As would-be dramatists, they wondered what they should say at that first meeting. Sarah solved the problem by shouting “Sony PlayStation” across the crowded airport. The two of them had a running debate about the relative merits of different game systems. Their first date was to an arcade where Sarah made good her long-standing boasts and beat him at Street Fighter II before Henry got his revenge on NFL GameDay. Sarah made the state finals in a video game competition, so it was no surprise this proved central to the time they spent together. Sarah’s mother purchased some new games and-ever the chaperone-brought the game system down to the parlor from Sarah’s room so they could play together.If we are going to talk, from Cambridge to Omaha, with people we’ve never met before, we need something to talk about. For Henry and Sarah, that common culture consisted not only of different games and game systems, but also a shared enthusiasm for professional wrestling. They met on rec.sport.pro-wrestling, brought together by a shared interest in the Undertaker, a star of the World Wrestling Federation. They both were participants in an electronic pro wrestling role-playing game. Henry brought a cardboard sign with him to a televised wrestling event, pushed his way through the crowd, and got on camera so he could send Sarah a broadcast message.
Popular culture also helped to bridge the awkward silences in my exchanges with Sarah’s parents. I had wondered what a media scholar from “the People’s Republic of Cambridge” would say to two retired Air Force officers from Nebraska. As Sarah’s mother and I sat in the arcade, trying to dodge religion and politics, we found common ground discussing Star Trek, the original Saturday Night Live cast, and of course, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
Henry and Sarah broke up sometime after that trip-not because they had met online or because the real life experience hadn’t lived up to their expectations but because they were fifteen, their interests shifted, and they never really overcame her father’s opposition. Henry’s next relationship was also online-with a girl from Melbourne, Australia, and that experience broadened his perspective on the world, at the price of much sleep as they negotiated time differences. Now 21, he has gone through his normal share of other romantic entanglements, some online, more face to face (with many of the latter conducted, at least in part, online to endure the summer vacation separation).
We’ve read more than a decade of press coverage about online relationships-much of it written since my son and I made this trip together. Journalists love to talk about the aberrant qualities of virtual sex. Yet, many of us embraced the Internet because it has fit into the most personal and banal spaces of our lives. Focusing on the revolutionary aspects of online courtship blinds us to the continuities in courtship rituals across generations and across media. Indeed, the power of physical artifacts (the imprint of lips on paper, the faded petals of a rose), of photographs, of the voice on the telephone gain new poignancy in the context of these new relationships. Moreover, focusing on the online aspects of these relationships blinds us to the agility with which teens move back and forth across media. Their daily lives require constant decisions about what to say on the phone, what to write by hand, what to communicate in chat rooms, what to send by e-mail. They juggle multiple identities-the fictional personas of electronic wrestling, the constructed ideals of romantic love, and the realities of real bodies and real emotions.