Log in ....Tribune

Monday, August 26, 2002

Virtual world can’t substitute the actual
Geetanjali Mahajan

A desperate mother consults a virtual physician to cure her sick child. Raghav participates in a Usenet newsgroup to advocate a spiritual organisation he belongs to. Girish has developed relationships with other virtual explorers who share his passion for mountain climbing. Rajesh and Vandana met in a chatroom, became friends and are getting married this winter.

Welcome to the age of cyberspace relationships. The Internet has reshaped what we meant by culture and has transformed the way we think, communicate, and interact. Like it or not, cyberspace has become the new frontier in social relationships. Falling in love over a machine? Many would find the idea humorous, even ludicrous. Yet it is happening. Millions are looking for love and friendship online.

Traditionally, forms of communication and interaction have often been based on unconscious signals given off by each individual. These signals may include gestures, body language, facial expressions and tonality. Obviously, these are severely limited, if not obsolete on the Internet. The question becomes, why do people communicate via the PC when they can do so more immediately in face-to-face relationships? Is socialising in cyberspace just a cultural fad or is it here to stay? What are the differences in social relationships on the Internet and conventional face-to-face relationships? Can we compare this with ‘real’ relationships?

One of the powerful advantages of cyberspace as compared to the real world is that people with similar concerns can easily find each other and subsequently meet in person. Geographical distance makes no difference.

Disinhibition effect

For a lot of persons cyberspace is social and psychological space —- a ‘space’ that reflects their tastes, minds and interests. Sandeep, a young businessman, says, "As I read the screen, I feel totally connected with my other Net comrades".

People say and do things on the Internet that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the "real" world. They loosen up, feel uninhibited, and express themselves more openly. Researchers call this "disinhibition effect". Sometimes they share very personal things. On the other hand disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms. Anger, hatred even threats. Or they explore the dark underworld of pornography and violence.

Several factors play their part in loosening the psychological barriers that block the release of these inner feelings and needs. The Internet creates a setting for anonymity to happen. There is no accountability through this type of communication.

Invisible identity

Whatever you say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of your lives. Basically, the Internet allows you to put on as many fronts as you like, whenever you like for as long as you like. Hence one person can have several aliases and many are known to vent their fantasies and emotions in this manner.

Further, in most online environments others cannot see you. Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Simran says, "You don’t have to worry about how you look or sound when you type something!"

The Internet has led us to a situation where we are able to communicate and interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures and countries without ever seeing their faces. Sonali, a research scholar in literature, has a similar reason as to why she likes meeting others on the Net. "Appearances are irrelevant. It carries you past the distracting superficial aspects of a person’s existence and connects you more directly to their mind and personality," she argues.

One of the factors leading to a cyber relationship could also be the exotic quality of it. Because it occurs through seemingly mysterious WWW it may feel exciting and magical.

The interaction via the Net doesn’t occur in ‘real’ time, it is not synchronous as in our in-person relationships. Hence you can respond to the Netmate whenever you wish to, at whatever pace you wish. That gives time to think what you want to say and compose your reply. Kareem, a shy teenager, says though he feels awkward in front of his girl classmates yet has been able to make several friends online. This wait and revise strategy can do wonders in averting impulsiveness, embarrassment and regret.


E-mail may be perhaps the most important, unique method for communicating and developing relationships. Although usually romance begins in chatrooms and MUDs (Multi User Domains), these almost always progress to e-mail to deepen the communication. Avid e-mailers have developed all sorts of innovative strategies for expressing themselves through the typed text such as emoticons. Various acronyms have been devised to make electronic conversations more efficient. A smiley face has the ability to transform a cutting remark into a comical jest. Abbreviations such as LOL (laugh out loud), IMHO (in my humble opinion) etc are an ongoing attempt to overcome the lack of visual cues on electronic communication systems.


However the fervour with which many persons have pursued this new social realm is matched by a backlash reaction from the sceptics. They say that if some persons prefer communicating via wires and circuits, there must be something wrong with them.

It is true that in day-to-day relationships we can never underestimate the power of a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug or a kiss. Humans need physical contact. Audio streaming and video transmissions will eventually make in-person meetings via the Net both practical and realistic but you can’t and probably never will hold your loved one in cyberspace.

Cyberspace relationships in the long run are not be as fulfilling as intimate ‘actual’ relationships. There are of course some who may not want to meet the lover face to face. Such people prefer living with their fantasy that they have created about their cyber lover or friend.