Online relationships have over time developed into a category of their own with rules and guidelines that differ between platforms. The creation of online communities have given people access to connect with others that share similar interests. Whether or not these relationships contain characteristics of real life relationships, or are considered invalid in real life (because they don’t physically exist) may not be the correct question. Instead, perhaps the study of online relationships should focus more on what they have become rather than comparing them to what they are not.
Baym describes five major characteristics that construct online communities in her book, “Personal Connections in the Digital Age.” According to Baym online communities are connected through a “third space,” a space that does not geographically exist yet is a place for various geographically spread communities to meet. These third spaces may provide “sites of neutral ground, equal status, sociable conversation, known regulars, playful interaction, homely aesthetics, and a homelike atmosphere, (76)” which are several characteristics that create a community of it’s own even though it does not physically exist.
In these communities, the users create they’re own habitual “routinized behaviors (77)” that are learned over time. They become unwritten rules or as Baym says, shared practices, that develop unconsciously once they get the hang of it. Users come together for many different reasons. These reasons can range anywhere from groups that offer moral and emotional support to groups of lonely people in need of company. Baym uses the example of an online community (from Oprah’s site) that offered emotional support after a break up. Coming together to connect with others that have similar interests and share recourses creates a shared shared identity, which Baym adds is another building block toward the construction of online communities. People identify and can relate to the users they connect with, and soon develop interpersonal relationships with the other users. These relationships can range from friendships to romances.
Now that we have an understanding of Baym’s approach to the way online communities lead to interpersonal relationships, let’s discuss the relationships themselves. The documentary Life 2.0 presents several interviews on players of the online virtual reality game Second Life. Second life is an alternate reality game where people create avatars to resemble who they wish to be, and get a second chance at life to inhabit new characteristics. The people who were interviewed described the way SL (Second Life) affected both their online and offline relationships. All of the interviewed people stated that the interpersonal relationships created on SL were just as real as relationships that physically exist. More importantly, the details given of the interpersonal relationships formed on and off SL should be studied.
The documentary interviewed a couple that met on SL. There were scenes of intimacy, romance, conversation, and interaction provided in the film which enabled the viewers visualize how the virtual interpersonal relationship was formed. Although there was no physical intimacy, the users created their own way of relating to each other virtually. The standards for virtual interpersonal relationships were also present through the interviewed man created a young girl avatar and made numerous friends in school. The documentary showed how the young avatars approached each other and interacted through scenes at school and at dance parties. It was interesting to watch how one avatar approached the other to start their online relationship, and when the mans avatar was deleted, it was interesting to watch the virtual perception of coping with loss. SL users developed their own ways of interacting with others to relate to them from use of the site.
“These friendships and sometimes romances are made visible to the group when members post reports of having met or spent time with one another, (89)” writes Baym on taking relationships from online to off. Most of the interviewed people even brought their relationships from the virtual world offline and into reality. However, most of the interviewed people showed to have ruined offline relationships from use of SL. Whether the relationships were created online (like the couple) or were always offline (like family,) the documentary may have been a little one-sided on the idea that virtual life destroys physical interpersonal relationships. (The woman who sold clothing and accessories was shown to have been strayed from her family, the couple who brought their relationship into real life ended up breaking up, and the man with the young avatar broke up with his fiance.) The documentary did not leave me with a conclusion to whether SL makes or breaks relationships because I believe the documentary should have shown a another interview that ended successfully, more successfully than just recuperating business (perhaps a successful relationship.)
As I was searching for an appropriate article about the effects of social media on interpersonal relationships, I came across this diagram http://mashable.com/2011/05/31/facebook-relationships/. The diagram created a clean, sharp summarization of several articles that I read created by the compilation of several social media analyzations. I focused most on parts 3 and 4 of the diagram. Part 3 shows the construction of the interpersonal relationships on Facebook. It shows how the number of Facebook friends people have can lead to them to feeing self-conscious, (or build more self esteem) and cause anxiety. These reactions are derived from actions that can be done on FB like “de-friending,” reading an update that makes you feel like you missed out, worries that people won’t accept your friend request, stress if a relationship status is not updated etc. Much like SL, the actions listed above are ways that users have adopted as actions that form their interpersonal relationships. The actions that construct relationships on each site vary yet have equally significant effects.
The established social norms vary from platform to platform. As Danah Boyd wrote in her article, “Friends, Friendsters, and Myspace Top 8,” “the architetcture of unmediated social spaces, these sites introduce an environment that is quite unlike that with which we are accustomed. Persistence, search-ability, replicability and invisible audiences are all properties that participants must negotiate..” I do not believe there is one clear answer to positive or negative affects of social media on interpersonal relationships. It is important to understand that in each network the users have created their own method of interaction, of translating performances or actions to they’re significance in a relationships. From there, people should act accordingly and they themselves can make or break relationships.