A Revamp of http://learn.bowdoin.edu/courses/soc022-danica-loucks/2010/02/what-is-friendship-is-online-friendship-real/ as one of the three edited blogs.
This week’s readings focused on the development and existence of relationships online.
Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
While reading “Home Virtualis” by Sven Birkerts, age 58, I wondered if his negative view and reluctance to accept online interaction as real is related to not being introduced to the technology until a later age. He brings up some good points, but I find myself believing the idea of online friendships as real much more easily than Birkerts does. Is my willingness to accept it related to growing up with some sort of internet use for much of my life?
If Birkerts believes the Internet “is anarchic, grass-roots, ungoverned, and unpoliced, except by self-appointed vigilantes,” it’s no wonder he seems to have a hard time making “real” friends online. Such a “Wild West” image is perhaps something the originators of the Internet would like, as we learned in the Internet Revolution film. The Internet, however, is largely the space of commercialization. This privatization makes the Internet–in the eyes of some people–less of a revolutionary space. Capitalism shapes how it is used, social inequalities are projected onto the Internet and access to its use…so would it really be likely that the Internet would change “fundamental human patterns?” In Birkerts’ opinion, yes.
Birkerts describes the experience of the internet as something that is all absorbing, timeless, and an addiction. He views the experience as a very negative experience–positive while you are experiencing it, but hard to draw away from, thus a controlling activity. As the internet becomes more in the center of our focus, Birkerts says this massive engagement must change fundamental human patterns, and humans themselves. Here, I agree with Birkerts, as he explains how human organization developed from tribal isolation to more complex societal arrangements, thus it makes sense that the internet is the extension of that development.
As Birkerts compares the engineers and the visionaries and their attitudes towards the internet, I found the statement about the internet as a hive compelling. When Kevin Kelly says, “many things will emerge that we, as mere neurons in the network, don’t expect, don’t understand, can’t control, or don’t even perceive,” I think of how before I started this class, I was unaware of all the things resulting from the internet and related issues like the digital divide. Birkerts seems to side with the engineers and believe that what the visionaries imagine would require too much technological advance and a strong collective will.
However, he then goes on to say there is a blurring between the self and computer. Admittedly, the brain and the computer can perform many tasks, but what about emotion and sentimentality? Apparently, in Artificial Intelligence there is no place for sentimental idea of soul or spirit. This is related to social constructionism in psychology, a theory saying “neither personality nor behaviors issue from a core self, but are constructed moment to moment under shifting societal constraints,” and deconstructionism, “the aesthetic theory that works of art and literature are not coherent creations by individuals but are, rather, subtly masked ideologies…of the tradition.” Birkerts views our connection to (and dependence on) computers and the internet as doing away with the idea of the self/individual. Birkerts says that as the internet is used more, the ideology of AI and not having a need for self gains ground. He says, “The intellectual climate promotes reliance on the technology and the proliferation of computers and users intensifies the climate.” and “Are we not thrusting ourselves willy-nilly into an electronic collectivity that cuts against the very foundations of subjective individuality?” He views the internet as “antithetical to selfhood,” but isn’t the internet supposed to be a place for people to express individuality? Does the internet turn us into a collective group that are only visible as one mass, or does it allow each person to have more individuality?
Birkerts seems like he would be a fan of all those science fiction novels or short stories that show the power of machines over the humans. He worries that because there isn’t a big difference between computer processes and mental functions, that we may accept the machine as a replacement without examining it critically. If this worry was backed up with some sort of Artificial Intelligence story or iRobot or something, I might find it mildly compelling. However, he backs it up with an example of people around the world grieving together on the internet after the death of David Alsberg. I do believe that examining the news story to see that the public views grieving online as grieving together, but since those people view it that way, I would consider that they are grieving together; they are sharing feelings of sorrow.
This example of grieving–debatably “real” or not–is to me an example of real behavior. Birkerts seems to believe that what happens on the internet isn’t “real,” but when he describes it, it is an imitation of human behavior in our society. For instance, the existence of “netiquette,” and experienced users who make sure newcomers learn and abide by those rules and expectations. This is just as newcomers to a community learn what is appropriate, or how children learn how to behave and meet societal expectations. Additionally, there are always the people in a society who don’t follow those rules, for example insulting, given the term “flamers” on the internet. This is different from offline life, because it does allow people to have more anonymity; therefore they may become more vicious in their comments.
According to Birkerts, the vague boundary between online and offline life is “alarmingly loose,” but as Castells and many other studies have showed (i.e. Cybercity), the interactions that occur online are real. They are occurrences of real virtuality in the terms of Castells. Birkerts discredits the communal online grieving and says “to suggest that cyberspace is not a cold and data-driven place but one that supports genuine relationships and carries emotion content, the implications seem…chilling.” Oh, Sven.
He wrote in the beginning that the internet introduces an us vs. them mentality, and perhaps to some extent it does between users and nonusers. There certainly are changes in the way people interact between offline and online relationship development, and perhaps online relationships have somewhat different characteristics than offline relationships, but the “us vs. them” mentality may arise from Birkerts’ role as a reluctant newcomer to the Internet. If he has not experienced social interaction on the Internet, perhaps he cannot admit it exists. He disregards terms like “neighborhood” and “console” when used in the context of online activity, but if the Internet is a reflection of society, than it makes sense that even if the “constructions” on the Internet are not physically the same as, say, a neighborhood we describe it that way, because we are limited by our language in how to describe things.
I think it was good for Birkerts to hear from the old lady who used online social networking to have more communication with people after she was unable to go out. We often talk about old people being left out of the transition to Internet use, but can be a connection tool for homebound seniors to help them be more social. The woman said, “This experience is real, too…” Birkerts interaction with the elderly lady seemed to open his eyes a bit to how engaged these people are emotionally–he assumed they were engaged in the technology before, and he for a moment seems to believe that these online community participants are having real relationships, but he is not quite ready to accept this. Or at least, he doesn’t take it for the positive thing that F. views it as. He says as the world gets more out of control, cyberlife will “make serious inroads on the ‘real.’”
Real Vs. Actual
I believe what the old woman experiences are real, particularly because of this philosophical essay about the difference between “reality” and “actuality.” (http://www.crcsite.org/actuality.htm) What is actual is vibrational energy, what is actually there. But what is reality is what we perceive, thus we all experience somewhat different realities. Most important in regards to online interactions is the verb “realize.” How we use it these days, it is figuring something out in our mind, but if you really think about the word–”real”+”ize.” An excerpt from the above linked article:
Realize something that does not exist. Picture in front of you a shoe box, wrapping paper and string. I take the wrapping paper and place it around the shoe box, fold the paper so it fits snugly around the box. Next I take the string and wrap it around the length and then the width of the box and tie a knot. You saw a mental image or ‘realized’ a non-actuality. You have seen a box, made of cardboard, with a particular color, a box-top, paper etc. All these items were imaginary. But you could visualize them clearly as if they really did exist. Now, when you can see a thing so clearly that you can recognize it, distinguish it from other articles, and tell just how it is made, it must be a reality to your consciousness as though you had actually seen such an article.
We can real-ize something that doesn’t exist physically, and I would argue that the friendships and “neighborhoods” on the Internet are realized by the people who participate.
Birkerts’ Idea of Our Future Existence
Birkerts believes that by engaging in electronic media we are “agree[ing] to behave according to the rules of that system; it is to direct the focus outward, away from the self.” Admittedly, anytime you “plug into a system”–even nothing that has to do with technology, for instances joining an organization or frequenting a restaurant–you are agreeing to the terms of that organization/business. Also, engaging in activity on the Internet does appear to be an outward action, but perhaps not “away from self.” Perhaps it is reaching outwardly to build connections to that self.
He writes, “Our sense of our own presence in the world has much to do with our being the objects of other people’s awareness. But on the Net awareness is only partial.” True, people don’t necessarily visually acknowledge you on the Internet, but the act of reaching outwardly to make online social connections puts us in other people’s awareness if indeed we require that acknowledgement to feel like we exist.
Birkerts strongly looks down on the creation of virtual settings–environments, rooms, neighborhoods. He seems rather bitter when he writes “Go to a no-place, by all means, if that is what you need to do, but don’t try to pretend that the no-place is actual, a home. It cannot be.” I agree that a virtual environment is not an actual environment (and I did notice that he used “actual” instead of “real,” in this sentence, but I don’t think he was using as a different meaning), and it’s sad to think of virtual environments replacing actual ones, but it does provide a “place” for people to interact. This is seen in the Cybercity article with the Plaza, Beach, and so on–because those are places that are deemed social places, they are treated as such online.
He proposes humans will be “homo virtualis,” pulling away from nature and the constraints of place, time, and immediate interaction. He seems a bit bitter and sad about it, and I do agree that there is something important about the idea of presence and immediacy. I just think online and offline interactions can both be real.
Denise Carter’s “Living in Virtual Communities” shows us how these relationships can be real.
I am intrigued by the idea of a virtual ethnography. It appears as if such a thing can actually be done–as we see in this article, and as I read about in my anthropology class last semester when we were learning about marriages developed through global correspondence–which, in my opinion, lends evidence to the fact that the Internet is a place. If not physically, it is used and acknowledged by all these people thus the interactions that go on between people on the Internet are like those that occur in a community, but without the base of a physical location.
After introducing the reader to various views of what a relationship or friendship is, Carter shows how the online relationships in Cybercity meet those criteria, and how they often extend into offline relationships. Cybercity, for me, was a much bigger step towards “online community” than I had ever heard of. Before, I had heard of (and used) social networking sites that aren’t virtually spatialized, but this community had public areas, like the Plaza, people’s homes, and neighborhoods. Initially, this seems a bit silly, reminiscent of Farmville on Facebook, but when Carter reminded me of spatial codes, this makes a lot of sense. In Intro to Cultural Anthropology last semester, we wrote essays comparing spaces and discussed what messages they sent or what rules they dictated. The non-space inside cyberspace can be designated to certain activities by applying spatial codes. These codes make this space meaningful to the people who are using it and determine what behaviors are acceptable. Carter inferences that Cybercity is a cultural construct, and I concur. It reinforces the status of the social spaces and accompanying behaviors, further backing up the idea of the Internet reflecting our society.
Carter applies the following guidelines regarding friendship on Cybercity:
1. Friendship is voluntary, informal and person.
2. Friendship may offer relief from role performance.
3. Like described by Birkets, friendship teaches us how people see us, thus allowing us to view ourselves.
4. A “pure relationship,” as described by Giddens, involves freedom, commitment and intimacy. It is not anchored in social and economic conditions, rather is “free-floating.” It involves active trust and personal disclosure.
Finding Friendship Online
What is very interesting about the friendships in Cybercity (and I would imagine in other friendships developed initially online), is that instead of beginning somewhat superficially and developing into a stronger relationship that meets the characteristics of a pure relationship, and is not based off external influences, the Internet relationship seems to develop in the opposite manner. People who are comfortable with using the Internet (longer-time users) describe the process as meeting people from the inside out. They get to know the person’s personality and quirks (sans body language and often aural cues) before physically seeing them. Many of the Cybercity members described this as a positive experience because there were no first-impressions based on appearance or where that person stood in society. I wonder (semi-sarcastically) if Internet friendship is the solution for creating friendship that is not based on physical appearance, allowing everyone to have an equal chance at developing a friendship. Then if friends do decide to meet in person, they already have a connection and commitment that may overcome any aversion they may have to the friend’s physical appearance.
Another interesting aspect of Cybercity is the friend-finding expeditions. Perhaps in the way it is described, as people aggregating in a non-space in cyberspace, it seems a bit silly. But when you look at how people find friends in actual life, then it is yet another imitation. People don’t often go out alone, or just randomly show up to meet one person who they don’t really know. They go in groups; they go to public spaces. Further, as people grow up they are taught how to make friends, although not directly, rather by observing and trying to imitate those behaviors. Carter describes the less experienced residents learning from the more experienced residents. In this way, newbies to the Internet are “children” in cyberspace, and the veterans are the “adults.”
When looking at the list of where people visited, we saw that the plaza was by far most visited place, but saw that the ethnographer’s “house” had quite a few visitors–nearly as much as a “public place” (the Cafe), which according to her description of people’s visiting habits was a bit unusual. I immediately thought of the ethnographic novel, Return to Laughter, by Eleanor Bowen, and how she received many visits because she was the strange newcomer, who was unique, interesting and mysterious. Perhaps this spike in visitors to “Dutypigeon’s” (Carter’s) own “house” is the virtual version of the attention an ethnographer receives when existing in an unfamiliar community.
Carter points out that as we go through offline life and go through different social settings, “we meet people but do not tend to actively consider them as possible friends.” But in Cybercity, “residents learn to regard everyone sharing the same social space as a potential friend.” Partly because all spaces in Cybercity appear to be social spaces. I wonder if a business had online conferences but also an online “cafe,” if the differentiation often seen in today’s workplace would be the same. In any case, we meet the cashiers at Hannaford, but we do not consider them potential friends. Yet if they have access to the Internet and we were members of Cybercity or a similar site, then we would be potential friends. As described earlier, we do not think of the barrier that normally seems to exist between the Brunswick Townie and the Bowdoin Student, rather are open to getting to know people in our online community. While this seems like a positive thing (and I think it is), why does it require the Internet to have this openness and acceptance? Apparently the borders developed by our categories of class, race, gender, and age are too big to make those friendships in actual life, but in cyberspace that can be laid aside, as long as the online community doesn’t exist around a specific group of people.
Looking back on these articles and this blog post after having read about virtual ethnicity, the digital divide, and social capital, there is valid reasoning to arguing against the breaking down of barriers, the connections between diverse groups of people and the motivation for creating online friendships, but I still maintain that online relationships can be developed.
In regards to truth on the Internet, Carter admits that there is a risk of being lied to by members of the community, but a study on chat rooms showed that people who don’t spend much time in them are more likely to lie, and people who spend a lot of time in chat rooms tend to be more truthful. I feel this is true, because as one used the Internet more, they become more comfortable with it, and the more integrated it is into their lives, the more “real” it becomes for them. It may be easy to tell a few small lies to someone you have never met and will only chat with a few times, but turning your whole being and behaviors into a lie is much more difficult. Last semester, Professor Dickey responded to a student’s question about if people in India could just move to another location and then pretend to be in another jati/caste. She said that the behaviors were so specific and integrated into each group’s lives that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to put on an entirely different “face.” In the same way, if a person’s commitment to communications on the Internet becomes large, it becomes difficult to keep the impression he/she gives online separate from their actual personality or being.
Carter’s description of how many of the residents she studied met offline supports the idea of “real virtuality,” and how online and offline life are mixed with each other. Even more compelling was that when these people met, their online friendship proved to constitute friendship in offline life, although sometimes with people making a few adjustments. She also mentioned how the friendships sometimes continued on the backward trajectory of starting as internally-referential ‘pure relationships,’ but then become based on external influences after meeting in person. I believe that shows that the influences of class, race, gender, and age are strong enough to even change a relationship after being “pure.”
Where Friendship is Not the Explicit Goal
By following the given descriptions of friendship, it appears that people do have friendship in Cybercity. Cybercity, however, is focused on building friendships. I wanted to look at some of the characteristics of a social network that had another purpose to see how relations occurred there. I frequent a social network called Gluten-Free Faces, which is a group of people from around the world virtually coming together to discuss various aspects of celiac disease and gluten intolerance and how to deal with it. Of course, I didn’t have time to do some sort of massive ethnographic study, but here are some of my observations:
1. While the site is a global group, among the created groups people aggregate with people in their geographical areas. Perhaps this is because the topics discussed often involve things or services available to people, so they focus on where they have access. There are also groups focused on various other commonalities from body building to other allergies. I think one of the powers of the internet is that it allows people to “surround” themselves with like-minded people. This can be a good thing in the case of hobbies or discussing health problems, but runs the risk building large gaps and more misunderstanding between opposing groups (i.e. in politics). It is interesting that while people join this online group that is global, they focus their interactions in groups of “Irish Celiacs,” “UK Celiac,” “Minnesota Celiac,” and so on.
2. It is a place of open discourse as planned by the originators of the internet, but at the same time people are able to use the forums as places to spread the word about their products and services.
3. This site is very much an example of an information society. There is networking and friendship that goes on, but what is most impressive is the amount of information that is tossed back and forth.
I think there is evidence that real relationships do form online, but after finishing out the semester examining other related topics, I realize that the conversation about friendship online, the Internet’s role in changing fundamental human behaviors, and how the Internet may or may not connect people of differing background, is much more complicated than can be shown in just the two articles by Birkerts and Carter. Carter shows real friendships, but Birkerts says they don’t exist, so I think my conclusion remains that real relationships develop online. However, I also have realized that some people just don’t believe building real friendship can happen online–and perhaps for them it doesn’t feel real, so it can’t be real for them.