mediated friendships

Posted on March 30, 2011


among the many dynamics of mediated relationships, trust is an interesting factor.

I’ve recently had a few different experiences that involved expectations and behaviors based on 3 different kinds of trust – I’m sure there are more, but I’m going to talk about 3.

  • public persona legitimacy trust
  • professional connection trust
  • trust once removed

so I haven’t really met that many people off the internet. my first introduction to irl versions of virtual (twitter) people was a couple of years ago at a conference tweetup. this was predictably awkward, but still fun (those of you who know me, know how much I love awkward!) strangely, none of those connections endured – probably because of a lack of shared context and the fact that the conference was over, and maybe the fact that I felt a little out of my depth.

cut to two years later – someone I’d been following on twitter for a while but had never really interacted with, pinged me out of the blue and we started communicating fairly regularly, finally deciding to meet. I was crazy nervous about it – partly because we had built up a rapport online and I wasn’t sure how that would translate irl, and partly because I was so so self-conscious.

how come I decided it was ok to meet? because of who he is. obviously, I looked him up – found out that he was a legitimate human being, he wrote, was written about, spoke at things, was obviously established in his field. his public professional persona lent him the credibility that made it ok for me to meet him. what happened after might be told in another blog post, but it’s not relevant to this context. and no, he’s not an axe murderer. and yes, we’re still in touch. kinda.

at a recent conference, I met many many people who are in my field – people I’ve already created connections with online, mainly through twitter. this allowed for a sense of trust born out of a mutual understanding of our field, conversations around related research, and shared academic experiences. there was also an awareness of the importance of maintaining these relationships and trust for our professional careers. I will say that it was a wonderful relief that everyone I met irl turned out to be awesome, and I know that some of these relationships can and will go beyond just the professional.

through a similar academic affiliation, I have an online friend, a very good friend. we talk every day on twitter, im, sms. we’ve developed a trust to the point that we would loan each other money if either of us needed it, and I would trust him with my cat – if I had one. this friendship was strengthened by the fact that he was one of very very few people who was aware of a somewhat obscure anime series I really liked.

(Note: since the original draft of this post, I’ve met this friend irl, and am happy to report that our meeting has only served to solidify and deepen our friendship. yes, he’s adorable.)

as happens on twitter, we follow each others’ followers and build new connections. I started following an acquaintance and colleague of this friend and had a few exchanges once in a while. as it happened, my travels took me to the town this guy was in. so I reached out, and after verifying with our mutual friend that the worst thing about each of us was that he was a nerd and that I could sometimes be funny irl, we decided to meet. (it did help that he was cute-ish.)

the evening, at first awkward, was actually really great. we got along well, we talked, we listened, we were even genuinely interested at times. but the more I thought back on it, the more I realized that the reasons it was good were not necessarily because we were good company. it had a LOT to do with our mutual friend.

worse, I found myself having certain expectations of this guy, based on my relationship with our common friend. I expected reactions like those from my friend, I expected a depth of conversation and connection like I had with my friend. and this was unfortunate, because even with how similar they are in many respects, they are most definitely very very different people.

I feel bad because my expectations of transfer of connection probably didn’t give this acquaintanceship a fair chance to develop on the basis of who he is. of course, we are still in touch and interact online. and I do hope we are slowly developing our own equation that was precipitated by, but is not affected by our mutual friend.

in another ‘trust once removed’ situation, I became friends with an online friend’s girlfriend (also online). this posed even more challenges because of the risks of being caught between them – being in a situation like that in real life is bad enough, imagine online! there were rocky patches, but honesty has ensured that these relationships are in a good place right now.

I wonder about whether these examples of trust are different from how it works irl. and I find that what I’ve always said still holds true: these interactions are the same as the ones we have irl, only the medium is different. another important difference, however, is the perceived safety of the mediated environment. being somewhat removed allows for communication to flow differently. it allows us to be more open than we might normally be, reveal things about ourselves from the safety of being behind a screen, not having to look into someone’s eyes while admitting to something embarrassing.

I know I’m not saying anything new. but I am looking at my online life more closely. the investment in online friendships is different: it doesn’t involve getting dressed, making a plan, picking a place, figuring out transportation, budgeting for food and drink. but it does involve emotion and time, sometimes more than in real life. mediated environments, while protecting us from that pesky awkward physicality that we have to deal with irl, allow for way more misunderstandings. these misunderstandings are harder to resolve online because sometimes, all one needs is a hug.

I am aware of the fact that my in-the-flesh relationships are affected by my online ones. for example, when I talk about my online friends, my in-the-flesh friends often roll their eyes and don’t take my online relationships seriously. to me, my online friendships are just as real as my in-the-flesh ones.

I’m also aware that my partner is affected – he knows I have close and important friendships online and often, the time I spend with these friends is the time that I am physically near him. I do make the effort to offset this, and I appreciate that he gives me my space and time, but I know that he is sometimes resentful of my online friendships. we talk about it, as often as we can, and well, I sometimes have to give in and watch his lame tv shows with him, but that’s a small price to pay!

as always, I’m learning. the one thing I do know is that honesty, love, and trust are the bottom-line for all relationships, whether online or irl. so, for all you know, I’m in my jammies with curlers in my hair and zit cream on my face, and we’re having amazingly profound conversations online…

Posted in: online life