In a nutshell, I was asking some questions about the differences between online relationships and real life relationships, and Bel was challenging the notion that there was even a difference. Or, more accurately, contending that the difference was only in the eye of the beholder. Bel makes it a point to ensure that he treats every single person he interacts with as a person, and not as just pixels on a screen.
First off, like most of the bloggers and gamers I know, I love Belghast. From what I can tell, he is possibly one of the most sincere and honest folks you could meet on the ‘net, and I genuinely believe that he cares for every single person he interacts with. So, this response post is less of a counter-point to his post, and more of a “I see things in a slightly more complex way” post. Bel’s approach works for him, and if more people adopted it, cyberspace would be a much less toxic and more empathetic place. However, I do think that there are some other things at play that create a rather sizable grey area between Bel’s “I treat pixels like people” and the heartless troll who completely ignores the humanity behind the avatar.
Benefits of Online Social Interactions
I’m not against technology, obviously, and I believe there are several benefits to online social interaction. Never before in the history of humanity have we been able to reach out to so many people in such a short period of time. This type of connectedness results in:
- The ability to seek out those with similar interests, and bond over our experiences
- The ability to have a global voice, and to build confidence in the usage of that voice through practice and interactions
- The ability to be exposed to other ideas and cultures, and to allow those ideas to challenge or strengthen our own
- The ability to widen our circle of friends and acquaintances
From a personal perspective, I can say that I’ve benefited greatly from online social activity. I hate public speaking, and yet I now appear on three podcasts. I am not talented or diligent enough to be able to make a living in professional media, but I am still able to express myself to an audience through my blog. I’ve met probably as many interesting people on Twitter in the last two years than I have in real life in the previous twenty.
Even so, I see plenty of potential problems with strictly-online relationships. We’re in generation one of this particular social experiment, and we haven’t yet found all of the pitfalls. Even the mighty Facebook is just starting to come to terms with how to deal with real-life events.
My initial question to Belghast was related to whether or not he had trouble keeping up with all of his social connections. I asked this for a couple of reasons. First, since my number of Twitter connections has grown over the last year or so, I’m finding that I’m missing certain things, sometimes significant things, in my feed. It’s not just me. Go and visit a less popular or up-and-coming YouTuber and note the number of interactions he/she has with viewers in the comments section. Then, go visit a very popular channel (Shaycarl, Rhett and Link or Pewdiepie) and see how often they’re able to interact. All of these channels have built a community, but the larger the community, the shallower the relationships.
There’s a fascinating theory called Dunbar’s Number that contends the human mind is only designed to be able to process a certain number of personal relationships. Dubar puts that number at about 150. This number is not the number of people someone knows, but rather the number of people he/she is able to keep in constant social contact with in order to maintain a relationship. Taking into account my real-life relationships (family, work, church), the number of online people with whom I can establish and keep a relationship is a somewhat small number. Probably 100 or less. I follow approximately 300 people on Twitter. which means that I will not physically (thanks, primate brain) be able to keep track of everybody to a level that constitutes a persistent relationship. Sure, I’ll interact with some folks occasionally, but many will be reduced to ‘acquaintance’ status due to this limitation. Even though we are exposed to more viewpoints and opinions than ever before, Dunbar’s number remains constant. We may know more people, but that only contributes to a greater number of relationships with less relative depth.
Lack of Physical Contact
Someone who jumped into the twitter conversation yesterday likened a Twitter feed to being at a party. We pay attention to the conversations that we want to and ignore the rest, or we can jump in and out of various interactions. I actually think this is a pretty good comparison. Then again, parties aren’t exactly known for producing the deepest bonds of friendship, either. I do think that friendships can start at parties as you become acquainted with a large number of people, but those relationships only develop after additional in-depth, repeated interactions. And, according to Dunbar, this can only be done with a limited number of people.
This particular analogy reminds me of an interaction I had just the other day. One of the people I follow had experienced a personal tragedy. I truly felt bad for this person, and expressed (as best I could in 140 characters or less) my sympathy. And, I genuinely did (and do) feel bad that they are going through this. But, a few minutes later, the feed kept flowing, and other jokes and conversations pulled me out of my short funk and allowed me to carry on, even though my Twitter friend likely spent the rest of the day dealing with this horrible event. In a way, I feel guilty for not empathizing more, but such is the nature of the online relationship. How would I have acted differently if my friend and I were having a coffee together when he broke this news to me? How much more attention would I have given him if I could feel the pain in his face, if I’d seen the silent tears? How much deeper would our connection be if I was able to hold his hand as he looked me in the eye and asked “why did this happen?”
If I stopped all online social interaction tomorrow, how long would it take someone to notice? Would my absence actually leave enough of a hole in people’s everyday routine that they would seek me out? Or would that hole in Dunbar’s 150 simply be filled by another tweeter/blogger without much of a beat being missed? I suspect the answer to this question is directly proportional to how deep of a relationship one has established with me, but I would also contend that it would be more easily filled if our relationship is based purely on online interactions. There is something to be said for physical connections. There was an entire tweet-thread last week that included taking pictures of hand written notes instead of simply typing the intended message. I heard it stated that seeing people’s handwriting made the message seem more personal. Why? Because of the physical connection associated with somebody’s handwriting. I received an actual card in the mail from one of my Twitter friends a few days ago, and holding that card in my hand, reading the humorous note, immediately made this person more “real” to me. The personality jumped out of the ink. This isn’t to say that the person was not real to me before (in fact, I’m quite fond of her), just that there are various degrees of “realness”, and for me, at least, physical connection enhances the depth of the relationship.
Lack of Non-Verbals
My real life friends tell me that I’m a good listener. This is probably surprising to some readers since all I ever do here is “talk”. I would argue that I’m not really a very good listener, but I am pretty good at picking up non-verbal cues. So, regardless of whether I really hear and understand everything you say, I am usually able to figure out how you are feeling while you’re saying it. That is sometimes even more important, because it allows me to quickly respond appropriately during a conversation. It allows me to share in a reassuring smile, or laugh at a funny story, sympathize with a stressful situation, or put the entire conversation into context. As humans, we’re wired to be able to take in our entire environment when communicating. The inflection of the voice, the position of the eyebrows, and the body demeanor are all as important as the words being used to communicate. But with very few exceptions, only the words are available during online interactions. While there seems to be some debate on whether the amount of human non-verbal communication can be quantified, it seems that at least 60% of our communication is non-verbal, with some estimates much higher. With 60-90% of our communication absent from online interactions, is it any wonder that they can seem less “real”? Is it at all surprising that it’s more difficult to achieve real depth?
The sheer amount of interaction, the newness of the medium, the lack of physical connection, and the absence of nonverbals all lead me to think that the development and maintenance of online relationships is not as straightforward as “real or not real”. Thinking through this topic has led me to one certainty: online relationships are just as complex and convoluted as real-life ones.
Featured Image by SumAll on Flickr
Twitter photo by Matthew Burpee on Flickr
Connection. photo by xxFr0z3n on Flickr
The Explanation photo by Chris Hunkeler on Flickr