Social psychologists study love and attraction and we don't limit our investigations to romantic love. We are interested in love and attraction in all kinds of relationships. We ask: what draws friends together and what keeps them together? What makes people decide to get married? How do kids learn how to act in relationships? In his recent PBS series, This Emotional Life, Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert concludes that it is our relationships that contribute most towards our happiness and the meaning we find in life. I think that online elements can add a lot to relationships, especially those where we also meet up face to face.
From Voyeurs to Actors
Not too long ago there was a major change in Cyberspace, and it had to do with how people explore social relationships online. In the days of Web 1.0, we were voyeurs. We passively looked up words and images and watched. In the past, for a long time, the most popular way people used the Internet was to access pornography. Web 2.0 means the read-write Internet - where people aren't just passive observers of published content, but they contribute and interact. So recently that long-held statistic that the Internet was mostly for porn, was overturned. Now the most popular way people use the Internet is for social networking sites like Facebook. Porn use is down.
Bringing Sexy Back
By noting that porn use is down, I'm not implying that people don't explore sexuality and romance online. There are novel approaches online, and when I mention some of them even to savvy friends, I usually see some raised eyebrows. I did a TV interview about Second Life once and a member of the panel I was on was a sex columnist - who wrote exclusively about sex in Second Life - a virtual space where one manipulates an avatar to do just about anything. And Second Life isn't the only place exploring new online sexual content. There are video game groups formed to discuss how to put more sexual content in adult video games. There are online tools that allow couples to interact at a distance using sex toys.
In Second Life people develop relationships and there are many twists and turns possible, from marrying someone in real life or just on Second Life to discovering that the lover you thought was a 27 year old woman is actually a 52 year old man, to having an emotional affair with an avatar. In terms of the sex, people buy body parts to make their avatars anatomically correct and meet up for sex in Second Life. There was a case in Germany where a woman was suing because her character had been raped in Second Life. One thing that is certain is that there is a deep social reality for many who explore relationships online.
Friends with Computers
Moving from the edge back to the mainstream, let's talk about social networking sites like Facebook. Why are social networking sites attracting so many users across the age spectrum? What social aspects do people find so enjoyable? Social networking sites give us the chance to reach out to many friends at the same time and on a regular basis. While in the past we wouldn't get to talk or touch base every night with our friends, now we can. There are friends who we wouldn't invite to a party together because they're friends from different parts of our lives; now we can talk to them all at once and they can talk to each other.
When friends and family are away from each other, we can peek into each others' lives through video sharing. We also tend so see different aspects of people online. Maybe we watch some videos from a faraway colleagues' site of his children playing and it's something we would only rarely have seen otherwise. We often hear jokes about how silly tweeting on Twitter feels, but tweets and Facebook updates are enormously popular. They feel insignificant, but we find something valuable in them. We learn the little things about a person's daily life. We hear them talk about their deeply held beliefs that they might not throw out in a typical face-to-face interaction. We can join large social causes and do it with our friends. Wherever our friends are, we can see how they join in on conversations and even what their style is, which gives us a new window on who they are.
Love Is...A Warm Puppy
Not too long ago, I fell in love online. That relationship is one of the joys of my life. I'm talking about my dog, Gracie. My family and I had just lost our beloved old dog and we wanted to get a puppy for the kids. All our dogs have been Shetland Sheepdogs. So, I found a nearby breeder online and looked through photos of the puppies she had for sale. When I saw Gracie's picture, I fell in love. We drove down to the breeder's place, and brought her home and she's been part of our family ever since. My point is, love online takes many forms. The passions on the computer screen burn brightly and form a meaningful part of our modern social landscape. Where we go from here, we can only imagine. For now, stay tuned and I'll see you online.