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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