This chapter now turns to the pros and cons of finding a romantic partner via an online dating site. It does so by paying particular attention to the five phases outlined above.

Flirting on the Net

As explained earlier, off-line flirting consists of a gamut of non-verbal behaviors. Moving through Givens’ phases partly requires an ability to care­fully orchestrate these gestures (e. g., amount and timing). Despite the absence ofthe physical body in cyberspace, individuals are able to cyberflirt (Whitty, 2003). As demonstrated, flirtation is evident in a number of the online dating phases.

In the first phase, people need to be quite strategic in their self-presentation. The advantage here (especially for the socially awkward and shy) is that this is achieved asynchronously—giving individuals ample time to consider how they might best present themselves (e. g., photos developed in photoshop, choice of screen name, and details about themselves). The disadvantage is that dif­ferent skills are required to the one’s traditionally used off-line. Some may be oblivious as to which presentation of self will lead to the best result. Cyberspace arguably provides a safer and more playful space for self-presentations (Whitty, 2003). While this has its advantages in other places online, if people are too creative with their online dating profiles (e. g., making themselves appear more physically attractive, younger, wealthier, more interesting), then although this might attract others in the first instance, it is far less likely that they will sustain interest. Having to deal with numerous rejections in the end can have a negative effort on the individuals’ self-esteem.

Flirtation continues in the second phase where individuals can send a flirtatious ‘form note’ through the site, often referred to as ‘winks’ or ‘kisses’. As described earlier, when people flirt face-to-face, they usually display an array of non-verbal behaviors that may or may not be interpreted as attraction. Figuring out whether the other person is mutually attracted and trying to capture another’s attention is part of the fun. Moreover, the end goal of flirting is not neces­sarily an attempt to form a relationship or even a sexual encounter. Online dating sites have obvi­ously added the ‘virtual flirt form note’ into their design as a way to mimic off-line flirtation. Send­ing a virtual kiss or a wink appears less intrusive than an e-mail. However, it is not as ambiguous as a display of non-verbal gestures in an off-line setting. Moreover, if people contact others on a dating site they do so in order that they can meet others to form a relationship with. The intentions are far less ambiguous compared to flirting in other places. Sending a virtual note is a clear message that the person is interested in another and holds some hope that a relationship might develop. Therefore, it is argued here that online dating sites’ attempts to mimic off-line flirting is still a little clunky and theoretically is not as effective as flirting in other situations (online or off-line).

One way around this problem might be to in­corporate flirtatious applications similar to those used by social networking sites. For instance, many of Facebook’s applications both enable and encourage flirtation—in a way that does not have to be construed as such. One can send friends virtual gifts (even virtual drinks). Gifts sent online do not have to signal attraction; however, if you were to give someone a physical gift off-line, such as flowers, a teddy bear or handcuffs, the intent would become more obvious. One can dedicate a song to someone online. A more obvious, but still playful application is comparing friends online. For example, this application asks which of two friends you would prefer to date—while this remains equivocal, it does present a flirta­tious cue to another. An individual can also send a friend a nomination for a virtual prize. Sending them a nomination for ‘the most likely to worship spongebob’ would not perhaps be perceived as flirtatious as ‘best looking male’, or ‘most likely to appear in playboy’.