Thursday, September 13, 2007

Children of the Interwebs

Wow, this got off to a good start!

I was going to just talk about the topic that inspired the blog's title, but the comments made by Nico, Fred and Ev are worthy of a new discussion.

We refer to a concept of social behavior as "relationships" without specifying much about what that means. Interactions between friends, interaction between acquaintances, interaction between strangers, and the ever daunting term "A Relationship" all seem to escape concrete boundaries despite their constantly popping up in discussions.

It's difficult to say whether seeing a person is more important than talking to them, whether talking with a keyboard is less valuable than talking with vocal cords, without talking about what it is about "relationships" that's valuable.

So...what is it about "relationships" that's valuable? Why do we seek them? What are the qualities of a good one? Is it more important to have many or a few intense ones?

The internet added a new level of compartmentalization to relationships. We can experience only voluntary information from other people. We receive nothing that they don't offer and can extract next to nothing without their knowing. Does that mean electronic social interaction is less genuine or more so? Does the fact that people may be uncomfortable around other's physical bodies reveal that they are unable to relate to real people, or that they have become used to intimacy at another level?

What are the ramifications of vluntary electronic socializing on the concept of "romance"?

What has electronic culture taught us about what is really important when it comes to people?

(is that too many questions for a single post?)


Erin said...

"We can experience only voluntary information from other people. We receive nothing that they don't offer and can extract next to nothing without their knowing. Does that mean electronic social interaction is less genuine or more so?"

I'm a bit late to the game in this discussion, but I thought I'd give my two cents about relationships and what they can produce. I think we could argue until we are all blue in the face about the qualities of "virtual" relationships versus immediate, physical ones--I'd like to focus the discussion on the more concrete concepts that surround each type of relationship that we can gauge against each other. Call me an asshole positivist right now if you will, but I'm findng it hard to compare virtual and physical (excuse the vocabulary but that's the best descriptors I have right now) without putting it in a context.
I think with this quote of your discussion we're getting closer to how I like to define relationships at least in my work: from a social science perspective, I see relationships as a pooling of resources towards some sort of output. I agree with you that in a virtual relationship, resources are limited by the context of the relationship: you can only perceive certain resources and not others. For example, I may have an online friend that knows a lot about organic gardening and could help me plan a garden, but has not revealed that he or she has the strength to help me move a desk upstairs to where I need it. This is a sort of obvious example of physical resources that may not be apparent--but I think this principle could apply to other sorts of resources as well (emotional, intellectual).
I wouldn't make the normative jump to "genuine" or "less genuine," though. I'm not sure how it follows your previous thought--because I would argue that although we may get more information about resources by having a physical, immediate relationship with them, we still will not know the extent of their gifts and talents.( We should also define the terms of what is genuine and what is not.) The next step to me would be comparing the sharing of resources in a virtual and physical context, and what kind of behavior it produces.
From what I understand at least in political science work, virtual relationships do not produce the same level of political activity that physical relationships do. All those great Dean 'net meetups in 2004 did not produce increased levels of what we call "formal" political activity--voting, protesting, calling your congressperson, the like. Did it increase people talking about Dean in forums? Sending emails? Yes and yes. But does this behavior actually increase political activity in the physical world? No.

SnrIncognito said...

(maren posted on this too, in case you didnt see. it's a comment on 'Graduates')
it seems pretty clear that the issue at hand is "how much does physical interaction matter". it's interesting because i feel like there's a tendency to think of relationships as purely etherial. frieds are those you can "count on" or are "there for you" and a partner is someone who "loves you" or "understands you".

all those thigns seem like non-physical behaviors to me, and are largely your interpretation of a friend's behaviors in your own mind.

so what do we get from seeing someone, being near them, sharing their space?

i think part of it is the freedom to not express things through words. words are cold, limiting, and can be downright unpleasant to use when trying to express something complicated. body language, tone of voice, exclusivity of attention. you can't get feedback from those things through type, or still image, or even webcam half the time.

i think exclusivity of attention is really key too. it may seem selfish, but i think part of the feeling of lonliness that may come from long distance interaction has to do with the feeling that a person isn't talking JUST to you, thinking JUST about you, attending JUST to you. even if you suspect they are, it's hard to be convinced. being in the same room with someone is special because you share your time with one another. there's an element of sacrifice.

so maybe that's part of it. physicality is important not only because it yeilds resources that you wouldnt otherwise have, but it adds important qualities of privilage to resources that are essentially given online.

Evan Bacon said...

I want to keep this one short and sweet. As somebody who recently moved away from all my closest friends. I also have recently entered "the single life" with a cold welcome.

As much as it pleases me to talk to you all on IM, its not the same as speaking over the phone. And the phone can hardly compare to seeing and speaking face to face. There's nothing like making one of my stupid comments having everybody stare at me for a second or two and then burst out laughing as a collective group. That just cannot happen over IM, through an email, or over the phone.

crazygrampastuey said...

In my opinion, the internet has helped us determine what's so essential about social human interaction: i.e. the "x-factor" of life.

In a "virtual" relationship, everything you put out there is a conscious effort. You have to remember, list, and explain every single aspect about yourself. Also, you are only as poised and calm as your ability to type.

But if you meet a person in real life, there are all these "x-factors" that you can't control that can take a conversation (and relationship) in all sorts of places: stuttering; starting to say something but then deciding against it; facial expressions; etc.

(this is probably why some people PREFER the online relationship because they're more 'in control' with a computer screen between them and the other person)