In a recent tweet, Jerry Michalski asks:
Is the www really connecting us? or just creating thin, artificial relationships?
To which I replied:
What is the ‘stuff’ of relationship anyway, and have we forgotten what it means, in the growing dearth of authentically shared experience?
Twitter is a great place for posting interesting rhetorical questions, but I thought these questions merited a blog post.
Let me start with Jerry’s questions. In a recent post, I posited that the number of relationships you can sustain at one time varies from 2 to perhaps 150, depending on their depth, since we only have a finite amount of time to invest in relationships. I hypothesized that one could develop a ‘quantum’ model of relationships that would depict them from inner to outer circles in decreasing level of intensity, with an outward shift making room for a closer one elsewhere in your community of relationships, and an inward shift forcing you to move other relationships to the periphery or even out of your orbit entirely.
Jerry’s question suggests the risk that online relationships, which are easy to establish and jettison, are mostly the ‘outside ring’ type, thin and somewhat artificial. Yet most of us have seen some such relationships blossom into close friendships and romances, not to mention powerful work colleagues, suppliers, customers, employers, publishers, and artistic, scientific or philosophical collaborators. What does it take for ‘gravity’ to kick in and add weight and depth to a casual relationship, online or face-to-face?
Looking at my own relationships, I would say the main gravitational forces are need and passion. What defines relationship most, however, is reciprocity. A one-way need or passion is pretty sad, but one that is reciprocal is powerful, what I have called (to use another term from molecular chemistry) covalent (literally ‘sharing or exchanging capacity’). This is the stuff of relationship — sharing or exchanging (knowledge, ideas, experiences, perspectives, and/or love, through conversation, in the broader sense of ‘turning together with’ another person).
How deeply can we share or exchange with ‘online’ relationships, where it is difficult to appreciate the other person’s context, needs and passions, and when there is usually not enough time or attention to nurture the relationship to move it to the inner circles — the circles of intimacy at which relationships really bubble, sizzle and soar. But there are exceptions. I have fallen in love online (in Second Life). I have developed online friendships so close that when we first, finally, met face to face we immediately embraced and talked for hours as if we had known each other a lifetime. I have been so sparked — intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise — by the ideas or rhetoric or creativity or knowledge or articulateness of some people that I first encountered online that I have aggressively pursued them to the point they are now good friends, lovers, intimates, and some of these relationships have lasted and others faded, largely based on reciprocity and whether the spark was sustainable.
What drove me to move these relationships to a more intimate level was a sense that, without close and frequent connection and an acknowledgement of reciprocal interest (need or passion), these relationships were really imagined, fantasies, exaggerated by my anticipation and imagination of their possibilities. I wanted to authenticate these relationships.
As I’ve mentioned before, relationships are complex phenomena, not predictable nor controllable. They are a form of dance, or play (in both sense of the word), that is largely unstructured, with the moves and ‘plot’ of the relationships co-developed by the players.
What do you think? Are we fooling ourselves into believing our 150 ‘relationships’ online are more valuable, reciprocal, and authentic than they really are? Are we imagining them to be what we want them to be because it’s easier than actually negotiating a ‘real’ relationship? And are we settling for large numbers of superficial relationships at the cost of true, dizzying, powerful, deep, intimate, authentic relationships, the kind that fill us with love, with intention, with meaning for our lives?
Photo “love and friendship’ by Nesis Elisheva from artmajeur.com