Research Presentation: Sarah Groat

Intimacy Online: A Different Kind of Relationship

AS I STOOD UP to greet a long-time friend with a hug in a small bar in New York City, I realized that I actually had no idea who this person was. I knew her name, what she looked like, and details about her daily life, but up until this point, her personality had only been what I had imagined it to be. With only words and photos to go by, there had been a lot of blanks for me to fill in. I wondered what I had gotten right, what I hadn’t expected, and if any of that would even matter.

Both Leah* and I are members of an online community, a private Facebook group composed entirely of young women. The group shares no common interest aside from gender; we were all regulars on a messageboard intended for girls. A couple of the members have gotten together in real life, but most of us have never met each other. While I was in New York City, Leah and I hung out together a few more times, and I noticed that my reaction toward her in the group changed. Many of the other women show affection toward each other with ease, telling each other “I miss you!” or even “love you.” However, I was not able to naturally emotionally react to others’ posts, and I rarely noticed specific people’s absence from the group if they were missing for a few days. Then, after I spent time with Leah, I noticed a stronger reaction from myself to her posts. I was more likely to answer them, and more likely to be genuinely sympathetic to emotional struggles. I grew curious: what kinds of bonds were people forming with each other in this group, and how did they compare with bonds formed in real life?

Based on my own experience, I hypothesized that the group fulfilled a role absent in our real lives. I did not think that the relationships formed between these women were deep, lasting bonds. Furthermore, I believed the attachment was to the online space itself, not to the individual people occupying it. From my research, I’ve determined that what is actually going on is probably a mix of these things, creating a different kind of relationship.

My top priority was to understand the perspective of the other women in the group. I saw the group primarily as a space where I could let out any strong emotions I was having, and generally receive support or advice. It frequently acted as a place of positivity, where the members would uplift each other, crack jokes, and share many important details of their lives. I recognized the different personalities of the women, but I did not really attach to any individual member; rather, I felt attached to the space as a whole. Was their attitude toward the group similar to mine?

To find out, I sent a questionnaire of five questions to a few of the members who volunteered:

  1. Have you ever had the urge to leave the group? If so, what made you stay? If you did leave, what made you come back?
  2. Are you closer to some of the girls than others? If so, why? Do you value these relationships as much as in real life?
  3. I assume that part of the attraction of the group is that it is a safe space where we can spill our worries, share TMI, and receive advice without fear of (much) judgment. If you had access a community like the group in real life, would you leave the group? If so, why? If not, why would you stay?
  4. Do you see yourself in this group 5 years from now? 10?
  5. Have you met other girls from the group in person? Do you think it changed your feelings towards them? If so, in what way did they change?

Of course, the responses were not quantifiable, but they gave me a good sense of how they feel about the group. What they told me challenged my own ideas.

IN HER BOOK ALONE TOGETHER, Sherry Turkle boldly states, “The ties we form through the Internet are not…the ties that bind” (280). In my personal life, I knew this to be untrue. I have formed long-term, deep bonds entirely online, bonds that have profoundly affected my life. But I thought that the format of this group was such that rather than the girls forming binding ties with each other, the space was fulfilling a need. In some ways, I was right.

The group space fills a role that is simply unavailable in real life. It is similar to the online confessional sites Turkle mentions in her book; in the group, we can share anything that we feel like sharing (236). For many this includes things we’ve never told anyone in real life. The importance of this aspect of the group was emphasized to me when none of the girls I chatted with said they would leave the online group for a comparable community in the offline world. “It's so much easier to type from behind a screen, than it would be to try to actually SAY the words to someone in real life,” said one; this type of response was repeated multiple times (E-mail interview). The particular format of the group seems to offer a freedom from the pressures of face-to-face interaction. In this way, members begin to “form a relationship to the site as well as to those on it” (Turkle, 236). It’s clearly not just about the specific people we’re interacting with; it’s the online space as well.

In fact, this is one of the benefits of online communication discussed in a study by Van Den Eijnden et al. When strangers participate in communities online, it can help “build social resources for those who lack these resources in the offline world” (Van Den Eijnden et al.). The type of community built from the group is a resource none of us have offline, because most of us simply “wouldn’t join a community like that in real life,” as one girl put it (E-mail interview). Another recognized that as a whole, she valued the community as a place of support more than each of its individual members (E-mail interview). Here, the group is functioning as a place to release private thoughts that its members feel they cannot express anywhere else.

IT’S EASY TO SEE WHY I thought at first that if this wasn’t the only function of the group, it was at least the primary one. From my perspective, members only had this casual relationship with the group. They could come in, vent about something troubling them or share a funny anecdote, then go about their day. There was no requirement for members to comment – and in fact posts frequently go ignored by all but a few – nor for reciprocity. I figured surely members were using the space in the same way I was – as a sort of online confessional space to help manage inner emotions.

However, it’s become clear to me that this group differs from anonymous confessional sites in a key way: members are interacting among a small group of people whom they trust. This is where the group moves from merely confessional space to relationship builder. The more I thought about it, the more I understood the importance of the trust element. Trust was repeatedly mentioned in the questionnaire responses as factor that draws members to this particular group. It’s “this exact group of girls” that motivates them to stay, said one (E-mail interview). This is never more apparent than when the discussion of adding new members crops up. The suggestion is always met with a firm negative – no one feels comfortable letting new members into such a safe space. We all already know all about each other – we believe that the others are who they say they are. Though individual members have left and returned, the group has kept the same core group of women for nearly a year.

Thirty-five women, all from different areas of the country and even the world – and yet we all trust each other. The online group makes this possible in a way perhaps no other medium could. Stefana Broadbent argues that the internet affords the freedom to nurture intimacy across boundaries – whether societal or physical (“How the Internet Enables Intimacy”). This is because no matter where we are, we can always log in and share something with each other. “I always have time for my online group!” remarked one group member. We can “break an imposed isolation” that daily routines usually require of us, and we readily do, all the time – whether we’re at the office, in class, or in the library (“How the Internet Enables Intimacy”). Even if we’re in a quiet study room, we can log on and find a connection with each other. At lunch, I can chat with someone who’s having dinner in England. I know facts about someone’s life who is living in Australia. It’s this ease of sharing information that helps foster the intimacy I’ve seen within the group.

Still, the trust was certainly a precursor to this intimacy. We’ve done ‘proof’ pictures – photos in which we are holding a sign with our name – to ensure none of us are 50-year-old men. We’ve taken fun videos of ourselves to show what our accent sounds like or to talk about regional dialect. We frequently share pictures of our pets or our significant others. All these details contribute to giving each of us a more authentic picture of who the others are. They help us feel secure that the person we are talking to really is who they say they are. Once members feel that security and begin sharing intimate details with each other, the only natural next step is forming bonds.

And they are forming bonds, contrary to my expectation. Every member who answered my questionnaire stated that they were closer with some girls than others. They frequently cited individual members as a reason for their continued participation in the group. “I value the relationships with people in there too much to leave,” one girl stated (E-mail interview). Enough value has been placed on the bonds formed in this group that each of them expressed interest in maintaining the community in the long term. Even if the group dismantles, they hope to still be in contact with the girls they feel close to. These friendships are important enough for many of the women to want to nurture them for years to come.

AS IMPORTANT AS THESE BONDS ARE, it’s also clear to me that there can be no doubt something is missing from them. When I am talking with someone online, I have to imagine their mannerisms, body language, and voice. As Dr. Jim Taylor states:

“Virtual relationships have all the appearances of real relationships, but they are missing essential elements that make real relationships, well, real, namely, three dimensionality, facial expressions, voice inflection, clear emotional messages, gestures, body language, physical contact, and pheromones” (“Relationships 2.0”).

These are all essential parts of forging a connection with someone. Facial expressions can send clear signals about the intended meaning behind words. Body language can easily let others know how you feel about them. Touch can most certainly solidify a bond.

Perhaps this is why, even though the bonds formed through this group are real, they can still seem vaguely throw-away. As one girl put it, “I also would never feel comfortable talking so freely with real life friends that I couldn't cut out from my life as easily as I could an internet friend” (E-mail interview). This reflects my own personal feelings about my ties to the girls in the group. I enjoy them, and they play a significant role in my life, but it would be much easier to sever them than to do so with someone I’ve spent physical time with.

Perhaps this is why some of the girls who responded said they value their real-life relationships more. “[Real life friends] are harder to come by,” said one girl (E-mail interview). Is this because once we see how someone acts, we may not click with them as much as when we are only reading their words? When we communicate with someone online, we have to fill in a lot of gaps. We can get a sense of someone’s personality through the screen, but we can essentially imagine their actions any way we want to. One girl noted, “I will admit that I am nervous to meet someone because I worry that they won't like me or I won't like them once we meet in real life” (E-mail interview). It may very well be harder to find people you get along well with in real life than online, which would make real life relationships higher valued.

Perhaps this is why my reaction to Leah changed. When we met, it gave us the chance to see how our personalities would interact in real life. I heard her voice, saw her facial expressions, and experienced physical contact through our hug. On top of that, we connected well. The three or four times we hung out together had a much deeper impact on me than the year I’ve been a part of the group. This convinces me of the importance of a physical presence to a relationship.

ULTIMATELY, I CAN ONLY CONCLUDE that what is happening in the group is more complicated than I first thought. True, some of the women simply don’t value these online bonds as much as their relationships in their offline lives. But some do. One girl sees no difference between them, saying “like any friendship you have to work to maintain it” (E-mail interview). Another says these girls are like “sisters” to her, having helped her through hard times (E-mail interview). Furthermore, value differences between the members certainly do not invalidate the bonds of the group. These relationships play very important roles in the lives of these group members - the nature of these ties is simply that they’re different.

But not so different. The circumstances surrounding this group provide the right conditions for intimate bonds to be formed. We trust each other, and thus share private thoughts with each other. Although something may be missing, something is missing in most relationships, real or virtual. “All-encompassing friendships are rare,” says Tami Harris (“Are Online Friendships Real or Virtual?”). We often have to work through communication with limited information. And so in this group, we work around it to take advantage of the opportunity presented to us. We’re not replacing offline relationships, but fulfilling a need with a different kind of relationship.

Works Cited
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.

How the Internet Enables Intimacy. Perf. Stefana Broadbent. TED.com. TED Conferences, LLC, Nov. 2009. Web. 17 Oct. 2012.

E-mail interview. 04 Oct. 2012.

Taylor, Dr. Jim. "Relationships 2.0 — How Technology Redefines How We Connect." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Oct. 2009. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.

Van Den Eijnden, Regina J. J. M., Gert-Jan Meerkerk, Ad A. Vermulst, Renske Spijkerman, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. "Online Communication, Compulsive Internet Use, and Psychosocial Well-being among Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study." Developmental Psychology 44.3 (2008): 655-65. Print.

Harris, Tami W. "Are Online Friendships Real or Virtual?" Clutch. Sutton New Media LLC, 06 June 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.