developing relationships online- an ethnographic study

Note: names of participants have been changed for confidentiality

“We’re getting used to a new way of being alone together.”- Sherry Turkle

In this day and age, we are connecting and communicating with friends, family and strangers online more and more. With this, inevitably, came the rise of an abundance of developing romantic interests and relationships through this social media.

When compared to meeting people in person, this method of connection poses barriers that haven’t needed to be navigated before. Pew Research Centre has noticed an increase to the acceptance of this activity, but there is still a stigma behind this method of meeting partners.

Personally, I spoke to my now-boyfriend online for half a year before meeting in person. We have now been dating for over a year. Through talking to people who have had similar experiences in meeting their partners, I have explored how this online courtship is different to the past conventions and if this method of dating actually lives up to its stigma.

Sarah first started talking to her now-boyfriend after they matched on Tinder. Within the same day, they added each other on Facebook and Snapchat and found themselves having three conversations at once.

tiarne: sarah- 3 convos.png

Grace also met her partner through Tinder. She was over the boring greeting of messaging her matches “hey”, so she instead asked the age-old question “pineapple on pizza, yes or no?”

allyson:grace- pizza.png

These are two occurrences that you most likely wouldn’t see in an introductory interaction in person but are commonplace ways of communicating online.

Bella met her partner on Yellow, which is a social media app that allows people to broadcast live vlogs which are able to be viewed by users worldwide. They then added each other on other social media.

v: bella- yellow app

Bella felt a level of trust form as she knew Sam was a real person through his live videos, and also became aware that his intentions may have been different as opposed to other interactions she has experienced online, many involving her being asked to send inappropriate pictures.

v: bella- practicing caution

v: bella- cause of trust

She would automatically disconnect herself from that person, as their intentions instantly became clear. She felt her relationship with Sam was different, as she found themselves discussing their lives and futures. Even with the relationship developing so well, she found herself turning down invitations to meet as she was “worried that he wouldn’t like the real me” and “he wouldn’t accept me or recognise me”

v: bella- asking out

v: bella- why no

After they met, Bella later asked Sam what his first impression of her was, and to completely deny her fears, he thought “she was beautiful. I was worried she wouldn’t like me.”

v:bella- actual reaction

Bella claims that once they met “I was hooked. I wanted to see him every day after that.”

v: bella- once we met i was hooked

Zoe had similar nerves when she first met her now-partner. When he came over to her house to watch a movie, she found that they didn’t talk much. But as they hung out more they begun to connect really well.

olivia: zoe- talking online to meeting.png

olivia: zoe- blanket meeting

Grace had uncertainties heading towards her first date with her Tinder match and decided to put a system in place with her best friend. “if I messaged her *the onion emoji* it meant things were bad and she had my details of where I was to call the police.” However, once nerves were worked past her date was successful and steadily progressed into a relationship.

allyson: grace- emoji

A common issue based around online courtship is the anxiety that the person you have connected with online is totally different in person, for the worse. Interestingly, everyone I spoke to thought they seemed the same once they met, if not more attractive in person. Zoe claims “he seemed kind of shy but once we met he was outgoing and make lots of jokes. I was more attracted to him once we met in person.”

olivia: zoe- online and in person

PairedLife identified that this could be because of the introduction of more sensory information as we are more exposed to perceptual equipment in which we learn more about our partners characteristics including body language and mannerisms.

Even with these relationships forming so successfully, there can sometimes be a hesitation in sharing stories of how they met their partner.

Sarah has felt the need to have to lie about meeting her boyfriend through Tinder, instead opting to explain they met through “mutual friends” due to the fear of particular members of her family thinking this is “inappropriate”

tiarne: sarah- how they met, depends

tiarne: sarah- who she would lie to

Bella has similarly found herself talking down her story in a condescending way due to the online nature of her relationship formation, saying things like “oh you know. It’s the 21stcentury.” As she, and many other people, sense a big separation between meeting online and in person.

v:bella- stigma response

Even though the way me and many of these girls met our partners may be considered unconventional and separated from the ideal system of human connection, it is important to consider where we ended up. I can confidently say my relationship with my boyfriend is no different compared to the relationships my friends have with people they originally met in person. Stigmatising online dating doesn’t seem to make sense when it’s just another method of getting to know someone, and instead of treating the internet as a place to hide, using it to make strong connections and lasting relationships with someone you may have never met otherwise.


Serer, S 2017 ‘Do You Understand the Psychology of Online Relationships?” in PairedLife 

Turkle, S 2012, ‘Connected, but alone?’ in TED2012 delivered February 2012

Smith, A & Duggan, M 2013 ‘Online Dating and Relationships’ in Pew Research

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