Online Relationships

A simulated interaction is any interaction between a person and some other object (including another person) where not all senses are represented within the interactions. For example, watching television is a simulated interaction because what we can see and hear does not translate to what we can smell, taste, and touch in actuality – consider someone making an omelet while watching the morning news. It is highly unlikely that the aroma of an omelet is equivalent to the aroma that exists in the newsroom.

It is via the Internet that people can be at the frontier of simulated interaction. When someone meets a new person, their immediate interactions are heavily influenced by the past (pre-conceived ideas about people) and the present (new sensory inputs). When all of our senses are not available to us, we have to use other faculties to compensate. Thus, the deprivation of senses during Internet interactions is a critical element to online relationships. Simulated interactions also rely on and develop personal identity. When formulating one’s knowledge of self, an altered set of senses has dramatic consequences and the outcome of several human generations engaging in simulated interaction are yet to be determined.

Online engagement happens via the pathways of textual language, text-free pictures, sound, and/or any combination of these. Typically, online relationships occur through text-only mediums, although there are certainly communities that incorporate extensive image transfer and/or compressed sound files. The limits on digital technology force people to continuously understand existing and new written languages.

Thus, we primarily relate to others online by understanding the language of others – in particular, reading their text. Words are the major inputs to people online; notably, this kind of environment severely handicaps certain groups of people, such as those are blind or those who do not read well. In any discussion of online relationships, I have to stress that the set of people that can partake in such relationships is notably smaller than the set of people that can engage in any simulated relationship.

That point aside, people who communicate online use particular applications to do so, usually involving a sense of time-expectancy on response:

Instant messaging (chat programs including QQ, Windows Messenger, and AIM)
Responsive communication:
Individual private delayed messaging (E-mail)
Selective delayed messaging (Facebook wall posts)
Public delayed messaging (YouTube comments)
Controlled content (Wikipedia entires)
Static communication:
Public content (Personal web sites)

We are innately familiar with all forms of digital interaction except for instant messaging. The communicative forms shown above are largely similar to reading, but the expected time between “new words” differs greatly from one form to another. Public content on a web site may largely be considered unchanging, and thus represents text in a book. Furthermore, there is no direct pathway for a reader to return any sort of communication to the author, or even other readers, unless these people are present by the reader in actuality. Similarly, if I read words on a web site, there is no guarantee I can do anything directly to the web site or the site’s author.

On the other hand, the responsive communication group allows for some form of reply. With controlled content, the response may be large in scope and publicly readable. Other responses may be publicly readable depending on whether the author or the content controller desires it to be public.

Instant messaging (IM), however, represents a strange cross between responsive text-only communication and actual spoken word conversation in that the time delay between two or more participants with instant messaging can be negligible. One cannot actually “know” what is occurring on the other end of an IM connection, which suggests that an expectation that just because a message is sent does not mean a reply must be instant. But at the same time, IMing could occur so rapidly that multiple conversations could begin and end in less than a minute, and in that case, one could expect immediate responses to whatever is being typed.

This confusion of time is one example of how pure online relationships are incredibly difficult to characterize. In a way, online interactions represent a truly simulated, fantasy-like environment where both self and other people’s identities are left for our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

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