How many of you have ever spent hours and hours chatting to someone on IM over a month or so, but ever time you meet them in person its like you don't even know each other?
Well I have. It was quite strange. One of the more eerie moments in my life. You stand there thinking in your mind of all the hours you've spent chatting, of all the different conversations, and how the way it felt then feels so much more different to now.
I think that experience, along with living with brothers that spend a lot of time in online gaming communities and my general observations, has led me to conclude that the internet is having a serious negative impact on human relationships. I think this is because of the problems the internet has when it comes to relating, combined with an increased amount of time being spent relating online.
For me the largest problem with relationships developed over the internet is that they have the air of intimacy, but lack any real commitment1. Its very easy to spend time sharing in someone else's inner most feelings, either directly on IM or indirectly through their blog. You can really feel like you've gotten to know someone, that you are getting along well and would consider yourself friends - and all from the comfort of your own home, without ever really shared a common experience (unless its fraging some terrorists in Counter Strike). But when a problem comes up, when the relationship becomes hard, the internet makes it very easy to nothing.
The worst would be completely ignoring them. They send an email - you don't reply. On IM you just add them to your ignore list. The kind of things that if a close friend did in real life would be considered quite offensive, but a close friend on the internet can get away with.
But the problem works the other way too. How do you share a serious issue with someone you've never met in person? Can I trust them when there isn't really any basis for me to trust them? In the end you don't tell them, because while you know lots about them, there is no solid trust.
Honesty is another problem with relating on the internet. The internet makes it very easy to distort your character, either consciously or subconsciously. The way you get to know someone on the internet is by revelation. How you view me is based on how I have revealed myself on this blog. In real life, you not only get me revealing details about myself, but you can observe how I act and respond to events and other people.
This dependancy on revelation as the principal means of discovering someone's character means that it is open to being abused. You could deliberately create a false persona that you reveal over the internet - one that is entirely fictitious, yet good enough to fool real people into thinking its real. But the abuse is usually more subtle. We usually capitalize on the anonymity the internet provides to embellish certain characteristics or to diminish others - like an editor airbrushes a photo for the front cover of a magazine.
But the problems with relationships over the internet becomes quite serious when we realize that people are spending more time on the internet. More time in chat rooms and forums. More time reading blogs and chatting over Messenger. More time on the net means less time relating to people in real life, face to face. It means less time sharing common experiences and developing trust.
What we've successfully done in the 21st century is take the natural sets of relationships - grown through small, local communities, destroyed them by moving to large impersonal cities and tying ourselves down to our jobs, till our only friends are the people we works with and the people we live with, only then to go and replace the hole left with an inferior alternative.
The net is a great tool for communicating and sharing information, but how long will it be until you wake up with the internet down and no one to turn to?
1 - Before you get upset and start throwing counter examples at me - I am making a generalization here. I know there are exceptions, but this is what I think is true for the majority.