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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Asymmetrical online relationships as a deterrent to trust

I got a friend request from someone today who is a friend of four other people on my Facebook friends list. This person has a fake name and a profile picture of a flower.

I had never interacted with this person, not even on a friend's wall, nor did they send a message to me saying why they wanted to add me as a friend. So they received the following reply:

I don't accept unsolicited friend requests without some sort of engagement on a friend's wall or at least some way my being able to know more and find out about you. 
I respect your need for privacy and understand that you may need to keep a false name and non-identifying profile picture. But these things also do not allow for communication between people who do not know each other.  
If your need for privacy is so important, it is probably better that you not send friend requests to unknown persons. For all you know, I could be a nosy auntie who would share information about you to your parents. Likewise, you could be the same for me. I have no way of knowing that. So I am afraid I cannot accept your request. 

I am certainly not against meeting new people online. In fact, I have accepted no fewer than three friend requests this month from people who I have had replied to in friends' comment threads and seemed like intelligent people. I have met people who have given me fresh perspectives to think about and who I have helped out in some way. 

But in order to have this, some sort of transparency is necessary. I do not want to communicate with people who live behind a shadow. You already have lost 90% of communication simply by virtue of the majority of Internet communication's being text-based. There's no body language, no microexpressions, no tone of voice, and emoticons and /s tags barely make up for what gets lost. So hiding behind false names and photos, and responding to queries of "Tell me about yourself" with "What do you want to know?" keeps the obscurity at almost 100%. 

As I mentioned, I understand the need for privacy. I myself have resorted to 'security through obscurity' from time to time, and no, I don't want my entire life published on the Internet. It's not all or nothing. But at the same time, when I post my own name, face, and opinions with a particular level of openness, it seems one-sided to me when others do not offer a similar level in return. A certain amount of honesty and yes, even vulnerability, leads to trust - as long as it is offered and received mutually. There are plenty of people I have met online who I would happily meet up with in real life with because we have built up trust between us. This is the good thing about the Internet - the world is so much smaller and friends can be found anywhere! 

But at the same time, we have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe and to be wary of lopsided communication. We all know to sidestep the nosy lady at parties who keeps asking us question after question about our personal life (ostensibly to gossip about it to others later) but answers questions about her children with "oh, they are fine" or her job with a simple "good" before asking you the next personal question. There are people who do this online too.  Conversely, the work friend at the water cooler who tells you all about her drunken escapades and who she went home with and exactly what she did doesn't remain a "friend" for long. Both of these people exist in the internet as well, often (but not always) under the guise of anonymity. This way, they can gather their information or overshare all their details with no consequence to themselves or their 'offline' reputation. And if their 'online' reputation is tarnished, they can just close down that email or Facebook account, open a new one, and continue where they left off. It's a win-win situation for them, regardless of any difficulty it causes those they encounter. It's parasitic, not symbiotic.

What you give, you should be receiving. If the relationship is unbalanced, it is not a healthy online relationship, just as it would not be a healthy relationship in real life. 

6 comments:

  1. I think that too - online relationships are like real life relationships. Just as in real relationships sometimes you each want different things from the friendship (e.g. one person may just want to meet up once in a while, the other may want a closer friend to confide in) that can happen with online friendships. So turning to online relationships the parallel would be one friend wanted to keep the relationship online only - even if they were being direct and open about who they were. This might be because the internet would be acting, paradoxically, as a semi private space for them (of course it's not). The other friend might want a real life friendship. I at first became disillusioned by this but the positive side is that online relationships are more real than they seem, some of them at any rate. Hence some people you can trust and some you can't. For me online friends have been invaluable as they've enabled me to enjoy the company of those around me in real life instead of being resentful that they do not share my interests.

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    1. Online relationships *are* real life relationships. That is still a person on the other side of the keyboard. They face all the issues a 'meatspace' relationship would face, as well as additional ones created due to the non-physical nature of the relationship. But they are truly "meetings of the minds" on the other hand!

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  2. You make a good point. I think some of us remain anonymous because of the parasites in the community. Some are worse than the nosy aunties you mention. That's why I keep anonymous. BUT, like you, if I chit chat with someone here and there and they seem normal, I'll open up to them a little more. You have to be more careful because of the absence of body language, etc.

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    1. You're right. There are many reasons people may prefer to remain anonymous, and they're all valid. And as in real life, people may reveal more of their lives to some and not to others, and the same rules of etiquette apply as do offline about discretion and keeping confidential things in confidence.

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