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Julia Stiles Headshot

Love in the Time of Technology

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"Who could refrain, that had a heart to love? And in that heart, courage to... text message?"

I met a young couple recently, in the throes of their newly formed love affair. The kind where they can't keep their hands of each other, tipsy in their own bubble of pheromones. I asked how they met, because I love those stories. The wicked part of me is rapt watching a couple squirm, or swoon, if the stories are different. Two people can reveal so much in the retelling of their early memories. When "boy meets girl" doesn't match "girl meets boy," how they treat each other in front of an audience is the key. I also relish the stuff of old movies -- unexpected love-at-first-sight, spontaneous eye contact on the subway, and stolen kisses in a rainstorm. If you scripted it, you'd win a Razzie.

This particular couple met on Facebook, sort of. A friend of the Dude wanted to set him up, but before this Dude could commit to a blind date, he had to see what the Chick looked like. And so, Facebook to the rescue! It all worked out in the end, and the Chick even giggled proudly at the origins of her spring romance.

It's customary now for people to exchange social media accounts instead of phone numbers, even if there is romantic interest. It's less risky, too. Becoming a Facebook friend or a Twitter follower doesn't reveal too much about anyone's intentions. Courtship in the virtual world allows for a somewhat imaginary exchange, full of connection and surprise, but always at a distance. The more communication via text message outnumbers actual physical encounters, the more conceptual the interaction becomes. We are essentially talking to little blue and green cartoon bubbles on a screen, and our memory of the person at the other end.

I sometimes wonder what life would have been like for my grandparent's generation, had they been able to court each other online. Back in the 1950s, Sylvia Plath, poet and ill-fated wife of Ted Hughes, famously bit his cheek upon their first encounter at a party. That kind of passion couldn't possibly be captured with a mobile device, but I imagine the flirtatious exchange that would follow; "How's the cheek?" accompanied by a winking emoticon. ;)

As of two years ago, I was reluctant to join Facebook. (We've since had a honeymoon that ended a month later, and as of this moment we are "still working on it.") If you had asked this (former) Luddite about Twitter, I would have held up my flip-phone and rolled my eyes. First, because I righteously thought it would be the downfall of society -- narcissistic, voyeuristic, and a recipe for shortened attention spans. Second, and more importantly, because I feared what would happen if I could impulsively broadcast my inner thoughts to anyone who gave a crap. (And third, who could possibly give a crap?) I finally caved, largely due to curiosity. Admittedly, Twitter is like my mistress, and I have shed (most of) my guilt over the shameless self promotion she brings out in me. Initially, I felt illiterate trying to decode the language in Twittersphere. Hashtag, what? Arroba, who? At best, it is succinct; at worst, we have created expressions that are entirely meaningless. An extreme example: I heart you.

I recently wrote a series for the Web (#paloma, @wigs, HASHTAG Shameless Self Promotion Alert) that is a rumination on the ephemeral nature of love. The title character shares coffee the morning after a one-night stand and reflects, "In some languages, to say, 'I love you,' you actually say, 'I want you... There's a big difference," she observes. Particularly with our dwindling attention spans, romantic commitment seems increasingly difficult. She wonders where will this one will lead, as she looks at her new crush. What ultimately sabotages the couple in Paloma is simply the idea of attraction to someone outside the pair. Without any infidelity, the relationship is fractured when Paloma lights up in front of another man. Mental cheating, if you will.

With the advent of social networks and mobile conversations, we are always somewhat absent when we are present. We have one part of our brain out the door, engaged with people and places other than where we actually reside. Even when focused on what is in front of us, an experience is often overshadowed by a need to document it for broadcast later. We need an audience to validate an event, or make it less mundane. If no one tweets about it, did it make a sound? There is now potentially always a third party present, that of the audience in cyber space. Strange bedfellows, to be sure.

To watch "Paloma" visit the WIGS website.