“What I went through was real. You know, the feelings, the pain, the sorrow—that was all real, and that’s something that I can’t fake.” So said Notre Dame football player and Heisman trophy finalist Manti Te’o in a television interview with Katie Couric recently. By now you know the saga: Te’o was describing his feelings for his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, an attractive young woman he claimed to have met in 2009 after a football game at Stanford University, where she was supposedly a student. Two years into their courtship, she died of leukemia the same day his beloved grandmother also passed away, a double tragedy mentioned frequently in glowing profiles of Te’o in media outlets such as Sports Illustrated.
You also know the twist: Manti’s girlfriend didn’t exist. Ever since the website Deadspin revealed that Kekua was an elaborate hoax, journalists have been trying to unravel whether Te’o was a victim—Notre Dame has called the debacle a “sad and cruel deception” after investigating the matter—or a co-conspirator. What is clear, and what Te’o himself has since admitted, is that he never met Kekua in person. What is also clear is that at some point even he realized that there was something odd about that fact; it’s why he lied to his own parents about having met her in the first place. As he told ESPN, “I even knew that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet.”
Crazy perhaps, but less crazy than this would have seemed not long ago. Sure, many people are surprised that anyone could be as gullible as Manti claims to have been, and others have taken the sports media to task for failing to delve deeper into the supposedly tragic fate of Kekua, or even to verify her existence—but the notion that a “real” relationship could exist exclusively online and by phone shouldn’t surprise us. With our excessive reliance on technology, virtual relationships are no longer far-fetched.
Te’o and Kekua supposedly met on Twitter in 2011 and conducted their relationship entirely online and through telephone conversations. “In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious,” Te’o has said. Indeed, but that lack of guardedness is common online. Communications researchers call it the “online disinhibition effect” —the tendency, when using mediated forms of communication, to be more extreme in behavior or speech than one might be when in face-to-face contact. Communicating electronically offers immediacy and intimacy but also distance and control—a heady combination for anyone in the early throes of a romance. It can also make it easier to deceive.
Manti’s case raises a related question: Assuming his feelings were genuine and he wasn’t involved in the hoax from the beginning, why was he satisfied with this highly mediated relationship? Why didn’t he want to enjoy the pleasures of being with the woman he loved in person? Assuming Manti was being fooled, I’d guess that he preferred his Twitter romance for the same reason many of us prefer mediated over face-to-face communication: it’s easier. What we lose in physical connection we gain in convenience. Face-to-face communication, or even talking to one another by phone, is challenging, requiring us to overcome feelings of awkwardness and shyness. This is why, as the Pew Internet and American Life Project has documented, American teenagers prefer texting to telephone calls; in a recent survey, Pew found that while 65 percent of teens exchange text messages daily with the people in their lives, only 35 percent engage in face-to-face socializing outside of school with the people they know.
As the boundary between the “real” and the “virtual” dissolves we will see more cases like Manti Te’o’s. In the end, his emotional attachment was merely a more extreme example of what any of us might feel at the sight of a touching YouTube video tribute or a forwarded image of frolicking kittens. Our technologies give us a powerful feeling of “being there,” of participating in the human experience, even when we’re not.
Still, for all the changes brought on by technology, we shouldn’t be in a hurry to write off face-to-face communication. We are hardwired by evolution to learn about each other through in-person interaction. The facial expressions, posture, body movements, and tones of voice we use—what anthropologist Edward T. Hall called “the silent language” —are crucial in signaling our intentions toward one another, perhaps especially for those relationships that begin in a mediated context. The feeling of intimate connection that can emerge over email or on Twitter doesn’t always translate when people meet in person. Just ask anyone who has successfully bantered online with a romantic prospect only to have the connection fall flat when they finally meet in person. Perhaps Manti Te’o would have had that experience with Lennay Kekua—if she’d been real.