Why Doesn’t Hollywood Understand Online Dating Yet?


In the movies, love often takes the form of correspondence. The 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner finds quarrelsome colleagues Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart unknowingly exchanging love letters. Fifty-eight years later, in You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron’s 1998 revamp of the earlier classic, Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly (screen name: “Shopgirl”) and Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox (“NY152”) fire up their modems to ping e-mails at each other. In Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Ryan and Hanks find each other over the radio, leading to a Valentine’s Day meet-cute atop the Empire State Building, a scene that resolved one of cinema’s greatest missed connections in An Affair to Remember (1957).

All of these films would inevitably play out differently in today’s age of online dating and social media. There’s little left to imagine past the detailed dating site profile and array of accompanying pictures. Elsewhere, the Internet’s rife with people posting, tweeting, and live-blogging their lives. Like Drew Barrymore’s technology-conscious character in He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), rejected by several men over as many media, romantic comedies are still adjusting to the vicissitudes of virtual romance, and thus often proliferate misguided depictions of online dating. Recent films tend to romanticize, make light of, or expose online dating – but none really convey its reality.

Mostly, movies mock online dating, like the comedies Sex Drive (2008), Eurotrip (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and LOL (2012). In trashy romance romp Sex Drive, an online relationship compels dweeby high school virgin Ian to make an erection-led journey across the nation to meet his dream girl, “Ms. Tasty” – but when they meet in person, she takes off with her boyfriend in Ian’s car. And in the dud rom-com LOL, where relationships are predominately developed over social media and instant messaging, online dating enables the character of Miley Cyrus’ best friend to mistakenly engage in simulated cyber sex with the school nerd.

An OKCupid user in his 20s described the representation of online dating in Napoleon Dynamite “as the refuse of desperate neckbeards and sexual predators masquerading as someone else,” yet what he values most about online dating is its transparency. “I like the fact that your intention is unambiguous,” he said. Since “you’re on a dating site… if someone speaks to you it means they don’t just think you’re friend material.” By poking fun at online dating, movies may, as a former online dater who met her fiancé on Zoosk told me, “show the funny side to online dating” – which can often have its own peculiar sense of humor – but most ultimately fail to capture the experience accurately.

Miley Cyrus in LOL (2012)

Movies that take online dating seriously aren’t any better. While thrillers like Hard Candy (2005) and Trust (2010) crack down on pedophiles using dating sites to groom young girls, they tend to overstate the risks of these services. Various “statistics” sites will inform you that one in ten sex offenders use online dating to snare victims – but this isn’t a hard figure, and even if it were, it’s nothing compared to the sheer number of people dating online. A Psychological Science study references a report that found nearly 25 million unique online daters in April 2011. These films also don’t mention the precautions taken by Match.com – which now screens for sex offenders – and other dating sites cautious of illicit users.

The Schulman brothers’ documentary film Catfish (2010) and its subsequent MTV reality series also revolve around revealing fraudulent online daters – not criminals, but rather those who have created fake identities, often for deeply psychological reasons. But the TV series mainly glosses over the psychological complexities of its scammers, and since it aims to omit daters honest about their identity, its focus is narrow. The show is also about daters who have established long-term relationships exclusively online, something most would be wary of. Sam Yagan, co-founder and CEO of OKCupid – which has 3.5 million active users – is skeptical of the veracity of shows like Catfish. “Most television shows get ratings by appealing to people[’s] voyeuristic tendencies, hyping up dysfunction,” he said.

Nev Schulman and “Megan Faccio” in Catfish (2010)

On the other end of the spectrum are movies that romanticize online dating – like Must Love Dogs (2005), Because I Said So (2007), and You’ve Got Mail – but these are often as problematic, and set impractical expectations for online daters. For Brooklyn-based writers and You’ve Got Mail superfans Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger, the film plays a crucial part in society’s acceptance of online dating, and as Weber argues in the pair’s collaborative discussion piece on HowAboutWe.com, Ephron “really helped usher in [the] online dating revolution” with You’ve Gone Mail, making the phenomenon of online dating “socially acceptable” – and even glamorous.

“Everything is obviously exaggerated in Hollywood,” Shannon Smith, Advertising and PR Coordinator at dating site PlentyOfFish.com, told me. “If it wasn’t, movies wouldn’t be very exciting! That said, popular culture will gravitate towards the more sensationalized stories over the day-to-day lives of the millions of POF users,” and other virtual daters “creating great experiences” in real life. By offering the ultimate online dating success story, You’ve Got Mail neglects to show the dating mishaps that usually precede meeting the right person. Virtually speaking, “Shopgirl” and “NY152” meet almost effortlessly, and don’t date other people online. In reality, few of the daters I’ve spoken to who are now in committed relationships that began on the Internet actually met their partners soon after they began online dating. A former online dater, now married to a man she met online, told me that though she loves You’ve Got Mail, it “portrays [online dating] as a comfortable, fluffy experience – which it isn’t.” Before she found her husband, she discovered that “some men are on there… to sleep with as many women as possible and there are plenty with emotional problems too (and stinky breath)!”

Far from reality, the appeal of online dating in movies like You’ve Got Mail comes with the thrill of the virtual chase, and the romantic possibility that rests in the unopened envelope or email. “It’s more the search than the sustaining,” Weber said. According to Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and Chief Scientific Advisor to Chemistry.com, a subsidiary of Match.com, what we’re seeking in that envelope isn’t merely a spouse, but a companion. A hundred years ago, Fisher said, when marriage was more “about children and a place in the community,” it wasn’t necessary to have the same interests. But “we’re turning inward now. We want a companion,” she said.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail (1998)

As Finger points out, films like You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and The Shop Around the Corner share a love of “what’s spoken and written” – they’re “about people falling in love with people’s words.” In each, the search for a partner hinges on “a matching of wit and banter.” But in my experience of online dating (and, as far as I can tell, many others’), a thoughtfully composed, engaging message seldom lands in my inbox; instead, I usually find monosyllabic messages and thoughtless one-liners – a “Hey, whatsup?” or even a “dang cutie, why so far away?” When I asked Finger if his own online dating in any way lived up to the dream of his favorite movie, he answered with a curt, “No,” and a laugh. “Both of us have online dated and both of us didn’t meet our NY152s,” Weber added, with a chuckle.

Although it was a breakthrough for online dating in cinema, You’ve Got Mail is, by now, remarkably outdated. “Shopgirl” and “NY152” meet in a chat room – not a dating site – and without the aid of the now-ubiquitous profile picture. Though You’ve Got Mail remains the most identifiable, and adored, film about virtual romance, online dating culture has changed extraordinarily in the 15 years since its release. Weber reasons that the “more accessible the technology that supports online dating becomes,” the more changes we’ll see in “the way we interact with people.” Meanwhile, Smith prompts us to “look at the online dating industry even two years ago, when the landscape was completely different. The industry is constantly [becoming] more sophisticated, shifting towards mobile-based services… with the development of… Android and iPhone apps,” she said.

Though, as Yagan said, the “stigma against online dating has eroded tremendously,” there’s still an element of embarrassment. A former online dater in her 40s confessed, “You can’t help feeling a little embarrassed to admit that was how you met your partner.” Another online dater in her 20s, using Guardian Soulmates, corroborates this view. “I’d be slightly embarrassed to tell someone… I was online dating,” she said, adding that there’s “an air of desperation about it, and there used to be a feeling that sad losers use it – but I think this is less the case now.”

The common thread that ties together each flavor of big-screen misunderstanding of online dating is that it’s almost always rendered as a shameful experience. In Because I Said So, when Mandy Moore’s character discovers that her beau’s interest in her started online, she promptly ends the relationship. Diane Lane’s character in Must Love Dogs – yes, it’s as terrible as its title – is uncomfortable with “advertising” herself online, and on her first date with John Cusack, both are self-conscious about how they met. The fact that many real-life online daters share their fictional counterparts’ shame may be the most tangible reflection of Hollywood’s impact on the culture of online dating. In spotlighting this uncertainty above all else, they reinforce it more often than they obliterate it.

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

And that’s when Hollywood chooses to portray online dating at all. As a Match.com study from 2012 shows, a “historically unprecedented number of single Americans are now turning to the Internet to find love.” Of the 5,481 US singles and 1,095 married people between 21 and 65+ that participated, a third of the singles had dated someone they met online, while more singles (20%) met their most recent first date online than in a bar (7%). Considering its increasing prevalence, it’s surprising that there are still so few online dating romances on film. “Lots of people date online, yet we haven’t seen that storyline in many mainstream films,” said Ariana Anthony, Media Strategist at dating site HowAboutWe.com. “But I think that’ll change in the near future, as more and more people continue to meet online.” If it doesn’t, online dating will continue to be the modern-day meet-cute that the movies – holding out in vain for more traditional romance – are missing out on.