Heartbreak or hoax, the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his fabricated girlfriend has become a national head-scratcher. But the idea of making up a story, or believing a lie, in the name of love has deep roots in popular culture.
We’ve been carrying on relationships — and misrepresenting ourselves — long before the tattoo sleeves worn by Te’o came into vogue. From Cyrano de Bergerac to the MTV show “Catfish,” romantic con games are as old as cupid’s bow and arrows.
“To some extent, there’s a real old-fashioned, traditional, romantic element in the idea of just having an exchange based on emotions and words,” says Nev Schulman, the host and executive producer of “Catfish: The TV Show.” He was the victim of an online dating hoax himself, which he documented on film. Now he is helping others in the same spot.
“People really open up when they don’t have to worry about how they’re dressed,” he said, “and certainly when you remove the physical elements, both over Skype and in real life.”
Plenty of cyber relationships manage to blossom without a face-to-face meeting.
Te’o, whose story of loving a terminally ill young woman who, he says, existed only in cyberspace has become a national fascination, will talk about his misadventures in cyber love to Katie Couric Thursday on her daytime talk show. But regardless of what he says, those who study the Web say there is nothing new in Te’o’s story of what happens when a couple dates strictly through text messages, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail.
“It’s banal. This kind of story is the lifeblood of online relationships,” says MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle. “This is a 1990s story. It’s been going on for quite sometime.”
Long before 1990s Internet chat rooms provided a cloak of invisibility for the amorous to falsely present themselves as a prince charming on white steed, or a chaste Midwestern maiden, there were pen pals. Even beloved pessimist Charlie Brown was duped into love by a pen pal in the comic strip “Peanuts.” Think of him as the proto-Te’o.
“It doesn’t matter what the technology is, or what the year is. It doesn’t even matter if we ever meet a person face to face,” says Washington, D.C.-based online dating coach Erika Ettin. “We love to be showered with compliments and romanced. It’s human nature. That’s why I sometimes have to warn my clients: You can’t fall in love with a profile, and you can’t fall in love with an e-mail.”
Schulman, the “Catfish” producer, compares the Internet love scams of today to the braggadocio found in love letters of long ago, or even the 17th-century French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac hiding behind a surrogate to win the hand of Roxane.
Not much has changed since those gushing missives of yore, says Julie Spira, the author of “The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online.” It is the means of communication that has changed. She’s coined a term for it: Digital Pen Pal Syndrome.
“Often they fall in love on the Internet with genuine people,” Spira says. “Maybe they live in a different country or out of state. But if they live near one another and don’t meet, or they don’t use Skype or FaceTime, that’s a red flag. But the fact is that people are lonely. There are many virtual relationships that do work, but there are also a lot of fakes.”
When in high school, Spira traded letters with foreign pen pals. These pencil and paper friends felt very real to her, she says, despite the fact that they never came face to face.
“When it comes to cyber relationships, sometimes people just want someone to talk to,” Spira says. “The question is: Are they in love, or are they in love with the idea of being in love?”
MIT’s Turkle, who studies how technology plays a role in our interpersonal relationships, says there is also a desire among romance-seekers for exclusively online relationships.
“Both parties can be genuine, both parties can be seriously looking for gratification,” Turkle says. “They invest a lot of time in these relationships, but they want to keep it virtual. Even if they’re both pretending to be someone they’re not, it fills a need in their lives. But if one is genuine and the other is not, the result can be heartbreaking.”
These specialists point out that most people using online dating websites such as Match.com, eHarmony, or OKCupid are usually looking for a serious, real-life relationship. The expectation of these sites is that you will connect online, and then meet for a date.
According to Schulman, finding true love can be dicier through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. It may seem impossible to enter into a serious online relationship in 2013 without the aid of video chatting, but Schulman said in his case he was so smitten that he ignored the warning signs.
“I was the victim of a nine-month virtual romance,” Schulman said. “During which time I suggested video chatting and offered to purchase a webcam for her. All along the way I heard any number of excuses about why it couldn’t happen. It never dawned on me that everything this person was saying could possibly be untrue.”
Which is why Adam LoDolce, a Boston-based “dating confidence coach,” adamantly advises his clients to meet people the old-fashioned way: Approach them and say hello.
“A lot of dating coaches focus on online. My focus is offline,” LoDolce says. “For thousands of years, we managed to meet people in everyday settings. It may sound old-fashioned, but if people don’t want to get scammed by an Internet romance, don’t look for love on the Internet.”Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris Muther