Research has shown that social interaction is one of the main uses of the internet. Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are extremely popular and have become part of the social world of many people. These sites and many others, link friends and users from around the world and make it possible to not only connect with a diverse range of people who would normally be outside your sphere, but also to reconnect with long-lost friends from the past.
A book examining the phenomena of online relationships, by Aaron Be Ze'ev, called Love Online: Emotions on the Internet, labels the social world of the internet as a "mentally nude commune,".
It seems in cyberspace, we are more likely to share our deepest thoughts and selves with strangers and although we do this essentially alone with a piece of electronic equipment in front of us, somehow we may think the experience is more real and satisfying than many relationships of real life. But why is this so? Anonymity seems to be one reason and imagination another. Essentially we are free to be who we want to be on the internet, to remake ourselves anew, and our imagination allows this self to take flight into new realms.
What is Real and True?
The internet also allows us to adopt a persona free of: age, gender and our earthly reality. Is this image then false, or is it free of those aspects which increase certain presumptions, prejudices and expectations? One opinion is that internet relationships are more real, simply based on the truth of the words expressed, but another voice may say, we must consider who lies behind the computer and what is their agenda? A middle-aged man, for example in a teen chat room pretending to be one of the girls is unlikely to be a benign presence.
Psychologists increasingly, find growing numbers of middle-aged internet users, are reconnecting with the school friends of their wonder years. Often this attempt to reestablish the relationships of youth, which were in many ways extremely superficial, can lead to current relationships being labeled as boring, or not as fulfilling as they could be. The tendency to romanticise youthful friendships which occurred when we were young and spunky, when more of our life lay in front, than behind us, is undoubtedly a major factor, but beware as these relationships, as they can implode and burn everyone involved.
One of the amazing aspects of the cyberworld would have to be the explosion of online dating sites and how this mode of finding a partner has quickly become normalised. A quick glance at one such site actually reminded me of online shopping, complete with a product description....actually most seemed to say 'I am a lot of fun' and am 'looking for a good time' (yawn). One positive aspect of online dating services however, is that there are so many varieties available. There are freethinking/atheists dating sites, gay, Christian, goth and even fury dating! Vive la différence.
Choose Your Identity
Online some people choose to use their own identity, while others prefer anonymity, using a pseudonym. One result of anonymity is disinhibited behaviour, leading a person to act online in a way they would not in their everyday life. This however can be positive, or negative. On the one hand, anonymity allows people to experiment with different personas and ways of acting, which can add to their personal development. However on the other side, some people when the normal constraints are removed, indulge in abuse and derogatory behaviour. When identity markers and the fear of damage to personal reputations is removed, there can be an unleashing of very unattractive behaviour.
The question however is, 'are internet relationships real?' The answer it seems is complex, it is both yes and no. The sense of sharing your innermost self, free from the usual judgements can be liberating and increase a sense of bonding with your online friends. However an online personality may be misrepresented, distorted or interpreted in a variety of ways, making it untrustworthy. So while online relationship can add significantly to well-being, be wary.