ThesisPDF Available

The Influence of Social Media on Modern Romantic Relationships : A Literary Analysis of New Media Studies



The role of social media technology has had a profound influence on modern romantic relationships in the past decade. My research critically reviews sociological literature from the field of new media studies that focus on the heightened impact of social media usage in the beginning to maintenance stages of romantic relationships. Moreover, gaps in the current literature are explored, such as limitations in the demographics and romantic relationship stages that are analyzed for data collection. For example, the paucity of published literature regarding how social media affects relationships past once users meet their partners is examined. Furthermore, this research questions the scope and focus of existing empirical case studies as well as highlights the importance of literary representation and the cruciality of diversity in this emerging field. It is important to note that whilst I focus specifically on social media (eg. Facebook), however, this does not exclude dating websites and applications (eg. Tinder) that utilize social media profiles within its algorithms. Ultimately, future research must become more invested in inclusivity, namely who and what is represented both topically and empirically, to allow for more insightful exploration into this burgeoning research area regarding the influence of social media on modern romantic relationships.
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The Influence of Social Media on Modern
Romantic Relationships
A Literary Analysis of New Media Studies
A dissertation presented by
Elizabeth L Ulanova
The University of Cambridge Department of Sociology
for the degree of
Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) in Sociology of Media and Culture
University of Cambridge
Downing College, Cambridge
04 August 2020
Word Count: 11266
Supervisor: Dr. Rikke Amundsen
© Elizabeth Ulanova, 2020
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The role of social media technology has had a profound influence on modern
romantic relationships in the past decade. This dissertation critically reviews empirical
literature from the field of new media studies (situated within the broader field of media
and communications) that focus on the heightened impact of social media usage in the
beginning to maintenance stages of romantic relationships. Moreover, gaps in the
current literature are explored, such as limitations in the demographics and romantic
relationship stages that are analyzed for data collection. For example, the paucity of
published literature regarding how social media affects relationships past once users
meet their partners is examined. Furthermore, this review questions the scope and focus
of existing empirical case studies as well as highlights the importance of literary
representation and the cruciality of diversity in this emerging field. It is important to
note that this research is focused specifically on social media (such as Facebook),
however, this does not exclude dating websites and applications (such as Tinder) that
utilize social media profiles within its algorithms. Ultimately, future research must
become more invested in inclusivity, namely who and what is represented both topically
and empirically, to allow for more insightful exploration into this burgeoning research
area regarding the influence of social media on modern romantic relationships.
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Throughout this project, I would like to thank the Cambridge Department of
Sociology and Downing College, Cambridge for all of your support throughout this
academic year. On a personal note, I would like to thank my supervisor Dr. Rikke
Amundsen for your endless insight, Dr. Manali Desai and Dr. Liping Xu for your
continuous understanding, Charlotte Dawson for your never-ending support, and
Yotsawat (Tiger) Tawantalerngrit for your wisdom.
To the best Downing College-mates, thank you for making my master’s year
beyond memorable. To every single night in the MCR to the times spent in Battcock
Lodge, every moment enriched my overall Cambridge experience. Moreover, I could
not have made it through the Covid-19 lockdown without your encouragement and
companionship. From Fleur Nash who always gave me the best advice to Madoka
Hazemi who never ceased to make me smile. The list goes on and on; I can proudly say
I truly have the kindest friends anyone can ask for, and I am lucky to be a part of our
lovely group.
To my sociology department colleagues and master’s cohort; thank you for
always being so supportive of one another I am still in awe I was able to be a part of
such a remarkable group of scholars. Thank you for all of the feedback, especially
Flavia Saxler and Alex Newhall. And lastly, to my closest friends back in New York,
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California and London, thank you for pushing me to apply to Cambridge, you are all my
backbone and inspiration.
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In spring 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic coincided with the planned start of my
fieldwork which was originally slated to include a large amount of qualitative research
focused on interviewing and analyzing the daily digital communication fostered
between exclusive, romantic couples. The aim of that project was to explore the role of
social media technology in regard to the quality of interpersonal human relationships.
However, with the abrasive and unexpected disruptions to ‘normal life’ from the
ongoing pandemic, my own reality shifted overnight from research to instead, the
ramifications of undergoing several personal hardships to the difficulty of living within
intense lockdown conditions. Thus, to prevent an intermission to my studies, I adjusted
the structure, scope, and aim of my master’s dissertation in order to accommodate the
suspension of my fieldwork whilst still exploring how existing new media impact our
culture. The reasons for this were to both facilitate unforeseen Covid-19 difficulties as
well to maintain the integrity and scholarship within my original research interest. The
result, as advised by my supervisor and program director, was adjusting my dissertation
to a literature review of roughly 10,000 words from the original qualitative approach of
20,000 words. Hence, allowing me to both apply a deeper topical approach to the field
of new media as well to better explore the foundations of this emerging, yet rapidly
growing area of study.
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I. Introduction……………………………………………………….....7
II. Research Scope………………….......................................................10
III. Approach to Literature……………………………………….….…..14
IV. Literary Analysis
Stages of Romance……………………………………………..……15
Representation of Romance………………………………………….30
V. Conclusion……………………....……………………………..…….45
VI. Bibliography..…………………………………………………...…....47
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The rise of digital technology and social media has greatly influenced romantic
relationships in the 21st century. This has become especially visible in spring 2020,
during the global Covid-19 pandemic, where billions of people across the world were
locked inside their households using social media as one of the key tools for
communication between friends, family, and lovers. In an age where roughly 3 billion
people use social media on a daily basis, the 2020 pandemic further increased social
media usage across the planet leading to new digital trends to progressively influence
the rather analog lives of the everyday (Number of Social Media Users Worldwide,
2020). Hinge, a dating application, and its new service ‘Date From Home’ is the
exciting virtual place for a first blind date, and video chatting facilitated via media
applications such as Zoom is the setting for the honeymoon phase of one’s relationship
(Savage, 2020). In April 2020, within roughly one month of lockdown conditions in the
United States, articles that note both the increased digital usage within the dating
environment as well as speculative opinions about the permanency of the social media
permeation topped news feeds, such as Eliana Dockterman’s (2020) Time article “The
Coronavirus is Changing How We Date, Perhaps Permanently”. Noting the increased
usage of social media within prospective couples in the pursuit of romantic
relationships, Dockterman (2020) highlights that since many people are currently:
Home, alone and in some cases without a job, single people are spending more time
swiping right on dating apps to find love, particularly in the cities hardest hit by the
virus: Bumble reports a 21% increase in messages sent in Seattle, 23% increase in New
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York City and 26% increase in San Francisco since March 12, a day after the World
Health Organization labeled the coronavirus a global pandemic. The use of in-app video
chatting on Bumble, a feature many users didn’t even know existed before the
coronavirus spread, increased 93% across the country.
In other words, researchers and journalists alike are drawing key connections between
events happening in the physical world, such as the Covid-19 pandemic forcing people
to stay inside during lockdown measures, to increased activity in the digital world which
indicate a societal reaction. The major journalistic publications' apparent concern with
the influence of social media within romantic relationships further grounds this subject
as a contemporary topical issue. Moreover, only a month further into lockdown in May
2020, journalists began noting not only increased social media usage in finding partners
through the usage of social media based dating applications (such as the aforementioned
Bumble), but also how the continued reliance on digital media applications within the
romantic landscape was also affecting behavior changes. Specifically, changes in
behavior towards prospective partners both online and offline, as well as the perspective
and usage habits users have towards the technology itself.
The New York Times’s Helen Fisher (2020), identifies that “before Covid-19,
only 6 percent of these singles were using video chatting to court, [now], 69 percent are
open to video chatting with a potential partner”; there is a two-fold social phenomenon
being expressed in this statement alone. In other words, single adults are not only
increasingly using social media in their relationships but also more notably, as
demonstrated in these usage statistics, have developed a willingness to video chat using
social media in their romantic pursuits signifying a behavioral shift that is becoming
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developed in parallel to the digital permeation caused by factors in the physical world.
As Professor Bill Dutton's team at the University of Oxford highlights that “the Internet
has the potential to change lives for better or worse by reconfiguring social networks,
ranging from creating an expanded set of weak ties to introducing people to their next
best friend or spouse”, there is an underlying note in the relevancy of research into
digital technology enabled by the Internet due to both its capability, permeation and
disruption to human lives (Rheingold, 1994; Turkle, 1995 as cited in Dutton et al., 2009,
p. 3). Hence, in the same wavelength, the combination of: increased solitude generated
by lockdown conditions currently globally present due to Covid-19, the increased
figures of social media usage as well as the influence of such usage on romantic
relationships only adds more significance to this timely topic.
The research aim of this dissertation is not to answer whether social media is
negative or positive for relationship development, but rather the objective is to review
existing literature focused on gaining and maintaining romantic relationships via the
usage of new media and in this case, social media. This research not only summarizes
what researchers currently understand about this digital phenomenon, but also identifies
topical gaps that need to be filled in order to strengthen the field of new media studies.
Furthermore, this dissertation undertakes a sociological approach to the broader field of
media and communications, which is largely dominated by psychological approaches
(Vorderer et al., 2016, p. 695). In other words, new media studies engage with the use of
digital media in everyday life and how it shapes social relationships (Manovich, 2008,
p. 1).Subsequently, the focus turns to how the usage of new media informs romantic
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relations, specifically, how social media influences relationships in the modern age as
presented through the past decade from 2010 to 2020. For the purposes of this
dissertation, ‘modern’ is defined to within the last ten years, therefore this literature
review consists of cases and studies from the most recent decade that review the
influence social media has on different aspects of modern romantic relationships. Given
the increasing number of relationships that have partially moved online - or entirely due
to the Covid-19 pandemic - research exploring the influence of new media is especially
important. Hence this literature review is timely as it not only explores the phenomenon
of how to find partners using social media and the maintenance of partners using social
media, but also the significant limitations of the scope and focus of existing case
The research scope of this dissertation is specifically regarding romantic
relationships that are defined as not strictly platonic relationships: relationships that are
formed with the purpose for romantic interactions and communication that result in
either dating, or partnership. This includes relationships that were not initially romantic
but further developed into a relationship that encompass the above qualities which result
in either dating, or partnership. This chosen angle results in the focus on the usage of
new media and digital tech in finding and maintaining romantic partners. It is important
to note that this research is focused specifically on social media (such as Facebook), and
not exclusively dating websites and applications (such as Tinder). Social media usage
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such as Facebook translates to the communication space as couples use products such as
Facebook Messenger to communicate. Yet, as the focus of this research is on social
media, it does not completely exclude dating applications. This is because it is
impossible to distinguish between social media (Facebook) and dating applications
(such as Tinder that requires the creation of a Facebook profile) as a large number of
dating applications use social media profiles within their algorithms. This is highlighted
in a 2014 London study, a group of researchers defined social media as “online
applications that allow for the creation and exchange of user-generated content, and
which can be divided into five different types: (1) collaborative projects (e.g,
Wikipedia), (2) blogs or microblogs (e.g, WordPress and Twitter), (3) content
communities (e.g, YouTube), (4) social networking sites (e.g, Facebook) and (5) virtual
gaming or social worlds (e.g, Second Life)” (Williams et al., 2014, p. 2). Using this
definition, the research group analyzed exactly how social media intervened rather than
existed parallel to human consumption and behavior. For example, Tinder is used as a
means of finding partners with social media, and then users typically transition to other
social media sites (such as Facebook) to maintain the relationships through in-app
However, there is an awareness that online dating has existed for extensive
periods, especially those that pre-date the rise and creation of contemporary, popular
social media sites. Specifically, since 1986 when “Gregory Scott Smith releases a BBS
that allows individuals to find others in their geographic location [that] ultimately
[became] the precursor that becomes, which is the longest running
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online dating service” (Punyanunt-Carter & Wrench, 2017, p. 4). Nonetheless, in the
past few years there has been numerous changes to both the different social media and
online dating platforms to the extent and influence that the usage of these digital
applications has on the romantic lives of their users. This ranges from the creation of
new media websites and mediums that have developed from Facebook, WhatsApp, and
Twitter to how these social media tools then became incorporated into the creation of
dating applications such as Tinder in 2012 that utilize Facebook in its algorithm. Hence,
it is for these purposes that this research is not on online dating, but instead, on social
media as this new and novel permeation of social media has a much larger effect and
user database then just online dating, such as 2.4 billion Facebook users versus the mere
9 million users (Number of Social Media Users Worldwide, 2020; The
Match Group, 2020). There is no longer a niche of certain subsets of the population
going into online dating websites to find or maintain relationships but instead, a large
majority of the population are all using social media as an ingrained tool in their lives.
Therefore if social media is central to so many lives, as is the technology of computers
and phones, then the effects and impacts of social media on romantic relationships go
far beyond exploring a niche but instead represent a novel phenomenon that impacts
romantic relationships on all sublevels. This is firmly a contemporary issue as the flux
of dating applications that increased beginning with Tinder only began after 2012,
which only means 8 years to the present day; a timeline that is insufficient for long term
studies (IQBAL, 2020).
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This dissertation will engage critically with academic literature on new media
studies by addressing the main trends from what is presently known about users.
Specifically, this work dissects literature that reviews how different forms of social
media affect romantic relationships. First, it will outline the different stages that
researchers currently look at within a romantic relationship and the social media
influence within the couples that do, specifically the beginning stage of finding partners
and the maintenance stage of a new relationship. This dissertation posits that the present
literature highlights the relevance of the influence of social media on interpersonal
relationships through both growth of usage of social tools in regard to locating potential
partners, as well as romantic communication between partners. However, the existing
gaps of research within this field implicates that there is currently not enough literature
to make any concrete conclusions of the long-term implications of the influence of
social media on all users only niche subfields of data gathered under controlled
groups. Second, it will highlight the demographics currently present in available studies
and the lack of representation in the field. Specifically, it draws upon social
representation theory such as those written by Jen Webb (2009) in order to pinpoint that
this subset of new media research has a crucial need to be more diverse in its research
demographics. Particularly, this representational need would not only give future
researchers a comprehensive representation of the individuals affected by this
phenomenon but most importantly, further expand the scholarly inquiry of how social
media influences modern romantic relationships. Last, it concludes that future research
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must explore the stages of romantic relationships beyond the beginning stage as well as
be more inclusive in terms of who gets represented in scholarly literature.
It is important to note that this dissertation will not review literature regarding
the ending stage of romantic relationships. Hence, although there is limited literature
that do cover this stage, the focus of this critical review is on the substantial limitations
in the existing empirical literature from the field of new media studies regarding the
earlier stages within a romantic relationship. In other words, topical issues must first be
addressed in the beginning and maintenance stages before further scholarly inquiry into
later stages can be made. Furthermore, the empirical and review articles in this
dissertation, written by media, communication, and sociology researchers (mostly
situated in the United States and the United Kingdom) were located using the digital
search engines of Google Scholar, the University of Cambridge’s online library tool,
iDiscover, and Columbia University’s online library tool, CLIO. The accessibility of
these articles is attributed to my position as a graduate researcher at Cambridge and as
an alumna of Columbia. Using English language default settings, key phrases that were
entered were sentences such as “social media in romantic relationships”, “social media
impact in romance”, “Facebook in romantic relationships”, and “social media influence
in marriage”. These terminologies were selected for the sheer purpose of being as
specific as possible regarding literature in the chosen topic of social media influences in
romantic relationships. The search results spanned texts that ranged from digital
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sociology to Internet studies as it became increasingly clear that the general topic of
‘social media’ generated much interest in the wider academic community. Hence, the
following chosen reviewed literature were found to be the most relevant texts that
undertake a sociological approach to this subset of new media studies while generating
insight within the broader field of media and communication. The aforementioned
methodology in locating this literature is crucial to this review as personal
characteristics such as my geographic, linguistic, and educational position greatly
informed my search and thus, further informed my results. In other words,
acknowledging my own research parameters allows me to be reflexive in my approach
as “reflexivity refers to the researcher’s ability to be able to self-consciously refer to
[herself] in relation to the production of knowledge about research topics" (Roulston,
2010, p. 116). Moreover, the examination of my own subjectivity would also influence
this review in terms of both the limitations and avenues for future research in this field,
especially in regard to representation.
Stages of Romance
In this section, I analyze the literature on new media studies in regard to
empirical cases focusing on the beginning and maintenance stages of a romantic
relationship. A significant portion of literature written regarding the influence of social
media on romantic relationships looks at the use of: online social media networks,
online social media websites and dating applications that utilize social media profiles to
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find romantic partners in Europe and the United States of America. More interestingly,
these different mediums are not strictly separated into different academic categories as
search results and literature tend to group them together. For instance, in the 2017 work
“The Impact of Social Media in Modern Romantic Relationships”, a collection of
empirical articles written from top communication and media academics in the United
States (edited by Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter and Jason S. Wrench) ranged from
researchers inspecting users that post their relationship statuses in their online Facebook
profiles to those that date through mobile dating applications catered to the gay
community. This range of new media platforms and the usages for them in terms of
romantic relationships, whether it is for seeking a new partner or declaring the status of
a current partner displays that this field of study is a seemingly new and young
phenomenon. In other words, as shown through this literary categorization, despite
belonging to the same general umbrella of Internet-based digital media tools -
seemingly very different platforms such as a social media website one can access on
their laptop versus a dating application that one downloads on their smartphone can be
placed under the same or similar category. Moreover, paired with the aforementioned
journalistic articles, this further reiterates that this research topic is a contemporary issue
and area of interest.
It is important to recognize that although this dissertation is focused on social
media, rather than specifically online dating sites, these two categories, as already
discussed in the introduction, are not distinctively defined. Social media accounts
(specifically Facebook) are generally used to log in and create a profile on both dating
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mobile applications and online websites, and therefore the usage of social media is
literally integrated into the online dating space. Additionally, the definition of online
dating in the theoretical space can apply to two domains in the digital space, dating
websites (such as, and dating applications (such as Tinder), as both require
the user to ‘go online’ in order to find partners since either service would require
Internet usage. Furthermore, there is a large case of duality applications and websites as
companies capitalize user numbers by having both a digital application and website
presence for the same product. Liesel Sharabi and John P. Caughlin (2017) writes that:
With the widespread adoption of social network sites (SNSs) has come a proliferation
of social media use in personal relationships [as of 2017] more than half (65 percent) of
adults are on SNSs (Perrin 2015), the most popular of which continues to be Facebook,
with over 1 billion active users (Facebook 2016). (p. 19)
Therefore it is the presence, and more importantly, the gravity of these statistics that
pushes researchers to currently question “the use of social media in relationship
development” as although “users are more interested in maintaining ties with existing
offline contacts rather than forging new ones”, there is “evidence that people sometimes
do use social media to establish close personal relationships” (Tong & Walther, 2011;
Bryant, Marmo, & Ramirez, 2011 as cited in Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017, pp. 19-20).
Hence, although the literature acknowledges that this research topic is not applicable to
every person, it does affect a large enough of the general population’s romantic
relationships (in Europe and the United States) to garner academic inquiry. Thus as the
Internet is “the second most popular venue for meeting a romantic partner, after meeting
through friends” for heterosexual couples, and furthermore, “among Americans who
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married or began long-term committed relationships between 2005 and 2012, more than
one-third had met online”, these statistics open the conversation in regards to the
influence of social media usage on modern romantic relationships (Cacioppo et al.,
2013, as cited in Toma & D’Angelo, 2017, p. 147). Specifically this conversation is
pinpointed on the finding of potential partners that range from the quality of the
potential partners found (in terms of suitability for the seeker for an actual romantic
relationship to develop) to the quantity of potential partners that can be located using
social media. In practice, this will range from initiating communication between
individuals through messaging via social media platforms to utilizing online dating
websites or dating applications that incorporate social media profiles. Simply speaking,
at the beginning of any romantic relationship is generally the causal point of meeting
one’s respective partner. Therefore, whilst this may have taken place more commonly
through friends or family in the physical world, researchers have taken an interest in
seeing how people use new media to find new partners in the digital space. Catalina L.
Toma and Jonathan D. D’Angelo (2017)’s article identified that “online dating has
profoundly altered the landscape of romantic connections in the twenty-first century” (p.
147). Furthermore, it is not just an increase in turning online to find romantic partners
but more importantly, proved and tracked success of finding these partners (Toma &
D’Angelo, 2017, p. 147). The importance of these literary writings establishes that an
ongoing conversation in this field is as aforementioned, focused specifically on how
people are increasingly finding partners online, and in that role, the very beginning
stage of a relationship. Furthermore “one nationally representative survey of U.S. adults
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show[ed] that 17 percent of the heterosexual couples and 41 percent of the same-sex
couples who had met in the previous ten years did so online” (Rosenfeld & Thomas,
2012, as cited in Toma & D’Angelo, 2017, p. 147).
Similarly so, more than a decade ago, a research team at the Oxford Internet
Institute (OII) composing mainly of William Dutton, Bernie Hogan, Nai Li, Grant
Blank, and Monica Whitty began a research project titled “Me, My Spouse and the
Internet: Meeting, Dating and Marriage in the Digital Age” (2008-2010) that was
focused on addressing “key questions related to the prevalence and patterns of
Internet-enabled meeting and marriage” (Dutton et al., 2008b, p. 2). This project
spanned several articles, reports, and presentations with multiple collaborators. A large
portion of this project was an analysis of survey research data collected in Britain and
Australia that was also “when possible, [drew] comparisons with other survey data on
online relationships, such as from a survey on recently married individuals in the United
States” as well as “from general population data collected by the Oxford Internet
Surveys (OxIS)” (Dutton et al., 2008b, p. 2). As the project analyzed “the societal
implications of an increasing number of people making friends and possibly
establishing intimate relationships online”, the establishment factor in this research
question highlights a focus on the beginning of a relationship the finding stage
(Dutton et al., 2008b, p. 2). Therefore although “theoretical assumptions underpinning
many discussions of online relationships have tended to be technologically
deterministic, and focused on the role of the Internet in reducing or enhancing social
networks”, the Oxford team navigated away from this aim (Rice et al., 2007, as cited in
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Dutton et al., 2008b, p. 2). Specifically, the team acknowledged a research shift that was
previously focused on “whether or not the Internet will tend to isolate people or extend
their social networks” to their question of “which people use the Internet to make new
friends and, thereby, reconfigure their social networks” (Dutton et al., 2008b, p. 2).
Like Sharabi and Caughlin, the OII team also acknowledged the increased usage
of the Internet in terms of meeting partners, albeit working on surveys that focused
more specifically on British citizens. These bi-annual surveys showcased that “in 2007,
almost a quarter of Internet users (23%) had met someone online who they did not know
before” a 20 percent increase from 2005 (Dutton et al., 2008b, p. 2). However, apart
from the increase, the OII team put this data in perspective that “not only did Internet
users meet new friends online, about half of these individuals have gone on to meet one
or more of these virtual friends in person” (di Gennaro & Dutton, 2007; Dutton &
Helsper, 2007, as cited in Dutton et al., 2008b, p. 2). In this case, there is a general
consensus that among different researchers, who view data taken from different micro
and macro scales of different populations’ Internet usage are viewing the same result:
increased usages of Internet. Moreover, this result is then being further analyzed the
same way, by drawing conclusions that increased Internet usages equals to also more
people meeting online. By doing so, researchers are agreeing that this is an important
and main metric for the validity of this research aim. In Dutton's (2008b) project, the
team found that within United Kingdom based couples: individuals who meet online
value as well as experience more diversity in their potential partners (such as those from
a different age or educational bracket), place more emphasis on characteristics rather
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than emotions with a more cognitive approach to their romantic search (Dutton et al.,
2008b, p. 21). This literature highlights a key theme on the finding of partners through
digital means. More importantly, these reported key findings showcases that many
researchers are analyzing the increased usage of social media with both a sociological
and psychological approach. In other words, by noting key changes in the individual
behaviors in the research participants, the researchers then place this analysis as an
indicator for identifying the influence of the new media tools as a growing phenomenon
in a larger, sociological scale.
Now as the OII study was done in 2010, the more recent 2017 studies have not
shown that their preliminary findings have changed but rather that the research done in
finding partners have only gotten more specific. For instance, this topic have developed
and expanded into looking at social media based mediums beyond just online dating but
also into those, as aforementioned, into wider social media networks such as dating
applications that utilize social media profiles to find romantic partners in Europe and the
United States of America. In Joni Meenagh's (2015) research, the article investigates
how young Australians utilizes social media to flirt, date and break up within new
media environments (p. 458). Meenagh (2015) investigates the various stages within the
romantic relationship but places emphasis on the beginning stage as social media
“provide young people with different tools for negotiating the various stages of their
love/sex relationships” (p. 459). Therefore, by using the terminology ‘negotiate’,
Meenagh analyzes that social media gives individuals more power in their romantic
pursuits, hence, although being able to negotiate better terms does not necessarily mean
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better results, it can enhance the outcome. In the same wavelength, Meenagh (2015)
importantly identifies that while sexual subjectivities have remained largely similar
despite cultural shifts, new media technologies such as social media is highly influential
in the initiation stage of relationships (p. 459).
One example Meenagh (2015) highlights that “according to Pascoe (2010)
young people may make use of asynchronous written communication to maintain a
‘controlled casualness’ in their flirtations” and thus social media becomes a valuable
tool in the initiation stage (p. 459). Therefore, despite the difference in researchers,
research period, and select research participants, the overarching question remains
generally the same, in regard to examining the influence of social media in modern
romantic relationships. As aforementioned, the parameters and scopes have only been
further defined. Moreover, although literature produced by Meenagh and Dutton’s team
are geographically spaced apart, they are mentioned in this dissertation within the same
wavelength in order to establish that an ongoing conversation for the last decade has
been focused on the topical focal point of the phenomenon of people increasingly
finding partners through new media. As media and communication researchers have
highlighted, the “Internet has radically influenced the ways in which people in general
have been able to search for potential romantic partners” and hence, this radical tool,
have given researchers an enticing medium to examine the beginning stages of
relationships (Rodriguez & Huemmer, 2017, p. 82).
In regard to the topical research aim in garnering influence, the most crucial
stage within the length of a relationship to evaluate goes beyond just the beginning of a
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relationship. Hence, the largest form of index in showcasing impact is the quality of the
romantic relationships themselves which falls more under the category of the existent
maintenance of the relationship the stages that concede after having matched with
someone online. Researchers have highlighted:
Given that social media are important at the beginning and throughout many
relationships, it is important to understand the role of social media vis-à-vis other means
of communicating in developing relationships. Scholars have recently begun to explore
how different types of communication technologies, including SNSs, are being used for
relationship development but the literature has yet to reach a consensus on precisely
how patterns of media use change as relationships progress. (Fox, Warber, &
Makstaller, 2013; Yang, Brown, & Braun, 2014, as cited in Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017,
p. 19)
Here, Sharabi and Caughlin highlight the importance of looking at the overall
development throughout a relationship, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that not
enough literature has been generated in this area. In other words, this is the part of the
research that is the most important, but albeit also the most limited. In Sharabi’s and
Caughlin’s study, the researchers inspect this aforementioned ‘maintenance’ through
investigating the usage patterns of social media across different stages. In doing so, two
interrelated questions emerge “one concerning whether particular modes of
communication were used more or less frequently in different relational stages, and the
second concerning the relative frequency of mode usage within each stage” (Sharabi &
Caughlin, 2017, p. 22). An important issue here is not in regard to the ‘modes of
communication’ but rather how Sharabi and Caughlin consider and view what are the
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stages within a romantic relationship. In doing so, Sharabi and Caughlin (2017) draw
upon Mark Knapp’s relationship stages model from earlier attempts to quantify and
visualize different stages of a romantic relationship (p. 16).
Proposed by Knapp in 1978, Sharabi and Caughlin's presentation of Knapp’s
model helps readers understand that they also view that relationship development is
broken down into different stages with each stage as an escalation towards more
intimate relations (Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017, pp. 15-16). In detail, the stages begin with
first, initiation the very first mental and physical attraction to the prospective partner
and the beginning of engagement with one another (Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017, pp.
15-16). Followed by experimentation, in which there is exchanges of rudimentary
information as well as enhanced interactions, then intensification in which a relationship
evolves from a casual affair to a deeply personal interaction (Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017,
pp. 15-16). This is identified to be the stage where much more vulnerable mental and
physical involvement is included, such as declarations of love (Sharabi & Caughlin,
2017, pp. 15-16). The last two stages are integration where the two individuals’ lives
become more entwined with one another, and in turn, is more of a couple then of two
separate beings (Sharabi & Caughlin, 201,7 pp. 15-16). Followed lastly by “bonding in
the final stage” which is the official beginning of a mutually agreed upon and
committed, exclusive relationship
(Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017 pp. 15-16).
As these stages are defined by Knapp as a blueprint into examining the different
stages of a relationship, however, all of the stages here from initiating to bonding in the
final stage, is still the investigating the beginning of a relationship. This is because
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although each stage is detailed with a natural progression between each stage, all of
these stages are the escalation into a romantic relationship rather than the escalations
throughout a romantic relationship. Therefore, although Sharabi and Caughlin intended
to examine the maintenance stages of a relationship, they are actually examining more
in detail the beginning stages of a relationship. In this research study, it highlights a
disconnect between the intention of wanting to investigate further past the stage of
finding one partner, and the lack of theoretical and practical framework to do so. Thus,
although there are many stages that take place between the first ‘initiation’ to the
official formation of a relationship, researchers still need to examine what happens after
commitment in order to holistically evaluate the influence that social media has at all
stages of a relationship.
However, there are useful findings within the literature in this field of new
media studies. The empirical cases presented and analyzed in this field is particularly
effective in demonstrating the relevance and importance of conducting new media
studies on the influences of social media. Specifically, showcasing what researchers
currently understand of the influence social media has on romantic relationships in the
beginning stage and addressing it as part of a wider sociological phenomena. By
analyzing empirical cases, researchers have been able to make the correlation between
the usage of social media and an increase in the quantity of potential partners met. For
instance, although social media is seen as a relatively ‘new’ phenomena since for
example, the application Tinder, has only existed for 8 years, social media is not only
used by young people to seek romantic relationships. Derek Blackwell (2017)
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exclusively examines the online dating experience of mature adults in older
demographics (p. 91). In his findings, Blackwell (2017) reports that “eHarmony,
identifies users 55 and older as ‘the fastest growing demographic in all
relationship-oriented sites’ and therefore, sites exclusively catered to senior citizens
such as “reportedly saw a growth of 400 percent between 2009
and 2011" (p. 91). Blackwell (2017) then analyzes that although “the dating behaviors
of this age group were overlooked by the academic community long before they went
online", this is an error that should be corrected since "40 percent of Americans 45 and
older were single in 2007" (p. 92).
Moreover, Blackwell (2017) further analyzes that some of the reasons as to why
social media increases the chance of finding a partner is because in his select research
participants, social media enables a social mobility that is otherwise infeasible in the
physical world (p. 99). But the most important was identifying online dating as a social
“solution for a lack of offline dating opportunities” (Blackwell, 2017, p. 99). This is
important since the usage of the word ‘solution’ means that social media helps solve a
‘problem’ that researchers have never acknowledged in the first place since this was an
area that was scarcely studied. By focusing on online dating habits, Blackwell
importantly identifies that social media affects all generations, especially those that
were not previously considered of value to study while also highlighting an empirical
benefit of social media usage in the beginning stage. Moreover, this further displays that
social media-based platforms in both its integration into online dating websites,
applications or networks, greatly increases the mediums in which potential partners can
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communicate and facilitate relationships. Moreover, although Sharabi and Caughlin’s
(2017) study was limited to the beginning stage of intimacy, their investigation of the
modes of communication throughout relationship stages were able to highlight that
“some of the most frequent usage of Internet chat was in the earliest stages of
relationship development” (p. 22). Therefore, this further attributes to the influences of
social media in the beginning of romantic relationships. Moreover, researchers have
identified conventional conclusions in their literature such as that social media increases
the possibilities of maintaining relationships that could otherwise not have been as
convenient such as long-distance relationships (Johnson et al., 2017, p. 123). However,
researchers have also found more unexpected findings such as researchers “have found
more similarities than differences between LDRRs and GCRRs [as] long-distance
romantic relationships report relational satisfaction, intimacy, and commitment levels
equal to or greater than geographically close partners” (Billedo et al., 2015; Stafford,
2010; Stafford, 2016 as cited in Johnson et al., 2017, p. 113-114).
Therefore, this shows that across different forms of social media, to the different
aspects of romantic relationships it influences, researchers have found contributing
information in multiple forms which benefits the research aim as the influences of social
media is a multifaceted topic. One of the most acute strengths and usefulness of the
aforementioned empirical literature is showcasing the large influences of social media
by presenting factors such as both how people engage with social media, but also in
turn, use social media to engage with one another. Moreover, one of the key strengths of
this literature is both the presentation and further analysis of data that researchers
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synthesize in order build a connection between the correlation of increased usage of
social media and its influence on interpersonal relationships.
However, there are also major limitations to these existing empirical case studies
since the majority of this research stops once a relationship has been made, or as labeled
in Knapp's model, the final bonding stage. As aforementioned, Knapp’s model is
insufficient to apply to this research area since it looks at the different stages within the
beginning stage rather than the stages throughout the longevity of the entire
relationship. Moreover, many of these empirical studies advance online dating
companies’ goal of showcasing that social media increases the amount of potential
partners you can meet online in contrast to expanding scholarly inquiry such as
investigating how engaging with and within the digital space impacts the quality of
tangible relationships in the real, physical world. This critique is not an anomaly as
researchers themselves acknowledge these limitations. For instance, V. Santiago Arias,
Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter, and Jason S. Wrench (2017) state that for topical
questions such as why users download Tinder, and hence evaluating whether if
“homophily assure successful romantic outcomes”, there are no clear answers to these
questions at this stage in the present research (pp. 265-266). In other words, “scholarly
work needs to dig more into individuals’ intentions encompassed in relationship
expectations and communication motives to avoid conclusions that end up supporting
online dating business rather than extending theory” (Arias et al., 2017, p. 281).
Intriguingly, while Arias’ team critiques against researchers whose empirical study
furthers the goals of dating companies, the research conducted by Dutton’s team at the
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OII fits well into this narrative as their research project was explicitly funded by a
dating company. Specifically, their project was “supported by a grant and collaboration
from eHarmony, a US-based online match-making company supporting research on the
science of relationships” (Dutton et al., 2008a). Therefore, it foregrounds the issue of
how this factor informs the research results and moreover, it highlights the further
question as to how their study contributes to the larger academic discussion of social
media influence.
The intention behind the collaboration from eHarmony’s perspective is not
explicitly discussed but it is possible to analyze the results of Dutton’s study. By
presenting factors such as aforementioned, that social media usage (in terms of online
dating websites) do increase potential partners as well as increases the variety of
partners you can meet, Dutton’s team (2008b) analyzes “that couples who meet online
place great emphasis in a variety of partner characteristics”, so hence, “meeting
someone online may be a more measured approach for people interested in finding a
partner” (p. 21). Therefore, although researchers cannot make any concluding
statements that social media usage guarantees successful romantic relationships,
Hogan’s study does further the goal of dating companies. In other words, the goal of an
online dating company is to ensure that customers can meet prospective partners.
Accordingly, by researching findings that help support the notion that social media
influences the beginning stage of romantic relationships, this indirectly qualifies the aim
of dating company by showcasing that the company meets its monetary goal of ensuring
that people can find prospective partners.
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Representation of Romance
Having assayed the literature on new media studies, I next contend there is a
general lack of representation within this field. This is shown in several aspects from the
literature such as: the selected dating applications and social media websites reviewed in
empirical cases; the countries wherein the studies take place; the racial demographic of
the research subjects, and the type of romantic relationships formed in regard to sexual
orientation. In short, the scope and focus of current empirical cases display a lack of
representation from both a demographic and geographic perspective. As mentioned
previously, the cases evaluated in this dissertation have all been focused within the
Western canon in mostly English-speaking countries with the researchers themselves
predominantly located in the United Kingdom and United States. Additionally, as
demonstrated by William H. Dutton, Ellen J. Helsper and Monica T. Whitty’s (2008b)
research at the Oxford Internet Institute, the team looked specifically at cases in
Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom (p.1).
Therefore, as these studies are all focused in Western countries, the literature has
understandably also specified its focus to social media websites and applications that are
the most popular in those countries. For instance, Brianna Lane and Cameron Piercy’s
(2017) work “Making Sense of Becoming Facebook Official” to Melissa Johnson’s
(2014) research that examines “the effect of daily Facebook communications with one’s
romantic partner on mood and relationship quality”, the main social media medium
analyzed in both papers is Facebook (p. 6). Moreover, the participants in these studies
were American users, and in both aforementioned papers, undergraduate students. The
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chosen scope and focus of both papers are understandable as all three mentioned
researchers were situated in American universities during their respective research’s
publication. Facebook was a suitable and representative choice of application for the
chosen demographic. As noted by Johnson (2014), American undergraduates showcased
digital habits where “almost 100% among college students, internet communication
includes use of the online social networking site, Facebook” (p. 1). However, as these
social media technologies are inherently global in reach, the chosen focus of social
media applications that are preferred to American users do not provide a full
representation of users that utilize social media within their romantic relationships.
Therefore, by defining their scopes, researchers also simultaneously expand the limits of
their research. By not accounting for the geographical and cultural differences of users
as well as the exclusion of certain social media platforms versus others, the wider
topical subject of how social media influences romantic relationship becomes much
narrower. This is especially crucial since “when considered in a digital-mobile space,
these intersections may be heavily influenced by geopolitics” (Rodriguez and Huemmer
pp. 86-88). For instance, in China, the main social media platform is WeChat, as
Facebook is blocked in that country (Su, 2017, p. 132). However, WeChat, whose
primary demographic are Chinese users is only mentioned on a limited basis in the
reviewed literature in this dissertation.
Moreover, in regard to sexual orientation, the type of romantic relationships
explored is also limited throughout the empirical case studies. For instance,
heterosexual relationships are the primary focus. And although there is limited research
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done outside of the heteronormative space such as in the aforementioned article, “Male
Same-Sex Dating in the Digital-Mobile Age” by Nathian Shae Rodriguez and Jennifer
Huemmer, the majority of the existing research is still focused within the scope of
heterosexual relations. Furthermore, there is a clear lack of diversity in the research
subjects, specifically regarding people of color. Dutifully noted, there is a selection bias
in this literature review as I only searched for literature in the English written language
using default, Western search engines via Google, Cambridge and Columbia. However,
it is still worth noting that papers found and published by notable Western researchers
and accessible to English language readers are, regardless, still underrepresenting
people of color in their studies. Therefore, in my position, as a Western researcher, and
through my access to primarily American and British literature in the English language,
the focus is not on whether other nationalities are writing literature on non-white
couples. Instead, I am highlighting that for the literature I have access to, there is a clear
case for lack of diversity and inclusion. Notably, a continuous lack of diversity and
representation in empirical studies would only showcase the impact and effect of social
media on a very niche group of people whereas the number of users of social media are
much greater than those currently researched, therefore diluting the goal of exploring
the influence of social media on modern romantic relationships. In other words, if the
aim of researching social media is to explore new media’s influence on wider bodies of
people in contrast to viewing only niches of users (such as those who exclusively use
online dating websites), then the lack of representation narrows the scope of a topical
research aim that was meant to be exploratory.
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One of the key limitations in current literature is the type of romantic
relationship explored. The majority of this research is ironically made in the
heterosexual space, viewing the influence of social media in the relationships of straight
couples while the research shows that in reality, more homosexual couples meet online
then heterosexual couples. Since, as aforementioned, “17 percent of the heterosexual
couples and 41 percent of the same-sex couples” in the US “who had met in the
previous ten years did so online” (Rosenfeld & Thomas, 2012, as cited in Toma &
D’Angelo, 2017, p. 147). This is important because as identified earlier, the majority of
topical literature is focused on the beginning stage of relationships, specifically the
finding of partners. Moreover, in the further integration of social media (for the usage of
beginning a new relationship), researchers have identified that there is also a rise of
dating applications (in both creation and usage), for specifically those that seek gay
relationships. Rodriguez and Huemmer (2017) refers to this group of users as MSMs, or
“men who have sex with other men” as “the Internet has provided a space for
communication and interaction, away from the inauspicious judgment of others who
frowned upon same-sex intimacy” (p. 80). Here Rodriguez and Huemmer look into the
reasons behind why gay men would be enticed to turn to social media for finding
partners beyond just noting the practice.
The creation of an acronym highlights that researchers are trying to differentiate
between different modes of romantic relationships, which further signifies an
importance in specifying relations and that the theoretical umbrella term of ‘romantic
relationships’ does not encompass the different forms of relations there are in reality,
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especially in regard to sexual orientation. Additionally, researchers have also delved
into the practice that emerge from the aforementioned reason by stating that the
progression of technology have also progressed the finding of gay partners through
social media since “the integration of Wi-FI and smartphones” have further enabled
“MSM to communicate with others” using mobile applications (Rodriguez & Huemmer,
2017, p. 80). The phenomenon of gay men increasingly first meeting other prospective
partners in the social media space has been fascinating to researchers since this
interaction transcends “the boundaries between [the] virtual and [the] real-world”
(Bumgarner, 2013, as cited in Rodriguez & Huemmer, 2017, p. 80). There is a direct
correlation here between the usage of social media and the beginning of romantic
relationships in the gay community, so hence, this points to the bigger question as to
why there is currently not more literature in this space. This issue is further exasperated
since researchers have already both identified that social media usage highly affects the
beginning formation of gay relationships, as well as showcase that there is a genuine
research interest in this type of relationship through their work. But even though the
work of Rodriguez and Huemmer proves that this avenue of research exists by their own
providing of insightful information in regard to homosexual relationships, the simple
existence of some research is not enough to disregard the need for more research. In
addition, even when already operating in a niche subset, researchers that currently look
into gay and queer relationships still inquire for more inclusivity and research in this
space. Rodriguez and Huemmer (2017) highlights that there is still "a need for
scholarship that considers the various intersections of identity including race, sexuality,
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gender, socioeconomic status, etc., as they occur in the lived experiences of men who
have sex with men" (p. 88).
Furthermore, there are many gendered elements throughout the literature since
many researchers focus on the relationship between a straight female and a straight male
when investigating social media interactions. Therefore, although it can be argued that
looking at couples creates a more inclusive study since it includes women, the straight
women in these studies does not reflect all females that use social media in their
romantic relationships. Straight women do not represent all women, and researchers
who make statements regarding the influences social media has on ‘females’ need to be
more specific to the select females they are looking at. For example, researchers have
noted that in regard to using Facebook for communication in relationships, “females”
responded to “hypothetical Facebook jealousy scenarios or page content” with more
jealousy than males, whereas “males, in contrast, felt more threatened than females in
response to an ambiguous Facebook message between a romantic partner and potential
rival” (Bevan, 2017, p. 167). Therefore, with further insight into jealousy research that
analyzes usage of other social media platforms such as Snapchat, Jennifer Bevan (2017)
concludes that there is a “fairly consistent pattern” that emerges which shows that
“females tend to experience more Facebook-related jealousy than males” in regard to
social media usage (p. 167). Understanding jealousy within social interactions,
especially those that are mediated over new media, signifies the psychological
approaches that dominate the broader field of media and communications.
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This is an important behavioral perspective and analysis to make in terms of the
influences of social media, however this analysis utilizes many traditional gendered
elements in the heteronormative space that is then further reinforced through the lens of
social media usage. There is a crucial need for more research outside of traditional
relationships, especially since Deborah Chambers (2013) have argued that intimacy has
already been “de-traditionalised and democratised” since “intimacy is no longer
perceived as restricted to heterosexual relationships and blood-related kinship, but has
been diversified to include non-conventional partnerships” (pp. 43–48, as cited in
Andreassen et al., 2018, pp. 4-5). Moreover, if social media offers “greater possibilities
for intimate contacts based on personal choice and individual control”, and hence,
expanding the relationships people can have, current research must also expand in order
to represent these larger “possibilities” (Chambers, 2013, pp. 165–167, as cited in
Andreassen et al., 2018, pp. 4-5).
There is lack of racial diversity in this subfield within new media studies,
especially in regard to the representation of people of color in empirical cases.
Accordingly, the stories and accounts of white couples as represented through the
studies of Dutton, Hogan, Sharabi and Caughlin is not indicative that the analysis of
these groups are unnecessary, but rather that it is both the dominant lens in which
representation is viewed through as well as given to as opposed to people of color.
Consequently demonstrating, both the lack of representation within the field as well as
the privilege that white actors hold. In 1988, Peggy Mcintosh explored ‘white privilege’
by indicating that “whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males
Ulanova 37
are taught not to recognize male privilege,” however, regardless of whether white
privilege is actively recognized, it is still deeply embedded in every aspect of society (p.
30). In the aforementioned report “Mate Selection in the Network Society: The Role of
the Internet in Reconfiguring Marriages in Australia, the United Kingdom and United
States”,there is an interesting case of an almost non-existent focus of the racial makeup
of the study participants (Dutton et al., 2008b). Dutton’s (2008b) team at the Oxford
Internet Institute, and his partners at eHarmony Labs discovered many unique insights
of couples who meet online such as the educational and age difference between
prospective partners (pp. 15-16). However, the lack of mentioning of racial identity
presents the data as an overarching, general finding of a homogenous population. The
research participants in the study were listed as citizens of Australia, the United
Kingdom and the United States and whilst the racial identities of these participants were
not identified, these countries clearly do not have an ethnically homogenous population.
Hence it can be assumed that these study participants were largely white as Mcintosh
highlights that racial privilege sheds light on societal institutions that are both invisibly
present as well as visibly enjoyed by those favored within the system (1988, p. 30). In
other words, since white actors are the dominant lens in which society is viewed
through and from, the active invisibility, as showcased by the lack of mentioning of
people of color further showcases the invisible, but present racial bias. Moreover, even
if the research participants did include people of color, as Rodriguez and Huemmer
(2017) have mentioned, there is still “a need for scholarship that considers the various
intersections of identity including race, sexuality, gender, [and] socioeconomic status”
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(p. 88). In other words, researchers need to be holistic and inclusive in their studies and
the presentation of findings in a homogenous manner incorrectly represents the
participants and especially if the study participants are not from homogenous
backgrounds and are as diverse and unique as human individuals. Moreover, if the
participants are indeed from homogenous racial backgrounds, white backgrounds, this
reiterates the lack of diversity in the field.
Racism does not have to be overt, it can take forms that are more subtle, such as
through exclusion, but its invisibility to the naked eye does not render it non-existent.
White privilege can take many different forms within society as Mcintosh (1988)
highlights that as a white female, she enjoys physical mobilities such as being “pretty
sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which [she] can [both] afford and in
which [she] would want to live” to tangible media representation in which she “can turn
on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of [her] race
widely represented” (pp. 31-32). Here, the latter example displays that white privilege
can be simply and physically viewed through media representation and in a field where
researchers explore and acknowledge the extensive effects of new media, there should
be an enhanced and acute awareness to the media (the literature) the researchers
themselves produce. For instance, Sharabi and Caughlin state in their study that their
data collection effort was widely taken from a group of predominantly white students.
This racial breakdown is as follows:
The final sample contained more women (63.4 percent) than men (36.0 percent), who
ranged in age from 18 to 27 years (M = 19.83, SD = 1.12). The sample was
predominantly Caucasian (69.4 percent), followed by Asian (12.0 percent), African
Ulanova 39
American (8.8 percent), Hispanic (5.0 percent), other (2.5 percent), and Pacific Islander
(0.3 percent) (Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017, p. 20).
Unlike the Dutton study, Sharabi and Caughlin did present a racial breakdown of their
participants in their exploration of social media usage across different romantic stages.
However, even the total amount of participants that were people of color does not even
equal half of the white participants in their research. This imbalance of representation is
crucial to acknowledging white privilege as according to Jen Webb
(2009a), representation is “fundamental to everyday life, people practice representation
all the time because we live immersed in representation: it is how we understand our
environments and each other” (p. 2). Social media as a technology is inherently
extensive in its impact and throughout this dissertation, researchers have acknowledged
and analyzed the continuous and growing influences that social media has in the lives of
its users. Therefore, a lack of representation of people of color not only limits
scholarship but also dilutes the research aim of exploring how social media influences
modern romantic relationships by focusing primarily and sometimes only on the modern
romantic relationships of white people. In order to better understand 'our environments',
researchers need to review all aspects of society and not just the privileged individuals
on top of an archaic racial structure. Webb (2009a) further states that representation is
“an epistemological process” as it is “considerably more than a simple matter of
standing in for; it is also productive of what we know, and how we know it; that is to
say, it is constitutive — it makes us” (p. 5). In that case, what is represented in a product
is also a reflection of the producers themselves. Sandra Harding (1987) refers to
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epistemology as “a theory of knowledge” in which “knowers” are referred to as “agents
of knowledge” (p. 3). Therefore the literature that researchers produce is not only a
reflection of a society that fosters a system of racial privilege or in other words,
exclusion, but also highlights that if the goal of a researcher is to produce and expand
knowledge, then exclusivity only limits knowledge as it focuses only on select
fragments of society. Strictly speaking, to be privileged, there is an ‘other’ that one is
privileged against, and white populations in contrast to people of color benefit from
representation through inclusion within research studies in spite of the research topic
affecting populations of all racial backgrounds.
Moreover, as aforementioned, the empirical cases evaluated in this dissertation
have all been focused within the Western canon in mostly English-speaking countries
with the researchers themselves predominantly located in the United Kingdom and
United States. Furthermore, the notion of my own selection bias in this literature review
is to highlight how my academic, geographic, and linguistic background informed my
search, and further informed my results. Therefore, although these conditions clarify the
choice of literature reviewed in this dissertation, the papers brought forth still illustrate a
lack of representation in the specific new media they investigate within this field of new
media studies. Social media applications and websites first developed in the English
language, and then primarily used in Western countries (mainly Europe and the United
States) have been the mainly featured media samples of the empirical articles reviewed.
In Toma & D’Angelo's (2017) research, the duo used American data samples
throughout their article in order to analyze how users themselves gather information
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from prospective partners through their online dating profiles (p. 147). A crucial survey
to this article was the nationally collected American survey that spawned the statistic:
“17 percent of the heterosexual couples and 41 percent of the same-sex couples who had
met in the previous ten years did so online” (Rosenfeld & Thomas, 2012, as cited in
Toma & D’Angelo, 2017, p. 147). In this case, research focused on American social
media applications and thereby, American users is, as aforementioned, not indicative
that the analysis of these groups are unnecessary but instead, that it covers a narrow
demographic in the wider global scale. This scope helps create a more defined focus for
researchers but also creates limitations in this topic. As aforementioned, social media
usage is a global phenomenon due to the worldwide nature of these Internet based
mediums (Number of Social Media Users Worldwide, 2020). Therefore, if the research
aim is to explore how social media influence modern romantic relationships, and the
principle 'new media' is globally active (as is social media), then it is evident that this is
not exclusively a Western issue (Number of Social Media Users Worldwide, 2020).
In their article, Arias, Punyanunt-Carter and Wrench (2017) acknowledge the
global scope of smartphone technology as of 2015 there were "more than 2,500 models
of smartphones, [and] 2 million apps" (p. 260). However, despite the reality and
acknowledgement of social media applications being a global phenomenon with a wide
variety in choice of applications in both content and context, the chosen social media
applications studied in the Western canon (in regards to those that actively influence the
various stages of romantic relationships) still tend to be those most popular with
Western users such as the dating application, Tinder. As demonstrated in Arias,
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Punyanunt-Carter and Wrench's (2017) article, since “Tinder is one of the most popular
apps among people from 18 to 30 years old” which at the time of the data (2014):
resulted in roughly 30 million users, and 15 million matches daily, it is understandable
that the popularity of the application rendered it academic focus (Bertoni, 2014; Sumter,
Vandenbosch, and Ligtenberg, 2017, as cited in Arias et al., 2017, p. 260). Moreover,
interestingly so, although Tinder is a social media-based dating application that was
developed in the United States, Tinder is currently a globally accessible application with
availability in 190 countries worldwide (Tinder Revenue and Usage Statistics
, 2020).
However, even with Tinder as a prime example of an application that has both an
unique position as an American based application as well as is simultaneously global in
scope, prominent research is still mainly examining the influences Western applications
(such as Tinder) has on Western populations rather than more global demographics.
Therefore, the majority of researchers discussed in this dissertation have chosen to
engage in academic conversations that are fixated and set in the Western canon. Thus
although social media applications are diverse in variety and location, the majority of
researchers focus on the same Western social media websites aforementioned (such as
Facebook), and Western social media dating applications (such as Tinder) as the base
sources of data and statistics that support their critical analysis.
In Terri Manley’s (2017) research regarding younger populations, specifically
millennials’ usages “of online applications for romantic development”, Manley defined
her scope to an age demographic (p. 47). Manley (2017) identified that the millennial
generation is both “the largest generation in the United States” with members who have
Ulanova 43
also “witnessed the rise and advances of technology during their lives” (p. 47).
Therefore, in correlation with her scope, Manley specifically focuses on the applications
of “Tinder, Bumble, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook” (p. 48). These
applications were chosen as Manley (2017) identified these to be all top applications
“currently being used by the millennial generation for romantic relationship
development” (Manley & Hair, 2016, as cited in Manley, 2017, p. 48). However,
although Manley specifies examining millennials, or users with a common age
demographic, she does not specify much further into which other demographics these
millennial data belong to, such as the racial backgrounds. Throughout her research,
Manley (2017) finds that millennials "typically [cannot] handle criticism [and as] 'this is
prevalent in the workplace', it also transcends over into the social media space" (Tyler,
2008, as cited in Manley, 2017, p. 56).
As such, similar to the lack of mentioning of racial identity in Dutton’s research
study, Manley also presents her data in a similar homogenous fashion. However,
although millennials as Manley (2017) identifies are “born between 1980 and 2002”,
that is the only common denominator in this choice of research participants (Hartman &
McCambridge, 2011, as cited in Manley, 2017, p. 47). As previously stated by
Rodriguez and Huemmer (2017), Manley also needs to consider the various
"intersections of identity including race, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, etc."
as her research subjects are diverse human individuals (p. 88). Moreover, since there is
no specific mentioning of the backgrounds of these millennials, it can be assumed that
similar to Dutton, these study participants were largely white as demonstrated by
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Mcintosh’s concept of how racial privilege sheds light on societal institutions that are
both invisibly present as well as visibly enjoyed by those favored within the system
(1988, p. 30). And in this case, since white actors are the aforementioned dominant lens
in which society is viewed through and from, the active invisibility, as showcased by the
lack of mentioning of millennials outside of the Western canon further showcases the
invisible, but present racial and demographic bias of existing literature since Western
countries are also majority dominated by white populations.
However, there are existing researchers that focus on the usages of social media
on populations outside of the Western canon, such as Hua Su’s research on specifically
the media usage of “young Chinese lovers” via adopting “a holistic perspective on
media use” in order to highlight “the logic of use behind the seemingly diverse media
practices” (Su, 2017, p. 131). However, although there are researchers such as Su
investigating in this geographic space, the research in this area is still severely limited.
This is especially evident as aforementioned, in the 2017 work “The Impact of Social
Media in Modern Romantic Relationships”, Su was one of the only researchers who
used primary empirical cases outside of the Western canon (Punyanunt-Carter &
Wrench, 2017b). Therefore as media and communication technology is inherently
global in its scope, even if it is infeasible for researchers to present an accurate
representation of how new media influences all social media users, researchers can at
least strive to represent as much as possible and push for more active engagement in
communities outside of the white, Western, heteronormative space. Diversity would not
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only enhance the knowledge produced in this topic but is also dutifully needed in order
for this continuously growing field of new media studies to further expand.
Throughout this dissertation, it is clear that there are many topical gaps that need to
be both addressed and filled within the literature that explores the influences of social
media on romantic relationships, in order for this field of new media studies to move
forward. Frankly, if this area of research is to progress, and expand upon current
knowledge, then there needs to be an awareness of the current exclusivity displayed in
the reviewed literature such as: the dating applications and social media websites
reviewed in empirical cases; the countries wherein the studies take place; the racial
demographic of the research subjects, and the type of romantic relationships formed in
regard to sexual orientation. Therefore if representation is “how we understand our
environments and each other” then the sidelining of romantic relationships of people of
color, of people that fall outside of the heteronormative space, or of those that live
outside of the Western canon, heavily disvalues the large impact that these
demographics could have on scholarly inquiry (Jen Webb, 2009a , p. 2). In other words,
if "the function of sociology, as of every science, is to reveal that which is hidden" then
it is the sociologist’s responsibility to analyze all available components of society and
not just select data samples (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 17).
This area of new media studies needs more engagement and more importantly, the
desire to engage with diverse individuals from all walks of life. As demonstrated by
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Rodriguez and Huemmer (2017), there is existing literature on couples that fall outside
of the heterosexual space, but yet, the pure existence of some literature is not enough to
fill the numerous topical gaps identified in this dissertation. Additionally, Blackwell's
(2017) research “Love Isn’t Just For The Young”, highlights that social media usage is a
phenomenon that largely affects all generations (p. 91). Therefore as these technologies
are inherently global in scope, as demonstrated by the 3 billion people who use social
media on a daily basis, the effects of social media would inevitably affect a much larger
demographic then existing research currently accounts for (Number of Social Media
Users Worldwide, 2020).
Hence, as shown in the section 'Stages of Romance', one of the key limitations
presented by current literature is that researchers are more aware of the beginning stages
of romantic relationships, as demonstrated by Knapps’ model rather than the full
duration of a relationship; there is room for more literature and research on all aspects
of this topic. Additionally, via Peggy Mcintosh's (1988) definition of white privilege, it
can be understood that the effects of structural racism can also be converted to
representation (or lack of) in the social media space (p. 30). Contemporary societal
events such as the ongoing 2020 Black Lives Matter protests add volumes to the
disproportionate focus society has on people of color in all aspects, and although this
dissertation does not address police violence, the overarching theme of the importance
of representation is the same (King, 2020).
Lastly, in the current realm of the Covid-19 pandemic there is a speculative space
for the rapid digitization of romantic relationships as social media increasingly
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influences one’s romantic pursuits while countries around the globe ask their citizens to
remain home, and if possible, go further online (Malnick, 2020). From newspaper
articles by Eliana Dockterman to Helen Fisher, it is not unreasonable to predict that,
exacerbated by Covid-19, the avenues of research highlighted in this dissertation will
continue to grow. Moreover, Andrew Feenberg (2001) once identified that it is not only
important to understand the impact of technologies on social relations, but more
notably, how norms within technologies shape how people use it (p. 26). Researchers
must understand that the social phenomena surrounding these platforms are more than
just the general idea of science and technology studies but specifically, that technologies
are not neutral but have values that are also enacted through social practice
(Feenberg, 2001, p. 26). Based on the issues and gaps identified here, future qualitative
research should be conducted to provide more inclusive, diverse, and insightful
additions to the growing body of research focused on the influence that social media has
on modern romantic relationships.
Aleksandra Kostić editor, Derek Chadee editor, & Palgrave Connect. (2015). The social
psychology of nonverbal communication
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Amundsen, R. (2019a). “Kind of like making porn of yourself”: Understanding sexting
through pornography. Feminist Media Studies
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Amundsen, R. (2019b). “The Price of Admission”: On Notions of Risk and Responsibility in
Women’s Sexting Practices. In Online Othering: Exploring Digital Violence and
Discrimination on the Web