July 24, 2008

Friendship and the Internet

The internet is decidedly a rum thing. It is not just that it facilitates communication over hundreds of miles, between cultures and continents that have never communicated on this level before- or disseminates news so fast that I can beat a BBC correspondent to knowing something and know it seconds after it has happened on the other side of the world- but that it has done things to human communication that other media (with the limited exception of the telephone) could never do. It has given us not a new dimension to our personalities but a new dimension to the way that we communicate. I am writing this- and I know there are about fifty of you, maybe more, maybe less, who are reading it- you could be in Salisbury, Cirencester, Saratoga or Swaziland- I have no idea- all I know is that you are reading it and we are communicating. That's rum. It is something that would not have happened twenty years ago- I couldn't phone fifty people- I might meet fifty people in a day but they would all be in my office, probably live quite near to me and probably have quite similar backgrounds and interests (ie they have turned up in the same place as me at some point in their life). Now though- you are all reading me and I have the same relationship to you in some ways that a film star had to their audience- I know you are there, I have no idea who you are.

Even if I do know who you are the change is still there and still interesting. There are some people who I know read this blog. There are some who I know read it avidly- there are some who I have emailed, discussed issues with, chatted with via the medium of Mr Google and yet have never ever seen in my life. There are some who after having chatted to on the internet- I have met- but most of the people I know through this blog, I wouldn't know if I walked past them on the street. That is an interesting thing to think about- and it is something I want to spend some time working out- because I think that my social interraction with people I know through the internet is different and similar to that with people I do not know through the internet.

Let us start with the basics of a friendship developed over the internet. How do I know you- and how do you know me? We know each other through the written word. We have no idea of what each other looks like or sounds like. That is odd. We all work by looks in every day life. We all think x looks a bit shifty, y looks open minded- and we all rely on physical signals- picking your nose demonstrates that you do not understand modern manners, smelling of sweat demonstrates that you do not understand modern sanitation and so on. We all do it- and those signals are only used because they are useful. If you are incredibly smelly, it could be because its a hot day- but it also could be because you have not bathed for a month. The same thing goes for the way that people speak- if I drone on, its probably because I don't enjoy what I'm talking about which is a good signal that noone else in their right mind would- excitement denotes the fact that someone else might be excited. Conversations are more difficult without those little signals- the sarcastic incline of the head, the joky insult, the moment at which you are close to breaking point and sound angry- those are all impossible on the web- Google chat has as many smillies as you could imagine but cannot cover all of the uses of the human head in the permutations of the 100 or so keys on a standard computer keyboard.

So relationships formed over the internet are bound to be less communicative- they are also bound to take less time. I went out on Friday evening with a friend- and spent around 4 hours solidly chatting with her. I would never spend four hours chatting with someone on Gchat. The longest I have spent must run to half an hour. My longest ever phone conversation runs to three hours. Just think though that in the three hours phone conversation I have the tone of my interlocutor's voice as well as their words, in the four hours with someone in resturants, cafes etc I have their tone and their manner, on the screen I have nothing- potentially the odd smiley and the delay as they write their words which could be down to a computer fault, them getting a cup of tea or just pure irritation with what I last wrote. Its even worse if I am not using a chat program but communicating through the comments on a blog- who knows what reaction I'm getting and how considered it is and how I ought to understand it- and who has ever taken more than 2 minutes over a response to a blog article. Quite simply friendships online are friendships based on so much less in terms of communication. They are based on sentences rather than conversations.

That does not mean that friendship online is impossible. I personally prefer to meet people that I like offline- I then get to understand them better- but some you can't. This article was in response to someone I consider a friend, Ashok, who wrote an article over at his place on a similar theme. But I'd say its more difficult to be friends online than off. Real life friendship and internet friendship are the same beast- fundementally those who think that real life and the internet are completely separate are living in a deluded make believe world- what is different about them is the extent of the communication. When we talk online we do not have the clues that we normally rely on- the reason we rely on those clues is because they are generally useful. There is nothing wrong with having internet friends- but they are harder to understand simply because the keyboard is not as subtle an instrument as the human face.


jmb said...

Excellent post Gracchi. These friendships made via the internet I consider one of the great pluses of blogging. But on the other hand the misunderstandings because of the lack of these vital in-person signals is a real downside of blogging.

Gracchi said...

Exactly what I was getting at JMB- and put much more succinctly! :)

Rohan Venkat said...

Very interesting post, and i certainly agree when it comes to friendships. On the other hand, considering a purely 'intellectual' level the internet offers much more opportunity to interface with other people simply because we don't have the opportunity to be as prejudiced as we might be in person (even with judging blogs and websites based on appearance, etc.)

Not a disagreement, just a thought I had at the end of the post.

Ashok said...

Agreed, although I think you understand me pretty well. Thank you so much for the shout out!

If I had to sum up the deepest problem with the Internet, it isn't the "virtual communication." It's mainly the quality of people on here. People like you are really rare in life, even moreso on the Net.

If I ever meet someone offline and go "wow, they're totally not who I thought they were, I don't like them," slap me. That's my being shallow, and not willing to take advantage of a privilege, that of getting to know someone in any way.

Anonymous said...

I know what lots of you look like because I stalk you ...Mwooohahahahahahahaha!

Ashok said...

Henry - I've moved by blog from Blogger to my own domain, http://ashokkarra.com. Take a look and feel free to give feedback, I'm playing with the layout and a number of other things.

Ruthie said...

The last line sums it up perfectly.