The Benefits of Online Friendship?

When it comes to human relationships and communication, there is frequently an assumption that face-to-face is best. When the Internet first took off, in the mid 90s, there was a concern that computers would make ‘real’ communication more difficult. Even today, the vast majority of computer-mediated communication is text-based, and doesn’t involve the use of web-cams.

So it might be quite surprising to find that psychology research shows that people who communicate via a computer (such as email, Internet chat room or a social networking site) are more friendly, disclose more information about themselves and thus can develop a close relationship more quickly than if they meet face-to-face. This is one reason why organisations should consider using technologies such as social networking to create communities and boost engagement in the workplace.

There are a number of theories which contribute to this phenomenon:

Anonymity:

It has been suggested that the reason people tend to be more open if they communicate through a computer is due to anonymity[1], the use of pseudonyms which are common in newsgroups and chat rooms [2] and ‘the strangers on a train’ phenomenon, whereby people tend to disclose a lot more information about themselves to others they think they’re unlikely to meet again[3]. Additionally research has also shown that people are more honest when asked questions by a computer than in a face-to-face meeting. What we don’t know, however, is whether the choice of the Internet in the first place is motivated by a predisposition to self-disclose.

Visibility:

People also disclose more when they are visually anonymous, which is typical in many forms of computer-mediated communication.  But when a web-cam is introduced into the equation, the amount of self-disclosure as well as the amount of talking is reduced[4]. Visual anonymity means that people are unencumbered by prejudice or stigma based on their physical appearance, gender or age, so interaction with others over the Internet/via a computer may be liberating and empowering, resulting in changes in how they see themselves e.g. developing their confidence and assertiveness.

Absence of non-verbal cues:

Visual anonymity also means an absence of the normal non-verbal cues, which in turn enables people to choose how they present themselves, for example, as more friendly, knowledgeable or empathic [5]. The computer thus acts as a medium for re-inventing oneself, consciously or unconsciously. This doesn’t mean that people are necessarily pretending to be someone they’re not; some researchers have suggested that communication via a computer is a medium to present the true and authentic self3.

Text-based rather than verbal:

There are a number of reason why communicating in writing differs to face-to-face interaction. Firstly, text-based interaction means that you have time to reflect on your message before sending it. The fact that you can choose how and when (or if) to respond means that you have the opportunity to present yourself in particular way. You are more in control of what you communicate (or not) and when.

Secondly, writing down feelings or experiences can be therapeutic and cause cognitive changes[6], which might encourage further self-disclosure.

De-individuation

De-individuation[7] is a process whereby certain social conditions (in particular anonymity) lead to changes in the way you perceive yourself and others, and result in less-restrained behaviour[8]. It has been suggested that this less-restrained behaviour is a reflection of the true self: ‘under the protective cloak of anonymity users can express the way they truly feel and think’.

Detached Attachment

Detached attachment, or ‘dettachment’, refers to the unique opposing features of an online relationship, in that it is distant and immediate at the same time. Online friends might be geographically separate, but they are actually in the same (cyber)space[9]. And whilst they are geographically separate, they are temporally and emotionally immediate.

Online relationships are thus a complex phenomenon, showing many paradoxical features. Although it’s often said that people are less friendly with their neighbours nowadays, electronic communication like social networking is enabling us to easily create and maintain social ties with people on the other side of the world, which was impossible 10 or 20 years ago. Research into social networking is still relatively new, and whilst the form of human relationships seems to be changing, the need to make close connections with our fellow beings is as important, if not more important, than ever. Technology can enable the creation and maintenance of friendships, you just need to be aware that they can develop more quickly than you think.


[1] Joinson (1999)

[2] Finn (1999)

[3] Bargh et al (2002)

[4] Joinson (2001).

[5] Tanis (2007)

[6] Pennebacker (1997)

[7] Zimbardo (1969)

[8] McKenna & Bargh (2000, p62)

[9] Cairncross (1997); Kellerman (2002)


Image: Looking Glass

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