creating an institution of romantic value in a medium so impersonal, so dehumanizing.
In retrospect, I think we may have built better than we knew.
For all the talk about the speed of humanity's technological juggernaut, the Internet as a bastion of Wild West ethos is far older than it has any right to be. It grows, it expands, it incorporates previously non-networked functions and engulfs real estate in the landscape of modern life, but it never heeds any code save its own. Google may help you find it, Apple may help it look pretty, and Microsoft may help it actually work, but none of them can force it toward civility.
A strange thing happened in the wake of our inability to rein in the Internet's conscience. Instead of trying to change the idea of the Internet as digital lawlessness, the newest generation of adults accepts that as unchangeable—and then proceeds to ignore it.
These are the first natural-born Internet residents, a people unafraid of the deep end because they refuse to see it as deep. Once, they would have reset the clock on grandma's VCR. Now, they help grandma set up her Facebook account. "Yeah, it's dangerous out there," they say. "It always has been. Why should that stop us?"
Of course Internet dating would fall before them. Just like the very Internet itself, what was solely the domain of the social pariah a decade ago is now the norm for the vanguard of a new generation smart enough to see its potential without attaching a social stigma to its use.
It has become, inevitably, the latest iteration of the same song and dance. Legerdemains once built through courtship are now constructed in "About Me" sections. They message back and forth, exchanging various handles and progressing through a series of increasingly personal communications protocols. Proprietary site-based notes give way to e-mails give way to instant messages give way to SMS and the promised land of their elders, the phone call.
Slowly, imperceptibly (and against all their forebears' expectations), they get to know each other. By the time they decide to meet in person, the progression is as natural as any of the harebrained mating rituals conceived in the last few hundred years. They take it as seriously (or as not) as their parents took blind dates. It's another option… and sometimes, it works.
I say this as someone whose very neural pathways were once carved from living brain in the name of the Most Holy Pessimism, someone whose once-rebellious synapses shrugged, their protests muted, when such a situation came to make all the sense in the world. I know this because I lived it.
I met her on the Internet. (She saw through my overwrought, cynical prose, but thought it cute.) We danced this dance step for step, and after that there was a movie, some candy, and a restaurant she didn't like. (Sorry, Tomato Head. I tried.) She invited me home to play her Nintendo 64. I thought it was a euphemism for something entirely more adult (or at least a way to impress Mr. Game Review Guy) until she laid waste to me at Super Smash Bros. I called foul—that controller was two generations old, after all—but more than a year later, I'm still hooked.
She's fearless, a firebrand, a mistress of her domain. I'm a hardware guy; it's easier for me to build a network than to give it a purpose. She effortlessly glides where I stumble blindly; to her, practical application, my most ancient nemesis, is as leaves in the wind. I couldn't figure out the whys to save my ass, but breathing life into the digital void comes naturally—humblingly so—to her.
I don't love her because she can generate more page views than me, of course, but therein is an intrinsic truth. She reminds me that for all my self-appointed expertise, there's always something new and wonderful around the corner, and I'd better be quick on the uptake if I don't want to miss it. She inspires me, for that and a thousand other reasons.
One day, my generation will lament the loss of its love letters to the eventual corruption of the ones and zeroes which comprise their source code. I have a fallback for that, and you're reading it. If all my accounts are deleted and all my e-mails purged, if Verizon cancels my cell phone and sends thugs to delete all the text messages I've ever sent, if all the servers in the world crash and burn and every length of cable on Earth is stripped and sold for scrap copper, I'll have had the sense to get this one down on paper:
Katie, I love you. Will you marry me?