Jon's plane taxied to a gate at Los Angeles International Airport, and although he had been flying for 30 hours on a journey from South Asia to California, his heart pounded at the prospect of wrapping Katie, his fiancé-to-be, in a bear hug.
In a week and half, Jon would put his grandmother's diamond ring on Katie's finger and the ring would be woefully too big. The oversight was not due to thoughtlessness on his part, nor a mishap at the jeweler.
It was because Jon had never once held that hand in real life.
Katie, 24, is not a modern-day mail-order bride and Jon, 32, is not a moneyed lonely heart. The couple, who work as Christian missionaries and requested their last names not be published for security reasons, met online while she was in San Diego and he was on a mission in South Asia.
Two months prior to their October 2011 meeting in Los Angeles, Katie had sent Jon an email, hoping to join his mission group. Jon, curious, had clicked through to her blog, which was replete with references to obscure devotional writers that he also admired. That initial contact led to months of e-mails and phone calls, costing Katie $600 in phone bills, culminating, at last, in their decision to meet in the flesh. Today the couple are happily married with a baby girl.
Their relationship may seem like an outlier at a time when the world is looking askance at online relationships. As we all learned last month, the Internet enabled Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o to fall for Lennay Kekua, a woman who does not exist. "Catfish," a popular new MTV series based on a movie by the same name, captures audiences with tales of online love that quickly devolve into lies.
And all over the Web, onlookers have been wondering: Is it possible to fall in love with someone you've never met?
A fast connection?
Despite the current atmosphere of distrust, falling in love sight unseen, often through the written word, has been happening for centuries. The Web has only made it easier. Some experts say communicating online before meeting IRL (that's In Real Life) can actually foster strong relationships by helping those with similar interests come together over great distances. Potential lovers overlook superficial turnoffs, and people open up to each faster and more deeply.
"Online technology, as well as SMS, enables having a connection that is faster and more direct," said Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa and author of the book "Love Online: Emotions on The Internet." "It also enables ongoing dialogue as compared to the slow interactions that are typical of letters."
Translation: While it may have taken months to a year for couples to communicate and therefore grow closer in the past, today we can have lengthy, deep interactions with a stroke of a key (or touchscreen).
Grey Howe counts his relationship with his wife Michelle, both in their late 30s, as one of the earliest examples of online dating.
"It was 1994, so there was not really an Internet as you know it today," he said. "We met through IRC."
IRC refers to "Internet Relay Chat," a form of computer-based conversation that was developed in the late 1980s. "Internet Relay Chat, at the time, you had to know your stuff," Howe said. "So if you were on IRC, you were pretty much guaranteed to be talking to the smart people. And I lucked out; I talked to a smart woman."
Grey talked with Michelle for about six months on the phone and via IRC before climbing on his motorcycle and driving from San Diego to Denver to see her in person for the first time. He never left. Thirteen years later, they got married, ironically enough for the technologically inclined couple, in a 1870s Victorian-themed ceremony.
Since Grey and Michelle's 1994 love connection, the prospect of online love has become more and more mainstream. A 2010 study found that nearly one-quarter of heterosexual couples surveyed had met via the Web, making the Internet the second-most-common way to find a partner after meeting through friends.
Someone like you (who's like me)
So what makes these digital relationships successful? According to a 2002 study, "Relationship Formation on The Internet: What's The Big Attraction?" one of the key draws of Internet relationships of all kinds is the ability to find people who like the same stuff that you do.
This was the case for Amanda Goldstein Marks, 35, who met her future husband Aaron in 1999 via Jewish dating site JDate.
In the beginning, Amanda signed up for the site without any intention of going on dates, she only wanted to look at her cousin's pictures. But soon after putting up her profile, sans photos, she met Aaron, who was drawn to the mention of Jewish summer camp on her page.
Amanda talked with Aaron for months, without seeing any pictures of him, before the couple finally met -- like Jon and Katie, at an airport -- when he returned from summer vacation to attend college.
"I watched him walk off the plane, and I remember thinking, 'This is so weird because it's not weird.' It felt like I was meeting an old friend," she said.
A year later, by which point they were officially dating, the two discovered that their grandmothers had attended the same Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, Ohio, a strange coincidence considering Amanda grew up in Alabama and Aaron in New Mexico.
"(Jewish summer camp) was important to us, and it was important to us because it was important to our parents, because it was important to our grandparents," said Amanda, who works at an ad agency. "So it kind of felt like my fate was sealed."
While Amanda says that the two were not officially dating during the months preceding their first meeting, and although she had never seen a picture of Aaron, she still says their connection was deep.