JOURNAL OF SEX EDUCATION AND THERAPY
VOL.22, No. 1 , pp. 7-14
Printed IN U.S.A..
Reprinted with permission
Romance in Cyberspace: Understanding Online Attraction
Alvin Cooper and Leda Sportolari
San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre
While many people think that electronic relating promotes emotionally disconnected or superficially erotic contacts, the structure and process of online relating can facilitate positive interpersonal connections, including the healthy development of romantic relationships. Computer mediated relating (CMR) reduces the role that physical attributes play in the development of attraction, and enhances other factors such as propinquity, rapport, similarity, and mutual self-disclosure, thus promoting erotic connections that stem from emotional intimacy rather than lustful attraction. The Net is a model of intimate yet separate relating. It allows adult (and teen) men and women more freedom to deviate from typically constraining gender roles that are often automatically activated in face-to-face interactions. Online relating can lead to destructive results when people act on or compulsively overindulge in a speeded up, eroticized pseudo-intimacy . Clinicians can help their clients make positive use of online relating to improve social skills and confidence and to facilitate the exploration and integration of split-off parts of the personality.
-JSET 22:7-14, 1997
Statistics about the Net and the Web are swirling about the Net and the Web are around us, leaving us excited, disturbed, and often perplexed about what they mean about modem culture and contemporary relating. A recent survey shows 9 million adults are accessing the Internet on a daily basis, and 20 million users are accessing the Web at least once a week (Sandberg, 1996). Nearly one-quarter of the people in the United States and Canada now have Internet access (Lewis, 1996). People are electronically interacting while working, learning, relaxing, socializing, and going about their daily business. Much of what we hear about online relating is full of paradoxes: on the one hand, it seems to epitomize the alienation of the modem world, and yet it also leads to the development of supportive and sometimes intensely intimate, even deeply erotic, relationships. Sex therapists, counselors, and educators may find the abundance of anecdotes, conjectures, and theories put forth about this new electronic frontier quite confusing and difficult to evaluate for themselves and their clients, especially if they're not yet online themselves.
This article presents and discusses ways in which the structure and process of online relating facilitates positive, warm interpersonal connections, including the healthy development of romantic relationships, which may indeed carry over into "real life." While recognizing that the Net can be used in sexually compulsive or deviant ways, we consider how sexual intensity may develop in positive ways within these relationships. By applying psychosocial theories of relationship formation as well as describing qualities of the interpersonal space that's created online, we account for the richness and depth relationships may take on via this seemingly impersonal medium.
It is important to note that there are many types of online forums that involve distinctly different interpersonal experiences: one-to-one or group communication formats; online relating with "real" people or interacting via fantasy personas in virtual worlds; anonymous or identified presentation (though someone's true identity is always open to question online), and synchronous or asynchronous formats (synchronous indicates two or more parties logged on simultaneously, with text scrolling down the screens in "real time" resembling a written conversation, while asynchronous indicates individual log-one with delays between communications due to time required to send, receive, and respond to messages).
As Rheingold (1993, p. 3) states, "There's no monolithic culture-It's more like an ecosystem of subcultures, some frivolous, others serious." It is beyond the scope of this article to comment on and distinguish between interactions on all the various electronic forums. While some of our comments may apply across the board, our main focus is real (vs. pseudonymous, fantasy) presentation, and our comments primarily address the experience on asynchronous, one-to-one formats, which includes the standard e-mail format.
Much of the hard research on interpersonal aspects of Internet relating has been done by communication and linguistic scholars and as such has not been informed by clinical experience and training in relationships from a psychological perspective. Thus, the term "computer mediated communication" (CMC) has become standard, focusing attention on the linguistic characteristics of interactions; we prefer "computer mediated relating" (CMR) to emphasize our concern with all the varied interpersonal dimensions of interactions.
The Internet was originally established to expedite communication between governmental scientists and defense experts, and was not at all intended to be the popular "interpersonal mass medium" (Rafeli, quoted in Jaffe, et al., 1995) it has become. In the 1980's and early 1990's, interpersonal communications researchers began considering how computer mediated communication (CMC) compares to face to face (FTF) communication in terms of level of social-emotional engagement.
A priori assumptions about Internet relating tend to be that it is less involving, less rich, and less personal than FTF communication due to the lack of facial and body language cues, the lack of the "felt presence" of the other, the lack of a "shared social context" between the communicators, and the "lean" bandwidth of the medium (i.e., written text alone without visual, auditory, olfactory, and other nonverbal sensory impressions of the other available) (Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, 1984; Walther, 1994).
While some experimental research seemed to substantiate the notion that CMC was less personally engaging and more task oriented than FTF communication, field research showed contrary results. CMC relationships were found to take longer to develop than FTF relationships because of the slowness of the communication exchange and the limited bandwidth (it takes longer to form impressions of the other), but over time they did become as personal as FTF relationships, along dimensions such as affection, immediacy, receptivity, trust, and depth (Walther and Burgeon, 1992). Asynchronous CMC was even found to allow for more personal relating than FTF when groups were involved in task completion, because the sender did not have to worry about slowing the whole group down by interjecting personal comments or asking personal questions, since receivers could individually read the comments addressed to the group at their own leisure (Walther and Burgoon, 1992). Indeed, some experienced computer users rated e-mail and computer conferencing as "rich" or "richer" than FTF and telephone conversations (Jaffe, 1995).
Online Relationship Development
To make sense of these research findings as well as the many popular press reports of online love affairs-both of which point to the personally involving, even captivating, nature of electronic relating-we turn to theories of interpersonal attraction and early relationship formation, which were conceptualized with FTF relating in mind, and apply them to this new high-tech forum. Many "real world" relationships begin with attraction based on external attributes, such as physical appearance. If the relationship progresses, the attraction then evolves into an attachment based on similarity of values and beliefs. The development of rapport, mutual self-disclosure, and the empathic understanding of the other (Brehm, 1992, p. 156) are involved in a deepening of the connection, which moves the relationship to a more intimate stage. The relationship may become sexualized at any point, either initially as a spark from physical attraction or later as a deeply felt erotic draw to the other person based on a sense of being intimately connected emotionally. Certainly, each relationship online as well as offline is unique and its evolution defies simple categorizing; whatever stages we identify are not fixed and sequential, but rather highlight themes predominant at certain points in the development of relationships and cycled through with various intensities throughout the life of the relationship.
Physical Attractiveness. Clearly, as the technology stands now, CMR does not start off or develop due to attraction based on physical attributes. In a culture that emphasizes physical appearance, the Internet affords a different way of developing initial attraction. This may change if video cameras become standard equipment; for many people video imaging will likely be experienced as a loss of the freedom to not care about how they look when communicating. However, even with a video cam image, the physical press of the interaction will not be as powerful as it is in FTF interaction; it will be less salient, relegated to one aspect of the overall online presentation, rather than the overwhelmingly dominant one.
Initial impressions online are based on how someone describes and expresses him/herself. Online, one's physical presence-attractiveness, age, race, ethnicity, gender, and mannerisms-is not evident except through what is conveyed by a name unless users choose to textually describe these aspects of themselves. People can present themselves and be "seen" free from some of the conscious and unconscious stereotypic notions that affect FTF relating from the outset. Self-presentation is more malleable and more under one's control online; people can make decisions about when and how to disclose negative information about themselves. Sometimes it is better (in terms of advancing the relationship) to reveal such information about oneself early on; under other conditions, it may be best to wait (Hendrick and Hendrick, 1983).
In FTF interaction, people make quick judgments based on physical attributes. Good-looking individuals have a distinct social advantage in FTF relating. They (especially women) have more dates with the opposite sex than do less attractive people. They also report a more active sex life (Brehm, 1992). People overgeneralize from appearance, assuming that those who are attractive on the outside are also nicer on the inside and have better future prospects; this well known phenomenon has been termed the "what-is-beautiful-is-good stereotype" (Brehm, 1992, p. 65). People who may in FTF encounters unwittingly keep themselves from intimate relationships by being overly focused upon or critical of their or others' physical appearance are freed up online to develop connections. Electronic relating offers a different basis for interaction than that of the "meat market" of the singles scene: "Concepts of physical beauty are holdovers from 'MEAT' space. On the Net, they don't apply. We are all just bits and bytes blowing in the phosphorous stream" (Balsamo, cited in Deuel, 1996, p. 143).
On the Net, the vast array of people to whom we are not physically drawn, yet with whom we might connect quite well if given the opportunity, become available to us. As one online participant commented, "You meet everyone you pass on the street without speaking to . . . you learn to look at people differently" (Turkle, 1995, p.. 224). The compelling but often risky appeal of chemistry or "love at first sight" is reduced. The experience of being swept away upon first contact often involves a combination of raw physical attraction and tangled up projections, and for many people would better serve as a red flag than a basis for jumping right in (Hendrix, 1988).
Rheingold reflects, "The way you meet people in cyberspace puts a different spin on affiliation: In traditional kinds of communities, we are accustomed to meeting people, then getting to know them; in virtual communities we get to know someone and then choose to meet them" (Rheingold, 1993, pp. 26-27). By the time people meet each other in person, an intimate bond can already be formed. The felt intensity and meaning of any unappealing physical traits are then more likely to be mitigated by the overall attraction that exists. Certainly, the subjective experience of knowing and liking someone can profoundly influence how attractive s/he seems: perceived beauty correlates more strongly than objective beauty to interest in dating (Brehm, 1992).
Propinquity/Rapport. Attraction is also known to be fostered through proximity and familiarity. There is some evidence that mere frequency of exposure can create a degree of attraction between people (Hendrick and Hendrick, 1983). Electronic communication "creates a feeling of greater propinquity [spatial proximity] with others, regardless of their actual geographic dispersion. This 'electronic propinquity'' might be expected to foster friendships, as actual propinquity is known to do" (Korzenny in Walther, 1992). Rapport can develop easily and casually online. Frequent contact with others is possible with little inconvenience or cost, from the comfort and safety of one's own home or workplace. "You don't have to dress up. You don't have to drive your car. You don't have to know which bar is happening" (Cooper, cited in Puzzanghera, 1996, 1A). People can socialize in the spirit of "laying on the couch in sweats," worn out after a full day of work-not really wanting to go anywhere or do anything, but yet not wanting to be alone. One can access synchronous groups anytime for immediate interaction and can e-mail others whenever desired without being concerned about intruding since they can retrieve messages at their convenience.
Internet users have developed a unique electronic ""paralanguage"" (Carey, cited in Walther, 1992, p.. 79) that makes online text more informal, emotive, and playful, rendering it closer to speech than most forms of writing. For example, leaving in uncorrected typos and leaving out capitals and standard punctuation are ways people convey a casual, unpolished relational frame. Emotional tone can be accented by using capitals to indicate SHOUTING, repeated exclamation points to show emphasis!!!!!, and emoticons or smileys (punctuation marks that make faces displaying emotions when turned sideways) to indicate nonverbal states: for example, :-) is a smile and :-x is a kiss (Lee, 1995).
Similarity. Studies point to attraction being highest when the partner is perceived as being both physically attractive and attitudinally similar to oneself (Brehm, 1992). The Net increases one's chances of connecting with like-minded people due to the computer's ability to rapidly sort along many dimensions simultaneously. "Life will be happier for the online individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity" (Lichlider, cited in Rheingold, 1993, p. 24).
People who have difficulty connecting with others in FTF interactions have a better chance of meeting a compatible person online. For instance, an obese woman who feels insecure approaching new people in FTF interactions because of her weight may interact online with a variety of people who share her interests. She may then "put [her weight] out to 40 different potential partners and eventually one of them will say 'Your weight doesn't bother me.' Emotionally speaking, it's much harder to say that to 40 different people in person. But on the Internet, it feels a lot less painful" (Cooper, cited in Williams, 1996, p. 11).
The Web makes it possible for people to anonymously and quickly access support and information on important life issues around the clock. A rape or incest survivor who may not feel comfortable talking to anyone in person or over the phone may feel free to inquire about resources or begin the work of trauma recovery online with a group of survivors. Those with a relatively small peer group (e.g., transgendered individuals in Nebraska) have a worldwide network to draw upon for support, rather than relying only on resources within their local geographical area. "For many GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered] young people, communicating via e-mail and online is a lifesaver. In fact, cyber friends may provide a rare sense of community for a young person who is otherwise alone. This is particularly true for rural and small-town youth where there are no support services available" (Carey, 1996, p. 9).
Self Disclosure. Mutual self-disclosure is a key ingredient in developing intimacy between two people. Partners who self-disclose more to each other report greater emotional involvement in dating relationships and greater satisfaction in marriage (Brehm, 1992, p. 206). A person who discloses intimate information about him/herself is generally better liked than one who is superficial. New acquaintances tend to match each other's level of self-disclosure, each disclosing more if the other person does so and holding back if the other person withdraws (Hendrick and Hendrick, 1982).
CMR provides sufficient distance to make it safer for people who may be restrained in FTF encounters to reveal more than they normally would. A woman who married a man she met online states, "Had we met each other in person, I think we would have talked but I don't think we would have given each other the opportunity to know each other.... It's pretty easy to talk about feelings and hopes and hurts when you don't see the person and think you're never going to meet" (Puzzanghera, 1996, p. 1A).
The feeling of anonymity allows for increased risk taking with revelations. "I was [online] talking to people about my problems endlessly.... I find it a lot easier to talk to people [online] about them because they're not there. I mean, they are there but they're not there. I mean, you could sit there and you could tell them about your problems and you don't have to worry about running into them on the street the next day" (Turkle, 1995, p. 198).
People who are shy have an opportunity to relate online, developing social skills and increasing their confidence as they go. One father, appreciating the value of his son's online activities, said, "He was using his character to explore social interactions, to learn to be funny, charming, direct. He was using the Net to work out his life" (Deuel, 1996, p. 143). A shy so-called computer "nerd" may connect better online because he is more confident: ". . . being able to type fast and write well is equivalent to having great legs or a tight butt in the real world" (Branwyn, 1993, p. 784). He may be able to carry the confidence and the social skills acquired online with him into FTF encounters; if not, with the ease of meeting people online he may meet a compatible person who will accept him with all his social awkwardness off as well as online. "Some people, many people, don't do well in spontaneous spoken interaction, but turn out to have valuable contributions to make in a conversation in which they might have time to think about what they say. These people, who might constitute a significant proportion of the population, can find written communication more authentic than the FTF kind" (Rheingold, 1993, p. 23).
Interpersonal Space/Intimacy. CMR provides a heightened sense of the interpersonal space that ideally exists between people, a space that offline can easily collapse given the press of the other person(s). This "play space," to use Winicott's language (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983), exists between the self and the other, distinct from either and contributed to by both. It is a realm for creative, intimate, nonreactive but connected interaction, in which two minds, two beings, stay distinct but join. One is free to have one's own thoughts and reactions while still "mixing it up" with another.
The Net is a model for intimate yet separate relating, allowing for lively, spontaneous self-revelation while maintaining distance and personal space. Computer users report less self-consciousness, less awareness of being socially evaluated by others than FTF communicators (Matheson and Zanna, 1990). Online interactors show a greater awareness of internal aspects of themselves, such as feelings, attitudes, and values, an "enhanced private self-awareness." They are less bound by interactional pressures: for example, they are freer to respond to a stigmatized other more sympathetically as well as to exert and change their positions and decisions during group discussions (Matheson and Zanna, 1990).
For people who may normally stay clear of intimate relationships due to concerns about feeling trapped or burdened or losing themselves in some way, online relating makes it easier to feel in control and therefore to get involved. Net relating tends toward frequent small, casual interactions, as compared to a long talk that can induce a sense of pressure and so be avoided or put off. People are freer to engage and disengage when they want to, to modulate the intensity of their interactions. "The computer is sort of practice to get into closer relationships with people in real life. If something is bothering me, you don't have to let the person know or you can let the person know" (Turkle, 1995, p. 203) or you can log off.
The safety and space available for interpersonal interactions on the Net allows people a chance to experiment with putting normally inhibited parts of themselves forward. Eric Erickson writes of the benefits of such psychosocial "moratoria": "the playing adult steps sideways into another reality; the playing child advances forward into new stages of mastery" (Erickson, cited in Turkle, 1995, p. 204). When usually hidden parts of the self are seen and accepted by other(s) the experience can be healing, allowing for the gradual integration of that split-off part of the self into the overall personality.
In addition to the potential for self-integration, feeling understood and accepted by another person draws one to the other, creating a deep bond. "On the way to the solace of being understood, and on the way to the pleasure and privilege of hearing another person's inner self, powerful emotions can be generated in the listener and the speaker, especially the speaker . . . Within both the speaker and the listener there is a feeling of attachment, a loss of the usual social indifference, a vision of the person as special" (Levine, 1992, p. 42).
Because of its informality, online written text resembles oral communication more than most other forms of writing. At the same time, certain qualities distinctive to writing and unavailable in spoken interactions can heighten the experience of being intimately understood: writing offers time for reflection and revision, so that what is communicated may be complete and intentional, with the author neither forgetting important points nor saying too much. Due to the diminished interpersonal press, the weakened link between sender and receiver in CMR, the receiver is able to offer focused attention while staying centered within him/herself. S/he can access the message when s/he has the time and inclination to fully attend to it. Because words can be saved, they can be reread by the receiver, their importance not lost in a quickly spoken phrase, their meaning not denied in an anxious moment. There's a quality of putting oneself on the line in writing, of being more vulnerable and exposed to the other, a confessional quality: "As high tech as it is, there's something very old-fashioned about it. The writing and the feelings . . . [sic]" (Puzzanghera, 1996).
Erotic Connection. All psychological intimacy has the potential to provoke an eroticization of the person with whom it is shared (Levine, 1992), a desire to physically express the intimate connection. Online relating has some features that may promote and heighten such an erotic connection in positive ways. By minimizing an initial attraction based on physical attributes and facilitating intimate, less inhibited sharing, the Net allows erotic interests to develop out of emotional involvement rather than lustful attraction. "Psychological intimacy.... is an intangible, subtle, powerful motivator of our sexual expression" (Levine, cited in Lobitz and Lobitz, 1996, p. 71). Desire is strongest and most enduring when both partners value sexuality as a means of expressing intimacy. The Net facilitates another important aspect of maintaining sexual interest in couples: that each partner feel autonomous within the relationship. Schnarch states, "Differentiation is the backstop of sustained eroticism in long-term marriage" (1991, p. 171).
Communication is a key to maintaining robust erotic connections. Failing to communicate intimately can spill over and impair sexual relationships (Chesny et al., 1981). Online, partners have to verbally communicate, they can't fall back on unstated romantic scripts and nonverbal cues: "It's not like you can go to the movie together and not say anything" (Cooper, cited in Anning, 1996, p. 1A). Turn taking is built in so both people need to put themselves forward and cannot interrupt each other or speak at the same time.
All too often, psychological intimacy and sexuality are disconnected rather than integrated, with gender strongly influencing how people hold these two dimensions of relating. The interpersonal space the Net provides, reducing the emotional and physical press of FTF dating, may facilitate men and women's freedom to deviate from constricting gender roles related to sexuality that are often automatically activated in FTF encounters.
Internet relating can be conducive to the way many females in our culture experience sexuality, linking sexual desire to the overall relationship context and the degree of emotional intimacy. Online relating also frees women from the concern that if they or their partner reveal too much too soon, the relationship will get too intimate, too sexual too quickly: women don't have to be primarily concerned about saying "no" online. In the anonymity and safety of Net-space, women may feel free to be more directly and explicitly sexual, to take charge of their desire, without fear of potential real life consequences (e.g., pregnancy, forced sex, or STD's) or the need to deal with the male's more powerful physical presence.
A woman who feels inhibited about presenting herself as sexual yet desires to be sexually attractive to men can experiment with being more flirtatious. She may find a way to describe herself online as attractive and sexually appealing, affording her the chance to incorporate this view into her self-image, off as well as online. Physical attractiveness is not merely a question of endowment; how one comes across has much to do with projecting confidence, knowing how to accent one's strengths and minimize one's flaws, appreciating and presenting oneself as uniquely beautiful even when one's looks don't fit society's standard images of attractiveness.
Conversely, men, who often feel pressure to move a developing relationship along by being appropriately assertive and "getting somewhere," may feel less responsible for setting the pace of the relationship, including pushing for its sexual development; men can relax and let relationships develop in a more organic way, with sexuality springing from an emotional connection rather than vice versa.
Teens, who are typically quite vulnerable to rigid peer-group norms about gender roles and sexuality as well as quite comfortable with the concept of computer relating, often enjoy the freedom and space afforded in online flirting and experimentation. For example, a 13-year-old girl who interacts online with boys in her class at school, states, "In person, it is mostly grope-y. Online, they need to talk more" (Turkle, 1995, p. 226). A shy 14-year-old boy reflects, "FTF a girl doesn't always feel comfortable either. Like about not saying 'stop' until they really mean 'stop there, now!' But it would be less embarrassing if you got more signals like about more or less when to stop. I think girls online are more communicative. I am able to talk with a girl all afternoon-and not even try anything [sexual] and it doesn't seem weird. It [online conversation] lends itself to telling stories, gossiping; much more so than when you are trying to talk at a party" (Turkle, 1995, p. 226-227).
While the Net has tremendous potential for allowing positive relationships to develop, it can be misused. "[The Internet's] like wine. You can have a nice glass or you can slosh down a jug" (Puzzanghera, 1996, 1A). CMR involves a sense of being at once vividly real and yet not real, a felt quality of being contained outside of time and space. The increased freedom and loosened connection with the other can lead to angry, attacking, harassing, and/or demeaning displays. Such online flaming parallels freeway rage or phone harassment: the sense of anonymity and distance allows people to vent pent-up rage and frustration on a depersonalized other. Research shows that computer users display more uninhibited behavior than FTF conversants do (Kiesler et al., cited in Matheson, 1991, p. 138). Rather than using the Net as a way to work on inhibited or conflictual aspects of the self, people may instead (consciously or not) use online relating to further split off unintegrated parts of themselves, leading to a compulsive and destructive overreliance on their screen personae and relationships (Turkle, 1995). The very feature that gives the Net democratizing potential-that people cannot be classified except by what they choose to reveal about themselves-allows for the projection of unpleasant stereotypes, and for the virulent sexual harassment and objectification of women. "If you have a female screen name and you enter the general chat area, you're gonna get hassled," said one woman (Branwyn, 1993, p. 188).
Online relationships are vulnerable to a "boom and bust" phenomenon: when people reveal more about themselves earlier than they would in FTF interactions, relationships can get quite intense quite quickly. Such an accelerated process of revelation may increase the chance that the relationship will feel exhilarating at first, and become quickly eroticized, but then not be able to be sustained because the underlying trust and true knowledge of the other are not there to support it. The media highlight cases of people who are certain they have found their "soulmate" and leave established relationships, traveling across the country, to meet people who don't turn out to be who they seemed. Tremendous disappointment and bitterness may result, as well as the possibility of significant danger. "People whose compulsions are destructive to themselves or others-for example, pedophiles, or serious masochists-may find either the means or the encouragement to pursue ever more dangerous, harmful, or illegal acts" (Leiblum, 1997, this issue).
"[Internet infidelity] offers lonely or emotionally isolated people . . .the opportunity to talk easily and conveniently to a stranger instead of being candid with [themselves] and [their partner(s)]" (Straw, 1997, this issue). Because Netspace can feel separate from "real life," erotic relationships may be played with (without eliciting, for instance, the feeling that one is cheating on one's wife), and then be recklessly acted on, breaking apart steady real life relationships that lack the immediate draw, novelty, or twenty-four hour accessibility of the online romance.
Action based on, or the compulsive overindulgence in, this speeded up, heightened, eroticized pseudointimacy, is what underlies a pervasive sense the general public has that the Net promotes destructive, superficial, sexual relationships. Such views are limited, characterizing only a small portion of what happens on the Net, and are in part a result of many mainstream news organizations taking a "simplistic and sensational approach to characterizing cyberspace, a flaw that results from journalists not fully understanding the medium" (Aquilar, 1996).
Clinical Implications and Conclusion
Understanding the nature of online relating is essential for clinicians: Therapists are already seeing individuals and couples who present with problems related to compulsive online activity and Internet infidelity, and counselors and educators are well aware of the Net as a reservoir of confidential, easily accessible, sex-positive information. Our article points to broader clinical implications. Clinicians who recognize the complexity of online interactions can help their patients make positive use of electronic relating. Patients can use therapy to help them integrate into their everyday lives the confidence and social dexterity they experience online; to integrate in rather than split off various aspects of themselves. As one person put it, "I feel very different online. I am a lot more outgoing, less inhibited. I would say I feel more like myself. But that's a contradiction. I feel more like who I wish I was. I'm just hoping that face-to-face I can find a way to spend some time being the online me" (Turkle, 1995, p. 179). Therapists might even recommend that patients go online as an adjunct to treatment. Patients who are shy or avoidant, who are recovering from sexual assaults, who have difficulty integrating sexuality and intimacy, or who want to explore their sexual orientation or gender identity might benefit from going online in conjunction with their therapeutic exploration.
There is little question that online relating will increasingly become a major way in which people interact, an integral part of relationships. While many people are alarmed by this idea, fearing that it is a step toward disconnection or superficiality, we have argued that aspects of CMR actually promote and support intimate human connectedness. Rheingold comments, in response to the reaction that it seems "pathetic" for people to spend so much time interacting online, "One honest answer to the question, 'Don't these people have lives?' is that most people don't have a terribly glamorous life. They work, they subsist, they are lonely or afraid or shy or unattractive or feel that they are unattractive. Or they are simply different . . . not everyone can have a life as 'having a life' is defined by the mainstream.... who does the judging?" (Rheingold, 1993, p. 167).
The Net is a new forum for relating, and some of its current character is certainly attributable to a frontier mentality, an excitement and energy about living outside of usual constraints. Time and careful research will be needed to establish its more permanent qualities. We hope that our article suggests a direction for such research: to expand and empirically substantiate our preliminary thoughts on how the structure and process of electronic relating influence the nature and quality of relating. It is vital that we as a society recognize the Net as a powerful new medium with the potential to reshape relationships, to restructure our social world.
Correspondence may be addressed to the authors at: San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre, 100 N. Winchester Boulevard, Suite 330, Santa Clara, CA 95050.
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