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?