Scholars' Association News
Issue 23
August 2012


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File: Digital Citizen
Cyber relationships
by Bettina Davou*

Digital and real time face to face interpersonal relationships mutually complement each other. Social Media appear to respond to today’s psychosocial needs (above all to the physical absence of the Other and to a sense of not belonging to a local community). An electronic visit, thus, may serve as an acknowledgement of one’s social existence, compensating for feelings of being neglected in an impersonal world.

Since the internet offers a condition of space and time, in which distance does not anymore determine whom we communicate with and where, electronic communication may often replace face to face interpersonal communication. With this new opportunity, the internet contributes to changes in the development of relationships; not only because it offers unlimited choices of –known and unknown- individuals to communicate with, but also because it allows the user to experiment with different personas in the context of different relationships. The so called “on-line disinhibition effect” frees users from the embarrassment of face to face relationships, offers new grounds to imagination and renders back the lost mystery of relating and flirting. Cyber-relationships can serve to discharge wishes, temporarily and painlessly.

Thus, the cyberspace turns to an overpopulated, virtual, global strolling that replaces the lost natural, local communities of the past. Within this space small talk and gossiping function in ways similar to those of natural communities, but “friends” have a different function. On-line friendship has a different meaning from “friendship” in real life, due to its different context. Digital communities have different characteristics –e.g. possibilities for proximity or self-disclosure- from natural communities, which make friends in the cyberspace function as simple acquaintances rather than “real” friends; acquaintances who offer an illusion of sociability.

Cyberspace -a psychological concept that corresponds to the technological notion of the internet- offers a “consensual illusion” that soothes individuals who strive to escape from the frustrations of a difficult reality. This immaterial ‘non-space’ of relief resembles the psychoanalytic “transitional space of experience” –a space where art, religion or dreaming flourish- where humans take refuge from the permanent effort to reconcile the demands of external reality with internal needs. Cyberspace, like a space of dreams, offers alternative views of reality which are constructed by subjective meanings.

Though face-to-face interpersonal relationships require all human senses to develop–we see, smell, touch, hear and even taste when we kiss- the other, cyber-relationships may grow in the absence of most senses. Often, just vision may be adequate. Not even vision of the other person but just vision of what the other person scribes to us. In that sense, cyber-relationships have been thought of as “conversations in the absence of the other”, abbreviations of real life relationships, which develop not on the basis of a whole experience of the other person but on the basis of partial encounters. These partial encounters constitute a kind of experience, lighter from that of real life; we can easily escape from embarrassment or from the other person’s difficult emotions just by logging off.  Relational changes also result from the simplification of rules, roles, codes and rituals that govern relationships in the internet. People can relate to each other online more easily and more freely, but a side effect is that relationships lose their deep cultural and emotional bonds.

Cyberspace provides us with the opportunity to “come and go” in and out of relationships without too much effort, in a manner similar to that in which an infant or a toddler may drop and reclaim their transitional objects –usually cuddly dolls- according to their own emotional needs. We may also experiment with several identities and compensate emotionally poor relationships in the real world with numerically affluent relationships in an on-line world. However, if cyber-relationships begin to overrule relationships in the face to face interpersonal context, we should be reminded of McLuhan’s remark that new technological media at the service of humans tend to inactivate and mutilate the physical organs that they replace...

* Bettina Davou is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Athens
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