My roommate and I spent a solid hour on the couch one evening discussing a wedding Web site we'd been sent. The people getting married were strangers, but that didn't stop me from forwarding it to a friend or two I thought might get a kick out of it. Pretty soon everyone had seen "Jane" and "Tim's" site, on which they treated their impending nuptials with all the pomp that preceded Princess Diana's wedding. Except Jane and Tim's wedding won't just be broadcast live on their special day, like Diana's paltry event was. In the months preceding their marriage you can watch the Flash slide show that explains how the pair met-cute while rooting for opposing teams during a Yankees-Red Sox game as many times as you want. But that's only if you tire of the video showing Jane and Tim lovingly washing their dog, Mr. Snuffles.
Sadly, Jane and Tim are not alone. Nearly every pair of happy, ordinary American betrotheds creates a personalized wedding Web site. NBC's The Office tapped into this with wry realismrecently, ginning up the slightly painful www.halpertbeesly.com for the wedding of characters Jim and Pam. In theory, the practice is as harmless as Jim's clean-cut demeanor. The sites make life easier for guests who can't remember where the couple is registered or lost their save-the-date cards. But instead of being tasteful, utilitarian affairs, these sites inevitably turn into showcases for unbridled narcissism—and open the couple up to a great deal of mockery from friends and strangers alike. Brides have been told that their special day is the most important thing in the universe, thanks to the wedding industrial complex (which has been amply documented), and Generation Y has taken this wedding mania digital. If you're used to extensively celebrating your daily existence on Facebook, Twitter, and perhaps a Tumblr or two, how better to signal that this night is different from all other nights than by giving it its own bespoke URL?
Jane and Tim, for instance, have chosen to color their special story various shades of soft green, with tan accents of faux ribbons, shadowed floral flourishes, and a highly stylized fake script font. The vibe is perhaps meant to be "classy," but it's very hard to achieve an understated aesthetic when the message you most want to telegraph is LOOK AT ME. The main page features a black-and-white shot of Tim adoring Jane while she reciprocates with the upturned chin angle that telegraphs true, moony love, taken during the couple's (extensive) engagement photo shoot. Visitors can choose one of several unrecognizable soft-rock songs while they browse (but no mute button option). There are a grand total of 651 pictures featured—from baby photos to Solo-cup-filled college dorm-room shots to shots of their four—count 'em—engagement parties. Other sites might stop at just a couple of hundred pictures or fail to limn the courtship narrative in quite the same painfully painstaking detail, but the features of Tim and Jane's site are closer to the rule than the exception.
The idea behind a formalized wedding is that the couple stands up in front of their family and friends and declares their love. Historically, this happened in a house of worship or maybe City Hall. But as so much more of life is lived online, it makes sense that people feel the need to share their wedding news with their virtual community. This doesn't excuse, say, the couple who tweeted and changed their Facebook relationship statuses from the altar, but perhaps it explains the compulsion. The instinct to spread those marriage tidings isn't new either—think of newspaper wedding announcements—but now a self-created site democratizes the process, while getting one's union written up in a newspaper often means running a gantlet of elitism.
But the democratization of the Web creates an entirely new problem: It asks the virtual community to engage meaningfully with the idea of blissful foreverness in the same inherently judgmental medium that spawned Perez Hilton. Show me your rock over coffee, and my delighted exclamations over its beauty will be genuine. Post a jpeg of it on your site, and I'll probably do a quick catalog of the many ways it is gauche, along with a back-of-the-envelope calculation on roughly how much it cost per karat. Let the best man tell the story of the proposal in his toast at the wedding, and I'll beam in the reflected glow. Spill a plodding 2,100 words of questionable grammar about how the groom managed to disguise the ring in your tiramisu, and I'll worry whether your future children will be able to develop writing skills at a state-mandated grade level. The inclination to judge is probably doubly true for people who aren't inner-circle enough to be invited to the wedding but close enough to be forwarded a link to the Web site.
Should you actually be attending, the overflow of advance information a wedding Web site provides also brings knotty practical implications. When you want to flirt with a groomsman, all obvious avenues of points of entry will be barricaded off: Try inquiring innocently about what he does for a living, and you might end up inadvertently revealing that you'd Googled him to such an embarrassing depth that you know all about his 3-point shooting percentage during his flourishing Euro-league basketball career. And when someone at your table brings up the story of how the happy couple met, you automatically snort with derision. You can't help yourself after those hilarious 11 minutes you spent with your roommate and a glass of wine doing a close reading of the official online text. You've already deduced that the "friend" who had introduced them was Samuel Adams, and that the time they'd spent "learning about themselves" before deciding to be married involved three or four acrimonious breakups and probably some cheating.
The problems of the wedding Web site are the problems of the social Internet, clad in tulle. And it's a practice that's increasingly impossible to opt out of—if couples don't create a site of their own volition, there are inevitable requests to please, please, just post the driving directions and registry, which are followed by requests from undermining maids-of-honor to pretty it up just a tad, and soon the couple is making Jane and Tim look hermitic. I can come to terms with the fact that these sites aren't going anywhere, if the perpetrators can come to terms with the fact that the more baroque they make their creations, the more they're opening what ought to be private and special to the indiscriminate mockery of the World Wide Web—and their future selves. Twenty years from now, Jane will shudder at the excess of those four engagement parties and Tim will regret those faux ribbons. They should remember that while half of marriages crumble, a Google cache is forever.