Defining modern love

Hook-up culture dominates in an age of instant communication

By Emily Wang

The New York Times recently relaunched its “Modern Love” contest, inviting students to describe what love is like “in this age of 24/7 communication, blurred gender roles and new attitudes about sex and dating.”

Let’s be real for a moment here: In terms of relationships, most of today’s college experience can’t really be characterized as love at all. Maybe “like” is a better term, but not even; perhaps the most accurate of all is the now ubiquitous “like a little.”

And truly, most of the winning essays from 2008 don’t wax poetic about love at all, but rather recount the fleeting nature of the connections made in an age of instant communication: Text messages and Facebook chats, Chatroulette and missed connections (the website, not the idea). Of course, now there’s also likealittle, brilliantly separated by each college campus, and UChicago Hookups, “Where BJ Doesn’t Refer to the Dorm.” Again, pure, distilled brilliance.

Likealittle was launched in October of last year. There’s now a likealittle page for well over 400 campuses around the nation. Its growth has been phenomenal. For each “flirt” posted, you have the option of commenting, liking, or, of course, messaging. Some would say it’s an entirely innocuous site, existing purely for entertainment, but that would be oversimplifying its intentions and consequences.

At first, I personally couldn’t believe that any of these “flirts” would actually lead to any sort of tangible results. Who, after all, would be flattered by—much less convinced to date—the guy from your Sosc class, whom you have never spoken to, who professed his love for you online, anonymously, using lines from a Pablo Neruda poem? Yet at the height of the U of C site’s popularity, when the novelty had not yet worn off, someone told me about plans to meet up with a stranger who had posted on likealittle.

I was in disbelief. But once I got over my initial “no freaking way,” I couldn’t believe I had been surprised in the first place. This is what modern college relationships are like. We meet, we text-flirt, we hook up, we’re in the do-we-date-or-don’t-we limbo, things fall apart, and we move on, mostly. So it cycles on.

The “normal” courtship, in which people go on dates to see if they like each other, progressing eventually into a relationship, is an increasingly rare practice. Likealittle, in many ways, is the online manifestation of today’s real-life connections: Brief and fragmented, always tiptoeing the line between sincere and creepy, endearing and pathetic, ambiguous and straightforward.

A mere week before Valentine’s Day, UChicago Hookups was launched. It’s likealittle but more explicit, simultaneously more grown-up and more immature. To give credit to the few who have thus far posted on the site, people mostly seem to take it as a joke. While I would not judge anyone who seeks a casual relationship, to do so online heightens the sense that this “modern love” makes fun of itself but partakes in the joke anyway.

The proliferation of these connection-facilitating websites must have implications. Does the hookup just make sense for the overworked and under-loved UChicago student? How can there be time to maintain a serious relationship when we have so much else on our plate? No, believing the last two statements would be falling for easy stereotypes and rationalizations. The communication revolution isn’t destroying modern love, as so many are quick to argue. But our willingness to let these websites—or texts—do the talking for us, especially when it comes to relationships, is profoundly altering the way we look at making connections in college.

Now that a great deal of romantic expression comes through these anonymous and instantaneous platforms, every connection seems incredibly tenuous. At any moment, another possibility could be discovered, pursued, dropped. People still develop feelings for each other, but instead of confronting these feelings, we carry on perpetual internal deliberations that now often find their way onto the Internet instead of turning into real-life actions. The sentiment might be that this way the rejection will be less painful, or better yet, the possibility of rejection will be eliminated.

The winning essay from the 2008 Modern Love contest is titled “Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define.” The definition seems to have changed, but it hasn’t. We’re simply more afraid of using the official label, preferring instead to make up names for all the other non-committed in-betweens, or disguising ourselves as “At Frat: Male, Brunette.”

Committed relationships take precious time, but they’re ultimately more rewarding and stable, and would likely take up far less time than the complicated dance of almost-girlfriends and almost-boyfriends, of “I like you but you don’t like me,” of evasions from regrettable hookups and of figuring out statuses and even more often non-statuses.

It takes compromise and sacrifice, but commitment can work, whether that commitment means making it official or simply committing to saying “Hi” in person to that girl from Sosc class. You may be ignored, but you might also end up discussing your love for Chilean poets over coffee.

Emily Wang is a first-year in the College majoring in English.