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December 22, 2003

Virtual Intimacy

virtualintimacy.jpgWhen Jeneane and I were chatting last night about meeting other bloggers, we started talking about whether it's fair to judge an online relationship as somehow less valid than an in-person relationship. We've known one another online and by phone for nearly two years and only met in person yesterday. Is our relationship real now and was not real when it was virtual, supported by technology? Would we be better friends if we ONLY knew one another in person and lived next door to one another? Going forward from this time, should we assume all our relationships will rely on a lot of electronic connection and a little in-person connection?

Can one have a metrics of intimacy? And if there is such a scale, are online relationships always less "real" than so-called real world relationships? I still have something Adam Curry said swirling around in my head. At BloggerCon in October 2002 at Harvard Law School, he said that perhaps blogging is a way of connecting like minds and creating a network of thought that does not require corporeal proximity (my words, his idea, I'm not sure how he put it exactly. Adam, write about it again, it was very interesting.)

I asked Jeneane that last night. Are we all practicing a new way to be intimate? Is falling in love online not real? Is it not love? Are friendships on IRC not legitimate, but an aberration supported by technology? Is it time to stop judging one way as less real and one as more real? Perhaps it's a pointless distinction.

Posted by Halley Suitt at 09:18 AM in People | Permalink


Two questions here, to my mind: mediation of relationships is one, and the specific impact of technologies is the other.

We've had mediated non-corporeal relationships for quite some time, though far from forever. Abelard and Heloise? 18th- and 19th-c. compulsive letter-writing? There's a cute anecdote in _The Victorian Internet_ about a couple getting married by telegraph.

How do online relationships differ from other sorts of technology-mediated (and I will remind everyone at this point that longhand writing is a technology!) relationships? Such as, for example, commuter marriages enabled by the car and the airplane? I dunno, but I'm as curious as you are about it.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at Dec 22, 2003 10:13:01 AM

I think weblogging specifically adds a dimension to technology-facilitated relationships that is different from any technology coming before it. Speed-to-intimacy is accelerated to a degree that is just plain mind bloggling. If you post it, will I come? Really, I think in blogging, the velocity of making ourselves/minds/hearts/ideas availabile, and all of the other folks doing so at the exact same moments, and the intwining of those things through hyperlinks, brings intimacy to a kind of head-on collision status (in what can either be a good way or a catastrophic way).

In a way it's backwards intimacy. I already "know" you--what might take five years tot know about you--if we were realworld friends first. So, I'm already intimate with you. Now when I meet you I have to take a half-step back and see the protective covering of your skin.

I was thinking as I was watching Halley talk last night and hearing her stories that I was filling in the blanks in our conversation with her posts. What we've written becomes a kind of cadencce, inflection, punctuation, and even a full outline to the bloggers we eventually meet. You begin talking about something and you're laughing before two words are said because you remembere the story behind the story behind the story of a post two years prior.

So, rather than go on all day, which I could, I will say that I believe the web, and blogging specifically, speeds intimate connecctions and makes them hyper-real. But because many of us out here are showing our real selves, the in person relationships start half way up the axis of intimacy. I've already ripped open my heart and showed you--said it to the world--who I am. Now, wanna be my friend?

Yah, okay. Let's have dinner.

Posted by: jeneane at Dec 22, 2003 11:00:18 AM

AKMA has a fine related read here.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at Dec 22, 2003 11:14:31 AM

I think that nothing will match a tussle or a kiss in real life, but that online relationships are real and important. I think that one of the problems with blogs is that as they become more and more public facets of your identity, they become more and more shallow. I think that more intimate journals like private Live Journal posts can be more intimate, but I don't find myself being intimate on my main blog. I think blogs are a great backdrop for a relationship, creating additional context and history, but without chat, IRC, email and telephone it's probably quite difficult to have an "intimate" relationship.

I think that many online relationships are more intimate and many real life relationships, but I personally can't image turning down the chance to meeting someone in real life that I have developed an intimate relationship with online. If online's all you've got, be all means, get intimate online, but for me, the Net is about helping me develop relationships that end up in the real world. (Call me old-fashioned.)

Posted by: Joi Ito at Dec 22, 2003 11:26:52 AM


I think that technology can help support relationships in very interesting ways. But I believe most of the time it is mis-used, or used in place of soemthing more real.

Posted by: Bryan Batchelder at Dec 22, 2003 11:44:24 AM

"Virtual" relationships--ie those created by email, IM, phone, blogging, snail mail, etc.--are real
and genuine in my experience. Prior to blogging, I've had several friends--usually with some shared
professional interest--where the primary communications have been through telephone or writing. What
makes these relationships different, and adds some edge as well, perhaps, is that so much information
about the person is missing--it's like listening to one-directional sound, as opposed to multi-directional.
This makes it easier to mis communicate, mis read, or mis interpret.
To me, blogs are one to many commuications, closer to the broadsheets posted on coffeehouse walls during
Ben Johnson's time, while IM, email, phone have the potential to be personal and more intimate.
However, what develops and evolves relationships the most is face to face contact--we are social beings, and
spending time together is always going to be very, very important--but other forms of communication have been in the past, and will continue to be, very powerful as well.

Posted by: Susan Mernit at Dec 22, 2003 12:53:23 PM

Susan: "We are social beings." Totally! We are so damn social. Nothing stops us. Everything we do is social, even being alone. And all of it is mediated by social conventions. It has to be, because the only way to be with someone without social conventions entering into it is to be buried next to her. And even that's pretty conventional.

So, I don't know how to construct a "metrics of intimacy" (Halley). Intimacy is too multi-dimensional. But I am willing to say that I'm as close to some people I only know virtually as I am to people in the real world whom I consider to be close friends. (Unfortunately, this says more about my lack of real world friends than about the depth of my virtual relationships.)

Posted by: David Weinberger at Dec 22, 2003 1:07:09 PM

I second David's comment: "I'm as close to some people I only know virtually as I am to people in the real world." "Virtual" relationships (akin to real-time Pen Pals, IMO) have given me the same level of joy, hope, pain, laughter, intensity, love, emotion, and dreams as any other in-person relationship - sometimes more so. If we do not see them as 'real' relationships, then every time someone we know in person moves away to where we can only connect to them via phone, snail mail and computer we would have to consider that relationship over and no longer valid.

However, virtual relationships seem to be a little like dating; you see a filtered, "chosen action", view of that person. Once you meet them in real life it's like moving in with/marrying someone - all of a sudden you see all the nuances, the little things that make them... them. The way they whistle through their nose while eating, the way they fiddle with their hair, how they react to various stimuli.

It's backwards to in-person relationships; when you meet someone in person first, you see all those little things right away, *then* get to know their mind. In virtual relationships, you get to know their mind *then* the physical aspects. In both, either can make or break relationships. But, what it comes down to is that one way of knowing someone over the other does neither validate nor negate the "real-ness" of the relationship.

Posted by: Jodie at Dec 22, 2003 1:55:35 PM

I used to put alot of thought into this since, being the typical little kid geek outcast in middle school and for some of highschool, I had far more online "friends" than I do real world friends. Where they any less my friends? Did I know them any better, or worse, than I knew my real world friends? I think partly, I knew them better. I knew them as who they wanted to be. Yes, its easy to fake who you are online but many of us present ourselves even more purely. You get to know an intimate, personal side of a person with thoughts and ideas that they might not (and in some cases never will) express to someone they know. Why? Because real world people have lasting consequences. That debate over politics might turn into a nasty little flame war online but in the end, it'll wear down. However, in real life your friends could very well NOT be your friends when you push the wrong buttons, real world relations seem to have more lasting consequences.

Is that even coherent? Hmm

Posted by: Chris at Dec 22, 2003 2:48:08 PM

Hmm. I guess I don't see the need for an external scale or measure; I trust my mind and heart to weight the degree of closeness I feel to another, whether face-to-face or not. (Not that I haven't been disappointed by folks who I thought were close, face-to-face or virtual...)

Perhaps it's years of experience with working with people at a degree of removal, either through the telephone or through faxes or through email that I don't believe one's closeness is measured any differently. Does this person follow through on their word? is what they say (text, graphic, voice, in the flesh) believable and consistently accurate? Do they treat me with the same courtesy I extend to them? Do I feel comfortable disclosing anything personal to them?

What the virtual space of blogging provides is an opportunity -- where the other relationships I've formed on a remote basis have been through business, blogging is personal, allows me to find people of like-mind and interests (particularly when this physical locale is pretty chary on folks like me). If I were allowed only existing physically-bounded relationships based on my current situation, I'd be socializing with soccer moms-and-dads about our kids ad nauseum instead of hashing over consciousness studies and physics AND kids.

Posted by: Rayne at Dec 22, 2003 3:13:08 PM

The possibility of online relationships helps me become more intimate with a person whom I would perhaps never dare to contact in real life. This is the greatest plus of the Internet for us, socially shy people who find it extremely hard making friends. Of course I still think that in order to deepen the mutual bond of the two people it is necessary to meet in real life at some point. The only downside is that sometimes I can't figure out online how far the other person will let me go. But in any case it's up to me if I want to play safe and stay at the less personal level.

Posted by: Johanka at Dec 22, 2003 5:28:40 PM

I have had friendships that were more intense and intimate when the friend and I were in contact frequently online than when we were talking in person. In part because, I think, for both of us written communication worked more effectively for the things we were trying to tell each other than spoken words.

I found my current partner online, and even though it wouldn't have continued if there had been no spark when we finally met in person, it was a good way to find out if we were mentally compatible before hormones got in the way. I strongly doubt we could have managed the long distance thing and been happy with just the online interaction (which is why I moved to a different continent to hang out with him!), but communicating first without interacting physically added a depth that might not be there if we had hypothetically met in person first. Which adds an interesting footnote that we very likely would never had met if not for the various long-distance media that internet and telephone provide.

I suppose my conclusion to Halley's questions and my conclusion about online life in general: virtual interactions augment reality, they don't supplant it. However, I don't think the feelings that arise from online interections are generally less or more "real" (or valid) than those from other interactions (it all depends on what the individuals put into it). Love online is love, and I don't think it *requires* a physical presence to cement it. But I do think (as others have already mentioned) that if it's real love (platonic, romantic, whatever angle you want to put on it), that you wouldn't *want* to limit your interactions to the virtual.

Posted by: ARJ at Dec 22, 2003 7:47:30 PM

I guess that the most negative aspect of online relationships is that it's much easier to present a false image of self than it is in "real life". It can be much easier to become intimate in an emotional sense in an online relationship because you think you are safe. Once there is a degree of emotional intimacy, trust, misplaced or not, can follow quickly. While that can lead to some intense (in a good way) relationships, it also increases the potential for harm. The most extreme cases of this are of course the horror stories of women, or kids, being molested or worse upon meeting an online acquaintance in person, but I've seen a lot of hearts broken and so on also over the years.

I think that navigating ones way through online relationships may require a different set of skills from in-person relationships. You have to learn how to gauge the sincerity of a person through mere words, rather than from physical clues. "Newbies" to online exchange may lack those skills...but being overly cautious and suspicious will cut off this relatively new way of meeting a whole bunch of like-minded people.

When people blog as their "real" selves instead of anonymously, it gives one a sense that they are indeed real. To me it's a throwback to the good old days of Compuserve where I started out, when people posted with their real, full names. (Older online communities like Compuserve and The Well always discouraged or even forbade anonymity.) We had a lot of in-person get togethers then simply because we thought we knew each other as real people.

Oh yeah, and I met my partner online too. :)

Posted by: maki at Dec 23, 2003 4:11:16 AM

ARG - I have had a virtually identical experience to yours, including the continent hopping. The "meeting of the mind" first created an entirely different kind of intimacy than the usual "meet face to face in a bar over drinks" experience (which I was generally a failure at anyways). Of course, the fabulous in-person chemistry that was present when we did meet face-to-face was the clincher! In the professional realm, my business partner and I worked together via online/phone for a year before meeting in person. Now, we see each other in real space maybe once every 3 months or so, but communicate electronically multiple times per day. So, I'd have to say that the virtual world has made both my professional and personal world much richer than it would have been without it.

Posted by: Elizabeth at Dec 23, 2003 7:42:29 AM

Being online has definitely enriched my life. I have a close circle of trusted friends which includes people I met via the internet, in some cases of my 'real' friends the fact that we chat online and exchange emails has deepened our friendship and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I met my previous partner and my current love interest on the net, I just found it much more relaxing and less intimidating way of finding out if we were compatible. Once we crossed that hurdle and found our boundaries meeting up was just the next natural step.

Posted by: Sian at Dec 23, 2003 10:27:40 AM

To best judge the strength of connections made online, ask yourselves something: are the people you associated with last year still an association this year? Who has drifted away? Do you care when the person is silent? Do you care when they are not?

Will your online associations eventually fade in importance compared to people who you've met?

Do you add personal meetups, like birds on a lifelist?

If we can easily drop associations without a backward glance, then all of the wonderful examples of togetherness are just so many flecks of real gold among a shit load of dross.

Posted by: Shelley at Dec 23, 2003 5:59:59 PM

I've tried to chuck blogging; I really have. When "personal" blogging started jeopardizing "non-virtual" relationships in September last year, I junked the reflective tone for the rant; using my blogs (which I change as one would facades) to vent through news items rather than give creative expression to the very real stuff going on in my life.

Using current events as "coded" analogies for where I am is no longer useful to me. I find I've said (while surreptitiously airing personal feeling) all I have to say on many external issues that move me and a smaller group of others. In suspension, I remain to grapple with myself (and my style of communication). So I've been looking for new ways to write and have considered Web alternatives.

I've not found one yet. Why? I recently answered my own question. "It's the people, dummy. Communication is, essentially and whatever form it takes, intimate. Even spam intrudes intimately." I found myself mulling over David and AKMA's early 2002 musings on the potential of online interaction and realized just how deeply I'm affected by the people with whom I blog. While blogging "impersonally", I did not sever any ties and, although I might have alienated some people, they remain friends who have shared a part of my life while sharing a part of theirs. That's a mighty strong tie and it's not one I take lightly.

Okay, taking such communication seriously is my problem, but I have to deal with it and I think many others do too. People I've antagonized or bonded with have all given me something and walking away from them (not their sites) without a backward glance or explanation of where I'm at (whether they give a damn or not), constitutes a betrayal of friendship in *my* book. Many of those here, even if I don't speak to them on a regular basis, have given me a great deal. They are people (friends) to me rather than HTML.

While I'm in a holding pattern, looking for a way to "write my existence", I still care about them and am prone to dropping in on their sites to see how they're doing. I might not comment, but it's the person's communication I read, hear or feel. Whether they're writing in a personal, academic, tabloid, oblique or "other" style, I get something from what they're saying, either directly, or from that which lies behind the words, or from that which is left unsaid.

The e-relationship might be mediated, but it's still person to person and, I believe, fundamentally honest. I can't walk away from that. It's a bugger, but I now have too many virtual relationships with people I feel are friends (or, at the least, far more than acquaintances). It'd be easy if I wished to sever ties with these people, but I don't. They're doing a grand job communicating with me. My problem is finding a way to communicate with them.

To cut to the chase: sometimes, I cannot speak freely. It would hurt others. That is my problem. So is my perception of the validity of online relationships and the way or manner in which I choose to perpetuate (and, importantly, continue *writing*) those relationships--for that is what we do.

Whether you see online relationships as valid or not is immaterial. I do. So they matter (and wax, wane, grow, develop, fade, reignite, etc.). I had coffee with an online friend / acquaintance two days ago. We last met two decades ago. After three hours, we decided to give up on the conversation and pick up again next year. So much to say, so little time. That's as real as it gets.

Chucking blogging doesn't seem to be an option right now, much as I'd like to do it. I'd miss the people (no matter how they represent themselves), not the habit. Bloody Internet. Thanks for starting this conversation Halley; it runs deeper and closer to the bone than I think many of us would care or like to admit. There are people living here.

Posted by: Mike Golby at Dec 24, 2003 6:20:18 PM

I don't think there's one answer to this soon-to-be age-old question. This will continue to nag at us for many decade to come. I have had (brief) relationships with people I met online. Obviously the "spark" is a critical element to a long-term romantic relationshsip, and that is difficult - although not impossible - to detect virtually.

To offer my personal example: I met a guy once, and I was curious about him so I checked out his website to learn more about him. (I didn't have to Google him in this case, but I would have.) Although I didn't see him for many months after that, I developed a crush... on his website! Ten months after first meeting him I had my second chance to talk to him, so I jumped at the chance to ask him out. That was almost nine months ago and we are still together and going strong.

I don't know what that proves except that I probably wouldn't have asked him out if I hadn't gotten to know him through his website. And then we would both be sad and lonely instead of happy and in love.

Posted by: Ruby at Dec 25, 2003 11:17:29 AM

Julius, you need to get a weblog and start writing in your own space -- all you're doing here is pissing in other people's pond, and without the courage of doing so under your own name, or putting your own space online.

Misbehaving folks I could help you tweak the code to prohibit Julius regardless of IP address, but you're using Typepad and the code isn't accessible. Feel free to delete this comment when you delete Julius, as I'm sure you will -- but if you email me IP address information for Mr. Julius, we'll see what we can do from a code perspective to filter the person, or at least more easily delete his comments.

Unless he wants to come out with his own space and name to go with the sad cries for attention. But I have a feeling 'Julius' is already known to us -- hence the hiding behind a fake name to shoot at people who at least have the guts to write as themselves.

Posted by: Shelley at Dec 27, 2003 1:08:12 PM