Wherefore art thou classic romance?

REMEMBER when Valentine's Day was cloaked in anonymity?

When thoughtful well-chosen cards and small handmade tokens of innocent love were placed surreptitiously in your school bag or letter box, pushed carefully under your front door?

Remember the thrill of opening that crisp white envelope to reveal the treasure within, signed simply "Your Valentine", and the exciting days that followed as you tried to work out just whose heart you had set aflutter?

Those were days of beautifully charming, harmless romantic gestures. No judgment, no big statements and the only pressure coming from the thought of how you would stash the card without discovery. Now you have to find the perfect present, the most romantic card and the most unforgettable date as you chase that romantic ideal.

These days, as it has been for the past two decades, Valentine's Day is big business, so big in fact that today's outpourings cost Australians almost a billion dollars.

Valentine's Day has changed from a day that signals the possible start of love to one that validates current relationships, and that apparently comes with a price-tag.

Half of that billion dollars was spent on romantic getaways, in excess of $300 million on chocolates and confectionery, $40 million on jewellery and almost $50 million on intimate meals in packed-out restaurants.

Close to $15 million was spent on cards, making this the biggest card-giving event aside from Christmas, while 200 million of those obligatory red roses will have made their way into homes around the country.

Rapidly advancing technology has only served to further complicate the quest for romantic love, exploited so professionally by rampant commercialisation.

Speed dating, social networking and online dating have created an environment where it is okay to indulge in shorter dalliances with maximum pleasure, with research indicating that a very small percentage of people who turn to the internet actually have marriage and monogamy as a primary goal.

Online matchmaking websites are lauded for their ability in widening the dating pool so you can now meet hundreds of potential suitors, at your leisure - strangers who don't necessarily live near you or who very possibly have nothing in common with you but are pretending to.

Profiles mostly tend to have the same hue - everyone is funny, sporty, generous, good looking, charming and wants world peace - because let's face it, the anonymity it affords allows you to be whoever you want to be.

Where once you relied on your social circle and drunken nights at the local pub to meet a prospective partner, now you can peruse profiles, watch videos and Google and Facebook your likely date while sitting on your couch with unwashed hair long before you decide on any face-to-face contact.

Economies of scale and algorithms, based on a complex set of clinical equations, help ensure you pick the best possible match. You secure a date via a text message, meet at a neutral restaurant and split the bill.

Interestingly online dating doesn't generally level the playing field. Studies show that those geeky, socially awkward people who strike out in the real world generally fare little better in cyber space.

Of course there is the advantage of choice, so you can eliminate the guesswork and those sometimes awkward first-date moments and you can even investigate a prospect's online footprint to ensure he or she is on the level.

It saves time, misery, even money. But with choice also comes competition and while you are making your pick, you can be sure there are 30 other people checking out your future intended on Tinder.

And talking of Tinder, an app which incidentally makes two million matches a day, apps in that vein including Grindr/Blendr, Hot or Not, Hinge, Coffee meets Bagel, OKCupid, Zoosk, even Ashley Madison, which, believe it or not, is a dating site for married people looking to stray, have taken the dating game mobile, allowing you to register your interest with just a swipe of the finger.

You can tweet, poke, nudge and message someone without having actually met them in person.

They can follow your every movement on social media and you can call their bluff when they say they were too busy to respond to your message because you have seen them update their Twitter feed, like every hour.

But unlike more traditional methods of meeting a future love, online dating makes no allowance for chemistry. You know, that butterfly in the tummy feeling that signals you may have met someone special even though he might not be your "type". There is no body language or tone of voice, no wooing, no building anticipation and very little prolonged excitement.

"They think that we're like digital cameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and political affiliation and so on," behavioural economist Dan Ariely, who is researching online dating, told The Guardian. "But it turns out people are much more like wine. When you taste the wine, you could describe it, but it's not a very useful description. But you know if you like it or don't. And it's the complexity and the completeness of the experience that tells you if you like a person or not. And this breaking into attributes turns out not to be very informative.

"Dates are not about sitting in the room and interviewing each other about questions; they're often about experiencing something together in the real world. If you and I went out, and we went somewhere, I would look at how you react to the outside world. What music you like, what you don't like, what kind of pictures you like, how do you react to other people, what do you do in the restaurant. And through all these kind of non-explicit aspects, I will learn something about you."

There is little doubt though that the popularity of online dating is on the rise, a meteoric one at that. Last year, for the first time in Australia, more people went on dates thanks to their computer screens than to social networking.

But online dating is just the first part, eventually you will have to take that relationship offline and into the real world. The platforms and tools of romance may have changed but the end goal remains the same.

Relationships take work, real work, and in the end an old-fashioned love letter given on days not marked by giant heart-shaped balloons will no doubt see you through more of life's small turmoils than a string of texts you will simply delete to make room for more.

The story of Valentine's Day

THE history of Valentine's Day and its patron saint is loose, varied and shrouded in mystery. The most prevailing theory states that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men saying they would make better soldiers with a wife and family, Valentine defied the emperor and continued to perform the marriage ceremonies in secret. He was put to death for his troubles when Claudius eventually found out.

Another story which gets air is that Valentine was killed attempting to help Christians escape the torture of Roman prisons. Allegedly, while Valentine was himself in prison awaiting death he fell in love with the warder's daughter and wrote her letters signed, "from your Valentine", an expression still in use today.

Still others believe the Church placed St Valentine's feast day in the middle of February to combat a pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15.

No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine's Day prior to a poem English medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about 1375. In his work Parliament of Foules, he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St Valentine's feast day - an association that didn't exist until after his poem received widespread attention.

The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

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