Facebook: Love in the Age of Social Networking

Katie Vojtko had been dating her boyfriend for eight months. The two had met at a party at the University of Pittsburgh, where both of them were students. The attraction was instant: he asked Vojtko out, the two became a couple, things were good. But then one day Vojtko logged on to Facebook and noticed something funny: her "boyfriend" had changed his relationship status to "single." "I'll never forget it," Vojtko remembers. "I was at one of the libraries on campus with my best friend. I logged on, and on my newsfeed, it said, 'Brad is no longer in a relationship.' I was like, 'What?!'"

It took a moment to comprehend, but Vojtko realized she'd just been dumped—on Facebook. She immediately texted Brad: "'Thanks for letting me know you wanted to end this relationship,'" she quipped. She then changed her status message, too—and immediately started receiving notes from friends. "Are you OK?" one asked. "What happened?" questioned another. It was months before she'd talk to Brad again.

It wasn't so long ago that the idea of a college romance playing out online—for better or for worse—would have been deemed weird, nerdy, or just plain pathetic. As the thinking went, if you had to go to the Web to find a mate, or break up with one, it must have meant you weren't capable of attracting anyone in the real world. But then MySpace came along, and Facebook took over—and today, courtship has become a flurry of status messages, e-mail flirtation, and, not so uncommonly, breakups that play out publicly for all 400 of your not-so-closest friends. And while a Facebook split is clearly not the ideal, Katie Vojtko has been on the other side of it, too: she ended a recent romance through an e-mail—to which she never heard back. "It's not something I'm proud of," says the 22-year-old, who graduated in April. "But technology just makes dating so much easier."

Gone is the awkward etiquette of the past. Now a relationship may still begin by locking eyes across a crowded bar, but instead of asking for a phone number, the next step almost surely involves a Facebook friendship offer. Then may come an e-mail exchange, a conversation on IM, maybe even an flirtatious text message. But there are at least three methods of communicating that are likely to come before an actual verbal conversation. "These are natural stages of relationship progression that have just become a ubiquitous part of college culture now," says Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Souther California, in Los Angeles, who has studied dating online. "And you don't even have to be on the computer to engage in it."

That can be a good thing, with the Web serving as a kind of buffer zone for uncomfortable interaction. It's easier to face rejection, there aren't lulls in conversation or geographic boundaries—and social networking is like a window into the lives of potential mates. Say two people meet on Facebook, though a mutual friend. Immediately, they know whether the other person is single—without having to ask. They can see where that person grew up, their political interests, whether they're "looking for a relationship" or only interested in "hooking up." It's all the details a person might encounter on a first or second date, without ever having to go on one. As David Yarus, a recent graduate of Babson College, outside of Boston, puts it: "Facebook has taken the potentially awkward first stages of flirting [and] getting to know someone into the comfort of your own home."

That idea, college students agree, has changed the dating scene dramatically. It's made it easier to approach each other, to talk casually, to get to know one another and feel out romantic potential without ever having to truly put themselves out there. It's made the dating process public, so that a breakup like Vojtko's is followed by concern—or even blatant propositions. It can also provide an unforeseen leg up in the dating game. David Hein zinger, a 24-year-old new-media specialist in New York, recently asked a girl he met at a happy hour to dinner. She immediately friended him on Facebook—and he checked out her profile. When it came time for dinner, he took advantage of a detail the girl didn't remember her Facebook profile had divulged: that she was a vegetarian. "I texted something like 'Not sure if you're into vegetarian food, but there's a new place I've been dying to try,' to which, of course, she responded 'YES!" says Heinzinger. "I looked like a mind reader, when in fact she provided me with all of the necessary info."

It certainly makes things easier. But the more technology at our fingertips, of course, the more novel the idea that a guy—or girl—would be willing to go the extra mile. "My friends and I have found that it's the men who do not use these easy forms of communication that we find most attractive," says Vojtko. And it's the girls the guys find most attractive, says Heinzinger, for whom they'll make that extra effort. "I remember the feeling you get when she gives you her number; the excitement to call her and ask her out; asking her friends what her favorite food is so you can take her somewhere great," he says. "I would still do that the hard way if it was someone I was really into." Of course, he adds, the chances are all that information is online already.