It isn’t news that some supermarkets offer customers a chance to get dates in the produce department without ever touching a piece of fruit, but a new outlet in suburban Washington, D.C., is taking things to another level.The local Wegmans, part of a 76-store chain based in Rochester, N.Y., offers a cozy restaurant, hosts live music and has come to be known as “Club Wegmans,” The Washington Post reported recently. “Men will meet [a woman] anywhere. Especially when you don’t have to spend any money,” one shopper told the newspaper.
I suppose folks who worry that we are all becoming hermits as we sit in front of our computer screens and HDTVs will take comfort in the knowledge that, since we all must eat and most of us want to find mates, we can still kill the proverbial two birds with one stone.
Starbucks is a better-known example of this phenomenon. Its rapid corporate rise is more often attributed to its status as a neutral meeting place than to its superior coffee. But even Starbucks’ position on the social scene isn’t entirely safe. A coffee shop full of people on laptops and smartphones can easily cause the lament, “These people are not my friends, yet somehow I miss their presence.”
There are plenty of people who bemoan iPods and Bluetooth earpieces as devices that wrap us in cocoons, discouraging meaningful in-person connection. From this point of view, we’re reduced to flirting in the frozen foods aisle because no place else remains. One of the most famous essays on the topic, Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” cited the Internet as one of many factors that could increase our personal isolation. The essay, published in 1995, was expanded into a popular book in 2000. Putnam’s title became a widespread shorthand for discussing large-scale withdrawal from civic and community life.
But while the Internet was growing rapidly when Putnam was writing Bowling Alone, the tools that we now know as “social networking” did not yet exist. The Internet of 2000 had no Facebook, no MySpace, no Twitter, no LinkedIn. There were listservs and bulletin boards, email and instant messaging, but in the realm of communication among groups of people, that was pretty much it.
The problem Putnam identified contained the seeds of its own solution. Humans are social animals. We are wired to communicate and connect with one another. If a new technology gets in the way of our drive to share whatever is on our mind, we are going to find a way to adapt it to our social needs.
Rather than cut us off from one another, the Internet has brought us together in big and small ways that are too numerous to count. When I was becoming my adult, computers were tools for working. Now, from our smart phones to our e-book readers, tablets and laptops, computers have become tools for living.
Here’s one example. My cousins are scattered over the country. I have relatives I had not seen in many years because we fell out of touch, the way people who live far apart often will.
A few months ago, one of my cousins started a Facebook group, and a number of us joined. It did not stop with facilitated online conversations or a few shared pictures. Recently, I brought my mother down to Florida for a visit, and through the group, a cousin from Georgia saw that we would be there at the same time. We quickly made arrangements to get together for dinner. It was the first time since the 1970s that my mother had the chance to sit down with this relative.
Sites like Facebook are letting my generation find people we have lost over time through job changes, long-distance moves, or simply drifting apart. For the younger crowd, it helps them avoid losing track of people in the first place. I would guess that my children will maintain their youthful friendships much better than I did, in part thanks to their generation’s better tools.
Instant communications have also fundamentally changed the experience of warfare. A recent New York Times article details how soldiers overseas instantly connect with loved ones through instant messenger, Skype, and a variety of social media that bring them closer to home than earlier soldiers could dream of. Doubtless, there are downsides to the way technology tethers soldiers to those they leave behind, but the opportunity for a mother serving in Afghanistan to see live video of her 2-year-old son shouldn’t be discounted, either.
Beyond simply keeping existing friends and family close, however, the Internet facilitates new real-life connections as well. Blogger Dawn Foster enthusiastically recommends using new media to keep in touch with new acquaintances from conferences, or maintaining online friendships in part to keep a pool of qualified people handy for recruiting. Foster is quick to point out that using LinkedIn or Twitter solely for mercenary ends is both bad karma and unlikely to work; just like traditional friendship, it will become obvious if you’re trying to use people. But the Internet mitigates distance and allows for quick, convenient ways to keep a give-and-take flowing, if both parties are willing.
But let’s get back to love and relationships. Computers, after all, have been business and military tools for about as long as there have been computers. If Club Wegmans represents one dimension of the modern singles scene, then online opportunities, ranging from simple Facebook interactions to matchmaker services, represent another.
The stigma of meeting one’s mate online is fading as online dating gains ground. Sites like eHarmony and Match.com offer an evolution of the old-fashioned personal ad. Romantic hopefuls can share everything from whether they smoke to their religious views before deciding whether or not to try a first date. It isn’t just 20-somethings willing to give these services a try. In fact, according to CNBC, 50- to 60-year-olds are the fastest growing demographic on Match.com.
Whether it’s soldiers with cell phones or strangers exchanging numbers in the bakery aisle, people will reach out to others any way they find useful. In the end, virtual life is still just that – life. That is not going to change any time soon.
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