Law in the Internet Society


-- By BrettJohnson - 24 Dec 2009


This essay posits that because there is an abundance of readily available alternatives created by the condition of the internet, people are more likely to replace current choices than where alternatives are not readily available. This analysis could be applicable to any subject matter where one choice is mutually exclusive with other choices. As discussed below, this replacement thus may affect replacement of intimate partners as well as the replacement of entertainment choices. While there are undoubtedly differences between how people make entertainment choices and intimate relationship choices; on commonality appears to be that the availability of alternative choices plays a role in this process.

Once again, you begin from a tautology: alternatives cannot be chosen if they don't exist. Agreed.

If so, the net result may be a reduction in the number of long-term intimate relationships (defined as a commitment for at least the remainder of the individuals’ natural lives).

Next step: you conclude, without further intermediate cogitation, that it "may be" (weasel words designed to make a non-proposition appear to be thoughtful moderation) that there will be fewer long-term intimate relationships, because people have more choices. An experiment on this point has been underway for the last five thousand years, which you don't mention, consider, or reflect upon: cities. You notice that rural Wyoming is different from downtown San Francisco, but you don't ask whether, after the US became a divorcing culture, rural divorce rates were lower or higher than urban divorce rates, for example. People have more relationships where there are more people to relate to. Do they have fewer "long-term" relationships, or even fewer or less long-lived marriages?

An Extreme Example of a Non-Internet Society

The effect of the internet on personal relationships may be demonstrated by first looking at what occurred in a very non-internet society. I grew up in a tiny town in Wyoming and graduated from high school with eighteen classmates. The closest stoplight was 30 miles away; we had one convenience store/gas station, a church and a post office. The sign entering “town” said “Population 100” but when I returned to visit a few years later it said “Population 200,” which leads me to believe, based on the round numbers, that the census methodology may have been suspect. There was no satellite television and cable was not available. We had a single television station (NBC), and our 19” tube television, adorned with tin-foil antenna, allowed us a fuzzy (black and white in my early years) picture. Competing with the television was one FM radio station and two AM stations. Under those circumstances, we were willing to tolerate poor quality television because it was the only game in town. We would sit loyally through atrocious local commercials, blackouts, and poor quality programming.

Similar to a lack of entertainment choices, my home-town provided a very limited supply of potential dating/marriage partners. Because of a lack of other options, there were many pairings of people who probably did not have a lot in common and would most likely have not even associated with each other had there been other options. Just as we watched poor quality television programming, however, people accepted what was available in the dating/marriage department.

Relationships in an Internet Society

With the internet, we have become a society of instant gratification as a natural consequence of the number of options that we have at our disposal, resulting in a lack of patience for something/somebody that/who is not currently meeting our needs. With respect to personal relationships, there are websites specifically devoted to meeting and dating,, EHarmony and Plenty of Fish as well as the social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook. After the initial connection—via the internet—or otherwise, there are cell phones, text messages, emails, and IMs.

Commentators have speculated upon the effect that the internet has on the way in which people meet and begin personal relationships. Some have specifically suggested that the existence of the internet has made infidelity in relationships more common and have explored the specific type of infidelity, called cyber infidelity. Moreover, “[m]atrimonial lawyers have reported seeing a rise in divorce cases due to the formation of such Cyberaffairs” See also Quittner, J. (1997, April 4) Divorce Internet Style. Time, p. 72.

Todd Kendall has written a paper on the effect of the internet on long term relationships and divorce. He notes that “[o]ver the last decade, as home internet access has spread, anecdotal reports of infidelity and divorce associated with the worldwide web have become widespread.” Id. at 2. Kendall further acknowledges that “in such a[n internet] model, the cost of searching for romantic partners, both before or after marriage, is a crucial parameter, and indeed, it may be argued that the internet has lowered these costs substantially.” Id. However, Kendall argues that the internet provides features that will also have the effect of reducing the divorce rate such as providing better and longer searches for a long-term partner, which ultimately results in better matches. Id. at 4-5. Logically extended, however, this could also mean that the number of long-term relationships will be reduced by the condition of the internet because people will continue their “searches” throughout their entire lives rather than selecting a single individual for a long term relationship. Kendall ultimately concludes that the varying long term effects and ultimate long term consequences of the internet on divorce are less than clear. Id. at 16.

There's no data here. Obviously, there couldn't have been "anecdotal reports" (another name for "contemporary folklore") about infidelity and divorce related to the Web before there was the Web. We don't talk much about infidelity and divorce related to "moving pictures" much anymore, or related to automobiles either, because we've come to take them for granted. Every divorce has a "cause," which of course doesn't mean that whatever it is "causes" divorce. What causes divorce is marriage.

I do not disagree with Kendall’s ultimate conclusion that there is not a sufficient amount of information to reach an ultimate conclusion on the effect, if any, of the internet on long term relationships. However, I do tend to agree with the numerous commentators (Kendall citing commentators but ultimately disagreeing with their conclusions) who have speculated that the most likely effect will be to decrease rather than increase long-term relationships.

In other words, you don't disagree that there's no basis for a conclusion, but you're going to reach it anyway.

While many believe that search costs are an important component in the longevity of relationships Kendall appears to be one of the few who argues that better search ability prior to entering into a relationship provided by the internet increases the success of long term relationships.

Really? As I pointed out last time, demographers currently report dropping rates of marital fracture among highly-educated urban couples, and persistently high rates, above 50%, of marital dissolution among less-educated less culturally privileged couples. Apparently, if one likes jumping to silly sociological conclusions on the basis of scant evidence, more educated searching produces more durable relationships. Of course, you still haven't addressed the difference between "relationships" (your ostensible subject) and "marriages," which are something else again.

While this factor would admittedly appear to favor longevity it does not seem to be a sufficient advantage to overcome the detrimental effect of reduced search costs for replacing an existing partner. This seems true in part because, based on my own observations of peoples' behavior in my home-town, as well as the observations of others--that often the reason that people stay in relationships is a perceived lack of options rather than the desire to be with that person. Consequently, the availability of potential new partners to replace an existing partner presented by the internet may decrease the number of long-term relationships.

Maybe it will simply complete the desertion of monogamy. Perhaps people will accept in the age of the Net what most couples have implicitly accepted throughout history, that the seeking of sexual variety (by at least the dominant sex) is not a particularly sound reason for breaking up the economic and parenting partnership that is marriage? Why did you construct the false dichotomy between "more opportunities for experience" and "fewer long-term relationships"? If two people are married to one another, and each also has several durable extramarital involvements, has the number of long-term relationships gone up or down?


Even if it is correct, however, that the number of long-term relationships will be reduced in the future, this is not to suggest that there will never again be sixty-year long relationships. Undoubtedly, there are connections where both people desire to be together in a monogamous relationship with the same person for their entire lives. However, for better or worse, the condition of the internet society, making relationships easier to replace may cause a reduction in the number of future long-term relationships.

Apparently the criticism of your original approach made it necessary for you to dig in, rather than reconsidering more fundamentally, which I think would have been a better choice. I agree that you removed some, not all, of the elements that most troubled your colleagues, but what you're left with is still a fallacy.

We have moved over the course of this academic year from essays that reflected no legal or social analysis and included many factually inaccurate and unchecked statements to essays reflecting almost no legal and social analysis from which the glaring factual inaccuracies have been removed. This is progress to be sure, but slight. This essay now depends crucially on your ability to find someone who dismisses your argument as unsupported by real evidence, but which you nevertheless use as authority for the assertion of the very conclusions even your source rejects. The whole, as I have pointed out, is based on an illogical association (more marital dissolution equals fewer long-term relationships) for which there is at least some partially disconfirming evidence ready to hand. The whole is no more than a cocktail of techno-hype: the Net being offered solemnly as a cause of social "degeneracy" as rock music, TV, radio, cheap literature, and other cultural novelties have been in their time. Did the comparatively sudden move from a non-divorcing to a divorcing society after the Korean War reduce the number of "long-term" relationships? Did the Pill? Could the Net possibly have a larger effect on these matters than no-fault divorce and effective convenient contraception?


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r16 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:43:58 - IanSullivan
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