Online relationships may form using real-time chats or email from associations originating in listservs, chatrooms, interactive games, social networking sites, and many other social venues on the Internet. They may be limited to a single encounter or they may involve repeated interaction over time. They may be conducted exclusively online or involve additional media, including face-to-face contact.
Evolving Theoretic Approaches To Online Relationships
Early laboratory studies of computer-mediated communication and theories developed for other media raised doubts about the use of the Internet for interpersonal relationships. Computer-mediated channels lacked bandwidth and, because of the lack of nonverbal and social cues, were thought to be inadequate for interpersonal interaction. Theorists assumed that it would be difficult to express complex emotional messages in online settings without abundant nonverbal cues. Later researchers demonstrated that with sufficient time, text-based interactions could achieve the same level of content exchange as face-to-face interaction. Moreover, those with the online experience to take creative advantage of the expressive capacities of text-based media were more successful in forming and maintaining online relationships. The Internet also sometimes functioned in “hyperpersonal” fashion, allowing people to achieve higher levels of disclosure and intimacy than they would have been likely to achieve face to face. This effect was achieved by allowing senders to optimize their self-presentations, encouraging receivers to utilize idealized images of senders, making an advantage of asynchronous interaction, and generating positive feedback loops.
Online, Offline, And Mixed Mode Relationships
Online interaction and online relationships in particular were initially viewed as threats to offline relationships. Early studies involving inexperienced users indicated that people who spent more time on the Internet spent slightly less time with family members and with local social contacts and were somewhat more lonely and depressed. However, as users gained experience, they also gained confidence that in turn allowed them to take greater advantage of the Internet’s interpersonal capabilities (LaRose et al. 2001). In one particularly noteworthy study Kraut and colleagues (2002) reversed earlier findings on the same sample by showing that, as subjects became more experienced, they reported greater overall contact with family and friends as well as greater social support.
Negative effects on users’ offline social lives are more likely to occur among users who lack experience, are introverted or compulsive, are socially isolated, or whose social networks are generally not yet online. Studies in several countries now indicate the Internet typically encourages people to develop new, more diverse relationships while at the same time enhancing communication among those who already have well-established relationships with each other offline (e.g., Hlebec et al. 2006).
Consistent with the Internet’s larger social evolution, negative effects of online interaction were more common in the early stages of the Internet’s adoption when it was novel, was disconnected from users’ other activities, and attracted those who may have been less embedded in existing social structures. As the user population became more representative and users gained experience, the Internet was integrated into users’ lives and in most cases made a positive contribution to their ongoing social activities.
Although the term “online relationship” is usually reserved for relationships that begin online, distinctions between online and offline relationships are dissolving. Online relationships often migrate to other settings and relationships begun offline often entail periods of regular or even prolonged online contact. These “mixed mode” relationships pose new challenges for existing theories of both relationship development and mediated interaction (Walther & Parks 2002). Online and offline interaction stimulate each other, promoting an overall increase in interaction between relational participants. People in mixed mode relationships also take advantage of channel differences in order to manage uncertainty and conflict. Individuals favor media with restricted cues over face-to-face interaction, e.g., when the topic is potentially threatening to their self-images.
The Internet is a rapidly evolving meta-medium in which new combinations of media elements appear almost daily. Email is currently the dominant social venue with 10 times more users than chats and 25 times more users than multiplayer online games (Quan-Haase & Wellman 2002). Social venues may be categorized according to their primary communicative function (e.g., social support, gaming), but users regularly complement or subvert the intended function with a wider range of social interaction. Social venues may also be categorized according to whether they are limited to text, allow synchronous interaction, or allow back-channel communication (e.g., private messages during interaction within a group). Although social venues support relational formation and maintenance, they are not all equally fertile. Venues that allow synchronous interaction with backchannels (e.g., chats, MUDs/MOOs [Multi-User Dungeons, Domains, or Dimensions/ MUDs Object Oriented], some interactive games) have higher rates of relational formation than those that are limited to asynchronous exchanges with no back-channels or graphics (e.g., newsgroups, mailing lists).
Opportunities And Challenges Of Online Relationships
Between 10 percent and 35 percent of Internet users have started a new relationship online. Over 80 percent use the Internet to augment contact with existing friends and family members. Online relationships can be described using the same concepts and measures as other interpersonal relationships, but they nonetheless create distinct social opportunities and raise distinct challenges.
The Internet promotes the formation and maintenance of interpersonal relationships in several ways. The low effort required for email and instant messaging allow immediate, frequent, and easy interaction. Although the Internet lowers psychological and other transaction costs, it is not “frictionless.” Time and energy are still expended and some costs are only delayed until such time as the participants in the online relationship wish to meet face to face or conduct a complex transaction. The Internet is also a powerful tool for identifying and contacting those with common interests. It does so not only by transcending geographic barriers, but also by providing both powerful search tools and a myriad of interest-specific social venues.
Accordingly, most new social contacts on the Internet are with people who have similar interests. Carried to the extreme, the ability to select for common interests may result in the balkanization of social networks. Yet the same tools that help identify those with common interests can also be used to diversify one’s social network. Moreover, similarity on one dimension does not imply similarity on others. Commonality thus opens avenues for diversity through discussion of differences in background and attitudes. Many interpersonal communication technologies allow relational participants to communicate asynchronously when differences in schedules and time zones limit opportunities for synchronous interaction. For those with Internet access, email has become the most frequent means of contacting friends and relatives who live more than 50 km away (Quan-Haase & Wellman 2002).
The Internet facilitates relationships by overcoming the limits of face-to-face interaction in offline settings. The relative advantages of online settings are illustrated in research on social support (Walther & Boyd 2002). Compared to face-to-face settings, online support venues may offer greater access to expertise, greater control over one’s messages and self-presentation, and freedom from the confines of one’s offline social network. Internet use has been associated with a larger overall social support network, particularly for those whose offline networks were limited (Hlebec et al. 2006).
One of the challenges facing online relationships is the migration to face-to-face interaction. Although 20 – 40 percent of online relationships migrate successfully, this transition often presents an insurmountable hurdle, particularly if the online acquaintance has been brief, if the participants did not first meet in conjunction with a shared interest, if there are barriers to getting together in person, and if participants have not already successfully managed conflict (Baker 2002).
Deception is always a possibility given the Internet’s unparalleled freedom of self-presentation. It is most likely when online participants are less involved, do not anticipate meeting in person, and have no way to cross-check identity claims. When face-to-face interaction is desired, as in online dating, participants typically present idealized images of themselves in an effort to balance accuracy and desirability (Ellison et al. 2006). Those who present themselves more honestly are more likely to develop successful online relationships.
Relative anonymity and lack of physical presence may breed other challenges, however, including unpredictable, disinhibited behavior. Although moderate disinhibition may encourage introverted users, settings in which people display extreme disinhibition make it difficult for users to engage in the sustained interaction needed for stable relationships.
Managing the boundaries of online interactions and relationships is also a major challenge. As network-enabled communication technologies become more ubiquitous, expectations regarding availability and access must be reworked. One point of tension is the blurring of lines between work and home life. Another is the need to manage expectations about how quickly one will respond when others assume nearly continuous Internet connectivity. Finally, privacy concerns are inevitably raised as people provide increasing amounts of personal information and interaction in increasingly personal ways online. Individuals may not recognize the social boundaries or the lack of social boundaries in common online venues. Their privacy may be comprised, e.g., when they exchange personal information using work-related email or when they post information intended for intimates on sites that are publicly accessible and searchable.
Methodological Issues And Future Directions
Examining a wider range of relationships is necessary for a broad understanding of online relationships. Romantic relationships garner the greatest attention, while far more common relationships such as work relationships, friendships, and extended family relationships are understudied. Cultural differences and similarities in the dynamics and appeal of online relationships are inadequately understood. Longitudinal work is needed to identify the trajectories of online relationships. Research examining specific communicative challenges such as impression and boundary management is still in its early stages. Because most online relationships involve or will involve multiple media, researchers can no longer productively isolate “online” relationships from relationships more generally. Researchers are just beginning to consider how people utilize multiple channels in strategic ways and how task performance might be enhanced by the staging of interaction across multiple channels. Going beyond global estimates of Internet use will be essential to understand the potentially different functions of the Internet’s many social venues, as will stronger multivariate controls that help identify differences among sub-groups of users (Zhao 2006).
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