02/16/2011 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Breaking the E-Love Code

This is the third in a series of four. See Euro RSCG Worldwide PR's latest white paper, "Love (and Sex) in the Age of Social Media," for more analysis about how Americans think about online romance.

Around Valentine's Day 2011, our thoughts immediately turn media. Well, why not? Social media is linking people in more ways than we can imagine and changing every day. It's driving trends across all kinds of sectors and all parts of real life. But what are the new norms of love online today? Are there any universally accepted virtual behaviors that are contributing now to a cultural e-dating code?

Euro RSCG Worldwide, the parent company of the PR agency I head up, surveyed 1,000 Americans last month to try to find out, to discover people's attitudes toward romance, sex and eroticism online--a business estimated at $4 billion worldwide this year. Despite the gold rush that the e-dating business is for Internet matchmakers, eHarmony, JDate and many other niche sites (Trek Passions for sci-fi fans and for environmentally forward people, just to name two), there are big disparities still in how the public reports their online quest for romance.

In the search for majority responses, we found something interesting: Among a wide percentage of Americans who know somebody else who has conducted online romances--a majority who consider virtual dating to be mainstream now--an equally hefty majority also believe that online relationships can detract from face-to-face interactions. These people suspect that cyberspace makes it far easier to cheat online on your real-life partner. And 34 percent of men and 37 percent of women believe online relationships can be "too much of a distraction" from face-to-face relationships. The number is 36 percent among married people.

Still, one-quarter of those surveyed (25 percent of men, 24 percent of women and 21 percent of married people) say they feel desires that possibly can be quenched online, saying they are looking to "spice things up" in their current relationship situation. (The number rises to 40 percent among Prosumers, which is the term Euro RSCG uses for proactive consumers who seek, create and propagate change. It's based on a coinage by Alvin Toffler three decades ago but turbocharged by more recent interactive technologies.)

Clearly, online romance is many things in the public experience and imagination--a place to cheat, or an unregulated democracy to try out desires without face-to-face contact; a place to view images or schedule dates; maybe even a place where it's hard to discern motives. In other words, a place rather like life.

A friend of mine knows a woman in her late 50s who had moved from one part of the country to another, split up a previous relationship, then fallen head over heels with a man she met through a specialty dating site. "We broke all the rules," Amanda said. Which ones? The ones that say no talking about exes or money on the first date, no sharing of prior virtual romance horror stories and no jumping into bed, she said. Four whirlwind, deeply felt (for Amanda) weekends later, Mr. Virtual Right broke up with Amanda. Her friends, she says, couldn't understand her girlish devastation; they told her she was the one who'd broken the e-rules not to go overboard emotionally, at least not so fast. (My personal take on things is that people's freedoms, especially in the rather tumultuous realm of love or e-love, have to be respected. I don't like making judgments of others or being judged.)

In another age group, millennials, whom our survey shows in general to be much more accepting of e-romance and its cul-de-sacs, a new trend has shown up. It finds people self-described as mmo lovers--players in massive-multiplayer-online role-playing games--wooing and even marrying after a courtship of online game playing. One such game, World of Warcraft, is proving especially good at transmuting millennial players into real-life spouses.

But there's a flip side, in the form of online "Warcraft widows," who post to forums complaining that the game has ruined their marriage and who are founding self-help groups aimed at addressing how to counter some of the distractions of virtual communications (getting back to our survey) in the real-life relationships.

What the e-dating culture looks like, in the end, is kind of a Tower of Babel. And its benefits are its demerits--or not. If you enter the realm looking for romance (or eroticism, or sex), you're also going to be speaking a foreign language at first. But ultimately cyberethics are also based on this willing mass of mainly upstanding people. New songs might not be written yet on how to tame runaways in the Not-OK Corral. But in a world where everything virtual is blurring more and more with everything real, it appears that the cultural e-dating code right now is one that's as old as love itself: Do unto others.

Tomorrow: "The Online Erogenous Zone"