Love is out of ink: Valentines in the age of the 'emoticon'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Once upon a time, men and women of culture grabbed a quill, dunked the tip in ink, and penned away.

"My angel, my all, my very self," wrote Ludwig van Beethoven to his still secret "immortal beloved" in 1806.

"Sweet incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect you have on my heart," wrote Napoleon, in December 1795.

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"I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy," wrote Gustave Flaubert to wife Louise Colet, in August 1846.

Such sentiments – parts of longer, handwritten letters – were then posted via coach, horseback, or windjammer.

Today, they leave at a click and arrive in a nanosecond anywhere on the globe. Instead of ink stains, they may be peppered with smiley-faced "emoticons," links to YouTube videos, a Facebook picture page – and perhaps a blog entry opining on the state of love today. The handwriting would be history.

"Beethoven would likely have sent an MP3 file with a musical jingle," says Sam Yagan, CEO and founder of OKCupid.com, a free online dating service. "Voltaire would have sent an online dating profile. Since he was short, Napoleon probably would have stayed away from the webcam. Creative people would have had a field day."

As seen through Valentine's Day 2007, Cupid-speak may never be the same.

"Valentine's Day is a perfect match for the Internet," says Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint.com, a website that helps Internet users build a personal page blending the technology of blogs, forums, and wikis – an ever-changing file to which others can add content. "The Web is all about spontaneity, and so is love."

Services like Wetpaint not only facilitate the creation of multimedia digital shrines for loved one – they also make love statements public. Some users even encourage visitors to vote on whether the couple will make it to the altar – or predict which one will break up.

"With social networking websites, you send a love note and it's gone," says Kevin Flaherty, vice president for marketing at Wetpaint. "The new idea is to express your love with a permanent video or a whole picture album and make it public."

There are differing generational views on the new options – as conversations at any local wired coffee shop will reveal.

"Matchmaking and social-networking sites are going crazy with Valentine's Day," says Penny Hargitay, a 20-something clicking away on a laptop at a local Starbucks in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She welcomes the explosive growth of Facebook, the college social network, because it means more kinds of messages can be crafted – and she can keep track of who courts whom.

By monitoring the "news feed" function of her Facebook account, she is tracking the Valentine's messages and gifts exchanged by her friends.

"Everyone I know is doing this," she says. "Since the last time I logged on there are dozens of poems, essays, and at least 20 gift icons showing who is getting gifts."

Joan Grundtvig, a retired school teacher sipping a chai tea latte at the next table, says investing that much time in "other watching" is outrageous.

"Kids today are so busy text messaging and writing e-mails, they think it's too much trouble to pick up the phone and call, let alone actually write a Valentine," she says.

Alex Huf, a Santa Monica College student, says the Internet has expanded the notion of Valentine's Day beyond the motive of public (or private) declarations of romantic love.

"Social-networking sites have reinvented the holiday because they've allowed it to become less emotionally charged than it was," says Mr. Huf.

Many singles who once felt left out for not being in a relationship no longer have to run for cover on Valentine's Day, he adds.

"Now with just a couple of clicks of the mouse you can send a little gesture that doesn't have to have as much gravity as roses, or chocolate, or a card from a store," Huf says. "You can tell more people, 'Hey, I care for you, I'm thinking of you, you are important to me'."

As singles find ways to celebrate Valentine's Day by hanging out online, couples are also making use of technology to stay connected, says Michelle R. Callahan, a relationship expert and development psychologist for Skype, an Internet phone service.

"Technology has completely changed the way that couples are in touch with each other," says Dr. Callahan.

A recent Skype poll found about three in four US adults have a significant other, and among those who do, 94 percent say technology is at least somewhat important to being able to communicate with their partner when they're apart. Three in four say technology is important or very important, and about half say technology is very important.

There are pros and cons to affection going digital and public, say social anthropologists. Some worry about sexual predation and identity fraud. Are the correspondents who they say they are, and how much personal information is getting into the wrong hands?

Others suggest that the proliferation of love pronouncements via the Internet is recasting social norms of what constitutes public and private information.

"The Internet is opening up a vast web of potential connections to others so that the possibility of a love connection is far larger," says Robert Rosenwein, a sociologist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "Paradoxically, there is also a new boldness to make proclamations that essentially become public that might be regretted later. Online, people get to a level of personal disclosure about their feelings much more quickly than they do face to face ... and they fall in love more quietly without the additional visual cues of being together."

Whatever form pronouncements of love take, experts and lovers alike agree on two principles. One is that the more effort someone puts into sending a message, the more weighty its effect.

"Yeah, taking the time to send a card is definitely more time-intensive than an e-mail," says Huf. "And hand writing a letter is way at the top of the list. You don't even have a spell-check function for that."

The other principle is that the needs of the human heart seem unchanged through the ages.

"You can look at all these technological changes and think things are so different from earlier centuries," says Libby O'Connell, chief historian at History.com, the website of the History Channel. "But there has always been a certain impulse in human existence to proclaim your love."

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