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Intimacy in the Early Days of Online Dating

Jan 08, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Nancy Schwartzman

August 2011. Gus, a 19-year-old homeschooled Christian from Joliet, Illinois, is trawling Facebook. He’s just recovered from a debilitating bout of depression, and he’s looking for someone to talk to. Through an online personality test, he finds a match: Jiyun, a 20-year-old from Korea, who moved to New York City with her family for her brother’s cancer treatment. Gus messages her, and they begin chatting.

“I started to fall for him when I saw these tagged videos on Facebook,” Jiyun reveals in Nancy Schwartzman’s short documentary, xoxosms. “That was my first time actually seeing his face. I was like, ‘Oh, wait, he’s really cute. I like his voice.’” Jiyun found herself attracted to Gus’s innocence, living a secluded life in a small town. He was fascinated by her urban lifestyle and international background. Over the course of two years, their correspondence would bloom into a long-distance relationship, archived in instant messages and video-chat footage.

Schwartzman, who was originally connected to Jiyun through her niece, asked the young couple if she could follow the progress of their relationship. “I wanted to make a film about how romance was unfolding in the digital landscape,” Schwartzman told The Atlantic. “They were excited to participate. I saw the way Gus’s face would light up when he saw [Jiyun] … they were totally in love, and it read so beautifully on camera.”

“I’m experiencing this connection to you,” Jiyun types to Gus at 1:52 a.m. “It’s kind of confusing. I didn’t even know there was a term for it until I Googled it. ‘Emotional intimacy.’ I never let myself be this vulnerable. Do you think it’s surreal that we’re talking like this?”

Ten months later, they would meet in person for the first time. Schwartzman followed Jiyun to Chicago, where she trained her camera on the teenagers as they acclimated to each other. At first, the encounter is endearingly awkward. But soon Jiyun and Gus find their footing. After they part, they decide to make a commitment to each other.

“All I really need is one solid cosmic connection to somebody,” Gus confesses in the film. “I guess we’ll see where life takes us and hopefully we can walk the rest of life on the same road.”

Sadly, as with most first loves, Gus and Jiyun’s didn’t last. But Schwartzman believes there’s a place for relationships that never transcend the physical limitations of the internet.

“Maybe some relationships work better online,” Schwartzman said. “They can feel really supportive and romantic, and just enough of what you need. Maybe they don’t ever have to move offline.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.