INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION AND THE INTERNET: THE CYBERSPACE WORLD OF NET.RELATIONSHIPS

by Cheryl Stafford

[NOTE: All text from Internet correspondence is in its original form. All typos and misspellings are the authors.]
This authors real identity is hidden. Other members of the BBS know her asSingen. She is a 20-year-old who attends Keene State College in New Hampshire. Achilles is a 22-year-old at the University of Cincinnati. They have been in nearly constant communication for nearly two months. Singen and Achilles are among thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of net couples that have evolved from contact in social networked settings. This network through which they communicate linkscomputers and humans all over the world.

Many are drawn to the networks because of the vast stores of data that areaccessible through a simple connection. FTP sites all over the globe store huge amountsof documents ranging in topics from scientific research to music lyrics. Much of thisinformation can be located through menu-driven indexes such as Archie and Veronica.Others use gophers or other network facilities to interface literally with hundreds ofservices and databases. However, as people have logged on to the network for theinformation it makes available, there has been a steady increase in the development anduse of the networks as a social forum. Social connections range from business relationshipsperhaps people who correspond over a network in order to complete ajob transaction or to carry out a taskto, as we saw in Singen and Achilles case, romances.

More than just shooting the breeze with other hapless strangers wanderingaround in a bulletin board service or a chat line or a Multi-User Dungeon, a respectablenumber of users are forming romantic relationships with other people whom they havenever metat least not face-to-face. Most users agree net.friendships are common, butattachments which people dub net.relationships, primary research indicates, are notanalogous to face-to-face romantic relationships.

Personal testimony as well as published theory and opinion indicate thatrelationships whose primary channel of communication is the Internet do not developinto typical romantic relationships until both parties have made face-to-face contact andexplored the possibility of romance in much the same way as relationships thatoriginate in real life and real time. It seems to be true, though, that the computer helps acouple to lay out the ground work, so to speak, in gaining information about eachother.

By far the biggest computer network is the Internet. The Internet consists of acollection of high-speed networks connected through a backbone provided by theNational Science Foundation and a hierarchy of more than 5000 attached, regional,state, federal, campus, and corporate networks (Fraase 10). But there is so much morethere than cold computer connectionswires, plugs, adapters. There is more there thana giant database. The Mac Internet Tour Guide, states that the Internet is much morethan a network of networks. Its also much more than a huge repository of information.The Internet is a virtual community, existing only ephemerally in physical reality (Fraase 5). At least 1.3 million computers have Internet addresses used by more than 30million people in more than 40 countries (Cooke 61), and it is growing every day. Thenumber of computers attached to the Internet has doubled every year between 1988 and1992. In 1993, the rate decreased to 80 percent (Cooke 61).

As the numbers of users grow, so does the diversity of this community. Now,the Internet is much more widespread and accessible to everyday people, not just thescientists, academics, and government officials it originally served. Its very nature ofproviding high-speed transfer of data between any two networked computers in theworld has led this resource to become an important channel of communication. Today,the Net is used in the same way mail, telephones, and fax machines are used.

The Internet began within the Defense Department. In 1969, the PentagonsAdvanced Research Projects Agency created ARPANET, a computer networkingproject, to transmit packets of military data securely and efficiently around the world.In 1984, The National Science Foundation built five super-computers around thecountry for conducting scientific research. In time, Defense Department researcherswanted access to those computers. The NSF hooked them up to the ARPANET andstarted the avalanche (Cooke 61).

Even then, the system was based upon establishing efficient communication andinformation access. It was just a bunch of computer scientists talking to one another,Dan Van Belleghem, an NSF employee who connects organizations to the Internet saidin a 1993 article in The Nation. Eventually, others discovered the usefulness of the Net,particularly educators and people involved in research or administration who wantedto talk to one another, retrieve files, and access libraries on the network (Cooke 61).

Today, Freenets, communitybased bulletin boards with capabilities such as e-mail, information services, interactive communication, and conferencingare accessible through public libraries and are increasingly responsible for bringing theNet into the hands of the general public (LaQuey 84).

A popular analogy regarding the Net as a data source is that getting informationfrom the Internet is like taking a drink of water from a fire hydrant. It is true; usersaccess a huge deluge of information with very little effort, using those tools (such asgopher and Archie) mentioned above. However, the primary social channels on the net are adifferent breed of network resource. They range in purpose from education to pureentertainment. They can be broken down into two general categories: asynchronousand synchronous communication.

Asynchronous communication means that communication does not occursimultaneously or concurrently. The most popular form of asynchronouscommunication is electronic mail. E-mail is an inexpensive and quick alternative towhat has been dubbed snail mail, or ordinary ground delivery via the U.S. PostalService. In a 1993 survey on Internet use, nearly one-third of the respondents said theycarried out some kind of collaborative research or work with colleagues via electronicmail (Dern Under 36).

Typically, a user generates and enters a message on his or her personal computerand transmits this message through a telephone-modem connection (or through a directconnection on a directly-networked computer). The message is received and stored in acentralized computer facility and is later received by the addressee through his or herown link to the computer facility (Chesebro 98). All users have a unique user.id, anduniform protocols between networks allow for Internet users to send mail to non-Internet users, and vice versa (Sussman 92). Users can send text-based messages inminutes. This includes text, pictures, sound, and video (Fraase 46-47).

Michael Fraase, an Internet expert and Macintosh lover, cannot rave enoughabout the wonders of e-mail:

Another type of asynchronous communication over the Internet occurs throughnewsgroups. Newsgroups are essentially electronic discussion groups (Fraase 5). Thesegroups span the globe, and are available at no cost over the Net and for a fee throughcommercial services such as America Online, Prodigy, or Compuserve (Fraase 109). Thegroups are highly specialized and cover nearly any topic imaginable. A collection ofnewsgroups serving Unix users, called USENET, has millions of subscribers and over7000 active newsgroups (Nichols 45).

The groups are divided into broad categories such as science, sociology, computers, recreation, and more. Some of the most amusing and off-beat topics fallunder the alt or alternative classification category. For instance for fans of thechildrens phenomenon Barney the Dinosaur there is the alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die group. Other topics: alt.out-of-body, rec.games.video, alt.conspiracy.jfk, comp.graphics .animation, sci.agriculture.beekeeping, and, of course, alt.sex.

Chatter abounds among the newsgroups. Users develop conversations andarguments that fall under the topic area. Some users are regular contributors, others areknown as lurkers because they read what is going on but do not themselves post.The regulars are often well-known and respected by others in the group.

A third form of asynchronous communication is the listserv. Listservs are verysimilar to newsgroups in that they are discussions oriented around one topic area. Theydiffer, however, in their distribution. Listserv users connect to an index of all groupsand then choose which ones they are interested in reading about. People who areinterested in listservs have to subscribe specifically to be included on the distributionlist. The service is free of charge.

Synchronous modes of communication are just the opposite of asynchronous;people communicate concurrently, in real time. Three main examples of this type ofinteraction are bulletin board systems, chat or conferencing channels, and multi-playergames.

The first synchronous public forum is in interactive gaming over the Net. Thereare many varieties, but most are referred to as MUDs or multi-user dungeons. MUDsare essentially text-based virtual reality adventure games. Players interact in real-timeand alter the worlds they inhabit as they play. Users communicate throughout thecourse of events and, as on other types of communications systems, may even agreeupon certain times to meet on the Net and play together. It has its own culture, itsown myths and legends. There are fantasy games on the Internet that become a worldunto themselves for many of the players (LaQuey 109).

A second type of synchronous communication is a type of service popularlyknown as a BBS. Bulletin board systems, such as the one Singen communicates on, linkmany users to the ever-changing environment simultaneously. As in newsgroups, userspost their contributions to conversations in appropriate rooms which comprise topicareas. In turn, others can read and respond to each others messages which appear assoon as users enter a save command. Since users are logged on to the system at thesame time, it is possible for a typed exchange to take place in almost real time. Many BBSs also have intra-system mail, so that users can leave each other private mailwithout asking for true identities or Internet addresses (LaQuey 84).

The first BBS system was establishing in Chicago in 1978. Local computer clubmembers could access the system and leave messages for each other. Over time, BBSsgrew to allow groups of individuals to exchange various kinds of information. Now,group discussions can be conducted through formal channels (Chesebro 100). In 1992, U.S. News & World Report announced that there were already 45,000 public bulletinboards in the United States, sharing over 11 million users. Undoubtedly, the numbershave only increased since then.

One expert who conducted a study of BBSs in the 1980s said that the BBSconstitutes nothing less than an entire society on-line. . . a town, a club, a clique, afantasy world, a dating system. . .or anything one wants it to be (Chesebro 5).

The final type of synchronous communication is known as Internet Relay Chat.IRC is a real-time chat system that prints on screen the input from all other users tuned into the same channel or topic (Dern Applying 118). Chat is analogous tocommunication via ham radio or CB. Fraase pinpoints its usefulness in describing itssimilarity to a wide-open international conference call using keyboards instead ofphones (Fraase 113). The message is transmitted, received, and then responded to inindependent steps, and is therefore not truly simultaneous, but is similar enough toreal-life conversation that it warrants its name (Chesebro 102).

On IRC, topics are as diverse as newsgroups but not as numerous. Many aresocial, featuring forums on alternative lifestyles, sex, computer games, and sports.Others carry news of world events, scientific discoveries, or politics. Numerous speakers can send messages simultaneously. Others have a nearly immediateopportunity to respond to the discussion.

Each of these different modes of communication has its particular strengths andweaknesses. E-mail is a convenient way to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. MUDs provide gaming entertainment. Chat, BBSs, network news, and listservs putusers in touch with others who share similar interests and ideas. All are part of theever-expanding world of network communication.

Indeed, the Internet is a virtual world. A journalist in The New York Times poetically wrote:

As in high society (or even just common society), regulars among all types ofinteractive communication on the Net get to know each other. They recognize eachothers handles or nicknames; they may recognize each others political leanings orpersonal beliefs, based upon what they post or say; they may form cliques or enemies;or they may gain reputations as pranksters or troublemakers.

Tracy LaQuey, author of The Internet Companion, a beginners guide to the Net, described this phenomenon clearly:

In fact, computer experts have witnessed that the advent of global networking isfragmenting and re-sorting society into virtual communities Instead of being boundby location, groups of people can now meet in cyberspace, the non corporeal worldexisting between two linked computers. There they can look for colleagues, friends,romance, or sex (Cooke 61).

Some are looking for more than something superficial. On April 10,1994, Singenposted this sobering social commentary on Quartz BBS:

Singen is seeking comfort among her own. She believes others are as well. Thiscommunity, this matching of people with similar needs and desires, is what facilitatescommunication. Similarly, the community evolved through communication.

Communication depends on community, the existence of a culture.Part of what we call culture is a set of conventions that define thetype of discourse possible between individuals. The culture ofcommunication includes tools used for communication: the software of language, gestures and symbols and the hardware of books, radios, musical instruments, computers and telephones(Fogel 12).

The culture behind the Internet is a relatively complex and esoteric one ofabbreviations such as "rothflmao" (rolling on the floor laughing my ass off), "cul8r"(see you later), and "brb" (be right back); of emoticons, designed to indicate emotion inan ASCII (computer encoded) environment; of "netiquette" which governs what issocially acceptable and what is not; of "netspeak" or jargon that is associated with theInternet and networking in general, and more. In this case, the tools through whichpeople communicate are personal computers, modems, and the telephone lines thattransmit the encoded data from one place in the world to another.

As in any community, personal relationships form as people get to "know"each other. There is no doubt that real social ties result, even in such a sterile,emotionless environment as that of the Internet. As people increasingly use computers,they develop new types of friendships, "computer friendships," which are based solelyon the electronic messages transmitted among them (Chesebro 36). "For [some] users the computer creates new social contacts that could not have existed without computertechnologies" (Chesebro 4).

Researchers have concluded that, even though one cannot see the person one ischatting with, interpersonal relationships and friendships can be readily formedthrough the network. One user reported in a 1982 study: "I have talked to somepeople for years without knowing where they live or their real names. Yet they are asmuch a presence in my life as if they were in the room. They are my friends" (Chesebro5). Merlin, a user on Prism BBS (bbs.fdu.edu) who was among many who contributed theirinsight and experiences, shares the same feelings. "I know I kinda say friends' a lot[about people I know] over the computer, and it may seem weird, but I do honestlyconsider a lot of the people that I meet over the computer really close friends."

What is interesting is that these friendships were formed with no or minimalinformation about users' appearance, nationality, race, location, age, or even, perhaps,gender. Pseudonyms, handles, or nicknames hide true identities and give users anopportunity to be whomever they want (Chesebro 102).

Some claim that computer-mediated contacts can promote deception becauseusers have to use their own discretion about what to tell others about themselves. Somemay find it to their amusement or advantage to deceive others. Communication via thecomputer has been found to reduce a user's sense of personal responsibility for hiswords or actions. Vanguard, another Prism regular and a junior at Vassar University, issuspicious of some users: "[Y]ou can be whoever you want here so I think you find thepeople becoming who they want to be rather than who they are. And there's a lack ofconsequences that can be inviting." Project X echoes Vanguard's warning. "Often wehold up a facade on the computer that is very attractive over the computer. Some verylarge faults are easily concealed."

Kami, a 20-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah, wrote of the dangers of openingup to others on the Net for fear of falling prey to such deception:

This is proof enough that people who communicate on the Net form real ties. Kami admitted to caring about others, and, consequently, being hurt when hertrust was broken. Merlin and all the others that responded validated the existence ofnet.friendships, strong attachments that exist though the lines of computer terminals.

But are these true friendships in the same sense as you and I are friends with ourroommates or neighbors? One author presents a series of pertinent questions:

Users will argue that, yes, friendships exist and that it can both create a feeling ofisolation and stave off feelings of loneliness. But perhaps with this new technology, anew look at the concept of "friendship" is necessary. James Chesebro and DonaldBonsall, who studied computer-mediated communication quite extensively in the1980's, agree. They made the observation that if the reports of BBS users are takenseriously and confirmed, "it may be essential to redefine the meanings of such words asfriendship and interpersonal communication" (Chesebro 6).

Merriam-Webster's definition of friend is "a person attached to another byrespect or affection" (16: 303). Clearly, it seems possible for network users to feelaffection or respect for another user, even if they have never met. In the ordinary formation of a face-to-face friendship, there are several common characteristics. Therelationship is a voluntary one. It is a personal relationship that is privately negotiatedbetween particular individuals. The relationship maintains a spirit of equality. Thougheach individual may differ in status, ability, attractiveness, age, or other features, somefacet of their personalities function as a leveler. A feeling of mutual involvement alsoexists. "The bonds of friendship result from the collaboration of two individuals inconstructing a shared social construct. And, finally, friendship implies affective ties. Inother words, friends show caring, concern, and generally give off a positive feeling" (Rawlins 11-12).

Each of these characteristics may be found in net.friendships. Friends choose tokeep in touch and actively "meet" on the network. Both contribute something to therelationship, be it support, comic relief, or just a sounding board for new ideas. Ofcourse, over the computer, users' physical features do not influence who pairs up. It ismore an attraction of similar tastes and beliefs as expressed through their writing. Thesocial construct that the users share is at least defined by the mode of communication inwhich they are involved, i.e., if nothing else, users share knowledge of the same set ofrules that govern behavior on a MUD or that dictate propriety on a BBS. Finally, user'stestimony alone should convince skeptics that Internet users feel affection for others onthe network.

Still, these friendships are unlike face-to-face relationships. Chesebro andBonsall suggest that we have to evaluate other questions as well, such as: "What mustfriends know about each other before they can say that they are friends? What dofriends have to disclose? Regarding the physical nature of another, is there a minimumof information that we must know if we are to call another a friend?" (Chesebro 102).

But these questions are not readily answered. According to two communicationsspecialists, James McCroskey and Thomas McCain, an interpersonal relationship mustalways involve some kind of judgment about the physical attractiveness of the other (Chesebro 102). However, this is not a universal belief. Joseph DeVito, in TheInterpersonal Communication Book (1983), defines a friendship in terms of the kind ofpsychological support the relationship provides: "Friendship may be defined as aninterpersonal relationship between two persons that is mutually productive, establishedand maintained through perceived mutual free choice, and characterized by mutualpositive regard" (qtd. in Chesebro 103). Accepting this definition would imply that physicalcharacteristics or attractiveness have nothing to do with friendship.

But can a friendship truly exist if most theories of friendship assume face-to-faceencounters among friends? Physical intimacy is often a very important feature of afriendship, but the Net cannot accurately communicate emotions and feelings, let alonephysical contact, in a text-only environment. Chesebro and Bonsall admit this void ofcontact, but support the validity of net.friendships, nonetheless:

It seems reasonable, then, to accept that close friendships can form over thenetwork, individuals having never met. However, I do not believe that net.romancescan be sustained solely through a network connection. A romantic relationship is insome ways similar to a friendship, but there are necessary components to a romanticinvolvement that cannot be compensated for over a computer connection. BBSers whocontributed their experience agree, indicating that nearly all net.relationships in whichthey have been involved have either progressed to a physical, face-to-face realm or havesimply dissolved.

Merriam-Webster defines romance as "a romantic attachment or episodebetween lovers" (635). Love, as a noun, can mean several things: "1. strong affection,2. warm attachment, 3. attraction based on sexual desire." As a verb, it can mean "cherish or to feel a passion, devotion, or tenderness for" (435).

Nowadays, there are hundreds of outlets on the Net specifically focused onmatch-making. Prism BBS has a room called the Singles Bar. Typically, BBSs also havea personals room. Some of the most active newsgroups are about sex. There are chatchannels about sado-masochism. Sex is a great Americanand Canadianpastime.Maclean's picked up on this hot topic. Part of its lead painted this picture:

The bulletin board users that responded to my informal survey believe they areengaged in real relationships. They vary in degree of intensity, but all feel strongaffection and attractionmore than they feel toward other net.friends, and to theirrespective "significant others." How can a person identify when their interactions havegone beyond simple friendship? Onyx, a 20-year-old Prism user from New Jersey,explains:

Merriam-Webster says this could be love, but is it? Here, the BBSers share theirstories:

Merlin, on Quartz BBS:

Merlin found happiness over the Net. Note, though, that his relationshipprogressed to a physical level before he accepted it as successful.

Another Quartz user must continue her search for love. Victoria, a 21-year-old atPurdue University, met her Net significant other Bill through a mutual friend from aMUD. Bill had been having problems with a female friend, and Victoria lent him asympathetic earfor five straight hours during their first contact:

In Victoria's case, face-to-face contact changed the entire relationship. It stoppedwhatever they felt was between them dead in its tracks.

Undoubtedly well-versed in affairs of the heart similar to Victoria's and Merlin's,Japm, a 24-year-old staff member at Pennsylvania State University, shared some wordsof wisdom on net.relationships. His theory is to treat them just as a real liferelationship.

He operates on the same morals and rules he would in a real life situation.

As is illustrated in the confessions of these BBSers, attitudes and experiences varywidely among users. Some believe what they feel is just as real as any face-to-facerelationship. Alaric, a 17-year-old Prism user, feels that "it is possible to meet someoneand fall in love with them over the net. It's just that the feasibility of the relationshipcoming together is very low. . ."

On the other hand, Onyx is a strong non-believer in net.relationships.

Psychonaut, a sophomore communications major at St. Mary's College of California, simply does not equate a network situation to a real life one.

Psychonaut does not dispute that some users feel more affectionately toward otherparticular users, he simply hesitates to place those relationships on the same level asface-to-face romances. Instead, he views the Net as a way of getting to know otherswith the possibility of meeting in the future.

A comparison in these anecdotes, users draw certain distinctions between expectations of a reallife relationship and of one pursued over the network. This rift occurs because face-to-face and computer-mediated communication systems are dramatically different.Recurrent themes haunt users' tales of net.relationshipsdifficulty in conveyingemotion, frustrating lack of a physical dimension, dearth of information about fellowusers. These problems result from the computer connection's inability to perform up tothe standard people are used to pursuing in face-to-face confrontations. There are fivespecific ways in which computer-mediated and face-to-face communication differ.They are based purely upon the mode of communication and are observable withouteven a study of the contents of the communication itself (Chesebro 58).

The first major difference is the channel through which the message passes. Inface-to-face exchanges, both verbal and non-verbal channels are employed. One studyfound that 93 percent of social meanings conveyed in face-to-face communication werenonverbal; whereas in computer-mediated conversations there is no nonverbal channel.Hence users must translate these so-called social meanings into a verbal mode that canbe expressed over the keyboard (Chesebro 58-59).

Merlin expressed his difficulties in communicating:

An attempted solution has been to create a set of "visual signs intended tosimulate the nonverbal facial reactions, emotions, and vocalistic patterns thatcharacterizeface-to-face communication"(Chesebro 59). Users recognize these as "smilies" or emoticons. Some common examples:

No one will argue that smilies do not serve a purpose over the Net, but it is easyto see that they cannot reveal the unique, personal, and spontaneous nonverbalreactions that normally accompany face-to-face interaction. Consider, for a moment:

No :-) symbol can convey all of that.

The second blatant difference between computer-mediated and face-to-facecommunication is in the discursive mode. In face-to-face interaction, verbalcommunication is typically oral. Vocal quality, pitch, and tone are all important inconveying precise meaning of the messages passed from one person to another. Thesefactors permit a large amount of information to be conveyed efficiently and without thekind of commitment involved in solely written messages (Chesebro 59).

Alternately, in computer-mediated exchange, verbal communication is always ina written form. Several factors are tied into this. Messages must always be input line byline. Asides are indicated through parenthetical comments. "Emotion is hard tocommunicate on the network. Irony and sarcasm are easily misinterpreted withoutverbal cues or body language. Similarly, terseness can come across as rudeness. Anduntil we can add italics and bold type to our messages, things are even worsewe'relimited to ASCII text as the lowest common denominator" (Fraase 119). Responses thatwould normally be oral must be translated into an understandable written form, such as*giggle*, *snicker*, *gag*, or *cough* (Chesebro 59). Other means of indicating tone orinflection have been crudely compiled. For instance, capital letters indicate shoutingand should be used sparingly. Since, as mentioned above, there is no way to italicizetype, users can create emphasis by using the underline character ( ) or asterisks (*) oneither side of the word or phrase. In other words, on the network, *not* is more politethan NOT (Fraase 119). Regardless of their effectiveness at communicating certainmeaning, they all require greater concentration in typing than they would in face-to-faceinteraction.

The third glaring difference between face-to-face and computer-mediatedcommunication is in receiving feedback. In face-to-face exchange, verbalcommunication takes place in turns, with nonverbal response constant and immediate,or synchronistic. Face-to-face communication is characterized as "dynamic, ongoing,ever-changing, and continuous" (Chesebro 69).

The scientific term for this phenomenon is co-regulation. It is "the dynamicbalancing act by which a smooth social performance is created out of the continuousmutual adjustments of action between partners. In co-regulated communication,information changes as the interaction unfolds" (Fogel 19).

On the other hand, in a computer-mediated exchange, all feedback isasynchronistic. In a typical chat or bulletin board exchange, for instance, a user typesand sends a message. The transmission must be completed before the receiver is able torespond to the sender's message. (Though these modes of communication were definedabove as synchronous, for the purpose of this discussion no form of computercommunication is truly synchronous.) Of course, sometimes users' messages crosspaths, and this leads to confusion or misunderstanding. But, at any time, only one-waytransmission are technically possible. And all responses to messages must be basedsolely upon the verbal messages, since nonverbal cues cannot be transmitted throughsuch a structure (Chesebro 69).

It is for this reason that, with time, users such as Victoria and Bill move totelephone communicationthat ability to tell a story and to have another interject,laugh, ask questions, and more, all in real time is a desirous one very common tohuman communication, but one incapable of being attained in a network environment.

In a face-to-face exchange, participants have no choice but to present a completeand immediate sociological composite of themselves. Age, sex, race, nationality, andother information about their places in society, such as occupation, income, and socialpreferences, are revealed or implied. Speakers have little control over what othersperceive. However, in a computer-mediated exchange, users have nearly completecontrol over what sociological information is conveyed to others. In addition, the userdetermines the way in which these factors will be characterized. Over the Net,impressions are often initially formed, not on the visual social cues we pass judgmenton in face-to-face situations, but on the person's attitudes, ideas, and beliefs asexpressed through their writing (Chesebro 61).

Fraase sees this as an advantage of the Internet, terming people's tendency toprejudge an impediment: "Electronic mail eliminates a lot of subtle impediments toeffective communication. Judgments based on appearance, voice, or social position areimpossible in electronic communications" (Fraase 48). Vanguard agrees: "Being soclose to someone's thoughts lets you avoid all distractions (physical appearance,location, timing, clothing, personal habits. . .) that would often keep you from developinga relationship."

Of course, not all would agree that this is a good thing. For instance, those suchas Kami who fear deception might be anxious about the honesty of those theycommunicate with. In real life, social cues help people form character impressions, buton the Net, information provided by the sources may not always be accurate and mayeven, as noted above, be purposefully manipulated to create a false impression. Youreyes will not deceive you in evaluating someone in person, but they may in readingabout someone over the Net. Ivory, a student in Pennsylvania and avid Prism user,issues a warning: "RL is very different, and people can only show you so many parts ofthemselves on the computer. In person is much different, and that's what counts."

Obviously, face-to-face interactions always occur in real time. Time cannot bemanipulated in face-to-face exchange. The moment we speak, move, or form anexpression on our faces, the information is transmitted to those involved. "During aface-to-face exchange, every moment counts, and every moment has a particular qualitythat affects the social relationship" (Chesebro 61).

In a computer-mediated environment, time can be more directly controlled andmanipulated. In writing messages using electronic mail, posting in listservs,newsgroups, or BBSs, users can take their time and plan out what they want to write. Indirect, synchronous communication, as through chat, time must still be allotted formessage construction and other quirks of network communication such as slow typists,transmission problems, differences in transmission systems, and lag time (Chesebro 62).

For many net users, finally meeting and interacting in real time is a verysatisfying turn of events, but for other users, such as Victoria, a face-to-faceconfrontation can fail miserably even preceded by a very successful interchange overthe network.

In sum, it is logical that the mode or method employed to create an interactiondramatically affects the kind of relationship established between people. Face-to-facemessages are characterized by "a complex, spontaneous, simultaneous, and immediatecollage of verbal, nonverbal, and oral symbols." In contrast, computer-mediatedmessages are characterized by "written, critical, deliberate, and delayed symbols."

In addition to the real life/computer-mediated differences outlined above,networked communications lacks a physical dimension. The interface systems betweenhuman communication and communication via the computer are two different things.An interface is either "a physical surface forming the common boundary of two bodies" or "a connecting unit that allows independent systems to interact and communicatewith each other." With human beings, relationships can take numerous forms, eachrequiring a different style, set of conceptions, and appropriate behaviors. In otherwords: human behavior is context-dependent (Chesebro 54). Most often the context isdetermined by your surroundings. At a dinner party with co-workers, a person will actone way, but at a club with friends he or she will undoubtedly behave differently.

In a physical environment there are seven factors that make up a social setting.1. Your goals, or what you want to achieve, 2. Your roles, as compared to others in thatsame setting, which affect the encounters you have and how you inter-relate, 3. Yourmood, 4. The place; physical factors may affect you; plus, certain situations are boundby certain rules or definitions of propriety, 5. The occasion which sets the tone and willdetermine what is acceptable and what is not, 6. Rules based upon general social normsand the occasion, 7. Feedback; we constantly adjust our goals, reinterpret our roles, andrefine our understanding of rules, in light of people's reactions to what we say and do inthe situation (Marsh 18-19).

On the other hand, computers operate in a context-free environment and "areimmune to circumstance, social ordering systems, and the rules that govern culturalsystems." In a sense, computers create a new frame of reference for understandinginformation free of social boundaries established by human beings (Chesebro 54).Many of the seven factors listed above take on new meaning in a computerenvironment. For instance, users' roles on the Net are defined by themselves, whereasthey may be defined by society in a face-to-face situation. The place is cyberspace, oressentially whatever the users make it. Interactive games and some bulletin boardsystems possess "physical" features outlined in written descriptions, but this doesn'tnecessarily have the same effect that being in a room with a person or at an amusementpark or in a classroom will have. After all, Internet users are still just sitting in their homes, offices or computer clusters. The environment they are in is nearly entirelyconstructed in their minds, resulting in a different effect.

As discussed above, this environment lacks visual cues with body language suchas posture, facial expression, eye contact, distance, gesture or appearance, as well asnon-verbal cuesvoice cannot convey sarcasm, sorrow, caring, anger, or other emotionsthrough ASCII characters on a computer monitor.

But perhaps most importantly in considering a romantic relationship, there is nosense of touch. In real life, romance is accompanied by physicality. It can be somethingas simple as a kiss on the cheek or as complex as sexual intercourse. But on the Net,even the most poetic person cannot express in words the comfort and solace a genuinehug can bring to a person who is hurt or sad. The greatest writer cannot set someoneaflame with a computer *smooch*, *kiss*, or even *deep kiss*. Holding hands, tickling,poking, and other affectionate actions (and not-so-affectionate acts like 'tslap*, *thwap*,or *bop*), though they take place constantly on the Net, can never come close to actualinteraction. Victoria misses this physical aspect. "The down side is you can't give thatperson a hug when you know he is having a bad day. "There's no kissing him good bybefore you go to bed," she lamented.

People tend to overcompensate for the lack of these dimensions usually found inreal life situations. For instance, it has been noted that people use informal andexpressive language and familiar slang to diminish the "indifferent social relationshipcreated by a computer connection." Also, one study concluded that 60 percent of themessages sent by electronic mail wouldn't have been ventured otherwise. Suchemotional outpourings are thought to compensate for the incompleteness of computercontact (Chesebro 118).

Vanguard, on Prism BBS, pinpoints this as a major factor in the evolution ofrelationships on the Net. "I'd say it has something to do with false intimacybeingclose to someone's thoughts and feelings here makes you forget that there's a physical life too." Chesebro and Bonsall have found that "computer-human interactions restrictaccess to the full range of communicative insights possible in face-to-facecommunication. The technology of the computer scarcely allows analogic, relativistic,symbolic, and anecdotal communication." Experts have cited that computer-humancommunication is heavily content-oriented which limits the development of "trulyhuman relational behavior" (Chesebro 119).

Critics argue that computerized interactions displace the uniqueness andhumanity of other more traditional ways of communicating. Samuel Gulino, acomputer communications researcher, stated "We ought to recognize that computershave the capacity to virtually dehumanize society" (Chesebro 120).

Though this may be true of the future, I strongly doubt that computerrelationships are anywhere close to displacing real face-to-face interaction. I state thisconfidently citing the stories the BBS users have contributed. In all cases, relationshipsthey had founded on the Net progressed to more traditional forms with time. Merlinexpresses that need for contact:

He demonstrates that relationships sustained through the Net take more effort:

They take a bit more work especially on the communication part. . . theytake a lot more money, people could tell you about their outrageous phonebills . . . they take time and dedication, and they take trust. In actuality,they're pretty close to normal real life relationships . . . the only different isthat while you may be doing 100%/O in rl, it may take a little more, like150% because it's a net-relationship.

But that, in the end, it may be worth the effort because those involved may find thatthey are in the middle of a new, more traditional face-to-face relationship, at least uponoccasion. Merlin has indicated that he knows at least one couple who have gottenmarried that met on the Internet. He believes this transition from computercommunication to human interaction is inevitable if there are true feelings betweenthose involved.

Vanguard is currently pursuing a new romance. He met Emily through Prism BBSwhere they would chat whenever they ran into each other. Finally, after months ofconstant dialogue, he ventured to New York City to meet her. Since then, they havebeen together many times.

Indeed, friendships blossom by the thousands on the Net. People talking,exchanging ideas, laughing, teasing, challenging constantly without ever meeting.Some of these computer companionships take on an element not found in otherfriendships. Attraction buildsand so does the desire to move to another mode ofcommunication. Introduce romance to a net.friendship and suddenly the computer'srestrictive method of communication cannot convey the feelings inside of or fulfill thedesires felt by the net.couples. Emotion is lost in the characterless type and imprecisewords, whispers cannot be distinguished from sobs, users are forced to definethemselves to others; there is no sight, no smell, no touch.

This can only lead to the conclusion there is an identifiable difference betweenface-to-face contact between love interests and interaction between couples on the Net.I believe, and much of my first-person research demonstrates, that due to theconstraints of the network environment, true romantic relationships, as defined by reallife standards, cannot exist solely within the confines of the Net. The networks may be agood way of locating someone who shares similar interests and goals and permit theopportunity to get to know other people, but a relationship must move forward andmake use of other modes of communication if a romance is going to be sustained.

True, some users will claim vehemently that they have a successfulnet.relationship, but it is my prediction that it will either continue until it reaches apoint at which those involved desire closer interaction through other channels ofcommunication, or it dissipates from lack of fuel, if you will, to feed the fires of love andpassion. Or perhaps, as Chesebro and Bonsall suggest, there needs to be a newdefinition of romance created that allows for virtual love between two people separatedby time and distance.

And what of Singen and Achilles, our introductory couple? They are about toembark upon another important step toward establishing a real life (though possiblylong distance) relationship; the two have plans to meet later this month. In themeantime, all is not perfect between the two of them. Singen is experiencing many ofthe concerns that accompany an intense net.relationship.

It's May now. The moment of truth will soon arrive for these two net.lovers.Soon Singen will know if she has much to look forward to as Vanguard and Merlin or ifher eyes will be opened to the truth as Victoria's were. In the meantime, thousands ofburgeoning romances are being played out in cyberspace. Enter with caution. A wholenew world awaits.

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Chesebro, James W., and Donald G. Bonsall. Computer Mediated Communication: HumanRelationships in a Computerized World. Tuscaloosa: The University ofAlabamaPress, 1989.

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Fraase, Michael. The Mac Internet Tour Guide: Cruising the lnternet the Easy Way. ChapelHill, NC: Ventura Press, 1993.

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