We have been discussing the idea of living online in Virtual Plantations and we have explored how opportunities can arise from interactions on blogs.

Now I would like to expressly focus on the human interaction that forms our virtual lives. I call this idea: Virtual RelationShaping.

That phrase may seem odd and incongruous and that is the point because I am proposing a new term to define the way real people virtually interact online. I did not want to use the word “relationship” because it is already tagged with a physical meaning and history.

For this article, I am defining “Virtual Relationshaping” as the method of interaction we use online to value each other in an ever-changing frame of communication in a non-physical land some call “Cyberspace” or “Web Worlds” or even the misshapen term “Blogsophere.”

Here are the hard tools that form Virtual Relationshaping:

Email/Instant Messaging Traditional real time interaction using voice and face-to-face meetings is replaced by text interaction. Cues on personality and countenance culled from vocal inflection and tone and facial expression are replaced by exaggerated punctuation — !!! and … or ??? — as well as Smilies and Emoticons and they are all feeble replacements for reading someone’s attitude and intention.

Have we lost something human by hanging up the phone and cancelling the in-person meeting? Has the human form become fuzzier in our minds as we replace individual uniqueness with the Smilies we have available and the limits of keyboard punctuation? Or is taking the heat out of the human interaction important for just getting along with each other in a real world that is becoming hotter and more compressed by flesh?

Blogs/Forums/Shout Boxes Town Halls and Beer Taverns and Community Events are moving from the local and the real and into the international and the openly accessible all day every day. Are we losing touch with the living and breathing of each other or are we expanding the meaning of community and friendship as we allow our computers and Gravatars and writing ability to define us in virtual space?

What is your experience with Virtual Relationshaping?

Do you have friends or business associates you have never met in person and who exist only in the image of your mind? Is that an appropriate way to form a friendship or forge a new opportunity? Is anything lost in the translation from the actual to the virtual? Have you ever interacted with someone virtually only — no webcam conversations or phone calls — for a long while and then met them in person later?

Were your expectations of them realized in person or was some of the magic lost in your original Virtual Relationshaping? Are there instances when the virtual is always better than in real time reality? Here are two examples I can provide out of many. When I was a member of Team Toshiba — a ragtag band of jolly miscreants who provided end user support for free on CompuServe in exchange for free access to CompuServe — Toshiba decided to fly us all out to Irvine, California for an in-person get together.

It was strange and uncomfortable to meet some of the people in person who, for years, had previously existed only in the Virtual Relationshaping mist of email and TapCIS. One person who was gregarious, funny and purely delightful online turned out in person to be a strange and naked-dancing-addicted party animal: The in-person person was revolting while the online person was tremendous and wonderful.

Which version is more real, most accurate and wholly defining? Can we like one mask and despise another even though the blood and bone and mind behind each mask are exactly the same? Some might claim both versions of the person are real but, if you believe Erving Goffman‘s theory that we each wear masks depending on the social context required of us, then neither is real, both presentations are false, and the real person can only be known while off stage and unmasked.

A second example is getting to know Jeff Tanji and that process has invisibly, but viscerally, played out here in this blog. Jeff and I met here. For months we interacted only via email and this blog. Then, the other day, we talked on the phone for the first time to hammer out a hotel complication that could not easily be unraveled via email alone.

My impression of Jeff here and in email was that he was fun and warm and terrific. The live phone conversation we shared wholly confirmed the online mask and the real time telephone mask identified the same essence: The Virtual Relationshaping conformed the Real. When I meet Jeff in person for the first time on Friday I am confident I already know the blood and bone and the mind behind the masks so the Virtual Relationshaping that was done over the last few months will present a familiar real time human expression.

Finding a way to positively deal with Virtual Relationshaping will become even more important as telecommuting explodes and the ability to exchange DNA via email attachment becomes the decadent common in the never-ending human need to fill an ever-expanding universe that perversely grows only when our desire to give it form increases.

12 Comments

  1. I’ve never had a problem with people finding me different in person than I am online. I’m pretty true to myself in what I choose to present on my blog and in email. I have, however, come across people online who were nothing like they seemed when I met them in person. I think some people use the opportunity to create an online persona that represents who they’d like to be, or even who they think they are, but aren’t. Like the guy who ended up being a party animal, they present all the things they like about themselves online. So meeting someone like that can be a shock.
    But I’ve also met or spoken on the phone with people who are exactly as they seemed online, and made some friends in the process. So I guess what I’m saying is that you need to be wary when forming an online relationship, and be careful not to invest too much emotion into something that may not be what it seems. Does that make sense?

  2. tajuki — You make an excellent point about online gaming creating a reason and then a need to interact with strangers online. I am glad the internet offers you a peaceful place to find solace.
    Jana — Yes, you are making fine sense! Your cautions when dealing with an online relationship are important. I am pleased to hear you have found success bridging the real and virtual worlds and I think the key to living a true life online and in person is just what you suggest — be who you are and resist the overplaying of the social masks we take on and off all day. Predictability of behavior in relationships and self management make for happier people and more sustained personalities.

  3. It may be because I am older that I have a point of view of real world and online communication and relationships. When you are older, I think that your identity becomes more set, developmentally so. For example, when you are twenty years into your career and sixteen years into your marriage and don’t intend to change either, then who you are…well, is who you are. Being transparent is a value among my real world peers.

  4. Jeff — You make an excellent point on age, stability of self and transparency. Transparency probably deserves a whole article of its own!
    Dave — Your argument takes an interesting series of jaunts and provides angles that enliven my original post and I thank you. You might want to read Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” for more information on masks and the parts we play in the drama of our lives. Your “levels of comfort” analysis is dynamic and on target. I agree the mistake many make is assuming someone else is just like them and when the inevitable happens and likes and promises and tastes are revealed to be askew from the viewer’s set of beliefs, disappointment and rage can be the result.

  5. This is an interesting topic for me because since August I have been working in my spare time on a project with a co-worker looking into online communication disorders. What we considered to be a major problem is when people have difficulty seeing others online as real people, we are still looking into what causes this to happen so that we can look into finding a soultion.
    I tend to think that forums, chat rooms etc. are becoming the online equivlent of a tavern, people go there to meet up and chat, and just like in a real bar you can interact with many people without ever knowing who they really are. If the world continues to move away from it’s local community towards global online communities then it will become as important to solve online communication disorders in a similar way to how we strive to treat real life communication disorders.
    I only use IM to commuiticate with people I already know in real life, and even then there can be problems with the cross line relationship if the person is different in IMs to how they are in real life or maybe just how you remember them in real life.