John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article was first created in May 97; revised in Sept 04 (v2.0)

The Final Showdown Between
In-Person and Cyberspace Relationships

The new social frontier
The word
Listen carefully (hearing)
Seeing is believing
Can I hold you in cyberspace? (touching)
Getting real close! (smelling and tasting)
Putting it all together (sensory integration)
Read my mind (intuition)
Defending text and the body
The final showdown

Whether you like it or not, cyberspace has become the new frontier in social relationships. People are making friends, colleagues, lovers, and enemies on the Internet. The fervor with which many people have pursued this new social realm is matched by a backlash reaction from the skeptics. Relationships on the Internet aren't really real, some people say - not like relationships in the real world. Socializing in cyberspace is just a cultural fad, a novelty, a phase that people go through. The critics say it can't compare to real relationships - and if some people prefer communicating with others via wires and circuits, there must be something wrong with them. They must be addicted. They must fear the challenging intimacy of real relationships.

Is this true? Is it true that "real" relationships are intrinsically superior to relationships in cyberspace? Or might relationships in cyberspace in fact be better?... Here is the showdown for us to explore.

But first, let's first settle on some terms. What exactly should we call relationships in cyberspace and relationships in the "real" world? Right off the bat, I'm going to discard the term "real" because it already biases our discussion in favor of relationships in the physical world. Whether or not those relationships are more "real" is the very issue at hand. The same is true of "virtual relationships" because the word "virtual" implies that those relationships are somehow less-than or not quite up to snuff. Some people like to say "face-to-face relationships" (ftf, f2f). I'm not particularly thrilled by that term either, because video conferencing on the Internet surely allows people to present their faces to each other. We could say "physical relationships," although that conjures up images of wrestling and sex.

I've already given away my preference for a term, as you have probably guessed - unless you let the title of this article slip right by you. I like "in-person relationships" because it captures the feeling of physical presence without necessarily getting physical. I doubt that even when holographic multimedia communication arrives (many years from now?) we will ever say that we meet our online acquaintances "in-person." So it seems like a term that safely falls outside the realm of cyberspace. We can even abbreviate it nicely as IP and IPR.

Now we must turn our attention to a term for cyberspace relationships.... How about (surprise again!) "cyberspace relationships" - thus abbreviated CSR? We also might follow current trends by calling it "computer-mediated relationships" (CMR), but I like the word "cyberspace." It conjures up feelings of place, location, and spatial interaction. People do indeed experience cyberspace as containing places where they go and meet others. Rather than highlighting the fact that cyberspace is controlled by computers, I like to emphasize instead that it is a psychological and social space.

With these terms in hand, we're back to the showdown. Which is better? IPR or CSR? The key word here is "relationships." One approach to understanding that social and very human phenomenon is to examine the various pathways by which people communicate, connect, and bond with each other - by the specific mechanisms for "relating." On the most fundamental level, we can compare IPR and CSR according to how people connect via the five senses:

hearing the other
seeing the other
touching the other
smelling the other
tasting (!) the other
The first - hearing - involves the basic human skill for language, which isn't necessarily auditory. So, before getting to the five senses, let's back up a notch to examine language.

The Word

A powerful way that people connect to each other is through words. In the beginning, CSR relied mostly on language conveyed through typed text - mostly e-mail and message board (newsgroup) posts. Even today, typed-text accounts for a very large majority of communication over the Internet. There are at least four distinct advantages of these text-mediated relationships over IPR.

1. The interaction can be asynchronous. It doesn't have to occur in real time, so you can respond to your net-mate whenever you wish, at whatever pace you wish. That gives you time to think about what you want to say and to compose your reply exactly the way you want. This comes in very handy for those awkward or emotional situations in a relationship. Unlike IPR, you're never on the spot to reply immediately. You can think it through first, do a little research or soul-searching, if you wish. My advice for those very emotional moments is to compose a message, wait at least 24 hours, reread your message, modify it if necessary... THEN send it off. This wait-and-revise strategy can do wonders in averting impulsiveness, embarrassment, and regret. Chat and instant messaging systems, which also involve typed text, are much more synchronous than e-mail and message boards. However, they too offer a slightly but meaningfully longer delay than IPR.

2. The written dialogues of CSR may involve different mental mechanisms than in-person talk. It may reflect a distinct cognitive style that enables some people to be more expressive, subtle, organized, or creative in how they communicate. Some people feel that they can express themselves better in the written word. Surely, there have been truly great authors and poets who sounded bumbling or shallow during IP conversation.

3. Text-mediated relationships enable you to record the interactions by saving the typed-text messages. Essentially, you can preserve large chunks of the relationship with your online companion, maybe even the entire relationship if you only communicated via typed-text. At your leisure, you can review what you and your partner said, cherish important moments in the relationship, and reexamine misunderstandings and conflicts. This kind of reevaluation of the relationship usually is impossible in IPR, where you almost always have to rely on the vagaries of memory. In fact, if you want to get downright philosophical about it, you could make the argument that your complete archive of text communications with your net-mate *is* the relationship with that person, perfectly preserved in bits and bytes. It's not unlike a novel, which isn't a record of characters and plot, but rather *is* the characters and plot.

4. Text relationships tend to result in what's called the online disinhibition effect. Because they can't be seen or heard, people may open up and say things that they normally wouldn't say in-person. Self-disclosure and intimacy may be accelerated. Some even argue that a person's true self is more likely to appear online than in-person, and surely that must enhance one's relationships. This is a controversial claim, as is the very concept of a true self.

Skeptics say that the big disadvantage of text-driven relationships is what's missing vis-a-vis IPR. There are no voices, facial expressions, or body language to convey meaning and emotion. That issue takes us to the first of the five senses - hearing.

Listen Carefully (hearing)

The human voice is rich in meaning and emotion. A sharp edge to someone's words can rouse your suspicion or anger. Just the sound of a loved one's voice can be enough to create feelings of comfort and joy. Singing - one of the most expressive of human activities - powerfully unites people. In CSR mediated by text only, both obvious and subtle nuances in voice pitch and volume are completely absent. And singing is impossible (unless you consider the mutual recitation of lyrics as singing... which some onliners do).

Advocates of text-driven CSR do have a comeback to this criticism. Lacking auditory and visual cues, the e-mail message, blog, or newsgroup post can be productively ambiguous in tone. When reading that typed message, there is a strong tendency to project - sometimes unconsciously - your own expectations, wishes, anxieties, and fears into what the person wrote. Psychoanalytic thinkers call this "transference." Your distorting the person's intended meaning could lead to misunderstandings and conflict. It could stimulate countertransference reactions from your online partner. On the other hand, if you discuss your (mis)perceptions with your friend, you are revealing underlying (perhaps unconscious) elements of how you think and feel. In a sense, you are being more real with the other person, allowing a deeper relationship to form. Of course, this more rich and meaningful relationship will only develop when people are mature enough to talk about and work through those projections and transferences with each other. Too often this may not be the case. The skeptics therefore reply that the disadvantage of ambiguity in text communication outweighs the possible advantage.

An entirely different comeback for cyberspace advocates is that one's voice CAN be heard online. It's only a matter of time before audio-streaming becomes perfected to the point where it matches the quality of IPR. In fact, conversing in cyberspace may have some distinct advantages. If you so desire, conversations easily could be saved and replayed - which isn't possible in IPR, unless you're carrying a tape recorder. Using software programs, nuances in voice pitch and volume can be examined more carefully for subtle emotions and meaning. Programs also could allow you to modify your voice as you transmit it. If you want to speak in the voice of Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwartzenegger, or Daffy Duck, so be it. Or you can add in any auditory special effect you desire in order to embellish your words - Pomp and Circumstance, explosions, quacks.

As we'll see over and over again, a unique feature of CSR is the ability to use imagination and fantasy to shape the way in which you desire to present yourself. This can be a fascinating and revealing dimension to a relationship.

Advocates of CSR also will be quick to point out the creative keyboarding techniques that do allow onliners to simulate voice modulation, such as typing in caps to mimic SHOUTING. A poor substitute for the real thing, a skeptic will say.

SEEING is Believing

I could write this section on seeing almost word for word as I wrote the previous section on hearing. The human face and body language are rich in meaning and emotion. Critics of text-only communication in cyberspace complain that all these visual cues are missing, hence making the relationship ambiguous and depleted. Advocates of text-driven CSR again could reply that this ambiguity creates an opportunity to explore one's transference reactions, thereby enriching the relationship. They also may praise its level playing field. Appearances - such as gender, race, and whether you are "attractive" or not - are irrelevant. Everyone has an equal voice and is judged by the same standards: their words. Some claim that text-only talk carries you past the distracting superficial aspects of a person's existence and connects you more directly to their mind and personality.

Like audio-streaming, video transmissions will eventually make face-to-face meetings both practical and realistic, with the added feature of making it possible for you to both sound and look like Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwartzenegger, or Daffy Duck, if you so choose. The multimedia chat environments where people use "avatars" to represent themselves is the first step in this opportunity to present yourself visually in any form you desire. It's the perfect way to express all sorts of things about your personality. You also can interact with others in any of an almost limitless variety of visual scenes. Want to meet your friend at the bottom of the ocean, or on a space station, or in the Oval Office?.... No problem. There is a big disadvantage, though, of audio/visual cyberspace meetings involving three or more people who can see each other only on computer screens. The subtle body language of who is looking and gesturing at whom might be lost. Eventually, holographic meetings will solve that problem.

Can I Hold You in Cyberspace? (touching)

Humans need physical contact with each other. Infants sink into depression and die without it. How parents interact physically with them becomes a cornerstone of their identity and well-being. Adults deprived of tactile contact for long periods will tell you just how depriving it feels. In day-to-day relationships, never underestimate the power of a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug, or a kiss.

On this level of human relating, cyberspace falls short... way short. In multimedia chat communication there are some vague hints of physical contact, as when you snuggle up your avatar next to someone else's. People can also give you a virtual [[[hug]]] in text relationships. But this is a far cry from the in-person counterpart. Unfortunately, it's not very likely that CSR - even holographic ones - will ever develop kinesthetic capabilities, unless technology figures out how to accurately record someone's caress and transmit that digital record into the other's nervous system. Products that transmit tactile stimulation online are being developed, but are still quite crude compared to the subtle but powerful dimensions of in-person human touch. You can argue until the cows come home about how you can psychologically and emotionally embrace someone through words alone, but the bottom line is that you can't and probably never will be able to hold your loved one in cyberspace.

In the physical, tactile, spatial world we also can DO things with people. We can play tennis, go for a walk, eat dinner together... and, of course, have sex. Doing things with people creates bonds. It creates a history to the relationship. Are these things possible in CSR?... Sort of. In cyberspace, especially in multimedia environments, we can "meet" people at some specified site and move with them from one visual setting to another. It feels a bit like "going places" with them. There also are lots of games we can play with others via the Internet - games that sometimes have an imaginary physical feeling to them. Then, of course, there's cybersex, which often consists of talking in a sexual way with each other. That's "doing" something, isn't it?

ALthough doing things with others certainly is possible on the Internet, it doesn't have as powerful a physical, tactile, or spatial feeling as activities in IPR. Almost anything you can do with someone in cyberspace you could also do with them in-person, simply by the fact that they can be sitting side-by-side with you in front of the computer while you do it. But the reverse isn't true - everything you can do with someone in-person can't be duplicated in cyberspace. That's a big disadvantage for CSR.

Getting Real Close! (smelling and tasting)

The scent of perfume, hair, clothes, skin. Smell brings us very close to the other. It stirs up powerful emotional reactions. The sense of taste brings us closer still. It's the sensation of lovers. One might say that smell and taste are rather "primitive" interpersonal sensations, but both are the cornerstones of deep intimacy - maybe because they ARE so primitive, so fundamental. In addition to touch, smell and taste are the primary ways an infant connects to its mother. It is one's very first, essential relationship that serves as the prototype for all later relationships in one's life.

On this level of relating, a CSR once again falls flat on its noseless, tongueless face. Will computers ever be able to duplicate smells and tastes and then accurately transmit those sensations to another person five or five thousand miles away? Products are being developed to accomplish this feat, but don't hold your breath waiting for a tasty full course meal in cyberspace, or for the robust olfactory and gustatory presence of your lover.

As with tactile sensations, when it comes to the smelling/tasting dimension of intimate relationships, IPR wins hands down over CSR.

Putting It All Together (sensory integration)

Rarely in IPR do we connect to the other person by one sense alone. At the very least we see and hear simultaneously. During more intimate relating we see, hear, touch, smell, and maybe even taste. The complex and subtle interactions among all that sensory input far exceeds the interpersonal meaning we can extract from any one of them alone. Mother nature was pretty clever in giving us eyes, ears, skin, noses, and tongues - all interconnected in marvelous ways that science still doesn't fully understand. Those clusters of sensations make for relationships that are highly robust in emotion and meaning.

As Internet technology improves, auditory and visual sensations will be more effectively coordinated with each other. But even with unlimited bandwidth and highly imaginative code, we'll never see all five sensations integrated as in IPR - not unless the virtual realities of The Matrix or a Star Trek holodeck become fact rather than science fiction. In CSR the five senses tend to be dissociated... and that's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the rich interpersonal qualities afforded by the five senses is lost, resulting in human encounters that may run a bit on the stale side. On the other hand, extracting out some sensory modes - like vision or voice - creates unique ways to interact with others. E-mail and typed chat can be rather fascinating styles of developing a relationship. The sensory limitations can fuel the imagination and lead to creative patterns of communicating that are not found in IPR. CSR also allow for unique combinations of text, audio, and visual relating that usually are not possible in-person. You want to hear but not see people, read their text and see them but not hear them, or see and hear them but not bother with text? Sure, we can do that online - and there will be situations in which presenting some aspects of relating but not others is desirable.

Read My Mind (intuition)

Sometimes we humans connect to each other in ways that seem to defy the traditional laws of sense impressions. Call it telepathy, empathy, or intuition, we seem to know what others are thinking or feeling without being aware of just how we know it. Some people think that we reach those conclusions based on an unconscious detection of subtle qualities in voice, body language, or things said between the lines. If that's the case, then sensory information indeed is influencing how we experience the other. We just don't realize how exactly we're being subliminally influenced.

Curiously, people report that even in the stripped down sensory world of CSR - like text-only chat - others sometimes sense what you are thinking and feeling, even when you didn't say anything to that effect. Did they detect your mood or state of mind from some subtle clue in what or how you typed? Are they picking up on some seemingly minor change in how you typically express yourself?

Or does their empathy reach beyond your words appearing on the screen? Perhaps they are in tune with your mind via some pathway that neither psychology nor computer technology can fully explain. If that kind of intuitive connection really exists, then the differences between IPR and CSR become rather insignificant. On that mysterious level, human relating transcends sense organs and microchips.

Defending Text and the Body

In this article I have discussed a wide range of text and multimedia possibilities for CSR compared to IPR. However, the fact remains that a large majority of online relationships consist mostly of text conversations. Countless romances, friendships, and successful collaborations among colleagues have evolved almost exclusively via the typed word. These people often must endure criticisms from skeptics who believe online relationships are shallow, artificial, and based more on fantasy than reality. The skeptics usually point to the lack of in-person visual, auditory, and tactile cues, including facial expressions, body language, voice intonations, and the ability to interact physically by such actions as shaking hands, patting on the back, hugging, and kissing.

To protect the validity of their online relationships, some people quickly jump to the defense of text communication, perhaps even claiming that all in-person cues can be recreated in text, or that the advantages of text communication in fact results in relationships that are better than in-person. In that quick defense and a tendency to unrealistically idealize text relationships, the limitations are ignored or glossed over, just as the knee-jerk criticisms of the skeptics tend to disregard the advantages. Unfortunately, a narrow-minded defense of text can result in a devaluing as well as a neglect of the physical, bodily human.

While traveling in Europe, I noticed people on trains and in restaurants talking with each other in a variety of languages that were foreign to me. Even though I barely understood the content of their spoken conversation, subtle changes in their mood and attitude were clearly visible in their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. How people communicate with these nonverbals struck me as a very important and universal aspect of human nature. I reflected on the arguments people make in defense of how subtle, accurate, and comprehensive online text communication can be, but I also realized we have to take very seriously the fact that these nonverbals are missing.

If we show a baby a highly expressive and emotional email message, what will the baby do? Perhaps play with the keyboard or suck on the mouse? The email means nothing to the child. Sit in front of the baby, interact with it using your facial expressions, talk, coo, raise and lower your voice, tickle and hug the child- and watch the baby respond immediately. We adults are no longer children, but we still rely heavily on this inborn reactivity to physical, bodily presence. It is this kind of intrinsic human reactivity to faces, bodies, voices, and touch that is so important, but which are present in text-based smileys, shouted CAPS, and [[[hugs]]] only through abstract representations that have, at most, an indirect impact on the preverbal, non-symbolic, and physical dimensions of how we humans perceive and relate to each other. As research in developmental psychological shows, our human relatedness via nonverbals is neurologically wired into all us humans. On the other hand, text "nonverbals" are mostly learned and more subject to cultural factors.

LOL and [[Joe]] are textual representations of a laugh and a hug for Joe, but they are NOT the laugh and the hug. What are the implications of interacting with textual representations but not with the actual physical and bodily experiences? How does the psychological and emotional impact of typing an LOL or even the abstractly raucous ROFL compare to the actual experience of rolling on the floor laughing? Does a text hug sink in the same way as actually feeling someone's arms around you? I am reminded of the Zen joke about typing up a description of a delicious dinner, printing it out, and then eating the paper - or the famous Zen image of the finger pointing to the moon. The finger is not the moon. Is the text communication the actual experience, or does it just point to the experience?

As complex and meaningful as text communication can be, it lacks the amount of robust and rich information that can be conveyed via the integration of talking, facial expressions, voice intonation, body language, and physical contact.

I am concerned that my presenting these arguments might, in the minds of some onliners, place me in the skeptic's camp. I hope not, because I appreciate the rich and meaningful quality of text relationships, and in fact enjoy it myself in my own online living. However, I also appreciate the importance of the bodily self in human experience - an aspect of human relationships that tends to be minimized or ignored in the too quick defense of text. If text communication embodies the pure expression of one's mind, which some people claim and admire about it, let's embrace that possibility without devaluing the importance of how people look, talk, move, and feel with their hands and skin. We learn, in a very powerful way, to express our minds via words, but this is no more or less important than the nonverbal experience and expression of ourselves via our bodies. Mind and body are, as many a philosopher and psychologist suggest, two sides of the same coin.

In defense of text, we also should consider the fact that some people may not be able to understand face-to-face nonverbal cues, or may be overwhelmed by complex and especially emotional nonverbal stimulation during in-person encounters. This too has inborn, neurological underpinnings, as demonstrated by research on autism, Aspergers Syndrome, and other more normal-range difficulties in processing face-to-face social information. Research shows that trauma also might result in aversions to ftf stimulation, hence making text feel more comfortable for self-expression and relatedness. In these cases, online text relationships indeed may be more optimal for the person.

Finally, there's the simple fact that some people may not have the opportunity to develop good relationships in-person. Finding those relationships online may be the right choice.

The lesson learned? In defending text relationships we must not unrealistically idealize them in a way that bypasses our deeper understanding of their limitations. If we do not take seriously these limitations, the skeptics will not take us seriously. Of course, some skeptics will react critically in knee-jerk fashion to any explanation of the value of text relationships. In that case, our deeper understanding and acceptance of the limitations can serve the perhaps more important purpose of helping us navigate those relationships more effectively.

The Final Showdown

So what's the outcome of the final showdown? Which is better: IPR or CSR? It's a loaded question since "better" is an ambiguous term. Better for what? There are distinct advantages to the time-stretching, distance-shortening, and potentially fantasy-driven dimensions of CSR. On the other hand, IPR have the advantage of touch, smell, taste, the complex integration of all the five senses, and a more robust potential to "do things with" other people.

So is the showdown a draw? People can and will continue to argue for their side of the debate. As for me, the acid test is a very simple one. As much as I respect and enjoy cyberspace relationships, I would be very unhappy if I could ONLY relate to my family and closest friends via the Internet, even if sophisticated visual/auditory technology made it seem like actually being there with them. Cyberspace relating is a wonderful supplement to IPR, but in the long run it's not ultimately fulfilling as a substitute, especially when it comes to our most intimate relationships. Most people who develop close friendships and romances in cyberspace eventually want and need to meet their friend or lover in-person. And once they've done that, returning to cyberspace-relating can feel at least a tiny bit flat and incomplete, despite the effects of the online disinhibition effect.

In an ideal world, we could have it both ways. We could develop our relationships in-person and in cyberspace, thereby taking advantage of each realm. But we don't always have the luxury of ideal circumstances. There will be some people who we can only or mostly meet in-person, and others only or mostly via the Internet. In the not too distance future, most people will have three types of social lives that will be distinct but overlapping. We'll have friends, colleagues, and lovers whom we know only in-person, those whom we know only via the Internet, and those whom we know both in-person and online.

Variety is the spice of life.

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See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

The online disinhibition effect
Presence in cyberspace
E-mail communication and relationships
Hypotheses about online text relationships
Transference among people online
Cyberspace romances
TextTalk: Communicating with typed text chat

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