Pop Culture Figures Out The Internet Part III: ‘You’ve Got Mail’ And Internet Dating

On Tuesday, Erica Newland wrote about how Ghostwriter beat the competition in its prescient depiction of the internet. Yesterday, I revisited Hackers, and explained why that movie’s attitude towards openness became the norm for the rest of us, even if we’re not elite computer nerds. Up today, You’ve Got Mail, the first mainstream romantic comedy about internet dating — of a sort.

Online dating is a sufficiently established part of American culture now that publications like the New Yorker devote long features to the algorithms behind different pairing services, and it doesn’t actually feel like hucksterism when claims that one in five relationships now begin online. Part of what’s fascinating about watching You’ve Got Mail again is because the characters were still figuring out things like instant messaging, much less the conventions of getting to meet someone online and figuring out the tipping point at which you were interested in meeting them in the real world. The truth is that some of the questions the characters ask, like “Is it infidelity if you’re involved with someone on the internet?” are ones we still struggle with today. But some things have changed — today, urban New Yorkers don’t have to worry about a busy signal making it impossible to make a cybersex date.One of the thing that’s fascinating about the dynamic between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail is how trust works between them. Rather than assuming that there’s a decent chance that the person they met in a chat room might be pretending to be someone other than who they are, the characters trust each other’s online aliases fairly implicitly and on relatively little verification. But they’re reluctant to meet, even though they have obvious chemistry and common interests: doing what they’re doing is odd enough for them, and there wasn’t a social convention for taking their conversation into the real world. Google, which was incorporated two months and two weeks before You’ve Got Mail arrived in theaters, may have beaten out America Online, which is all over the movie, in the race for the future of technology, but its use wasn’t commonplace yet, much less a universal verb. Had it been, it might have altered the trust equation: the characters might not have trusted each other to be who they said they were, but they could have confirmed information about each other fairly easily, lowering the barrier to meeting up in person.

And while You’ve Got Mail gets a lot of flack for being a remake of a superior movie, it is a brilliant satire of a particular kind of technophobia. Greg Kinnear’s Frank is a brutal and really funny takedown of a certain kind of person who thinks they’re superior to the world around them, who resist computers instead of typewriters and tell potential book agents that they’d like to do “Something relevant for today, like the Luddite movement in 19th century England.” He enters the movie declaring that “The entire workforce of the state of Virginia had to have solitaire removed from their computers because they hadn’t done any work in six weeks. Do you know what this is? What we’re seeing here? It’s the end of Western Civilization as we know it. Technology, name me one thing we’ve gained from modern technology!…You think this machine is your friend, but it isn’t.”

He was wrong. The machine is our friend, at least for now. And increasingly, it’s the way a lot of us find love.