CASANOVA`S OF THE VIRTUAL WORLD
HOW BOYS PRESENT THEMSELVES ON DATING WEBSITES1
As the identity of the young is largely shaped through the feedback they receive from their peers, the impression-
management has become an essential part in the lives of the youth, both in the real world and also in the virtual
worlds of the Internet.
The aim of the paper is to analyse how young men present themselves in the photographs of dating websites
in the Baltic States. Dating websites of Rate (Estonia), Face (Latvia) and Point (Lithuania) are known as portals
where people can post a short description of themselves and photos, so that other portal users can give points and rate
what they see. The purpose of my study was to analyse how the boys on these websites formulate their masculine
identities in order to appeal to potential partners.
Content analysis involving elements of visual analysis methods developed by Goffman (1979), Kress and
van Leeuwen (1996), Umiker-Sebeok (1996), Kang (1997), and Bell (2001), was carried out to analyse the photos
of girls who appeared in the “TOP 100 of the most remarkable men” of Rate, Face and Point, in a period of six
months. Altogether 117 men from Rate, 100 from Face and 113 from Point where analysed to find out how the boys
market themselves on dating websites.
The results of the analysis suggest that the photos of the most remarkable boys play with two contradictory types of
Keywords: gender identity, masculinity, visual analysis, adolescence, communities in the new media
The aim of this article is to introduce the reader to the everyday worlds of Estonian, Latvian and
Lithuanian twenty-first century Casanovas. These young men do not need to waste their energy
dancing in ballrooms or serenading under the balconies; however they know exactly how to win
the hearts of women – that is, through the Internet.
The article will discuss what kind of patterns are chosen for creating virtual gender
identities among the most remarkable men in the dating websites of Rate (www.rate.ee), Face
(www.face.lv ) and Point (www.point.lt). These websites have become daily meeting places for
thousands of youngsters in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who are in search of new friends,
acquaintances, kindred spirits or even life partners.
At first I shall discuss upon the role computer mediated communication may have to the
identity building. Then I shall give a short introduction to the dating websites of Rate, Face and
Point. After introducing the method and data of my study, I will concentrate on the ways the most
remarkable boys on these afore-mentioned websites construct their gender identities.
1 The preparation of this article was supported by the research grant No.ETF6968, financed by
the Estonian Science Foundation.
Creating virtual impressions
Computer mediated communication has enlivened the social interaction of thousands of people.
Thousands of Internet users can be found communicating in chat rooms, chatting in MSN,
commenting in forums, or surfing on dating websites in order to make some new friends, enliven
their love life or just pass their time. All those people who are socializing via Internet are just as
anxious to create favorable impressions of themselves as the ones that are meeting face-to-face.
According to Goffman (1959) impressions are formed through interpreting two kinds of “sign
activity”: the expression given and the expression given off. The former of which is expressed
during verbal communication, the latter is expressed through clothing, posture, bodily gestures,
size, age, racial characteristics, appearance, i.e. ones looks in general. In order to find out what
kind of qualities and features are thought to be essential by the potential partner a person may
have to “perform” several acts before receiving the approval they were in search of.
According to Sherry Turkle (1995) the Internet has become „a significant social
laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterizes
postmodern life” (Turkle 1995, 180). Furthermore, in the new media environments people „may
easily switch from the „real” to the chosen „ought” identity” (Petkova 2005, 6). Nevertheless,
even if one is allowed to adopt whatever identity one chooses in virtual environments, studies
have shown that men and women still tend to offer attributes thought to be sought by the opposite
sex (Albright 2001; Schmidt & Buss 1996). In order to know what kind of qualities and features
are desirable and accepted by the society, Danah Boyd suggests that „an individual must be
constantly aware of the environmental feedback that they are receiving and adjust accordingly”
(Boyd 2001, 110)
According to Festinger's (1954) social comparison theory, people who are uncertain about
their abilities and opinions tend to compare and evaluate themselves by making comparisons to
similar others. Young people, who often feel the need to meet societal expectations, therefore
unconsciously engage in social comparisons. Furthemore, studies have shown (cf. Brown &
Gilligan, 1992) that for youth, the opinions of friends are immsensely important as „the collective
consciousness of peer codes is often the determinant of self-esteem” (Merskin 2006, 54).
Nowadays it is quite easy to find out what kinds of qualities are needed in order to
become popular and remarkable in the eyes of the peers. For example, one just has to take one
look around the different popularity charts in the websites of Rate, Face and Point to see what
kind boys are the most remarkable in the eyes of the peers.
Communication and dating websites
Identically formed communication and dating websites of Rate, Face and Point were all built by
the same person, Estonian IT- student Andrei Korobeinik. He wanted to create a website where
people could post photos of themselves in order to receive comments and points from other users.
All of his three projects have been immensely successful - Rate (www.rate.ee) with its 340,017
users is the most popular website in Estonia, Face (www.face.lv) is one of the biggest sites in
Latvian Internet with more than 111,970 users and there are also more than 43,000 users of Point
(www.point.lt ) in Lithuania.
All of these numbers are extremely large for small countries like the Baltic States and
give us a reason to believe that these websites have become a phenomenon of a kind. However,
the incredible popularity of these websites, especially among the young, is in fact based on a
simple and well-known truth about human nature – most of the users of the sites are driven by „a
need to communicate, a need to be exposed (social feedback), also to make new acquaintances
and to actualize themselves and to have the clear picture of the surrounding“(www.rate.ee).
Furthermore, one of the main reasons why Rate, Face and Point have become so popular among
the young lies in the fact that these portals create an opportunity to receive social feedback. Am I
sexy and hot enough? Am I trendy and fashionable compared to the others? Does this hairdo look
good on me? Do the chicks like my new nice-guy image? Comments by other website users give
a perfect opportunity to find answers for all of the questions that are constantly on the minds of
the youth. Furthermore, belonging to the different popularity TOP` s that are formed on these
pages provides the young with an opportunity to collect social capital that is useful not just in the
virtual world but also “convertible” in the “real” life.
Method and data
The study at hand is focused on the “TOP 100 of the most remarkable men” in Rate, Face and
Point. This TOP is formed of young men who other website users believe to be the most
fascinating and cool, not to mention handsome, men on the site. In order to become part of the
TOP 100 one has to be included in the so called “attention list” by other website users. Every
user can form ones own “attention list”, i.e. one can mark the names one wants to keep track on
constantly in order to look at new photos or receive all the other information about the
personalities of their favorites.
The study is based on the photos of men who appeared in the “TOP 100 of the most
remarkable men” of Rate, Face and Point, over a period of six months. From August 2005-
February 2006 all in all 144 male users of Rate, 140 from Face and 152 from Point had a chance
to belong in the “TOP 100 of the most remarkable men”. Nevertheless, not all of the young men
who appeared in the TOP 100 could be analysed, as some of them had taken down all of their
photos and others had removed their profile completely from the database. Therefore, altogether
117 men from Rate, 100 from Face and 113 from Point where analysed to find out how the boys
market themselves on dating websites.
Content analysis involving elements of visual analysis methods developed by Goffman
(1979), Kress and van Leeuwen (1996), Umiker-Sebeok (1996), Kang (1997), and Bell (2001),
was carried out to analyse the most recently added photo of the boys in the TOP 100. The method
of “reading images” that was used for the analysis was developed from social semiotic theory and
makes explicit the ways people produce and communicate meaning through the spatial
configurations of visual elements in the western societies. According to Kress and van Leeuwen
(1996) meaning is encoded in the structures of images: the form of representation; the
presentation of people, objects and landscape; the composition; and its modality and medium.
The aim of the analysis was to find out how is gender identity constructed on the photos
and what ways do the youngsters use in order to market themselves on dating website.
The main coding categories that will be further discussed in the paper were conceptually
defined as follows:
• Social Distance. A distance from were the photo is taken. (intimate, close
personal, close social, far personal, far social, public)
• Location. The setting from were the photo is taken – domestic environment
(apartment, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom etc.); public space (nightclub, office,
school, department store, etc); nature (woods, near a lake/sea/river; in the
park/garden, etc.); or in the city (on the street; near a (famous) building, etc.),
decontextualised (not visible where the photo is taken).
• Participants. The category includes the accompanying persons on the photo
(alone, same sex friend(s); a friend(s) of the opposite sex; group of mixgender
friends, child(ren); group of people at the background) as well as the animate
and inanimate objects visible on the photo.
• Activities. An activity the person is engaged in doing while being
photographed (“posing”, “entertaining”, “romance”, “doing sports”, “everyday
In the following paragraphs I will introduce some of the main findings of my study.
Category of Participants
The majority of men who belonged to the TOP 100 posed alone in the photographs. There were
66 (56%) men posing alone in Rate, 58 (58%) in Face and 79 (70%) in Point (Graph 1).
Category of Participants
Graph 1: Category of Participants
Appearing alone on the photos can be seen as an adequate choice for posing on a dating website.
Researchers (Schmitt and Buss 1996) have found that sending signals of sexual availability is
especially effective in case of women in search of short term relationships. By creating an image