Digital relationships

Research shows some surprising implications of our myriad online connections

The pandemic has changed our digital relationships in substantial ways. An essay I wrote for the IndieWeb Carnival this month, with the theme “Digital relationships”, has garnered notable readership over the past week so I thought it would also be an interesting subject for this issue of Confluence. You can always read the full essay but for now, in this issue, I present the ideas in a succinct form.

When I first found out about the theme of digital relationships I was immediately interested in surveying the state of current research in that area. It led me down a rabbit hole that proved to have great implications for the IndieWeb itself—the web made up of autonomous, independent, often personal, websites heavy on writing, long or short, and focussed on personal, meaningful communication, community-building and the exchange of ideas. Here are three takeaways:

First, we often think of the pandemic as having shown us a virtual environment where we could see and talk to one another and where such a form of communication—audio-visual—became a defining aspect. Yet, research seems to suggest that it is text-based communication, not audio-visual, that “increased feelings of social support and life satisfaction”.

Second, a common argument in favour of physical communication is embodiment i.e. the idea that we are physically present and can communicate without a medium, such as through touch e.g. hugging which digital relationships do not allow for. Researcher suggest that shared values, common sensibilities, etiquette etc. all form a medium through which physical communication takes place which is no different from digital communication; and further than improvements in technology and acquiring “digital tact” analogous to these physical understandings makes digital communication just as effective.

Third, some research into social media—including from before the pandemic—suggests it “increased stress levels, anxiety, depression, lower levels of self-esteem, reduced relationship quality”. Other research suggests the exact opposite. Why? The primary difference, it turns out, lies in how social media is used. Researchers categorise usage habits into two: “passive interactions” such as scrolling and uncritical consumption yield the negative impacts listed above; and “active interactions” such as creating, communication, reading critically yield the opposite, positive, impacts.

I hope these prove to be sumptuous food for thought. Reconsider not whether you communicate online or cultivate digital relationships but how instead. And it goes without saying: keep in mind that these are scientific studies, which means they are not etched in stone and rigorous verification, fine-tuning and debate is welcome and will certainly take place.

You just read issue #19 of Confluence. If you liked it, there is more. New issues are sent out roughly every fortnight. Please consider subscribing to this newsletter.