How Real Are Internet Relationships?

Social network splash screenSomewhere in the back of my mind, wherever the unconscious gears of the subconscious grind away, I’m fairly certain my brain is monitoring the quality of my relationships. I know this because there are periods of time every day when I am actively working to improve my relationships. For example, one of the first things I do every day is check my email, social network, and blog activity — and respond to and/or update each of these in the most constructive ways I can come up with. In the physical world (“off the Internet”) I engage in similar exercises, returning phone calls and paying visits to friends — but I probably have a more heightened awareness of a deliberate maintenance of relationships when I am online.

I sometimes wonder, however, about the ways in which relationships that exist due to the Internet are differentiated from relationships that take place “in person” — that is, in the physical world. Certainly there are differences between the two, but are they significant enough differences to determine one of these two types of relationships as superior to the other? As for pre-existing, “in person” relationships: Does the quality of an engagement between people improve once certain aspects of communication are facilitated by the Internet? Or does the relationship degrade once it is online? Does it essentially remain the same?

When I first began connecting to the Internet, sometime in the mid-’90s, I was immediately blown away by the ease in which people could communicate. I was so fascinated with my ability to instantly connect with strangers through Web chats that I often spent overnight stretches sitting in front of one of the many Power Macs in the computer room of the university I attended, chatting away with people all over the world in “rooms” mimicking real-world (that is, physical) hotel bars, clubs, and coffee shops. What I may not have been aware of while the hours whiled away was how utterly real the presence of others I was chatting with seemed to me at the time.

I can recall one of the earliest occasions of “meeting” a couple of people in one of those chat rooms; we became instant online “friends” and as the early evening hours turned into late morning hours, the couple invited me over to their apartment to hang out. Drowsy and at the tail end of what may have been a ten or twelve-hour chat session, I may have actually accepted their invitation and hopped in my car to meet my neighbors. (I doubt I actually did this, though I vividly remember seriously considering the proposition. I also recall having a very real paranoia about whether the people I were chatting with were actually who they were claiming to be.)

In the preceding paragraphs I placed a few terms in quotes. Those terms — rooms, meetings, and friends — would have been signified in that manner a decade or so ago in order to alert readers that the terms were simply metaphors for their physical counterparts. Today it’s hardly necessary to do so (though readers new to the Internet may still appreciate them); these days most of us consider it unnecessary to differentiate between an encounter on the Web and an encounter in the physical world. We accept Internet activities as very real — and in some cases, more substantial than some of the encounters we have in the physical world.

But back in 1995 or so I wasn’t yet ready to completely accept the notion of my online interactions with others as being substantial enough to refer to as authentic — at least, not in the sense of being authentic relationships. Certainly I realized there were very real people on the other end of the telephone line (since we were accessing the ‘Net using telephone modems in those days), and certainly I felt connected to some of the folks I was chatting with. For the most part, however, the people I interacted with online were abstractions. They were not real people I could have real relationships with.

My lack of imagination in regards to the social potential of the Internet may have to do with the fact that I wasn’t particularly involved with any organized online communities at the time; I was only peripherally aware that numerous online communities existed — and had existed — since before the Internet. So aside from dipping my toes in the waters of Usenet newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, and “sharing” communities like Hotwire (not to be confused with the travel service in existence today) on occasion, I didn’t have a “place” online where I could hang out more permanently in order to establish and develop relationships.

Instead, I surfed the web like crazy. Seeking information was my main activity; discovery was the payoff. The Web was a giant encyclopedia of knowledge both familiar and esoteric, and I was too interested in learning about things to bother with developing relationships with other Internet users. Users I encountered via the Internet were simply guides and gatekeepers to resources — and side entertainments for when I was bored or lonely. The social networking services that existed (in much more rudimentary forms than today) didn’t interest me partly due to my relatively thriving social life offline. (Okay, maybe not thriving. The point is, I actually had a social life before I discovered the Internet.) So encounters I had online were quite temporary — fleeting, in fact, and much less engaging than even the Twitter connections I’ve made in the past few years of this second decade of the new millenium. And though there were longstanding communities of people throughout the Web, I had not yet been aware of them (or invested much thought in).

Today I socialize much more on the Web. For one thing, I’m writing this article with the intention that it will be published on a blog that will be read by more than a few people and potentially commented upon as well. If what I’m writing provokes comments, I will be responding to and engaging with those who comment. This two-way communication is similar to a chat session, albeit a much slower one: It provides a forum for conversation, with the difference being that more thoughtful and substantial communications can take place than the typical chat room provides. Blog conversations also provide the potential for the conversation to continue far into the future (whereas chat sessions usually “disappear” as soon as the text of the conversation scrolls out of view).

In many ways, Facebook is an extension of a blog. It’s true that Facebook’s original function was to connect college coeds — and if the film is accurate, its first killer feature was in providing the relationship status of another coed you might be interested in. But Facebook quickly developed from being a simple status indicator into a platform for communicating all kinds of information in various formats. Even more so than blogs, Facebook provides an immediate “audience” for anyone interested in self-publishing; the moment one registers and begins clicking Like to content published to the platform, they are “publishing” their own opinions for the world (though a much smaller world, at first) to consume. Readers (or viewers) are able to immediately respond to what you’ve published; they’re even able to simply Like what you’ve Liked.

It occurs to me that all this may still seem like rather superficial interaction. Indeed, when Facebook and Twitter first arrived, I often disregarded the platforms for being somewhat lacking in substantiality; I told others that I wasn’t going to be “wasting time on those sites.” (At the same time, I registered for the sites as soon as I could, knowing in the back of my mind that I could be — and often was — wrong about these things.) Facebook seemed to be yet another or what was formerly — a place, in my opinion at the time, where lonely people congregated in order to reconnect with old classmates. The website (which today, of course, is much more than simply a website) seemed hardly the way to spend any significant amount of my time paying attention to.

I was wrong. Facebook, of course, is currently the platform to be connected with when it comes to communicating with anyone you care about. I’ve used Facebook to keep up with relatives I rarely speak to on the phone or see in person. I post very significant events in my life to my private Facebook account. And, after all my hesitance, I’ve reconnected with old chums, just as everyone does when they first dive into the social platform. At the same time, I’ve watched and learned more about some of my once-former friends through my interactions with them on the platform.

Still, I sometimes wonder if these relationships are as authentic as they seem. Just yesterday I asked my “Facebook friends” (I hesitate to use that phrase because it seems to imply they’re not really friends but rather an online version of friends) about how they perceived their Internet relationships, and here is what my close friend Robert Gibbs answered:

Shortly after my divorce I found a “pen pal” via MySpace (or better said, she found me). We wrote quite a bit for a few months as it eventually tapered off. She was 2000 miles away and neither of us were affluent travelers. I still have our writings, and I read them occasionally. Somehow we were able to express some real jewels of wisdom and mutual support during that time. The absence of interpersonal awkwardness was liberating. Her written word was more real to me than her physical person, which of course was as much a limitation as it was a liberation with regard to forming an authentic relationship.

My friend obviously considers the online interaction he describes as being quite authentic. In fact, his experience implies that online relationships have the potential to be more realized, in some ways, than physical relationships. This same friend of mine, who I have known since we squeezed through a very tight office together in the mid-90s — an office that seemed to have been constructed for one person rather than the half dozen or so of us who regularly occupied the room — became very close friends in a relatively short period of time. We lost touch with each other over the years until finding each other through LinkedIn, the business-related social networking site — and though our friendship is compromised in some ways due to our lack of physical contact, I believe our friendship has resumed and grown due to our online communications.

Authenticity in online interactions is no longer the obstacle in my mind that it once was. These days I’m much less inclined to snicker at the arrival of a new method of engaging with others on the Web; I myself have engaged in similar transactions as my friend Robert over the years, some of which have seemed just as real as the interactions I’ve had with people I’ve met in the physical spaces of my life. Still, I often crave the physical intimacy of being in a physical room with someone I’m fond of. There’s nothing quite like being able to hear another person’s unmodulated natural voice, to see each other’s expressions without the restrictive frame of image quality — to be able to shake hands or hug a person, in person.

Automated Online AssistantAnd what about digital transactions? Can we always be certain that we are even engaging in a conversation with a person online? How do we know that the person in the chat room is actually, in fact, a person? How do we know that we aren’t being duped by an Internet bot?

Though beyond the scope of this article, there is already great concern about identity theft, and I fear that the matter will only grow worse as technology evolves. The notion of being tricked into believing your are conversing with one person while you were actually conversing with another — particularly when you are chatting via video conference — may seem outlandish today, since most people can readily detect when they are conversing with an artificial intelligence (AI). As technology evolves, however, we can expect that there will be a future in which the difference between human and AI won’t be so simple to determine. Video technologies will reach a point in which “people” can be generated and successfully utilized to deceive people into thinking they are engaged in video chat conversations with authentic human beings.

We can breathe easily for a few more years, though. AI technology seems to be advancing at a rapid rate but the intricacies of the human brain are unraveling at a far slower one, and it’ll be some time before an artificial brain can fool a human one. It’s true that some people have already been fooled by text bots but no AI has itself passed a visual Turing test, much less trick a human brain into accepting what they see as human. The earliest audiences of the cinema may have been temporarily fooled by the moving image of a cowboy firing a gun in the direction of the camera, but audiences today are far more sophisticated.

Another view of online relationships was contributed by Isaac Johnson, someone I believe I’ve crossed paths with on the Internet more than once over the years:

Online relationships can let you connect with people of common interests, such as games and hobbies. Despite being more connected than ever by technology we’ve disconnected from those around us in the physical world…Even on the street people completely ignore each other – everyone their own island only connecting with the people they already know.

Isaac’s portrait of online relationships sum up a consensus many of us have reached over the years. Long ago, a professor of mine complained about students “walking around in their own worlds with those earphones stuck on their heads — don’t they ever stop and listen to the real world?” This was prior to the arrival of smart phones; I can imagine how the instructor would feel today.

I agree with Isaac somewhat. Yet I feel the increased connectivity our mobile Internet lives offer us isn’t quite the separator some of us fear it’s becoming. I purchased my first touch screen smart phone just a few weeks ago and already am finding it freeing me up to communicate with others in different ways than I’d been restricted to before — and in my opinion, this is a good thing. Facebook, for example, is no longer as much of a chore to keep up with as it was before — I had gotten tired of logging in and out of my personal and public Facebook accounts in order to keep monitoring the social network, and some days I began to ignore at least one of my accounts. Now, I find it comforting to be able to simply slip my phone out of my pocket and quickly check the status of my friends or communicate something from wherever I am.

Some might say the addition of mobile connectivity to my life further exemplifies the disconnection between myself and people, but I don’t see it that way. Many of the people I’m most interested in spending time with live far away from me and are only accessible through the Internet. If anything, I’ll be spending more time with them. As for the “people on the street”: I don’t really see the need to communicate with them any more than I have to. I’m a social person when I feel up to the task, but many of the people in my neck of the woods aren’t interesting enough to bother with. All people are interesting to a point, but there’s a reason we don’t all get along.

My ultimate conclusion on the quality of Internet relationships remains a work in progress. I see benefits to both online and offline social interactions, but neither completely satisfies me on its own. I do believe, these days, that our current ability to communicate online is absolutely beneficial to relationships when regarded as authentic; a person such as I had been well over a decade ago wouldn’t find much interpersonal progress in their life. At the same time, I’m wary of my expectation that the Internet will always be a mainstay in my own interpersonal evolution; there’s always the chance that artificial intelligences will turn out to be more interesting and positive influences in my life than many actual human beings. I expect (or at least, hope) that won’t happen in my lifetime, though.

Earlier in this post I mentioned that I would be responding to and engaging with anyone who should post a comment on what I’ve written. I hope you’ll take a moment to begin a friendship (or any kind of relationship) with me by posting a greeting or responding in any manner in the section below. Here’s to new relationships!

Image by Bemidji State University, as discovered at Wikipedia.

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  • Wolfee Darkfang

    I take it for what it is in terms of being a communications tool. The internet began as a glorified phone service, but improved into it’s own entity since then. However relationships over the phone are basically the same as being online. There is a real person on the other end, so I try to respect them as such. On the internet there are some really dumb people every so often, and it can be hard to take them seriously, but they aren’t just words on a screen. As for online ‘love’ relationships, I used to do those, but got burned one too many times. These days I refuse to do that anymore. I keep it social or professional.

    • Don

      I developed an internet relationship with a remarkable woman who I accidentally met on a social network.  It developed into a real life relationship which has been progressing quite well for over three months.

    • Harold

      Hi Wolfee, thanks for commenting. For the most part, I agree —  the Internet can be taken for what it is in terms of being a communications tool. After all, the first Internet (or ARPANET, or whatever it was called back then) transmissions were just that: messages (albeit very rudimentary ones). Everything we refer to as the Internet today is simply a more evolved form of that first simple form of communication.

      Telephone was once its own entity. In certain forms it still is, but many implementations of telephones are now hardly distinguishable from the Internet. In many cases it’s an extension of the Internet rather than an entity of it’s own. I use Skype with an old telephone handset as my land line these days; the only purpose for a traditional land line is to be able to call 911. As telephones rely more on digital networks rather than analog ones, they become, in essence, simply peripheral devices for the Internet.

      When telephony was the best form of communicating (aside from face-to-face communicating, that is), the technology enhanced interpersonal relationships just as much as it damaged them. People fooled others (and still do) by impersonating others on the telephone, and now the same can be done even more convincingly via the Internet. People broke off relations via the telephone (and still do), which bothered people who preferred to be delivered bad news in person. (Now people do the same via SMS, which seems even more bothersome to some. Perhaps the next stage of technological evolution will find us employing AI technology to deliver bad news for us.) People used the telephone to engage in brief adult encounters rather than seek out equivalent in-person services. (Some would say the lack of physical contact in this case is a benefit.)

      For those who utilize it, the Internet can be just another tool for people to use in their lives. It’s not a replacement for in-person relationships in most cases, but it certainly can be. I know there have been many people who have maintained relationships with others exclusively via telephone or by letter or by some other form of communication other than face-to-face. Some of those people never even meet the other person(s) face-to-face. So when I say “the Internet can be just another tool”, I also must add that it may be the only means of communication in some cases. The question is, are those relationships any less authentic than face-to-face, physical relationships? Certainly they are different — but any less realized?

    • Jeremy Brensberger

      SCAMMED………ok so this is going to get out eventually, and i hate that i have been lying to some of my friends about this POS woman ( to my family and friends) i apologize, but over the last year i have been in a relationship with a woman i met on the net. too make a long story short, i got scammed. To give you a small piece of how bad, i am currently sitting in a hotel room in Baltimore Maryland, Saturday night the last text i got from her stated i love you and ill see you soon, i arrived at the airport only to be standing there alone, no phone call no text. After almost a year of speaking to this woman i found out that everything she had been saying was a lie, yes and at that point i should have walked away, but being the nice guy i am, i figured there had to be a logical explanation to all of this which she stated there was…….. Im swallowing my pride and putting this out there because i need your help, i want to expose this woman for the POS she is, get her face out to as many people as possible. there is a long twisted story to all of this which i am willing to put out there for the world to see, Mostly because no one should have to go through what i have been through the last few months. Her name Kellie Marie Caswell and the person who helped her Angela Shehan both of Belton MO

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  • Pat King

    I have been there and done that on a couple occasions. Honestly none of which turned in to any kind of real relationship or friendship. However, I have made many friends online that are business related and maintain good business type relationships with them still 

    Pat King
    Premier One Marketing

  • Eye of Horus

    Back when Delphi was about the only way to get on the Internet a friend at the time pointed out to me that people have an Internet persona and a persona they show to their friends and family. The fact is we all have different roles that we play and assume them at different times. It is a social survival mechanism. Because of the anonymity the Internet affords often a person will act out in ways they would not in person. Consequently, it is a relatively rare occurrence when a person put on the same face on the Internet that is taken in public. Hence, relationships garnered during conversations on the Internet tend to be tenuous and are not truly honest. I do not agree with Wolfee that relationships over the phone are the same as being online. At least over the phone there is the tone of voice that can be used to help make a judgement. 

  • Tinman57

      I have met many good friends on IRC.  We had a get-together where we all met at a restaurant/bar and really had a nice time.  One of the girls I met on the IRC channel really took a liking to me and wound up stalking me for over a year, even after moving twice.  It’s like meeting people in person every day, some will be good, some will be bad.  It’s up to you to filter out the riff-raff….

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  • Jerry Reid III

    This was a very well written and article and I think that it provokes a lot of good thoughts about how much time we spend on communication and where we spend our time. I feel that the internet has helped me grow my communication skills and chat rooms and things like social media and Google + Hangouts have helped me grow out of my social shyness. I also feel that we as a culture need to keep a balance on our human fellowships and just try to be intentional on growing those relationships around us. A kind smile to a stranger who looks like they are having a bad day may be more than enough to make the day better for them. Basically my point is we must have a healthy balance in all of it.

  • Clearj1969

    I believe you can build relationships on the internet, the best thing about the internet is if a person is far away you have time to see if they are for real or if they are fake.  A lot of people can not keep their fake facade for a long time, they get bored and move on.  I’ve had some bad experiences in person on dating and even someone I knew in high school committed a sick sex crime.  So to me if you meet someone online, eventually you will see their true personality.  I actually prefer this compared to meeting someone in person right away, gives me plenty of time to figure them out.  I’ve had plenty of experience with men online and learning to tell when they are truthful or lying.  I’ve also heard of successful relationships that started online.  Every relationship needs patience and time and if you can make it online in a long distance relationship for awhile then you can make it in person.   

  • Maria Yanicki

    When I was younger, at around twelve, I’d drifted away from my childhood friends, and I was homeschooled. I was a big video gamer, and I hung out with my cousin a lot, seeming as we were the only teenagers in the family. And one day, he sends me to look for The Legend of Zelda comics on the internet. And it sets off a chain of events that allowed me to communicate on forums and text roleplay and get my creativity going, all the while making “online friendships.” It kept me from being lonely. Finally, I had people my own age to talk to and relate to. On the forum I was on, there were mostly older people and some of my own age group, tweens and teens. It allowed me to grow and develop and have fun with the teens, and I extracted the knowledge and experience the older members had. Without the internet and my “online friendships,” I wouldn’t be who I am today. And in fact, on the first forum I discovered (where I found the LoZ comics), I met my now boyfriend. And I have a hunch he’s going to propose soon (we’ve been dating for a year and a half, after meeting almost six years ago on that site), so he might be my fiance. The internet spawns much more than just a thirst for knowledge. It spawns opportunities, and it opened its doors wide open for me.

    I wish I could tell you all the details of that story, because I find it to be very enriching (at least to me, I really wish I could go back and live those years again, when I didn’t care about adult stuff), but then I’d just overwhelm you. I just love to tell my story to those who will listen, and hope that people can learn from my experiences.

  • Jesse Degnitz

    I met A woman we started on the internet talked for three months. We got along really well i was up front with her from the start so she knew what she was getting into lol i have a few physical issues. we started online as i mentioned three months moved up to phone calls and texts after we both started figuring we had something with each other, that lasted like a week before she came to see me since I cant travel.  We have been going strong in real life for three months now six counting the internet time. So in my opinion yes internet relationships as a starting point can work but to be fully online i dont think so.

  • Cath Gray

    Hi, everyone. I joined a dating site and have met a man fron Kenya, I live in London UK. Since meeting Jo, we Skype and what’s app daily, we are very open and direct in our communication….however I have had nothing but negative comments from people I know….I try to talk to them, including my daughter: that Jo comes across as a normal guy, he was brought up in Nairobi in a wealthy, wester style family, has a sucessful business, is hard working, seems kind and is not after money or a passport. He even suggested my daughter and I coming to visit at his expense….. but my daughter won’t even discuss it, anything I say she turns into a negative; she is 22. She can’t understand that we have feelings even though we have never met in person….I do say to her that ; yes we need to meet in person…..  I know how I feel and he makes me happy and he is open in his feelings for me….my daughter and friends say that he is a con man and that I am having a mid life crisis….. I would apprieciate any positive advice,,,thanks, Cath