Interpersonal Relationships: Cyber versus Face-to-Face

With a plethora of communication means--chat rooms, e-mail, instant messaging, social-networking sites--the internet has created an entirely new dynamic between and among individuals and groups. People now have the capability to censor and control their own interactions by managing self-portrayal, contacting multiple others simultaneously, not replying to incoming messages, conversing with complete strangers, and taking time to contemplate responses before sending them. Pairing these options with a web of 1.46 billion users (as of June 2008) creates infinite possibilities for text-based relationships. Because these bonds depart from traditional in-person presence and dialogue, questions arise regarding their legitimacy and potential longevity. For instance, is it possible to feel as emotionally attached to someone met on the web as in real-life? Although internet-based conversation has a fantasy component and lacks the appeal to the five senses of physical reality, it does involve a genuine investment in another person, but it would seem that this closeness cannot be sustained in the long-run.

Before examining the way people relate to one another on the internet, there is an important preexisting factor to investigate--how the individual portrays him or herself. Just as one is cognizant of in-person impressions, he or she can take this idea further by creating a persona of choice. According to Kathryn B. Lord, a self-proclaimed cyber-romance coach, on the web "you are what you write." The possibility of self-misrepresentation may cause some to question the validity of internet relationships that seem based on false pretenses, yet assuming that real-life behavior is the best example of a person is a mistake. People may live day-to-day wearing public "masks" that shroud internal beliefs and urges, for which the American Psychological Association surprisingly lacks a term, yet it may just be a coping method that people employ to conform to their perceptions of societal norms. Consequently, a cyber-identity may reveal what an individual strives to be, an "ideal self," which may appear in a glorified "About Me" fill-in section on Facebook, or an exaggeration of truths while talking in a chat room. A great incongruity between the "real-self" and the "ideal-self" can cause suffering, as stated by Carl Rogers, which might perpetuate the attachment that one feels toward another on the internet because such relations with the "ideal self" are not possible in the face-to-face world.

While the internet affords the opportunity to construct a perfect identity, one can also rely on ambiguity to create mystery. These practices of individuals and those with whom they are in contact produce the foundation for a connection. Ongoing conversation fosters the fledgling relationship, yet a skeptic might question the understanding between the two people because true meaning gets lost in translation. It is difficult, for example, to detect the extent of sarcasm, annoyance, or disapproval due to the lack of facial expression cues, tone of voice, and body language. But, emoticons can help bridge this gap. A recent study by Shao-Kang Lo, Ph.D., proved significant differences in perception of meaning based on presence or lack of emoticons: they "allow receivers to correctly understand the level and direction of emotion, attitude, and attention expression." These cartoon-face symbols (see above) still might not be enough to convince a cynic, however the still remaining anonymity might actually be the greatest factor in attachment. The indeterminate identity and meaning creates a certain excitement and intrigue; it "activates the imagination, stirs up fantasies, enhances the tendency to project your own expectations, wishes, and anxieties unto the somewhat shadowy figure sitting at the other end of the online connection," says John Suler, cyberpsychologist. People feel especially attached to their internet companions when the tendency to project favorable qualities on them unites with the online disinhibition effect--the susceptibility to divulge personal details that may not otherwise be shared, based on anonymity. A feeling of intimacy is inevitable once an individual shares secrets that his or her closest real-life friends might not know.

Devotion is evident based on recent reports about internet relationships. To begin, this past week a Japanese woman was arrested for hacking into her virtual ex-husban
d's "Maple Story" account and killing his character because she was "divorced unexpectedly." Likewise, in August, Kimberley Jernigan was imprisoned for repeatedly attempting to abduct her "Second Life" ex-boyfriend in real life. It seems that these two individuals would resort to drastic measures only if they felt a sincere connection with the internet ex-boyfriends with whom they solely conversed on the web. The "unusually seductive" interactions based on a "mentally nude commune" sparks tenderness like with the woman to the right, but the human body and hormones also play a role, specifically The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System (THOMAS). Humans innately like to be around unfamiliar people and continually seek targets for attachment, so we therefore want a connection with the unknown; oxytocin accomplishes this by "activating reward regions of the brain when we cooperate with strangers." This hormone is indisputably important because it is also responsible for the feeling of bond between a mother and her children, and between individuals during sexual encounters.

Despite oxytocin's influence on human emotion and attachment, internet relationships do not have long-term potential to fulfill needs because of a lack of touch, smell, and sound that exist with face-to-face interaction. Text-based relationships have a seeing component, yet the absence of the other three is detrimental. Everything done online can be done in person, for example if two people were sitting next to each other on a computer, but the opposite falls short--Suler remarks, "everything you can do with someone in-person can't be duplicated in cyberspace." Besides just touch, smell can ignite passion between people and may be important in mate-selection based on pheromones, or chemical signals about one's DNA makeup that may attract a genetically compatible partner. Ultimately, it is the simultaneous combination of the senses that make in-person contact impossible to recreate. In the beginning of online relationships, the details that the imagination interjects about another create an undeniable thrill, though as time goes on, humans cannot help but yearn for more.

1 comment:

Rebecca Bridgeford said...

Emily this is a fantastic topic! You articulately brought attention to a topic that is a constant source of conversation within my discipline (will the internet replace the need to plan for good space for social interaction) and among my cohort.

Two things that you could have addressed that would have, at least for me, strengthened your argument by considering both sides of this issue would have been the use of web cams and the using additional examples of behavior.

Your discussion did not address the use of web cams. Video is a tool that overcomes part of your argument that “you are what you write” because it is possible to see and speak with another person in real time. Facilitating the ability to detect sarcasm, see facial expression and in general close a great deal of the information gap of cyber-relationships.

Another issue that would have strengthened your case of questioning the legitimacy of cyber-relationships is to not use such extreme cases. By using the two women who are clearly deranged and who probably step over the line on a regular basis in real-life, distances the average reader from the story. The majority of us understand that there is a significant difference between real life relationships and cyber-relationships, and that cyber-relationships have limitations. Obviously one is the lack of touch, which Harry Harlow showed in 1958 in the “Mother Love” studies as imperative to development (at least for baby monkeys). There are some up sides to a cyber-relationship as well, it broadens cultural access, creates a network that is much broader than one could encounter in “real life”. An example of one such community that is analogous of the cyber-community is the culture of HAM radio operators thorough the world. The mention of a group like this that has had a long term community established without actual physical contact would have presented a more balanced argument for the reader and shown us the limitations of these type of relationships without the extreme examples of disturbed people.

This is such a valuable topic and I hope to see more research on it in the future within your discipline.

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