Photography: David Brandon Geeting
In the last three years, I learned three things about technology, relationships, and myself: One, I can’t even consider being on Tinder for the life of me. Two, I am never going back on Facebook (I had an account from 2006 to 2012, RIP.) And three, despite all of this, I think an exclusively digital arrangement—including the possibility of an AI lover—is the best relationship most people, including me, could wish for right now. Let me explain.
Social media helped the First World get up to speed on a number of subjects—gender, sexuality, and on the rare occasion , even ethics. But despite all of this “age of advancement” rhetoric, romances that don’t live past our screens—long distance or otherwise—still remain a no-no. The adage —which, I won’t call old because I assume it’s fairly modern—goes like this: If someone cannot be there for you physically (or simply, doesn’t want to be), they’ll never be able to fully understand or support you. If you are not having sex (or your version of sex) IRL, either you, or they, will eventually look for something else and cheat. Even when you meet someone online-first, or have to be in a long-distance relationship, it’s best to have a point in time—a light at the end of the tunnel where you know will be physically in the same geography/time zone with the other person; or else, you will lose your “sense of purpose.” In 2017, we spend almost all of our waking hours online, but the validity of a relationship is still defined by time spent together out in the real world.
But we can finally throw all of that in the hot summer garbage, because obviously this set of expectations is based on what an ideal monogamous relationship was between the 1950s and 1980s—the sliver of time which witnessed the transition from early-in-life marriages to dating, free love (for a split second), and being OK with dating, like, more people. So, society’s understanding of a “good” relationship was literally a lie from the get-go, anyway. As divorce rates continue to rise, according to many futurists and trend forecasts, nuclear families as we know them won’t exist.
In the six years I’ve lived in New York, never have I ever personally achieved an understanding, supportive, and all-in-tune relationship (ft. hot sex) for longer than a month, and I maybe only witnessed literally one such arrangement that extended over the years and continues at the time of writing. One. (And I’m throwing the “maybe” in there, because the couple in question posts way too many couple-y photos on Instagram—so you know something must be up). The more conversations I have with friends—both in New York, and over in my hometown, Istanbul, where old world values often linger for longer than they do here—the more I realize that my experience is closer to the rule than the exception. If what was once considered a healthy, loving relationship is extinct from so many people’s lives—why keep holding anyone to these standards and expectations like a paradigm shift hasn’t already arrived?
Case in point, my last three relationships were almost exclusively digital and long distance, and not on purpose. They started with likes, blossomed with DMs, gleamed with links sent, further blossomed with compulsive stalking, were validated by e-mails, got even more personal with exchanges of photographs, and became irreplaceable through the amount of time and space they offered for sharing of actual feelings. In all three cases, they were with people I’d met more than once IRL, but didn’t live in the same city or country with, or alternatively, simply wasn’t simultaneously single with at the time of meeting.
Whether you admit it or not, a lot of our relationships start by choosing a person we can project our baggage or expectations on, seeing how well they can turn around the fantasy, and making the decision to stick around based on initial signals of their willingness and ability to do so. No need to feel like the other person is the victim—as they are doing precisely the same thing (don’t ask me why, I didn’t invent this shit.) In the past, we did all of this in person, over the course of uncomfortable first dates and anxious first months. Now, just like a lot of other things, creating some sort of relationship with a stranger, is so much easier on your computer or phone—and not just through the merits of online dating, but by sharing your idea of yourself through apps, links, memes, and sometimes a mutual admiration of Rick & Morty. For years, people complained about not having enough words, or courage to express themselves in love—whereas now, we have a plethora of tools available, and a combination of them usually amounts to a personal media company called Me and a Bunch of Emojis, LOL, Inc. In the last wedding I attended, the couple had met on Facebook, and spent months talking online before ever meeting IRL. Later in the night, I found out that the officiant had also started flirting with their current S/O on Facebook, while they worked as weekday and weekend editors of the same website on different coasts (which, I agree sounds too forced, even to my forging-romances-out-of-thin-air self).
Based on my own experience, when you are a self-centered human with too much on your plate, a romantic interest who exclusively lives on your screen is one of the best things that can happen to you. The emotional availability and willingness to listen comes without having to spend a year or two together, and attending a family trip. Both sides can project all they want, and both will likely show a little more effort to accommodate, because everyone is in a better mood when they are working from home. You can look cute whenever you actually have the time for that, instead of at all times. Sex is a struggle, but it won’t be for too long—science is working on it. Ethics and best practices, especially when AI and VR are considered, are still largely undefined, but that didn’t stop this guy in Japan from marrying an anime character last week. In a lot of ways, being with someone online, without expecting to be next to them IRL “one day,” feels like the version 3.0 of relationships. If sex and love exist in compartmentalized forms and IRL intimacy has left the building, why insist on hanging on to a false ideal?
The scariest things about a relationship powered only by the Internet are schizophrenic in their contradictions: A) how it might last forever, like a never-ending e-mail chain with 40 people CC’d on it, and B) how quickly it can go out—with one unreturned e-mail, or Gchat/Slack line left hanging in oblivion all of a sudden—a feeling most of us know all too well from its mobile counterpart, text anxiety. Yet worse, finding yourself in a place where you have to deny the existence of your old flame by blocking them across all platforms—the online version of a feisty break up. Is blocking someone at the end of a relationship something we all needed as much as Amazon Prime? Only time will tell. But until there is a more defined answer to that, better to have loved online than never to have loved at all.