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Wong, Meng Weng. "To Be In Touch."
Mailing List post. 25 June 1993.

By: Freeside (

A post to the FutureCulture Mailing List. June 25th, 1993.

Arthur Chandler pounds randomly on the keyboard and comes up with

| The fuller our lives become, the more we have
| to limit the range of people with whom we have serious (friendship or more)
| relations. But the NET allows us to carry on many, many more such
| relationships. | What interests me is the nature of the friendships — if that’s the
| right word — we form here. I “like” many of the people on FC — that’s
| one of the reasons I stay on this list — look forward to reading their
| posts, etc. But the manner in which I know you folks is … is…. well,
| it’s strange: the very phrase, “to be in touch,” implies some sense of
| physical contact. But I’ve seen none of you/us, and have little or no
| sense of your history — basic knowledge in RL friendships. Maybe we need
| a whole new vocabulary to define “frienships” (or more, or less) on the
| infiNET.

Two thoughts come to mind.

Many of us have made built great friendships on the net. And I must admit that there is a certain “spell” associated with a net-relationship — there’s something sensually tantalizing about the slow progression of crafted words across a screen.

The spell may even lead to a disinclination to voice or fleshmeet a net.friend; one is dismayed by the possibility that he won’t turn out quite the way you’d imagined him to be. And so one puts off, interminably, that inevitable phone call, that inevitable “I’ll be wearing a white carnation on my lapel” occasion, sacrificed to maintain the fragile illusion of another’s persona.

Are we really who we are? What are the implications for basic definitions of “personality”? Emboldened and empowered by anonymity, wholly in control of the persona we convey (unlike in real life or while voicing, betrayed by our leaky bodies) we can be whoever we want to be. This may be a reason for the way our self-awareness changes when on the net.

Factor analysis of a questionnaire called the Self-Consciousness Scale, developed by Fenigstein, Scheier, and Buss in 1975, revealed three significant groups correlating self-awareness with personality traits. Private self-consciousness refers to being attentive of one’s real feelings: “I reflect about myself a lot.” Public self-consciousness relates to a concern with oneself as a social object (Wicklund calls this “objective self-awareness”), for example, “I’m concerned about what other people think of me.” The third factor is called social anxiety and refers to the tendency to become upset by social attention; a sample item is, “I feel very anxious when I speak in front of a group.” (Sabini, Social Psychology, p 275.)

How does this relate to net.interactions? Welp, let’s look at how the net, as a medium, differs significantly from real life. I will, for the most part, consider high-interactivity media such as mailing lists/email, and IRC chat systems.

Interaction is reduced to lines of text, enlivened by the occasional smiley. Intonative information is lost, not to mention the enormous body of nonverbal communication, our vocabulary of gestures and idiosyncratic symbols. Two effects follow from this: cognizant of the reduced scope of our presentation, bereft of props, we are forced to focus on what we say, and how we say it. Our private self-consciousness is increased.

Real-life conversation is a dynamic process of action/reaction, where participants consider the other’s perspective and reaction to what one is saying. On the net, though, such cues are effectively suppressed, due either to the paucity of the medium (in realtime chats) or to the asynchrony inherent in any system where messages are long and take time to compose. The delayed medium and unemotional nature of text (as opposed to real physical intimacy) results in a reduction of public self-awareness: it is simply impossible to gauge the response of the audience, and thus one is forced from a posture of rhetorical persuasiveness, to an earnest desire to communicate meaningfully.

As concerns social anxiety - stage fright — In real life, an audience can be supportive, or critical and hostile, but an audience is always conscious of the speaker, and the speaker knows that the audience is forming an impression of him, an impression that he is at this very moment working to construct or change. When communicating with an audience distanced in space and in time, the author of email is no longer constrained by realtime impression-formation, but only by his ability to hold the attention of the reader. In realtime communication such as on IRC, social misapprobation hits less hard; handles, mere strings of text, can be changed at will, and the sheer number of people one communicates with, leads to de-individuation and a flippant and easy escaping of responsibility.

Some analyses implicate the sender, the source of perceived personality, for any misrepresentation. I suggest that it is equally the fault of the recipient: one may be so eager to see what is not there that one falls into the basic traps of attributional errors and confirmation biases.

Consider that the amount of information transmitted during realtime chats is severely limited compared to a fleshmeet or even a phone call; what explains the popularity of IRC? Several factors contribute to the attraction of the IRC. First of all, one can always talk, even when someone else is saying something; lines of text may scroll by, but one’s reading speed can easily compensate for the fact that ten people are talking (typing) at the same time. The reduction in message style and content, necessitated sometimes by typing speeds, requires an active social imagination to interpret tightly coded messages. I suggest that it is in this area, of interpretation, that most misunderstanding occurs. One person’s intent may be masked entirely by a poor choice of phrases; sarcasm in particular does not carry well across on the net, and a message totally opposite to the intent of the sender may be received.

It is easy to perceive unmeant intents; such misperception occurs when the wrong guess is made, when the facts are made to fit the theory. An attempt at companionship may be misconstrued as crude flirtation; “guy humour” may be interpreted as intentionally sexist and offensive. Given that there is very little context upon which a net.friendship can be built, and that even a single day spent together can exceed a month of time on the net in terms of “getting to know you”, I can be only skeptical of the strength of virtual friendships.


Go to Meng’s Home Page.

Disclaimer: This document in no way represents the University of Pennsylvania. All opinions and errors are mine alone.

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