In my first two posts on the subject, I got into the limitations of virtual relationships. In this post I am going to analyze why we seek such relationships out.
In terms of interpersonal attraction, there are several reasons why one becomes attracted to another person, online or in person. Psychologists have narrowed these qualifications to familiarity, similarity, complementarity, reciprocal liking, and reinforcement (and of course physical attraction for romantic interpersonal attraction). Each of these qualifications are also in turn comprised of sub-components which depending on the individual may be of lesser or greater importance.
Let’s focus on familiarity. This isn’t just about being familiar with someone, but the actual feeling of closeness. Revisiting Spike Jonze’s Her for a moment, Theodore may not be physically close to Samantha, but there is that feeling of closeness and familiarity. A virtual friendship or relationship can lend the feeling of extreme closeness, of feelings exchanged or learned on a very personal level with someone. To sustain this intimacy requires prolonged feelings of familiarity, of conversation, of confession, of learning about someone on an intimate level. This can in turn lead to emotional intimacy, and even provoke a sexual response without physical proximity, namely “passionate love,” as depicted in Her.
What is passionate love and how does it differ from “companionate love?” Passionate love isn’t actually love at all. It is more akin to infatuation, ecstatic response to the stimuli, the sense that one becomes marked by intense feelings of exhilaration upon being reunited with the partner or interacting with that person. Companionate love is actual love as Western Society has come to appreciate it: authentic bonding, mutual caring and shared feelings on the outlook of life together, often as couple. Passionate love, or infatuation, is much more likely to occur in an online only setting; it is sort of a forbidden desire that corresponds to no logical reasoning.
Passionate love is exhilarating lust. It is desire magnified ten-fold. Passionate love is defined ultimately by emotional intelligence, emotional response, emotional engagement and satisfaction of human desire. Epitectus reasoned “the most important and especially pressing field of study is that which has to do with the stronger emotions…passions which make it impossible for us even to listen to reason.” We can engage with a stimuli like another person online without the messiness of interacting in real life. One can gather that feeling of familiarity, built upon similarity and mixed in with physical attractiveness entirely in an online setting. The reason component is entirely removed because the persons need not even engage with one another in person to be provided with the emotional satisfaction of deep human desire. There is something profoundly erotic and almost destructive in this experience. Virtual examples like Her show how emotionally rewarding “passionate love” can be, even removed from physical presence. Of course desire breeds the desire to also be physically involved, to have a passionate expression of physical attraction through sexual activities which can also breed frustration and thus destructive feelings as well. But the erotic experience, the forbidden element of lust can prove just as emotionally rewarding, albeit limited by proximal issues in some cases.
Aristotle argued that there were three types of social psychology that affected interpersonal relationships both romantic and otherwise: utility, pleasure and virtue. Utility refers to the need for reciprocal liking and reinforcement. The other needs to be reinforced by their partner or friend to feel validated and emotionally satisfied by the relationship. Pleasure refers to a friendship or romantic relationship where similarity and complementarity result in an enjoyment of time spent interacting. Virtue Aristotle argued is the most important, especially for a romantic relationship. Virtue refers to the appreciation of a similar outlook on life, similar goals, morals and values. Without a virtuous component, a relationship will not last, Aristotle argues.
So what about online friendships and relationships according to this research? It seems reasonable to assume that all of these psychological requirements in terms of laws of attraction and/or friendship can be met in an online only setting. Why then are relationships started online limited to an online environment? Logic would dictate it is due to proximal issues. I argue that it is actually a deliberate choice independent of location.
The internet provides a certain level of anonymity. You can interact with individuals free from the judgment of the outside world. The reason friendships form online is because of the same reasons they form in person. The reason they stay there is because to some degree the physical component is forbidden. The internet becomes the 21st century equivalent of “I’ll meet you down by the river after dark where no one is watching.” It becomes this sort of game-playing, this satisfaction of a private interaction free from the perceptions of other people in a confined interpersonal space. We can form online communities based upon interest and co-exist independent of similarity. That is, we can co-exist independent of culture, socio-economic status or religious/political difference. Just as similarity breeds complementarity, it also breeds brutal judgment. “How could you talk to that person?” The internet creates a global community, it forces upon us the notion of union without the need for a shared physical space and free from brutal judgment of in person relationships.
Of course the 21st century equivalent of “I’ll meet you down by the river” is only half-accomplished. The result in many ways is why passionate love like Her is so much more common than companionate love in a virtual setting. Interaction is confined to a space online, free from judgment, but lacking in physical verification. One is able to interact, to achieve the satisfaction of desire. But left open is that want to actually meet to verify the experience in a natural sense. My hope is that as we begin to interact more and more in a virtual setting, cultural and socio-economic biases become eroded in the physical space as well. My hope is that as we interact and fall for one another, become friends with one another, that we begin to take the steps toward a true global community free from judgment. My hope is that interpersonal relationships online bleed into the physical realm. My hope is that one have the courage to be open about what they desire in friendship and in infatuation and to then explore that before people who would judge them. My hope is that when folks judge someone for authenticating a virtual relationship in the physical realm that they then have the courage to prod for hypocrisy.
We are all hypocrites. We all have virtual relationships. Yet we still hold antiquated views about class, culture and socioeconomic status. The more people become open about these relationships, the more we will move toward a harmonious society free from judgement. Lets solve the problem of space and time. Lets meet each other down by the river, but stay there so that when the sun comes up you may relish in your accusers hypocrisy. Lets make love, and physically bond. Let friendships become authenticated in the physical sense and enjoy drink and food amongst your accusers. Be free and open about your differences, let us be tempted into a global community. Let us move toward peace. Let us be so that existence is not all we share, but that which we truly and unapologeticly appreciate.