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Social Science Looks at Online Intimacy

By Howard Rheingold

Cyberspace is often depicted as a depersonalized zone where the socially inept retreat into an alienated world of e-mail and computer bulletin board sysems. People who have formed intimate relationships and marriages online and groups of people who have built "virtual communities" know that this stereotype misses the mark. With tens of millions of e-mail addresses in America, clearly people are getting something out of the experience. For many people, there is something paradoxically personal about maintaining daily conversations with people you might never meet face to face. Online enthusiasts now are getting scientific support from communication researchers such as Dr. Joseph Walther, whose studies reveal that some online groups can get more personally involved with one another than even face-to-face groups meeting without computer support. Walther claims: "Even those who use computers for day-to-day group business communication often experience social advantages beyond the speed and convenience of computer-mediated communication."

Walther, assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, has conducted experiments involving groups who work together on identical tasks in cyberspace and in physical proximity. Walter's findings indicate "it took longer for online groups to feel as knowledgable about one another's personal characteristics and develop interpersonal relationships as it did in unmediated groups, but in the longer term, these relationships became even more intimate and sociable than those of face-to-face partners.". The circumstances under which an online group starts to share increasingly intimate information about their personal lives and feelings seems to take a while to develop. Part of this "hyperpersonal" effect, Walther hypothesizes, comes from people's tendency to present themselves in their best light when using only written words to convey their personalities, and part of it, he believes is due to a mutual idealization of one another in the absence of visual and auditory cues.

Why do members of longer-term online groups often exchange information about hobbies, discuss musical preferences, reveal their political opinions, while groups that work face to face on identical tasks often fail to develop such extracurricular bonds.? "People meeting face-to-face appear to do so at the expense of other activities which compete for their time and attention. Consequently, they tend to finish their work and get on with other things," explains Walther, "while computer partners -- with mitigated time pressures -- are more inclined to socialize."

"If I can address a task at my convenience -- after I've gotten home, eaten dinner, played with the kids and put them to bed -- I can not only give you the information you've requested but also some additional thoughts I have on the matter and maybe pass on a joke I heard earlier in the day," speculates Walther."When partners have relaxed deadlines, more personable communication follows as people adapt their social and emotional messages from nonverbal messages into a common language." Using standard psychological tests of group dynamics, Walther presents evidence that long-term online groups can go beyond unmediated face to face groups in the degree of interpersonal bonding experienced by the group.

Social scientists such as Dr. Walther are beginning to direct their attention to the vast sociology experiment taking place in cyberspace. We need their knowledge. It's time to apply the analytic tools of social science to learn how to use new communication media more effectively. We need to learn how best to use the human communication capabilities made possible by computer-mediated communications, and we need to know how to avoid misusing them.

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold