02 April 2010

Social Interaction for Anthropologists: Online Communities and the 'Real World'

Apologies for the longer-than-anticipated delay on this post, but here it is at last - some thoughts on the world of online social interaction, and on the project of understanding it. As some of you may remember, I'm a student of social anthropology in the UK. The best definition of social anthropology for my purposes is, loosely, the study of 'other people'; I therefore interest myself with the differences and fundamental similarities between people who are, in the broadest sense possible, in different places. To this end, I'm currently undertaking a fieldwork study of internet interactions; I originally intended my focus to be Comment is Free, but the vagaries of project development have since led me, very happily I might add, to you here on The Untrusted and UT2. Thank you again for the warm welcome, for your patience, and for the invitation to contribute: I'll be using it to talk a little bit about what I think I'm doing in anthropological terms and a little bit about what I think all of us are doing as members of online communities, and to invite discussion of both.

When I began this project on CIF's briefly infamous 4th birthday thread, I naively entered the fray with the following:

'... It strikes me that the simple act of entering into discussion with
another user on a thread is equally one of entering into a relationship with
that user: however brief and impersonal the virtual exchange may be, it is a
social interaction. Furthermore, I think anyone who knows CIF would agree that
the relationships formed there very often do take on personal qualities as well.
We form powerful bonds of solidarity or antagonism over discussions of issues
like sexuality, gender, race, or class. Even friendships and romantic
relationships - and long-distance enmities! - can develop between people who
have never met face to face.

But what I find most interesting is that, for all the similarities, the
relationships formed on CIF are qualitatively different to those stemming from
face-to-face interactions. In person, our physical proximity to each other
ramifies into the social relationships that we develop. We make conscious and
subconscious judgements about the people we interact with, based on our
immediate perceptions of their person and manner; we are so judged ourselves.
These nuances lend social encounters in the flesh an ambiguity: interpose a
computer screen, however, and the immediacy is removed. A conversation in person
is a negotiation of a different sort to the mediated exchange of posts on

I'd be extremely interested to hear from all CIFers old and new what they
make of this. Is the social dynamic on CIF different to that of 'real world'
interactions? What are the implications of this? For those of you who
have met friends or partners through CIF, or who have had the chance to be
at a physical get-together of CIFers, it would also be interesting to know what
it's like to meet and interact with your fellow commenters in person, having
gotten to know them online.'

I've copied this post almost in full because I think the main ideas are still pertinent; I'll return to them a bit later. A propos of the brief exchanges I had with some of you over on The Untrusted last month, though, I thought it might be useful to provide an introduction of sorts to what I am generally trying to do as a student anthropologist. I'll therefore begin by taking a look at what happened when I first left this comment on CIF. At the time, my foolish and arrogant assumption had been that, having successfully said my little piece near the beginning of the thread, at least some new arrivals would take the time to read it and reflect on the questions I had posed. How wrong I was. Had I spent more time on CIF over the preceding days, I would have known that the community was currently up at arms over Lord Summerisle's recent banishment. I watched as an outpouring of popular anger against CIF's moderation policies buried my oblivious attempt at conversation. Clinging to the shreds of my original plan, I continued to toss out comments and questions that grew progressively more inane; finally, when my last-ditch attempt to get someone, anyone to talk to me - 'I get the sense people are really angry about this' - garnered the same (still paltry) number of recommendations as the opening post I had spent hours crafting, I felt ready to give up. In the nick of time, however, some kind soul (thank you, Stealthbong) took pity on me and posted a link to The Untrusted, where I at last received such a kind reception from all of you on St Patrick's Day.

That brings us to the present. The CIF fiasco changed the direction of my project somewhat. As I sat hopefully at my computer watching that first thread unfold, the thoughts I jotted down began to refer less and less to my original research questions, and more and more to my own anxieties and self-consciousness about the project itself and my situation as its author. With disappointment, these reflections led me to realise that I had fallen into the one anthropological trap I had believed myself to be avoiding so skilfully: objectivity. Time and time again, my lecturers and tutors had warned me about the dangers of thinking like a scientist, that is, believing that you occupy an objective standpoint apart from (and, in the sad history of anthropology's colonial complicity, often above) those 'others' whom you wish to understand. The early anthropological belief that there was some true reality to the way people lived their lives, a reality that could be described precisely and accurately, came to be recognised as an illusion towards the end of the twentieth century: anthropologists began to regard themselves less as 'objective', authoritative scientists and more as individuals occupying unique positions subjectivity, as socially- and culturally-contingent as the lives of those they studied. Thus the anthropologist's description can never be accurate, as he or she always interprets others and their actions through his or her own subjective filter, reducing, generalising, and abstracting them into written material more fictional than 'real'. Nor, for that matter, can anthropological description ever be complete, as all people live in constant interaction with a constantly changing world.

For my part, I thought that because I understood the illusion of objectivity, its history and its flaws, I would be immune to it in my own fieldwork. Once again, I was wrong. In assuming that I could get a neat set of clear answers to my questions by posting them on CIF, I was thinking like a scientist. Furthermore, I neglected to take into account anthropology's perennial conflation of the object and instrument of study. Essentially, all participant-observation-based anthropology participates in social relationships formed between researcher and informants - the instrument - to observe social relationships - the object. An online study such as my own is no different: I am establishing a presence and making relationships in internet communities in order to understand these same internet communities. I am a full participant, as well as an observer. I must therefore forgo claims to authority and acknowledge that the experience of fieldwork online, just like the lived experience of any one of us who participates in online interactions, is irreducible and rife with ambiguity. While this rejection of objectivity inevitably undermines efforts at making any firm, 'authoritative' statements about our field of study, the hope is that it may instead allow us to draw a more nuanced picture of social life that is at once description and explanation, although only one of many possible such pictures. In any case, we aim to be constructive rather than reductive, building on our discoveries in an ongoing process rather than drawing limiting conclusions from them.

I find these 'meta-anthropological' questions extremely interesting, although dwelling on them excessively often brings down on the anthropologist charges of narcissism and finally irrelevance, when they are allowed to obscure the ostensible field of study altogether. This is certainly not my intention with this project, so I'd like to return now to the research questions mentioned in my original CIF post. Is the social dynamic of online interactions different to that of face-to-face encounters? What are the implications of this? My experience on CIF and now here on The Untrusted suggests to me that internet communities are indeed very different to 'real world' ones. I do believe, as described above, that the physical presence or absence of an interlocutor has a substantial effect on interaction. In face-to-face conversation, appearance, manner, and social cues all have a part to play in directing our interactions, whether we are consciously aware of it or not; on the internet, we can make ourselves anonymous, all but invisible apart from our words. In the 'real world', we interpret the other as a whole; in online interactions, we can only judge his or her words, decontextualised from the author and his or her personal situation.

In my initial CIF post, I suggested that this removal of context literally makes online interactions 'black and white', stripping away the ambiguity of face-to-face social encounters in which the entire person must be taken into account. It seems to me now, however, that while encounters in online communities such as CIF or The Untrusted do lack some of the immediacy and negotiated qualities that complicate physical conversation, they are not simply an unambiguous exchange of statements. Instead, they are ambiguous in a different way. Anyone with any experience of online communication knows how difficult interpreting the words on the screen can be; emoticons exist for a reason. In the absence of the subtle physical and behavioural cues that guide face-to-face interaction, words can be just as easily misinterpreted as people. In other aspects, too, internet and face-to-face interactions differ. One thing that caught me off guard when I began my fieldwork online was the difference in pace. On CIF, I worried constantly when I left my desk for lunch that I would miss a chance to talk to someone; when I returned to The Untrusted after a day of classes, there were several conversations I would have like to joined in that were long finished by the time I even saw them. No 'real world' conversation continues 24/7; how do you adapt your behaviour accordingly?

This is merely one example of many which set online interaction apart, and this is where I'd like to turn things over to you for discussion. Seeing as most of you have much more experience in the world of online communities than I do, I'd be really interested in hearing what other ways your internet experiences differ or are similar to your face-to-face interactions. In true anthropological fashion, however, I won't make the mistake of setting specific questions again, but shall simply turn things over to you.


  1. From a very quick scan - it's an interesting and timely piece Emily.

    When I have a little more time I will be back to give it the attention it properly deserves.

    I'm sure you'll get some feedback here on UT2.

    Best wishes.

  2. Thanks again! No rush at all; I have never been good at writing concisely I'm afraid!

  3. Hmm,

    I find myself hankering for a list of questions to answer.....

    Remind me, is this for your PhD research?

    Will contemplate your piece and respond later

  4. Hi Emily - lots of food for thought.

    From my point of view, I have often thought of small online communities such as the UT as being a bit like a pub. You have your regulars, for whom it is their "local", and who pop in every night - and most of whom rub along quite well together, although there will often be differences of opinion about things.

    You then have a variety of people, who pop in more or less frequently for a chat or a rant, or simply to poke fun at the regulars. The latter usually get short shrift.

    Each person has their own reasons for coming in in the first place - to use the pub analogy again, if you look in and don't like the decor or the range of draught beers, you won't bother coming in. But if you like the feel of the place you will, and try and participate in the chat that is going on.

    Are relationships forged? Of course they are - either for better or worse. That obviously depends on the mens rea, for want of a better term, of the people coming in - do they want to become a regular and join in with the rest of the crowd, are they just popping in from time to time to chew the fat, or are they here to stir up the shit?

    Are the relationships as real as in real life?

    Well there are two essential points to that questions - first of all, are we assuming that the internet is "real life" or not? In one of the music forums I post on regularly, some of the youngsters have an attitude of it being "only the internets", therefore not "real" or "important" - nothing that is said, however rude or offensive, should be taken seriously because nobody is being serious. I think this is a daft way to look at things, personally. Interaction with people on the internet is just as much a part of real life as anything else we do in life.

    So, from that point of view, are the relationships as "real" because they are on the internet? Well, to an extent, the answer has to be "No, of course not", simply because we are people who, for the most part, have not met each other in real life (although many have met). Having said that, though, again reverting to the pub analogy, if I were a regular in a City pub on my way home from work every evening, and people only knew me as "BB", yet we shared stories and exchanged views on a regular basis, would my relationship with them be any stronger simply because we saw each other in the flesh?

    One thing about writing rather than speaking face to face is that, obviously, you can hide your feelings and emotions much more easily behind a keyboard. People don't actually know if you are happy, sad, in despair, elated, depressed or suicidal unless you choose to tell them you are, whereas face to face it will show. So we lose that element of being able to "read" each other.

    But for all that, I don't think it makes the feelings people have for one another within the community any less strong.

    If you want an example about how people actually care about each other, as well as the Lord Summerisle protest, take a look at the most recent What Do You Want To Talk About threads; there is a poster called penileplethysmograph - affectionately known as Pen - who is currently in a secure mental hospital and quite distressed. A great many posters have offered sympathy and support. Some have phoned, some have sent gifts and cards, one or two are planning on visiting him. Someone they don't know from Adam in the scheme of things except through their interaction on a thread on a newspaper website.

    Food for thought indeed. Good luck with your project and I hope my rambling has been of some assistance.

  5. @Dotterel - Just for my undergraduate, sadly! It's the major project in second year. Thanks though!

    @BeautifulBurnout - Thank you very much indeed for the very thoughtful reply... I like your pub analogy, which would suggest less difference than it might at first seem between physical and virtual spaces and encounters. As does the notion that the products of online forums are no less 'real' than face-to-face simply because of the medium and distance between participants; this is something I'm particularly intrigued in - how do we construct the 'real', and how do we demarcate what is 'really' effective in the world when it exists in a space that does not itself 'really' exist?

    Re losing the ability to read one another when we are separated by our computers, I definitely feel that it does give relationships developed onlne a different quality - a degree of anonymity that is impossible when seeing someone in the flesh, and a certain ambiguity again. But as you say, that need not imply that these relationships cannot be just as strong as those made in person; we do get to know each other through the exchange of messages over the internet. And we can come to share emotional ties no less real for our never having met; emotional ties that may indeed be simply transferred to face-to-face interaction if we do meet.

    Thank you for mentioning Pen, too. I spoke to him when I first found The Untrusted back in March and didn't realise he was in hospital - I am terribly sorry to hear about what sounds like an unhappy situation. From what you describe, there are the real results of the relationships he has formed with people over the internet, no different to the support he would have received from people he got to know in person. And yet for my part - and that of many others, I imagine - I likely never would have met Pen face to face, never mind known anything about his personal situation, within the scope of our online exchanges. There's a difference there, but it in no way devalues virtual relationships and their products in comparison with face-to-face ones.

  6. Argh! Have just spent ages crafting a lengthy (deep and frankly rather beautiful) response, and it's been eaten!

    Blogger must disagree with me.


  7. Oh dear! Quite frankly, Blogger *does* disagree with me... it wouldn't let me copy and paste from the word processor; what you see had to be retyped one and a half times. In my case of course, it could well just be my own lack of technological know-how. Hope you're able to retrieve at least some of your response... thanks for taking the time anyways!

  8. Right - bullet-point version, repeating Emily and BB's points on several occasions
    - there are two types of reality
    - IRL meetings involve physical presence, with knowledge of gender / race / age etc etc etc and also cues to weigh up whether someone is lying / true / nice / nasty / being straight / being sarky (this last one is a trial for me...)
    - but online meetings arguably have a pure access to a poster's thoughts and ideas, which to me are more important for 'knowing someone' than appearance etc - and CIF being a comment site, I probably know more about the views of posters on a wider range of issues than I know of some of my best friends. The nature of the site is that you chip in on lots of issues - more, perhaps, than would come up in IRL convesration.

    IRL conversation might be deeper between a few people - but online is wider ranging, perhaps.

    I like the pub analogy - I 'know' about 10 barstaff at my two locals here fairly well. One is a good mate, but apart from that, I think one is called Sam, and another is either Zoe or Kim. I doubt they know my name. How can you know someone if you don't know their name?

    (this isn't about posters using names / handles, btw - just that if I asked on Waddya, "have you seen X recently?" it doesn't matter if I'm looking for Ally Fogg or Etoiles (unlikely) - you'd know who I meant. The people in the pub would probably be reduced to describing my appearance, team allegiance, drink of choice and who I hang around with...)


  9. right - that worked. Onwards.

    Another point, and possibly this is just me, is that I tend to stay out of 'fights' on CIF/UT even if a poster I consider a friend is getting it in the neck - I've 'fessed up to that before, not proud, anyway - so I wouldn't risk, what, a verbal beating for a virtual friend, but I have, and would, risk a physical beating for a physical friend, even one of the barstaff whose name might begin with S...

    An extreme example, perhaps, but demonstrating the more real / less real dichotomy.

    Online relationships might be seen as more real because you get straight to the ideas. But IRL relationships are still more real to me - I'd risk more for them, I invest more in them, they matter more.

  10. On the online relationships being arguably more real - also, people do share a lot on CIF and the UT that they might be cagy about telling in such detail to an IRL friend - but the semi-anonymity of posting means that people put those things up for anyone to read.

    That's not always a brilliant idea, of course - when I went ATL, I told my parents, of course. Look, mum, dad, I'm in the Guardian! And then realised that I have said a lot on CIF that, while I have probably discussed most of those topics with them, that's in a very different way. I did therefore ask them not to dig into my posting history (in fact, told them not to read the comments - which, as Dad came back with an email saying simply 'women's prison?' clearly was ignored...)


  11. Ok, I think the best way for me to attempt to answer this might be to talk a little about my history and motivations for posting, apologies if it comes off as self indulgent...

    I started commenting on CiF as Dotterel after handing in my PhD thesis, before this I had only briefly been a poster on another site, the Darwin Awards. Around this time I also joined Facebook, under my real name, but I keep that for my RL friends and acquaintances and don't really regard that as on-line interaction per se, as I won't add someone on Facebook unless I know them in RL. I've never had another moniker on Cif, and only have the one Blogger account used on here, although I may have posted anonymously/under a joke name a couple of times on the UT before you needed an account to post!

    I was reading CiF when I joined because I had a lot of free time: I was out of work and job hunting, mostly on line. I started commenting on CiF on the gender threads because I saw a false dichotomy between male and female (and often still do). Partly for that reason I chose not to give my gender and sexual orientation and still haven't, on CiF or here. I quite like the freedom from gender assumptions, although more people seem to refer to me as "he" than "she". Whether this is because they think I'm male or because "he" tends to be the default I'm not quite sure. I've also never given my exact age, although I think most people have figured out roughly how old I am from the way I talk about my life, family etc.

    I started posting on CiF because I liked the interaction whilst home alone all day, sometimes I'd be just messing about, joking around, other times I'd wade in on serious issues, trying to understand others' POV and/or clarify my own. I'm not one for personal abuse and always try to keep criticism to ideas rather than people, I'm only human though and haven't always managed it. This brings me to pen, the only person who's "rattled me" online. I "met" him on Cif and we got on fairly well. He's some sort of psychologist and we threw ideas around on the gender threads, I had a lot of respect for him. Recently though whenever we've "spoken" it's ended with him throwing personal abuse at me. I think it's because I've been asking more questions than usual: when I'm short of time I like to ask questions rather than answer them as I'd rather research a proper answer. I ask out of curiosity (whether for the answer or that persons version of it), not argument or to "score points" but either pen doesn't see this or he wants more information/opinion from me. I've also been trying to work out whether his "frustration" (as evidenced by the abuse) is real or to get a rise from me. If he is indeed in an institution (I say if with my scientist's scepticism) this suggests frustration, but if as he claims he's a psychologist it suggests he's trying to get a rise out of me and "study" me. Either way I've backed off because I'd either be winding up a troubled person or unwillingly participating in someone's psychological experiment, neither of which I wish to do. I participate in your study because you were honest about it being a study and asked nicely!

    Anyway I don't have as much time for all this these days, now I'm working (you're lucky you caught me on Good Friday), and I'm afraid I still see RL as more important. However I still like to be online as Dot, mostly here because people know me and I don't have the time to keep up with the bigger crowd and faster pace on CiF. I hope that's been some use, but now I've finished it I realise it's been cathartic, make of that what you will!

  12. Wow, @PhilippaB, I think this is an excellent point. I had considered online interactions' lack of the social niceties, small talk etc required to make face-to-face interaction go smoothly, particularly in my first attempt on CIF - my being more or less ignored was not abnormal or unnatural in that forum, I felt, whereas it might have been considered rude in a real-life conversation. But I hadn't really thought of it this way, that in a sense interactions of this sort might be 'truer' or more real because they can go straight to the heart of what we want to say. We can do without social niceties and hedging on the internet and say what we mean. But I wonder if part of the reason we act more directly isn't precisely that we feel, as BB says with reference to a certain music forum, that it *isn't* real or serious, that it doesn't count in the 'real' world. Which would seem to be backed up by your parents story! In which it sounds as if the overlap between virtual and physical worlds was somewhat jarring.

    I think perhaps conceptualising it as a case of two realities is a useful crux. We could say that there is a social reality, which internet exchanges lack and face-to-face ones have (more or less) - this would be the real of the 'real world' - as well as another sort of reality, characterised by the honesty and directness of the exchange of ideas, unconstrained by social norms. I'm not sure what I'd call this second variety, if I had to name it. Perhaps monadic, in that we are usually participating in it in relative isolation, from our computers, and we are not dealing directly with another person, but with their mediated ideas.

    And when these two overlap, it can be uncomfortable, as in your example. Face-to-face conversations held in the manner of a CIF thread would be considered singularly unruly and socially unacceptable to many, and vice versa (in some sense). Now, I wonder about the medium - to what extent is this simply a feature of written communication, of which the internet is currently the most significant form?

  13. Thanks Dotterel, food for thought! In fact the gender threads on CIF were what first attracted me to the site, as well; right at the beginning, I was thinking of doing my study on one of the Bidisha or Julie Bindel threads, both because gender/queer theory and feminism are interests of mine, and because there was so much going on with commenters' reactions and interactions below the line. The ambiguities of anonymity, especially in terms of gender as you mention, seem to have a not insignificant part to play there!

    I think there's a lot to what you say about your interactions with Pen. Here's a case, it seems to me, where the lack of face-to-face makes for an ambiguity unique to online exchanges; you can't tell the motivations behind the reactions you get from him. This wouldn't necessarily be any clearer in personal conversation, I suppose; but when dealing with someone in the flesh there are at least a few extra cues, and you might be less uncertain about whom exactly you were speaking to.

    And personally, I can appreciate the CIF vs UT comparison; I myself have found the pace more manageable here, and people seem much more willing to talk. I am inclined to agree, as you seem to suggest, that this is because it's a smaller community that CIF.

  14. Emily - in the course of the work I am supposed to be doing, I potter round various archive sites, and I'd hazard a guess that the ability to be plain ruder in writing than in person is definitely not new! have a look at the letters to the editor in the Times archive, and there are people calling each other the georgian equivalent of 'cuntychops' (a favourite insult from Alisdaircameron - aimed at Purnell, so acceptable, to my mind - tee hee) all over the shop.

    I think the 'small talk' point has a lot of worth - if you are an 'issues-only' poster then you will simply set out your opinion. Maybe make a little funny when relevant. But many posters do use CIF to 'chat' as well, as can be seen best on the waddya thread - this is often called a clique. I don't think that's the case - we're bored, I think, and just having a chat. It can seem a bit weird 'walking in' for the first time - but that can maybe be compared to being at a party.

    You go up to a group and there's a conversation in full swing - you feel a bit nervous about joining in because they all seem to know each other, and you maybe don't know what's previously been said. But stick an oar in, and you're in the group. And I bet you you'd find that many of the members of the group had never met before that evening. It was the debate, not knowing each other, that formed 'the group'.

  15. CIF also demonstrates 'non-chat' groupings, I think, mirroring 'identity groups' for want of a better term. There are some posters whose 'previous' means that I know they are 'like me' (in a variety of cross-cutting ways) so when I see they've posted, I read. While I respond on posts that interest me on an 'issues level', I am more likely, for example, to respond to a joke or less serious post if the writer is someone I think is 'like me' (I'm thinking of the recent gay threads, for example - the gay / friendly posters having more of a conversation with each other than commenting directly on the article). Sort of, identifying 'fellow travellers' on whom you can rely for good points or with whom you are prety sure you'll agree.

    This isn't a gay mafia or anything. More a sense of solidarity when batting away the crazier elements, and in some case outright hatred, that can come up - feeling more confident calling someone out if you know that tonkatsu / MEL / zounds etc are on the thread. None really spend time on Waddya, but there's still, to me, at least, a sense of connection - and that is based not only on the ideas they post, but also the personality behind it.

    v interesting, this.

    would suggest not writing about a bindel / iddlebid thread, though. then you're away from 'interaction' and heading for chaos...

  16. I began posting on Cif cos I had spare time at work, and webmail and FB were blocked. Living ruraly I find the blogs a bit of (sometimes!) intellegent company. Still exploring the blogosphere and it's denizens.. The pub analogy is a good one, but with a gallery of lurkers who watch the regulars without interacting...

  17. Ha, point taken - I suppose that's what I found so fascinating about their pieces in the first place. Now there we have more examples of ruder-in-writing than you can shake a stick at!

    Chat on CIF is something to be considered, indeed. Like in the real world, I would think that's how online friendships often start. Your 'fellow travellers' as you eloquently put it identify each other and get to know each other, through a different medium, but otherwise in more or less the way you would get to know someone similar to you in person. However this is often all going on alongside 'issues' discussion. Maybe the juxtaposition of the two, and their occasional overlap (whether that leads to craziness and hatefulness, or more happily to solidarity), is something else that set these forums apart from the 'real world's' normal pattern of overlap between individuals, groups, and activities (i.e. chat or serious debate?).

  18. Thanks Emily, everything you and Philippa are saying makes a lot of sense to me, and turminder you make a good point about lurkers, any out there who wish to comment?

  19. (That last was @PhillipaB...)

    @turminderxuss - there is definitely lots to explore out there; I think I liked CIF initially because it seemed to draw on quite a few different sources to provide a range of commentary, which is something I've heard others praise too. As for lurkers, that's something else I'd completely forgotten to be honest - definitely a big difference. Everyone eavesdrops, I suppose, but you are right that this is something different to what you'd run into down at the pub. Particularly in the case of the Guardian, where it's literally a newspaper, maybe it's fruitful to see arenas like CIF as having an element of the newspaper to them. They are communities, but written ones.

  20. @Dotterel - thanks, and you too! Indeed, lurkers welcome to join in.

  21. Right, no t'internet for me 'til Monday, will pop back then, but if there's anything specific try dotterel@live.com

  22. Hey Emily (and hey everyone else)!!

    An interesting read, and it's a subject I've been thinking about recently - I was actually crafting a post for my own blog, which I may as well abandon now, thank you very much ...:0)

    I'm not quite in a position to answer anything as such, but will mention some of the things I was thinking about:

    - when I was thinking about the relationships of posters on here, and on CiF, I couldn't help thinking about my mum's pen-pal experience.

    In the dark days before the t'internetz, there was, I'm led to believe, some sort of pen-pal organisation that schools used to encourage their students to participate in, giving them access to a student of the same age somewhere else in the world.
    My mum, as far as I'm aware, maintained a 'relationship' with her pen-pal for well over twenty years, despite never meeting her face-to-face, although photos etc were exchanged.
    In many ways, this relationship was possibly deeper than others because of this.
    My mum said it was a bit like having a diary that spoke back, often very wisely, and afforded her the same sort of space for honesty and clarity that a journal often does, allowing her to get a perspective that was a cumulative result of the years of sharing things that she maybe hadn't shared with other people IRL.

    Anyway, I think, in a way, further to what Philippa was saying, online communities, or at least relatively small, consistent ones, can have this kind of effect.
    If we use the initial anonymity of on-line interactions to reveal aspects of 'ourselves', or our thoughts, that perhaps we would normally temper IRL, it can, perhaps ironically, over time, create a more true version of who we are, that is absent or constrained in the real world, because we have to be polite, or politik, or 'fit in', or whatever......

    (part two to follow...)

  23. Also, one thing that I find interesting about online interactions, is that inconsistency tends to get pulled up.

    For example, in the real world, I have a particularly audiographic(?) memory, in that I tend to remember, verbatim, conversations that I had years ago, or what someone said about this, or that etc.
    ((This, I'm told, can make me a bit of a nightmare to be in a relationship with (but it's probably not the time or place to go into that.....))

    It also means that sometimes, IRL, I have to decide whether to pull someone up on something, or let it go, but whichever option I choose, it tends to make me quite cynical and cautious when it comes to 'real-world' friendships, knowing that somebody has the ability to do x, y, or z in one situation, but say the opposite in another, etc, etc.

    But, online, given that more often than not, our words are maintained (ie no audiographic memory needed, just perhaps a half-remembered interaction) , the more astute posters, who feel something's a bit off about poster x's consistency, can, and often do, trawl through past comments, to highlight this.

    In my opinion, this means that, the more prolific posters at least, either have to consciously maintain a false representation of themselves (which, I think would be near impossible), or, they abandon pretense and dishonesty because it becomes to difficult to maintain....

    Obviously, this isn't in anyway proven, but merely my observation....

  24. Hi James, and thank you - I'm glad this was timely, and I hope we will indeed get to read a blog post from you on the subject, as the points you make here are really interesting!

    The pen-pal comparison seems a useful one in highlighting the honesty/reality/truth of online encounters, without worrying about making ourselves socially acceptable or padding our real thoughts out with politeness etc. You say what you have to say; it's open to anyone, so there's no point, not to mention no way, to trying to adjust yourself to be more acceptable to your interlocutor. You say your piece, and they can take it or leave it. The whole question of medium comes up here, too - written communication between individuals who wouldn't meet otherwise. The internet in an earlier permutation!

    And traceability is certainly an incentive to straightforwardness, I agree. It's a good observation.

  25. Emily - if you have some slack in your schedule you might like think about last night's dynamic on UT.

    I tried (not with any great passion) to get into the conversation at about 21.49, perhaps I missed the belch which sometimes gives another voice a way in. The record is it just rolled on bye and over me.

    It's no great issue - rather like normal pub discourse I thought.

    I'm a fairly regular poster here on UT but when the gander rises I'm ignored - not that much different from normal real life perhaps

    I hope to add more to your enquiry in due course.

  26. Thanks deano30, I was just thinking that I ought to do just that and take a read through a few of the recent UT threads. I will keep an eye out for the point you mention in particular...

  27. Hello Emily

    Many good and interesting points made already.

    I joined Cif over 2 years ago - after neuro surgery, confined to house unable to walk. i was going screaming mad and falling into depression - mainly from boredom and frustration.

    Living in the back of beyond many of the issues discussed are not within my current personal experience, Racism for instance.

    After all this time on Cif my depression is more like horror - so many vicious people who seem to hate at least half the world. It has made me re-examine myself and the on the whole happy ,if pootling about , life I lead. I have lived and worked in mixed race communities - prior to illness - I expected to find more like minded people on Cif - I discovered it to be peopled by many I had spent years opposing. (UT is a haven - most of the time ! )

    I wonder how many other ciffers have had to reassess their assumptions about the broader British society - we have so many more contacts , and are treated to so many more opinions, than we are in RL.

    One last thought - Intuitive and immediate responses to people the first time we 'meet' them on Cif ? There is , for me at least, an element of that ,just as in RL. Also the disappointment when after several posts you find you perhaps dislike somebody. Works the other way too of course.

    Reading across threads on different subjects gives a broader picture of interests and attitudesand can modify my response to a single post - the writer starts to be seen more in context.

    How much do my interestsand sociopolitical attitudes set this context - rather than their being set by the poster themselves.

    Here, as in RL, we tend to gravitate towards those who in some way mirror ourselves.

    The groups we inhabit in RL tend to be socially cohesive - not the case on Cif. So many single interest and self identifying groups - we live and operate in a fragmented world. Not so obvious when you live in a small village. City dwellers will probably experience more of this in RL - perhaps are less taken aback by it.

  28. Thanks Leni, really interesting points. I believe I can empathise with your horror at some of the vitriol sometimes evident online, even in communities such as CIF if, fortunately, not so much UT; I'm particularly sorry to hear of your own unhappy experience. Perhaps since in a group like CIF it's primarily exchanges of ideas, which cut straight to the quick of people's opinions - as you say, we're treated so many more opinions than we might come across in the normal course of everyday life - attitudes about issues like race, gender, etc. which would remain under the surface in the 'real world' are more visible. Groups of face-to-face contacts are, as you say, more socially cohesive: individuals holding drastically different views are perhaps less likely to be members of many such 'real world' groups. On an online opinion forum like CIF, on the other hand, all sorts come together. I wonder whether this is more or less representative of the constitution of the 'real world'? More representative, in that on a general forum like CIF we hear viewpoints from people we wouldn't likely interact with at that level in person. Less representative, in that the layout of web content by topic - whether it's articles on CIF or entire communities devoted to a single common-interest - will attract a narrow audience, often mutually-reinforcing and discouraging other voices.

    There is a lot going on here and my thoughts are a little disjointed; too many good points raised, I must digest! Thanks for a very thoughtful comment.

  29. Hi Emily, missed this so sorry for late response, not entirely sure what sort of stuff would be useful to you so will prattle on regardless.

    I think firstly to consider web "relationships" as inherently weaker or more superficial than IRL would be to miss a lot of points. It depends on the forum, but on a political forum you actually get to know, and explore, other people's extremely deeply held beliefs and views in a way i find often lacking IRL.

    I would avoid certain rows IRL because i get too vexed and just spout a stream of boorish noise (not entirely different from online, admittedly, but nowhere near as bad online). Online, i have time to calm a bit and put a response together. ILR chat is casual, continuous, and passing, online is different.

    When posting, comments are thought about, take time to compose, to read, edit, revise, etc, and though it may be rare, you get some superb debate. In political terms, i have had better, more in depth, more thoughtful and challenging "conversations" on here and CIF than i've ever had IRL.

    You might not know what someone looks like but you know their views, in some depth, on just about every topic under the sun. Aside from close friends and family, i dont think this is found in wider social circles and aquaintances.

  30. Hi Emily

    i have had a re-read of all the comments/ i made a 'think pattern ' around the central theme of a pub. There are regulars on each subject thread - feminism, israel/ Palestine etc - i started again with several pubs ! some posters frequent only one , others have a favourite but visit others sometimes. There are interesting sociopolitical considerations around who 'drinks' where. Common themes - such as human rights attract posters to different threads. Some single issue posters are there in a purely defensive role - their ability to live in a state of denial is quite breath taking.

    Cif does, think , represent a truer picture of the wider society than most of us experience on a daily basis. This is one of the reasons it is so interesting. Some opinions are expressed with such vehemence - in some there is aggression and very strong personal dislike of other posters. One thing - does this represent a fear'rejection of the ideas expressed ? Are they afraid of these ideas being translated into policy ?

    probably have to look at cognitive dissonance here to.

    Some ideas are eccentric and others decidedly antisocial.

    Last thought - lurkers . why lurk - bit like hiding behind a hedge. Research into vandalism suggested that the vandals imagined an 'audience ' to their activities - either admiring or shocked. a form of attention seeking and acting out. Some trolls are maybe the online vandal - seeking to shock or otherwise and there is some evidence to suggest that some of the vandal/trolls are also lurkers - they make comments on one thread which suggest they have read but not contributed to another.

    I am finding this very interesting - this first attempt at analysis has given me some ideas for a more detailed look.

    Ah - something else - on the Israel threads there are a few posters who 'speak for ' the Palestinians. They claim they are interested only in Human Rights - these few never post in support of other minorities such as the Roma. Possibility of anti Israel' anti- semitism here. Close textual analysis required.

  31. Should have added - hidden agendas operating across several subject areas ? to last sentence.

  32. Hi JayReilly, thank you... I think everything you say is quite right; the often more profound content of online relationships is something I hadn't initially considered, when thinking of the superficial differences between online and 'real world' encounters - but it is definitely a key contrast.

    Leni, both the single-issue poster and the lurker are interesting characters! Feminism and Israel-Palestine, particularly the latter, are the two that first came to my mind as well... there seems always to be someone ready to work these topics into every discussion. I really like the vandal analogy for lurkers/trolls, meanwhile... interesting comparison.

  33. Emily,

    Just wanted to make sure you spotted the bust up with Paul on yesterday's UT, might be useful material?

  34. I haven't seen that yet - thank you very very much for the tip, Dotterel, I will take a look!

  35. Fascinating piece Emily thanks. . Our eldest struck up an online friendship with a Maryland girl and they got on famously - to the extent that she invited the American girl over to stay with us for a week (with our permission!) and - you can see this coming - it was a disaster, they were totally incompatible in real time, in the real world.

  36. Thank you so much Edwin Moore, that's a really interesting anecdote! I'm very glad you related it, because that's one aspect of online vs 'real world' encounters I've been wanting to investigate but not had any chances til now; so often on a community like CIF or UT, you can get to know someone online but never meet in person (although I know there are get-togethers occasionally). So it's very interesting to hear a story where a personal connection was made, even if it didn't work out - unfortunate, but as you say, you saw it coming!

  37. Lucy - I still intend to post something here about my experiences/views but I'm busy at the minute.

    I think something might be added about the parallels tween reading and listening skills. And how perception of others can shift over time sometimes for the better and sometimes not so. Not unlike real life where if you take the trouble to listen to what some people are actually saying you can be delighted or horrified.

    There have already been some real life meet ups between UT members! It's there in the archive.

    Only Alsidair (to my knowledge) has later commented indirectly on one of our members (Monkeyfish)). The comment was, by my reading, very favourable.

    The others (5) who met up in the Midlands for a Saturday night of drinking and face to face chat seemed to have enjoyed the occasion.....but took a collective view that .."what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas" so to speak.

    The Paul episode was interesting and informative - he had the wisdom and maturity to later re read his own posts and then to apologise. He thereby enjoyed a better response than might otherwise have been the case.

  38. Emily
    I/m sure you have noticed the 'busybody gossips ' who frequent boh CiF and here ?

    They don't like to miss the tittle- tattle.


  39. @ deano30 - Thank you; I was familiar with the occasional CIF get-togethers, but I hadn't realised there had already been UT meetings - very interesting.

    @ Leni, to be honest, I've given this some thought, and I think perhaps as an irregular participant, it's difficult for me to pick out who exactly falls into this category - but I do indeed hear of them from other commenters! It's a very interesting aspect of this topic, tying into the traceability of archived material online perhaps, to see how people can be members of multiple communities and the tensions that some uses of 'dual membership' can generate.

    Anyways, apologies for the lengthening response time on my end - I'm back to classes now so I'll not have as much time to spend online, but I will keep checking back whenever I can. Thanks to everyone who's been involved so far, I'll be back!

  40. Hi Emily

    If you want to talkl about this stuff a bit more in depth as it were let me know on this thread or the UT, happy to chat and I know my stuff. Can fill you in on changes in self awareness, person perception, human computer human interaction etc plus media theory and social fluid dynamics.

    Could give you an edge you know and I always like a good student.

    (Dot that's what you are of course to me, don't exaggerate and misdescribe. You were snarky and expect something for nothing intellectually, do your homework duh snigger.)

  41. Hi pen, of course! I would so appreciate any input from you on your areas of expertise... thank you for offering. This thread is probably the best place, though I must confess that I may not be the promptest at replying - apologies if I seem to vanish, but rest assured I am reading and will reply as soon as I am able! Thanks so much again for your thoughts.

  42. Hi Emily, no probs.

    Internet still just human interX, cept you remove physical cues and thus increase uncertainty (even tho' many lack much awareness of this). Gives a simpler set of stuff to model / examine. So I think it is a neat way of stripping socilaX down in oredr to examine tghe dynamics. Buit remember the people at either end (and of course the n of readers is likely to be >1 (and that of poster may also be >1 but most likely is one) are still people and therefore complex yeah? Lots of cognitive psych processes.

    Self awareness can be split inot public and private. When public is high more likely to show context appropraite behav., normative standards type stuff. When private SA high more likely to show inner focus, less inhibited behaviour, more small selfish cog procs.

    When inteX on comps the private SA tends ot increase. Not always and may be mediated by other factors and the effects of that focus even when it is internal vary, but is a main effect of PC mediated interX.

    Mead 1934 Mind, self, and society.

    Catch you later (remember I being nice and not asking a price, reciprocity is a norm. I am giving freely which often (such being the reality of people may lead to me being labeled negatively as I am breaking the rule and in order to avoid the debt the donee derogates the doner. Sad isn't it?)

  43. pen,

    I'm sorry it's come to this, but I stand by the above: it's exactly, honestly, how I see it. I probably did snark at you once or twice (the "proper science" comment comes to mind) for which I apologise, but I felt provoked, and you've said far worse to me. If you're not going to admit that and apologise I suggest we just ignore each other from now on.

    I wish you all the best in the future.


  44. pen - thanks; the idea of public versus private self-awareness is an interesting one, which fits in quite nicely with my current thinking about the different 'realities' of online and face-to-face interaction. Very useful stuff, thanks for your generosity - I do appreciate it so much!