Online “asynchronicity” and the illusion of intimacy

Posted on 28th February 2011 in digital identity, gadgets and apps, media, technology and society

Much of human relationship today is mediated through some form of technology.

So how much do we really know about those we interact with, when it is our devices that have become our eyes and our ears, in a faceless and nameless digital world?

Take for example the disbelief of the Naperville man who sent $200’000 to a fake online girlfriend. Although the relationship continued for over two and a half years, there had never been any face to face interaction. Police confirmed that the girlfriend never existed. But clearly, the man had felt a certain intimacy and complicity. Quite apart from questions of fraud or misrepresentation, the story did get me thinking about the effects of online interaction on our understanding of people and relationships.

Distant and remote interaction between people, especially those unfamiliar with each other, can create a deluded sense of intimacy. This is the consequence of a number of factors:  e.g. the ambiguity of “digital gesturing” (pokes, nudges, smiley faces), digital multitasking, and the sheer quantity of posted information online (some of which is verifiable some of which is not).  But what I think most affects the illusion of intimacy online is the overwhelming amount of “asynchronous” or “pre-rehearsed” communications.

More often than not, there is today a contrived expression of thought or feeling. Many people first text or chat before engaging in a “live call”.  People somehow prefer to be forewarned.  In addition, many prefer to limit their interactions primarily to text, even to essentially non-reciprocal broadcast text (tweet, status update etc..). So gut reactions and spontaneous expression of feeling seem to be less and less prevalent.

It seems, therefore, that an important set of clues or signs that enable people to build relationships and trust have gone missing. And this affects the authenticity of all communications.  For it is difficult, if not impossible, to expect human beings to make choices in social relations based solely on quantity rather than quality, on prepared text rather than spontaneous expression, on tactile screens rather than tactile handshakes, on emoticons rather than emotions.

When I first heard the story a couple of years back of the Japanese gamer who married his virtual Nintendo girlfriend, I thought that it reflected just this sort of illusion. But whatever you might say about the quality (or intimacy) of that virtual relationship, the gamer may be better off (and more ensconced in reality) than that poor fellow in Naperville who just couldn’t see the difference.