Social Relationships and the Internet

29 Mar

I spend a lot of time on the computer. Many people would say it’s an unhealthy amount of time. However, I don’t spend this time playing games; I spend most of this time interacting with other people from across the world, mostly through various instant messaging programs, but also through Twitter, Facebook, and forums. There has been a lot of talk around me about how relationships that one has over the internet are somehow less meaningful than those one has in “real life.” As I have watched my online and “real life” relationships develop, I find that I have to disagree on many counts with this philosophy.

The internet has allowed us to pick our friends in a way we never have been able to do before. No longer is someone limited to picking out the best people from those who surround them, but instead one can pick people from around the world. This means that you can choose to interact with the people who you enjoy interacting with the most, no matter where they are. You never get sick of them, as you are never forced to be near them for long periods of time, and so I’ve found that I have significantly more positive relationships most of my online-only friends than I do with my real-life ones. This is not to say that I don’t have positive relationships with my real life friends; in fact, my most positive relationship is in the “real world,” with my significant other. Overall, however, I get along better with most of my online acquaintances than my “real life” ones.

However, there is a difference between positiveness and meaningfulness, and many people deride the internet for destroying meaningful relationships. However, I think that there is something particularly deep about interacting with someone only through (in my case) a written medium, like a pen pal. It reduces the other person to nothing more than pure consciousness, and aren’t we always taught that it’s what’s inside a person that counts most? What better way to get to know someone’s insides (puns intended) than to strip away the shell of their body and meet with their mind, away from the distractions of the “real world?” I believe that this level of contact can actually deepen relationships.

However, there is one very, very large “if” clause. As many are quick to point out, it is very easy to hide your identity over the internet. This allows for dangerous people to masquerade as something other than who they “really” are, and for internet users into fooling other people. I have a question for everyone with regards to this. What defines who you “really” are?

If someone is using the internet to their own sleazy ends, then their internet persona, in the end, is still sleazy. If someone used the internet to express themselves exactly as they would in “real life,” then they are exactly the same in both realms. The vast majority of people on the internet, however, are neither sleazy nor are their online selves the same as their “real life” selfs. They actively try to act differently, and many argue that they are being someone that they aren’t.

I challenge this assertion, and flip it upside down. I feel more at home on the internet, connecting with other minds only, than I do in person. In most cases (not all), I actually feel more like myself on the internet than I do in “real life.” In “real life,” we all wear masks, and are forced to hide things from other people, constantly performing, to use sociological terms, facework and impression management. On the internet, one does not need to keep up the masks anymore, as no one else can see them or reach them (unless they are interacting with a dedicated stalker, in which case there are problems to be dealt with). This dropping of the masks, I think, allows for someone’s “true” self to be revealed over the internet, as they are freed from social control; their inner thoughts and desires (Freud’s Id) can come out with the ego and superego of society keeping them down. This certainly often has a negative effect in many public venues (just look at YouTube), when people use the internet to try and become someone more than they were in real life. However, in small-scale or private interactions between people who only know each other through the internet, this does not generally occur, and I believe allows people to connect on a deeper level than they would otherwise be able to.

This is not to say that there is no merit in “real life” relationships; there certainly is, and they can definitely be enjoyed! I do not think it is necessarily accurate to judge these relationships as “inferior” to “real life” relationships, however; like “real life” relationships, each online relationship must be judged on a case-by-case basis. Is the perceived “erosion” of physical relationships really necessarily a bad thing?



Posted by on March 29, 2012 in Philosophical Musings


6 responses to “Social Relationships and the Internet

  1. J.G. Adams

    March 30, 2012 at 2:46 am

    I totally see where you are coming from here, and I think you have a point with internet being the meeting of the minds. As in real life, people will pretend to be someone they aren’t on the internet. I have this woman I work with who is a…well, you know. But she tries to paint this picture of being a nice person, but I can totally tell she’s putting on the mask. I suppose this where people would say internet fails in comparison to real interactions.

    Let me take this a step further. I can read people fairly well. Body language, eye contact, the way things are worded or how they’re said is a big indicator of someone’s true intentions (example: the unkind waitress I work with). While on the internet, you can get an idea of this by the way things are worded, but reading someone’s typed text is only seven percent of someone’s communication. That ninety-three percent of lost communication is a big part of a person that isn’t on display over the internet.

    However, I’m not saying this makes internet relationships less meaningful. What I’m trying to get at here, is that relationships with people over the internet is at a different level than those with those we know personally. I tend to find being with others, having a true friend I can spend time with and laugh over (I have an incredibly stupid sense of humor) is medicine to the heart and nourishment to the soul. Even though I am a typically shy person when it comes to social interaction.

    I very much enjoy my interactions with people over the internet though. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look forward to what might be new in my CONNECT part of Twitter. You, for example, is someone I very much enjoy interacting with. 🙂

    Internet interactions is great, and even satisfying. But I think personal interaction is rich, grand, and wonderful (usually :P).

  2. Z. M. Wilmot

    March 30, 2012 at 3:06 am

    It’s hard to compare the two, certainly. They’re completely different in form and function. It’s interesting that you bring up someone who you know in real life that you also chat with online; I keep my online and real life spheres completely separate, so have none of that overlap, which I guess can blind me to the masks people use online. An interesting question; can you have meaningful interactions with a mask?

  3. J.G. Adams

    March 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    No, because I know they’re faking. I’m sure you know how it is when you meet someone who’s not nice but they try to be. There’s that air of snobby unfriendliness that remains even they’re being ‘nice’.

  4. Z. M. Wilmot

    March 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Very true. 😛 But what if you can’t tell it’s a mask? As an entity separate from a “real” person, can you connect to someone’s mask? Is a mask a separate entity? I am of the opinion that it is, myself, weird a position as that is. 😛

    • J.G. Adams

      March 31, 2012 at 5:08 am

      I have to agree with you that a mask is a separate part of a person. I can usually tell when someone is putting on the mask and playing the part. It’s much like the social roll that’s been talked about in Sociology, which I’m sure you’ve read as well.

      This is the problem with certain people however. People have ulterior motives, they can play others. And as much as I like to think I can read most people, there are still those who can mess with me enough without me knowing it. My brother for instance, who can put on a mask and “act” with the best of them.

      Put it this way. A person who is never the same around different individuals. So say said this person hangs out with dudes and he acts macho and so forth (stereotype I know) but when he hangs with his girl he acts more sensitive and so forth. But that’s all well and dandy, we all do that to a certain degree. But a person who can ‘act’ will appear to be a completely different person to others because they want to be perceived a certain way.

      This is where the mask comes in. It’s a tricky bastard, and fool the best of them. It’s like Stephen King said, “We don’t everything about anyone, especially the ones we think we know”.

      I suppose, that sense, people can have meaningful interactions with those who put on the mask and act well because they are completely unaware of it.

  5. Z. M. Wilmot

    April 5, 2012 at 5:58 am

    An interesting lecture on this topic:


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