Digital relationships

For this month’s IndieWeb carnival I explore what science has to say about comparing our digital and physical relationships

We can hardly have a meaningful conversation on digital relationships without addressing the many changes in habit and outlook that the Covid-19 pandemic forced upon us. For better or worse it shaped a lot of the scientific output over the last few years and not in medicine alone. A prominent area in psychological research over the last two years has involved trying to understanding how humans can build meaningful connections over digital spaces.

This article was written for the February edition of the IndieWeb Carnival hosted by Manuel Moreale and themed “digital relationships”. It falls specifically into the definition of digital relationships as “relationships between us human beings that are lived primarily—or entirely—on the digital world”. Find out more.

I have often seen this as an incredibly interesting example of permanent social change resulting from the pandemic: would we have ever known or learnt to build serious connections with people online the way we have, and as quickly as we have, if we had not been forced to confine our primary, daily interactions to the internet? Or would remote interactions have continued to play second-fiddle to in-person connections? And now, a few years later, what do we know about the depth and impacts of our myriad digital relationships?

Digital relationships before the pandemic

Of course the pandemic is not “over” in the sense that it is not entirely in the past. Many people succumb to Covid even today, many others continue to suffer its long-term effects, and still others choose to live callously, without taking so much as a baseline set of precautions to prevent the spread of illnesses. So to define a period “after” Covid is hard; for our purposes we shall consider it to be around mid-2021 for no particular reason other than the fact that many countries had started to revert Covid restrictions for good. The period before Covid is of course well-defined and that is where we should start.

Kluck et. al. found that audio-visual communication had limited impact on strengthening digital relationships. Instead, it was text-based communication that increased feelings of social support and life satisfaction.

Since this is not an academic paper I will keep my references limited, relying on a great 2019 paper by Roberts J.A. and David M.E. for my initial discussions so it would be easy to trace anything I mention here back to it as a reliable source. We had some ideas about digital relationships as far back as 2007—when MySpace was four-years-old and Facebook had opened to the public for just about a year—specifically surrounding the belief that social media had a positive psychological impact because it helped build “social capital” and “connections with others”. By 2013 this had been extended to “reducing feelings of depression” and a year later digital relationships were credited for “building self-esteem”.

However, not all was positive back then either. By 2013 there were also studies that showed the exact opposite i.e. “increased stress levels, anxiety, depression, lower levels of self-esteem, reduced relationship quality”. This just goes to show how muddled the scientific consensus on digital relationships has always been. The only explanation for this seeming contradiction has been given in terms of the manner of interactions people have digitally, classified as “active” and “passive” interactions. This is how Verduyn et. al. define these terms: active interactions are “activities that facilitate direct exchanges with others”, like commenting and posting; and passive interactions, as you may have guessed, refer to “consuming information without direct exchanges”, like doom scrolling.

This also identifies a key factor in how the pandemic shifted our digital interactions: we may well have gone from passive interactions to active interactions when digital relationships became increasingly important in our lives. Hold on to this thought as we will return to it.

Text-based communication on the IndieWeb

After the pandemic, the predominant question shifted to whether our digital relationships can fulfil the needs our in-person relationships used to fulfil before. Kluck, Stoyanova and Krämer investigated whether “technology-mediated communication can actually meet individuals’ social needs … and whether there are differences between distinct communication channels”. The results were surprising to say the least. The researchers found in their study that, somewhat unlike common sense would suggest, audio-visual communication had “limited” impact. Instead, it was “text-based communication […that…] increased feelings of social support and life satisfaction”.

The IndieWeb is an imagined medium capable of conveying digitally the emotions and gestures we normally only associate with our physical relationships.

Understanding that the generalisability of any study can be questioned, it is worth reflecting that the IndieWeb—made up in large part of text-heavy websites—can help foster meaningful digital relationships, strengthen social support and feelings of satisfaction associated with these relationships. And because a key, if indirect, result of the IndieWeb movement is to promote a balance of creation and consumption, it is all the more powerful a tool to employ in strengthening digital relationships of humans through the web.

Notice also that we know another reason why this makes sense: participation in the IndieWeb is an incredibly “active” process of interaction, which we have established, long before the pandemic, to be a positive driver of positive psychological impacts.

Online hugs

There is an extremely important aspect of physical relationships that we might think digital relationships cannot possibly replicate: touch. We know, for example, the positive effects of hugging (with consent of course). Can digital relationships possibly make up for that?

As James and Leader point out, digital relationships have always been faulted for being “disembodied” since it is missing a literal interpersonal touch. But they lay four claims to suggest why digital relationships might not be missing physical hugs after all.

For starters, physical relationships are incorrectly thought of as being “direct” while digital relationships are thought of as being “through a medium”. But, they point out, everything has a medium. There is nothing less special about a digital, or virtual, medium that is any different from an “imaginary” medium made up of expectations from an interaction, which is itself no different from a “physical” medium. There is, in other words, nothing special about there being a medium at all.

Second, they argue that rather than being disembodied, the digital medium is an extension of our sense of embodiment. You feel as much embodiment in a physical conversation as you do now, having gotten used to your devices, in a digital conversation where you touch your devices in the process of conversation. They argue further that this plays a role in the imagined act equivalent to hugging since hugging has more dimensions to it than the “physical entwining of arms, torsos, and heads”, extending further to “the narrative meaning we make of the entire situation” which is something that exists just as clearly in digital relationships too.

They make two other claims that I will describe here briefly for the sake of completeness: one, that increasingly more immersive forms of technology can bridge and create equivalents for the “physical entwining” missing in a digital relationship; and two, that adherence to digital etiquette, common sensitivities, and shared values—which they define as “digital tact”—goes a long way in making digital relationships more impactful. Acting, in other words, as you would in a physical interaction.

All of this comes together beautifully in our current times and more so on the IndieWeb—an imagined medium capable of conveying digitally the emotions and gestures we normally only associate with our physical relationships. We have incredible freedom to be ourselves, express ourselves, embody who we are, feel safe, act as responsibly as we would if we met in person, and bridge any expected divide between physical and digital relationships.

Digital relationships can be meaningful

As we start the New Year, with the first month already behind us, perhaps we can renew our appreciation for digital relationships. They have awarded us more than we give them credit for, and they are not useful only when our digital relationships eventually lead to a physical interaction at some point.

Digital relationships can be active—at least we ought to consciously make them so—and by extension impactful, meaningful and even profound. They can be embodied comparably to physical relationships and they can be immersive when you write your heart out. So go on, build, keep and cherish your digital relationships. They can be incredibly good for you.


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