"Women might be able to fake orgasms. But men can fake whole relationships." Sharon Stone.
Two apparently contrasting features of online relationships are that they seem to offer both greater anonymity and greater self-disclosure. Anonymity is associated with concealment, which is contradictory to self-disclosure. However, greater anonymity typically allows greater self-disclosure, and in turn increases familiarity and intimacy. Intimacy is often quite considerable in online relationships and is often achieved more rapidly than in offline relationships.
Self-disclosure is significant in online relationships. Indeed, several studies have found that there is faster and more profound self-disclosure in online communication than in face-to-face meetings. The major reason for this is that greater anonymity reduces vulnerability.
In online relationships people can be partially or fully anonymous: people can conceal their true identity or important aspects of it. Anonymity in online relationships facilitates self-disclosure as it reduces the risks involved in disclosing intimate information about oneself. People can express themselves more freely since they are more anonymous, less accountable, and hence less vulnerable. Because of our sensitivity regarding our loved ones, the person closest to you may never know your deepest secrets or desires.
A woman may be nervous about telling her spouse her sexual fantasies-for fear it may ruin their relationship. However, she may readily tell her online lover about such fantasies without fear of repercussions. A 33-year-old married woman, who loves to cyber, writes: "Sometimes there are things you like to fantasize about that you can share online and don't feel comfortable sharing with your significant other."
The conflict between openness and closeness (revealing-concealing, expressiveness-protectiveness) is typical of offline personal relationships. This conflict is considerably reduced in cyberspace. Take, for example, homosexuals who may experience anxiety in disclosing their sexual orientation, and yet for whom failure to disclose this endangers their true self. In the anonymity of cyberspace, disclosing one's true feelings is much easier.
Hence, in cyberspace people may feel freer to act in a way that they would dare to do in offline circumstance. Thus, a woman notes: "I experienced cybersex for the first time and I have never been so turned on in my life! It gave birth to and brought out my ‘animal.' We reveled in fantasyland. It was a constant daily fever-what a rush."
Online self-disclosure resembles the "strangers on a train" phenomenon, where people sometimes share intimate information with their anonymous seatmate. Since anonymity in cyberspace is greater than on a train, revealing intimate personal details is more common in cyberspace. Online relationships enable people to hide behind a form of communication that is somewhat "removed from life." It is easier to open up to a faceless stranger that you do not have to look at while revealing your secrets. For similar reasons, priests remain concealed when they hear confessions. All these cases support the notion that fear of being embarrassed or being the object of contempt is considerably reduced when the listener is not present or is not seen, or is unlikely to be seen again.
In other circumstances, the listener can be present and seen, but he or she is in a position that cannot hurt you. This is the case, for example, of a therapist, lawyer, or a priest. In the professional presence of such functionaries, you can freely express your emotions and whatever is on your mind without risking hurt. Hence, standard offline rules that guard and limit your behavior and emotional expression are suspended. This freedom enables you to open up and become closer to these functionaries. It is not surprising that people often fall in love with their therapist, lawyer, or priest. Online relations are similar in this regard: people can freely express their emotions and become emotionally close without being vulnerable. Accordingly, it is also easier to fall in love on the Net.
The connection between anonymity and vulnerability also explains why voicing your honest negative opinion about a certain person is easier when you do not have a personal relationship with that person or when he or she is not in your physical vicinity and therefore is unable to harm you. Anonymity and lack of practical implications greatly facilitate the sincere expression of attitudes.
Despite the reduced vulnerability in cyberspace, the online agent can be hurt as well. One reason in this regard is that many of the high hopes that cyberspace generates are not fulfilled-thereby causing frequent and profound disappointments. Moreover, online communication often leaves traces which may hurt the person. Sitting alone in front of the computer enhances the illusion of being completely alone and hence there is a tendency to underestimate the risk of revealing confidential, personal information.
Anonymity in cyberspace can be compared to wearing a mask: in both cases, the sense of anonymity is powerful and makes you feel different. Great anonymity, however, often prevents closeness and the feeling of authenticity. Accordingly, as an online relationship develops, participants take off some elements of their online masks and reveal more of their true identities. This act of trust in turn further facilitates self-disclosure, but at the same time increases vulnerability.
Behaving differently in cyberspace does not necessarily mean that we are being hypocritical or that we have two separate selves, but rather that different aspects of our selves emerge in different circumstances.
To sum up, privacy, which is based on not disclosing certain information to other people, and self-disclosure, in which we reveal personal information to other people, are important in personal relationships. Although the right measure of each depends on many personal and contextual aspects, finding the correct balance is very important and is often easier to achieve in online relationships where there is a reduced risk of compromising our privacy.
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I have heard that the problems involved in revealing personal information and keeping it private is less acute in online relationships. So can we please communicate mainly through online communication?"
Adapted from Love Online