A few days ago, a young girl discovered on Facebook that her boyfriend had dumped her and committed suicide. That brought up again the question of relationships on the net.
I have been very interested in interpersonal dynamics on the net, because of my interest in behavioral science, and I see that there are enough differences to warrant special study of psychology with respect to the internet.
In many ways, the internet is similar to the real world. You interact with people, you use facilities, you offer services, do jobs, socialize... it is a whole lifestyle for many. However, the instant nature of the environment and the relative anonymity coupled with different social norms, mixed cultures and different perceptions of safety lead to remarkably different behaviour, which may be tinged with habitual behaviour or preferences from real life, but is different enough for interactions to mean entirely different things.
I spend more time conversing with a stranger on Facebook than I do with my wife ~ a friend.
Another friend jokes:
When people follow me on Twitter, I like it.
Clearly an example of how our behaviour has different standards on the internet. It isn't true that the man cares about the person he speaks with more freely on Facebook. Very few would like being followed in real life (though there are differences in the use of the word too).
I see several differences between the "real world" and online life that change our behaviour. Noting them here. Intending to take them ahead in detail in separate articles.
Perceptions of safety on the Internet
I say perceptions, because reality could be different, but our perceptions drive our choices. The question of safety has been discussed amply from a privacy or security perspective. We all know about online safety, and the kind of information that can be misused, or safety in protecting our accounts, hacking, viruses and what not.
There are other factors like the anonymity the internet affords, which can be an advantage for one wanting to protect identity, or a disadvantage, if one wishes to be certain of who they are interacting with. Both these issues are far more rare in real life.
Another important aspect is freedom from social pressure. Social circles on the net largely being ones of choice, there is far less social pressure or fear of judgment. It allows people to be less guarded and express more freely. This can be a boon or bane depending on what the person wants to say.
There is a perceived safety in anonymity. People are less threatened by sharing emotions with strangers than they are with people who have an influence on their life. This often leads to surprisingly candid speech on the internet.
The internet turns the concept of intimacy on its head. Social networks in particular. With the possibility of speaking from the safe confines of a home environment with unknown strangers who are not factors in survival and well being in real life, the resulting candid speech can result in some very real emotional intimacy, in much the same way opening up and expressing emotions in a continuing interaction does in real life. People feel caring, love, protection, attraction and all the numerous feelings of two compatible people coming together in the real world - minus a physical aspect.
There have been some moral debates, objections and discomfort around such intimacy, because it is so intense. Spouses may sometimes see strong relationships with other people on the internet as unfaithfulness or "bad company" (depending on gender preference, I suppose) - much the same as they would see them in real life. There are people who find understanding and caring that may be missing in their real life relationships and feel increasingly dissatisfied with them. There may be desire, guilt, courtship, and a whole wealth of states of a relationship, like in real life which may spill over into other mediums like phone or meetings in person.
Due to lack of environmental distractions that can be associated with the relationship and being in the comfort of own space with the ability to easily bar uncomfortable approaches, many guards are lowered, online relationships can be mentally, emotionally more "real".
However, two big drawbacks seemed to be on the minds of most people I spoke with:
- The lack of a physical aspect to the relationship - not necessarily sexual, but even things like being able to hug someone in an emotional moment.
- The ease with which identity can be faked - to verify the identity of the person you are speaking with beyond doubt, one would have to go to extremes which would be an act of doubt, but any less than that could also be faked easily.
Speed and Accessibility
Another aspect of the internet is that it is on hand, at any time. Reaching out is simple. There are people available any time of the day or night. It makes it so that there is always someone available to speak with. Also, with increasingly busy lives, it is complicated to physically meet people. It takes far longer to do so too. Phone calls are a possibility, but they may not be an option for any time of the day or night. The internet on the other hand, never sleeps. And even if there is someone specific you want to speak with, and that person is not available, it is still possible to say what you need to and get it off your chest.
Man is a social animal, and there is a deep need in most of us to find understanding and company. The internet helps fill this very real psychological need by allowing unprecedented access to people, as well as the ease of avoiding anyone we don't wish to interact with. This can also lead to "saying more than is intended" or a kind of emotional dependency on people with no direct stake in our well being, because they are more pleasant than those who do.
I had once joked that Twitter is a natural habitat for the introverted who have a need for attention. But it is true. Not just the introverted, but the depressed, lonely, and more too, right along with the gregarious. The safety of being able to set boundaries that feel comfortable allows people to be themselves freely without worrying about violations of personal space, even though violations are known to happen and can be more difficult to fight than in real life.
These are just some ideas.
I want to stress that these are factors that change our behavior. They are vast and nuanced, and none of them are good or bad in their own right. Future articles will explore these nuances in greater detail.
It is very important to see that this is another setting - like people study organizational psychology, or we have marriage counselling, this is another environment, and both good and bad things happen, and happenings have all kinds of simultaneous significance like any other environment.
With the use of the internet picking up rapidly and increasing numbers of people connected to the net for all their waking hours, I think it is an important thing to study relations and interactions in this medium and the various environments it offers.