Decomposing Relationships in the Age of Technology

A little over a month ago, I caved. I hadn’t joined a social network for personal reasons since Friendster, where my account went dormant days after I joined. I haven’t been oblivious. I’ve been a user of LinkedIn for years, even giving talks on how to use LinkedIn professionally. And friends had extolled the virtues of Twitter and Tribe and, yes, even MySpace. I just didn’t believe them. They just seemed, well, like…fanatics.

And then it happened. I joined Facebook innocently enough. I was looking to work a little less and connect with friends. Facebook seemed a good way to start expressing my identity and stay in touch with people I don’t get a chance to see often. I liked the Network Updates feature of LinkedIn, and heard Facebook had a similar feature. So I decided to try it.

I got hooked.

The photos, the routine updates, the snippets of previously unknown personal details discovered while browsing profiles of friends. Looking at photos of long-lost friends, photos of their kids. Listening to songs recorded, articles written, art created. Receiving mundane updates about the lives of friends I rarely have time to reach out and connect with. It all has reminded me of the value of friendship and given me a desire to foster and grow deeper friendships. And has got me thinking, what exactly is “friendship”?

Decomposing Friendship

Friendship is a subtle and complex concept that grows richer and more intricate as new technologies enable new forms of friendships, and variations on older forms. From a pen pal to a lover to a long-lost school friend, technology is reshaping who we consider friends and how we create, grow and even end these relationships. Which begs the question, what makes a friendship, and how are these aspects of friendship changed by technology?

I’m no expert, but I’ve started to watch how myself and others I know form and foster relationships, both online and offline. And it seems that relationships can be broken down into five major components, not all of which have to exist in any one relationship.

The Component of Attraction

Attraction forms the basis for creating relationships, and remains the underlying glue that keeps relationships feeling alive. Attraction can be romantic, physical, emotional or intellectual. It represents the ephemeral chemistry of the relationship that can’t be captured in anything we say or do with each other. It is also the hardest component to experience with technology.

There is something pure about the attraction we feel toward someone physically occupying the same space as us. Whether it’s pheromones, the fuller range of communication channels, or the interactivity of affecting and responding to one another, physical presence creates bonds of attraction like no other medium.

That’s not to say attraction cannot exist without physical presence or be mediated by technology. But technology compresses our experience of each other into fewer channels. When physically together, I see a person’s gestures, how they move through our shared space, subtle details of their facial expressions, the way they smell, how their body heat affects the space around me, the full range of their voice and how it reverberates around the room. Technology reduces the number of ways I can experience a person simultaneously and reduces the richness of the experience.

Somehow, attraction mediated by technology seems incomplete. Which may be why we can fall in love with someone online, but when we meet in person, we find a stranger.

The Component of Communication

Communication sits directly opposite from attraction. If attraction is limited by technology, communication is enhanced. From writing and speaking to painting and singing, technology allows us to send our thoughts, dreams and fleeting feelings to more people in more places in more ways than ever before. And the forms these expressions take continue to breed and evolve.

Take writing. One hundred years ago, writing between friends was limited to handwritten letters. An elegant and perhaps dying art form, but limited. Today we have e-mail, blogs, chat, forums, text messages and more. Writing can be done in long-form, short-form or even micro-form. We’ve developed new grammatical structures, new forms of spelling and new ways of emoting :-) , all while retaining and extending the old ways.

Communication sits at the core of many relationships. By sharing our thoughts and feelings with others, we learn about each other and form a bond around that shared knowledge. We discover shared interests, shared beliefs and shared passions. And we allow others to become a part of us by affecting our thoughts and beliefs, melding each interaction into a new self that incorporates bits and pieces of all that has come before. By communicating, we touch each other in places deep inside.

From its earliest beginnings, technology has facilitated communication. From the invention of the telegraph and the telephone to YouTube and Facebook, technology has increasingly brought new methods of communicating with others. And like wine, whose flavors grow richer and more complex with time, these new forms of communication create rich and subtle variations in our relationships, making it increasingly hard to box and categorize our friendships.

The Component of Shared Experiences

If communication was one of the first components of relationships brought into the age of technology, shared experiences has been perhaps the last. Unlike the real world, doing things with people online is so much harder than talking to people. So while it becomes easy to form relationships based on communication, it becomes harder to build relationships based on doing activities.

Ironically, while the Internet was male-dominated for so long, the interaction styles restricted the classic male friendship style (doing activities) and fostered the classic female friendship style (communicating).

These days, the advent of online gaming, virtual worlds and collaborative technologies has made the ability to “do” things together online a reality. Whether it’s attacking a hoard of goblins or walking along a virtual beach together, new technologies enable us to share experiences together online in ways that were impossible just ten years ago.

The Component of Presence

Along with shared experiences, presence, or a sense of awareness of others, has been difficult to achieve through technology. And even now, the sense of presence is still in its infancy. Instant messenger programs introduced the concept of an online status, but it was limited. Like a shadow standing outside the window, I barely knew if you were there or not.

Facebook and Twitter has extended the perception of presence to create an “ambient awareness” of each others’ lives. Snippets of our everyday activities create a kaleidoscopic window into our rhythms, our interests and our thoughts. No longer do you need to individually reach out to each friend to maintain a presence; it is as if we are all in one big room together, busily going about our own lives, but catching glimpses out of the corner of our eye of what others are doing, sometimes shouting out quick comments before getting back to our main task at hand.

Yet for all that technology gives us, it promises so much more in the future. As our cell phones become linked together and their awareness of our social networks increase, the perception of presence will continue to grow.

The Component of Shared History

The final component of friendship, the one that creates bonds that last through the sandstorms of time, allowing us to reconnect after years apart, is that of shared history. Shared history reminds us of what we once were, creating the connection to the evolution of our selves, enabling us to introspect on our own internal growth, and watch that growth in others. It reignites our memories and provides the foundation of friendship for the future.

There is perhaps no technology which does this better than Facebook. Whether seeing old photos tagged with your name or rediscovering old friends, Facebook is becoming a place to create a history of your past, and connect that history to others you know. And while that shared history can sometimes tie you to a past self you’d rather have left behind, it can also serve as a marker for where you’ve been, remind you of the joys and challenges of your life, and inspire you for the future.

The Technology of Relationships

So where does all this bring us?

A friend of mine is separated from his wife for two years while she attends law school in a different state. So they use instant messenger to stay in touch throughout the day and a webcam to share the same space, occasionally looking up at each other while they work, hundreds of miles apart.

Another friend has developed another life on Second Life. She has friends all around the world, from England and the Netherlands to Australia. She has long voice chats, romantic dates, hot sex in virtual castles, goes dancing and shopping with others and even for a while ran a club with a friend from overseas. She gets to explore friendships in an entirely new way, without the awkwardness of approaching strangers face-to-face, or the preconceptions formed by our physical looks.

My own online journey has taken me from flirting with girls on Prodigy years ago to my first online kiss to creating friendships with people I know intimately but will never meet in person to, now, using Facebook to strengthen my existing relationships and forge new ones.

What the future holds, only time will tell. One thing I’m certain, our relationships will grow richer, deeper, and more complex as new technologies allow us to mash up our interaction styles into new, as yet undiscovered forms.

3 comments

  1. jpb says:

    flirting with girls on Prodigy years ago

    I can still remember the name of the girl I first flirted with via Prodigy. :)

  2. Shakespeares Daughter says:

    What an interesting and thought-provoking article! I enjoyed it very much and, interestingly enough, I was just yesterday considering writing an article about the dynamics of online relationships. God knows, I've had enough experience with them. What I find intriguing is that mental & emotional connection forged through online communication that often eliminates physical expectations. It astounds me how many guys want to meet me without even knowing what I look like. I had a guy on Second Life tell me that he's gotten to know the inner me and that looks fall away when that emotional connection is strong enough.
    Whether or not that would hold true were we to meet face to face is the bigger question here.

    So thanks for sharing your thoughts. Very nicely done…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Awright, dammnit, you broke me. I have steadfastly refused to join any social networking site…and now I have a damned Facebook page. Before I flip out and get rid of it, give me your namethingy…oh, wait, “friend me”. My name should turn up in search…
    -wes w.

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