Howard Rheingold talks to BBC about history, significance of virtual communities
October 9th, 2009

The BBC web page for this interview, including transcript, is here.

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1 - Amanda M

In this interview, you mention many reasons why people go online to form relationships, “they’re sick, or they’re, they’re in a scary part of town where they don’t want to leave they’re (their) apartment at night. Or maybe they’re older and they don’t get around that much. Or like myself, and many others, I work at home”.
When I heard this I thought that it almost seemed like an easy way out. Forming and establishing relationships is a risky step; maintaining one requires work. Yet when one creates a ‘relationship’ over the internet it is far simpler. If we take the current social media platform – Facebook – to start a relationship with someone, all you have to do is click a button that says “Add as Friend”.
You don’t need to have anything in common with this person; you don’t need to even know them. But if they accept your request, you are automatically listed as “Friends”. Therefore you have created a relationship with a complete stranger. You never have to interact with your new ‘friend’ and you will always be listed as such.
You have now formed a relationship, very little effort required, and no ongoing input is necessary. Online relationships are basically passive in nature. So how can you hold this sort of social interaction with one that entails one to actually go somewhere and meet someone new?

Hi Amanda, and thanks for the thoughtful comment.

First, I strongly agree on a couple of points:

1. It’s always important to examine critically one’s relationships online. It’s easy to turn communications on and off in the web world, and to present oneself in inauthentic or deceptive ways.

2. Facebook sucks, human-relationship-wise. It flattens all relations into “Friend” or not. Does clicking a button really transform a stranger or acquaintance into what was formerly known as a friend? Of course not. But I agree that we should guard against the danger of forgetting that.

However, I want to contend respectfully with a couple of other points.

1. I presented that sentence you quoted precisely to warn against judging the quality of other people’s relationships. I wrote about that way back in 1996 (please forgive the garish formatting): I am sure that you don’t intend to say that Blaine’s relationships — or many others like him — are somehow worth less than yours or mine. Ever since that incident, I’ve been hesitant to judge the authenticity or depth of another person’s relationship simply because it has a partial or even totally online component.

2. Decades before Facebook, the way I and others encountered each other online was precisely because we shared common interests. We encountered each other because we wanted to talk about sports or raising children or scientific research or any one of thousands of other topics. Through those discussions, we got to know each other. And yes, often those relationships moved from the purely virtual to the physical world. I wrote about this in 1993: Last year, when I was treated for cancer (I’m healthy now), I had to go to treatments every day for six weeks, and I wasn’t in condition to transport myself. I soon found that more people were volunteering to help me than I had days for treatments. And most of those people were friends I had originally met online — and in many cases, although I communicated with them often, I saw them face to face rarely. Nobody can convince me that those people are not real friends or that the fact that we met and communicate online somehow diminishes the reality or depth of our relationships.

I agree that it’s important to think critically about life online. I’ve also learned to think critically about my criticisms — particularly when it comes to extending them to others.

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