How Germans learned to love (on) the web

BERLIN -- Online dating has, predictably, changed the way Germans date, but less expected was that it would change how they view relationships too.
Written by Shannon Smith, Correspondent (Berlin)

BERLIN -- In a country where the Stasi once kept detailed files on the lives of its citizens, one might expect the survivors to be wary of online social profiles.

And one would be right: Germans are known to use pseudonyms on Facebook to protect their privacy. But they are no strangers to the world of online dating. The last decade has seen Germany grow into the second most profitable online dating market in Europe after the UK. At 203 million Euros in annual revenue, market value in 2012 was eight times what it was in 2003 when the first fledgling dating sites cropped up.

At first glance, the statistics reveal an interesting picture, with middle-aged singles between 40 and 60 making up the bulk of the online-dating trend in Germany. But experts also point to a more subtle, fundamental shift in the way younger Germans view relationships through the web -- a kind of "sexual evolution" driven by social technology and manifesting itself in the form of polyamory, separate living situations and other non-traditional romantic and familial arrangements.

In its monthly magazine Trend-Update, German think tank Zukunftsinstitute pointed to a 2008 survey by German magazine Neon, which revealed that eight percent of those questioned between the ages of 20 and 35 are "currently involved in a sexual relationship with more than one person," noting that the "polyamory" thread in the magazine's online forum is quite active.

"A shift in social values has given priority to development of the individual with sexual liberation as its undercurrent," Trend-Update writes. "Today, we see counter- and exploratory movements catalyzed through the Internet and carried by intellectual women calling for equal rights in erotic self-determination."

Jean-Claude Kaufmann, French sociologist and author, underpinned this observation, which he addresses in his book Sex@mour:

"Romantic encounters changed abruptly at the beginning of the third millennium -- a gentle revolution triggered by two very different phenomena: a new affirmation of female sexuality and the general diffusiveness of the Internet," he told the magazine.

The concept, too, of the "long tail" -- which explains how the value of the Internet for consumers lies in access to a greater variety of products -- also reflects the perceived advantage of dating online. But not everyone views the shift to sexual individualism as positive.

Dr. Cornelia Koppetsch, a professor in relationships, education and lifestyle at the Technical University in Darmstadt, Germany, says that an overabundance of choice and opportunity are pushing people further away from what they actually want.

"It is possible to lead a good life without a partner today," Koppetsch told Vienna's Wiener Zeitung, adding that this kind of freedom makes you critical. She explained that while online dating sites expand the playing field, you still need a system to weed through the lifestyle and partner options.

"It used to be that your environment pre-selected your options for you. Today, you have to do it yourself ... in the form of questionnaires." It may not be intuitive or romantic, but you hope for romantic love, Koppetsch said, which creates a paradox. "This changes love, it rationalizes it."

Milosz Matuschek, a freelance journalist and author, took it upon himself to experiment with online dating -- an endeavor he later co-wrote into a book.

"The surplus of options actually inhibited me," Matuschek told German TV news outlet Deutsche Welle about the inner conflict he had failed to foresee.

"Sometimes I was corresponding with four or five different people, and would even mix them up on occasion. I had this fear of missing out on something if I didn't seize every opportunity."

Dr. Wiebke Neberich, a researcher at German online dating platform eDarling, explains that more individualized love lives have been on the rise for several decades in Germany. "Serial monogamy" -- multiple serious, monogamous relationships over a lifetime in lieu of marriage -- has become more common in the past decades.

The 2012 Family Report from Germany's Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth revealed that 75 percent of Germans still believe a family is the key to happiness. But fewer believe marriage is the key to family: Marriages have been down by nearly a third since 2006, and there are double as many couples without a marriage license as there were 15 years ago, according to the report, released in early 2013.

Neberich says many of these changes can be attributed to educational expansion and women entering the workplace, as well as lowered barriers to separation.

"Can a larger selection of fitting partners lead to more separations? Yes, it's possible," Neberich told SmartPlanet.

"On the other hand, it can also lead to better relationships, because everyone has the freedom to be more critical. The quality of relationships has come back into focus thanks to more social, legal and economic freedoms, which are more important to the stability of a relationship than ever."

Germany's highbrow national newspaper Die Zeit acknowledged the migration of courtship from the real world to the web -- but was reluctant to draw conclusions about the long-term effects.

"The actions of a society are separate from its subconscious -- which secretly harbors an aversion to the new market and the surrendering of intimacy to a new technological medium," it wrote.

"Be it seven or eight million users -- the question of whether the Internet is doing irreversible harm to our love culture, or exposing us to new utopian realities, has yet to be answered."

PHOTO: Wikimedia / eDarling

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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