The transition from an online to offline relationship is the trickiest to navigate when perfect strangers are involved.
They met on Facebook. She was a married homemaker in her forties, who lied to him that she was 21 and single. He was all of 22. She was probably looking for the diversion and excitement of being with a younger man, he for a partner his age. When he discovered the truth after meeting her in person last week, three years into the relationship, he shot her and himself to death. A typical story that took a sad turn, it is one of many online relationships that end in guilt, disappointment, shock, betrayal, or harassment because these relationships are often a safe haven, an escape from offline frustrations, or a way to access a socially forbidden fruit, and their practitioners do not consider the need to be digitally safe.
While assorted dating and matrimonial websites may have their success rates of matchmaking, the transition from an online to offline relationship is the trickiest to navigate when perfect strangers are involved. What opens the doors to disillusionment and disappointment is online lovers either versioning their personalities to play out their fantasies or to be the way they wished they were, or consciously lying to gloss over personal information should the relationship sour. Unlike spontaneous conversations that happen in person, instant messengers give us the time and opportunity to choose our words and responses. The Facebook display photo is sometimes prettier than the person photographed. When the two finally meet, it may turn out that the online lover who seemed near-perfect is only human or that she isn’t who she claimed to be.
Finding love and sex on the Internet has always meant walking the razor’s edge between the joy of intimacy and running into harm. Short of digital abstinence, is there a way to use the Internet’s liberating power to circumvent sexual and social taboos and still stay safe? Meeting someone from online involves setting up a few safeguards, which the Facebook couple shot dead seem to have neglected — avoiding secluded places, keeping a near one in the know about the meeting, having help at hand if things turn untoward. Using dating services that put members through a level of scrutiny and identifies verified users is more advisable than using services that are free and open to all. It is technically possible to make up entire profiles and beat some vetting systems, but it is takes far more effort and time than, say, to create multiple Facebook accounts. The most difficult aspect to control, however, is the kind and volume of information shared. Would someone in the throes of passion, love or infatuation pause to think that the headers in her emails and the EXIF data from her selfies contain enough data that could be mined to get her location and personal details? The online medium often takes away inhibitions; people in online relationships end up revealing their innermost fears, sorrows and desires to their partners and putting a premium on trust in the relationship. After the arrival of the social media, very few netizens view the Internet as an alternate universe, complementary to their lives. For most of us, it is an extension of our offline lives, supplementary to it. There are no straight answers but unfortunate incidents such as these could be avoided if the rules of engagement of clear and if one spares a thought for the possibility of the relationship going wrong.
Cover image: Getty Images/ Jonathan Kitchen