Can the Web replace your significant other?

Does cyberspace provide enough companionship? Some say yes

Monday, October 29, 2007

No person is an island, or so it’s been said.
But a recent survey suggests that, in this networked age, nearly 1 in 4
Americans wouldn’t mind being left all by their lonesomes, as long as
they were able to access the Internet.

"This has as much to do with making new friends and social
networking as it has to do with the traditional porn stuff," said Tom
Galvin, a partner with 463 Communications, the Washington public
relations agency that commissioned the survey.

Although the survey questions were light and quirky – respondents
were asked, for instance, to compare the allure of Apple’s iPhone with
the sex appeal of various Hollywood stars – the method was not.


Conducted by Zogby International, a polling firm in Utica, N.Y., the
survey questions were e-mailed to a scientifically selected sample of
nearly 9,800 U.S. adults, who offered precise feedback to
not-so-burning questions like, "Can the Internet serve as a substitute
for a significant other?"

To that question, 24 percent answered "Yes." Apparently, a good
broadband connection and all the possibilities it opens up would
compensate for not having a companion who might, after all, leave the
cap off the toothpaste, fail to put the seat down on the toilet or hog
the TV remote.

Singles, as expected, are more likely (31 percent) to consider the
Internet sufficient companionship. That men and women responded that
way in equal numbers either supports Galvin’s "it’s not just smut"
thesis or suggests that the wild side of the Web is an
equal-opportunity lure.

The survey found a big split politically, however, as 31 percent of
self-described progressives felt the Web could substitute for a
significant other, while only 18 percent of those who said they are
very conservative felt that virtual companionship could replace the
tax-paying kind.

The reasons for that split could surely lead to debate, and that,
said Galvin, is the point. "The objective was to ask questions that are
quick and to the point and will stir up some discussion."

In addition to asking about the Internet and companionship, the
survey queried Americans about their social-networking habits and the
extent to which their Internet persona became their overall identity.
Here, it appears that 1 in 4 grown-ups belongs to a social network, a
figure that shoots to 78 percent for adults under 24, and that
Democrats far outnumber Republicans in social networking (32 to 22
percent).

But whatever their degree of engagement with the Internet, only 14
percent said cyberspace was an important part of their identity, while
68 percent said their primary identity was in what might be called the
bricks-and-mortar world.

Other findings:

— Asked whether they would want a brain implant with Web access,
only 11 percent responded affirmatively, and men (17 percent) were more
than twice as likely as women (7 percent) to desire a direct link to
the Web.

— And in a question likely to make the dearly departed roll over in
their graves, 1 in 5 survey respondents – and 34 percent of the 18- to
24-year-olds – said they would gladly sell their name for $100,000.

— Three out of 10 respondents thought it so silly to compare the
sex appeal of the iPhone to celebrity guys and dolls that they skipped
the question.

Of those who played along, however, 27 percent said Halle Berry made
their hearts go ring-a-ding-ding; Scarlett Johansson ranked second in
overall sex appeal with 17 percent – but garnered 30 percent of the
hearts and minds of the under-24 crowd; hunky Patrick Dempsey was third
with 14 percent; and the iPhone tied for last place with New York
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, with a 6 percent sex appeal rating.

E-mail Tom Abate at tabate@sfchronicle.com.

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