Saturday, June 21, 2008

The tenuous online relationship

It is said that internet gives us unprecedented power to reach out to other people. Products like Twitter works to strengthen our real life relationships. But it doesn't make our relationships any easier, online or not, especially between a man and a woman.

A while ago, there was an interesting article, exposed on NYT. The writer, reflected her life online and offline working as an online antagonist digging entertainment dirt. It reminds me of another story I have heard. To protect the privacy, I'll omit their names.

He and she met when they volunteered to manage an online group and their bulletin. She was the first to notice him and brought him into the fold. So naturally they were close. They worked together with a handful of other people, identifying the issues, finding out the actual situation, communicating with local activists, writing lead articles, etc. Much was needed to be sorted out of the once chaotic situation, and instant messaging became their best friend amongst back and forth discussions. For a while, they communicated a lot, mostly within the group, but sometimes privately also. Besides the online chore, they would discussed random things like films, jobs, or even fashion occasionally. Since they were worlds apart, she's in Australia and he's in America, his day was her night, he would end up sometime having to urge her to go sleep if it was getting too late. There seemed to be emotional bonding between them beyond being colleagues.

Truth be told, it was never easy in managing the right relationship, especially juggling between different sexes, even on the internet. He soon quits the volunteering work, he was tiring out. However, the jovial stretched on, if only by momentum. They continued to hang out, around forums, by messaging. It looked like the bond would outlast the shared passion, until...

As they said, all good things must come to an end. It was a valentines day. She asked him what he world gave her for comfort, virtual or real. That made him grumble just a bit. Before that, he had received an email letter from her, professing her fondness of him, to which he politely deflected. You can probably chalk it up to cultural differences. Americans take holidays like valentines day a bit more seriously of its cultural content, choosing their gifts or message selectively, while Chinese tend to take western holidays more as an excuse to celebrate or relate. She probably didn't mean to pressure, nevertheless he felt the uneasiness. Or you can theorize the gender difference, girls just want to have fun while boys are more sensitive about it. In any case, he felt things needs to be taken a different direction.

he became more careful in interacting with her, more choicy in his words, and distancing himself a bit, hoping senses would come around. In reaction, she spent more time lurking, seldom seen around. Only if togetherness wouldn't be out-weighted by foolishness. Finally it comes the day she couldn't bear, and decided to disappear from their online circle...

Internet is a dynamic new place to meet with people, sometimes even getting emotionally connected. But, as quickly, that connection could be gone, just a mouse click, or network outage away. Online relationships, as in the story I tell, can be not only tenuous, but also no less stressful. It can create emotional drainage of its own, as exposed has shown. The closeness we share online has a thinner veil. It depends more on verbal interactions and exchanges of ideas. It is ripe for misunderstanding also. After all, without additional information from facial expressions - the warm eyes, the tightening lips, the knowing smiles - language doesn't come close to fully express ourselves. And when real passion develops, there is always the anguish of unreachability. When that cartoon figure in your chat opens its arms across the screen, do you feel the warmth? or some you seriously want to smash your computer for the anguish?

The cyber world poses new questions. The persons behind the virtual world are actually real, how to deal with emotions experienced through virtual world connection? Do you run your online world as a parallel universe, separating it with your offline world, or do you let the two intertwine, encroaching into each other.

Then it comes the question, is the delicacy of online relationships really that much different from those of offline? They are subject to the same prejudices, misunderstandings, different attitudes. Take romantic relationships, some grow love out of psychological whim, others regard it as everlasting passion, and we are all wired with different signal and receptive systems. I'm not sure he and she would have reacted differently were they in a real life situation. It may as well what they see out of a healthy friendship doomed their online rapport.

What makes online relationship seemingly more tenuous, I think, is the tendency of superficiality. We don't usually seek to know each other, or feel comfortable enough to be known, very well in the online world. Even there, the difference isn't huge. Isn't our daily interactions getting more cursory as we getting busier and busier? Ultimately, it's just the pressure and nuisance of relationships., sometimes too close for comfort, other times too flimsy for durance.

He told me he still looked up her webblogs now and then. She probably did the same.

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