Social Context

In the offline world, we meet friends and lovers in the context of existing social structures. The grocery store, the bar, church, or the neighborhood are common venues for meeting people. More abstractly, one's social network serves as the backdrop for introductions to friends of friends. Interactions which emerge from these contexts remain socially situated or embedded (Edmonds 1998) within them, such that the involved people are accountable not just to each other but to the wider circle of friends and acquaintances.The sanctions for misbehavior therefore extend beyond the immediate dyad. In terms of dating, this provides incentive for individuals to treat their dating partners well; additionally, it offers some assurance that others are unlikely to behave badly.

Online personals, on the other hand, eliminate most social context. We might consider the online dating site itself a social context, but most such sites have no provision for social interaction outside the goal-directed search and communication activities intended for meeting potential partners. Other kinds of interaction, which might lead to the formation of broader-purpose bonds, are not facilitated. Without a social context in which interactions might be embedded, users can misbehave with fewer consequences than in an offline dating milieu; word of their misbehavior will likely never reach their offline friends, and the unfortunate dating partner can be wiped from the email record and blocked from future communication with a few clicks.

It is also true, however, that online personals cut across offline social contexts. These systems introduce users who would never meet through face-to-face channels because their social contexts do not overlap; indeed, online dating bridges social contexts between which there was no previous connection. In this capability lies the promise of online personals, the real advantage they can offer over face-to-face meetings — a tremendous pool of potential dates, not only large but also distinct from those you would meet any other way.

For certain marginalized populations, the circumnavigation of one's offline social contexts provides the additional benefit of privacy. Gays and lesbians who do not disclose their sexual orientation, for example, might be unable to seek a partner through offline channels without revealing their orientation to friends, family, or co-workers.

Social networking systems like Orkut and Friendster, on the other hand, exploit existing offline social contexts to allow users to meet, e.g., friends of friends. These tools mimic real-world mechanisms for meeting others, with many of the same advantages and disadvantages. Friendster and Orkut indicate others to whom you are connected by a chain of friends (i.e., "friend of a friend of a friend of a friend"), but distant connections — more than approximately three degrees from you — are effectively strangers.

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