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Virtual Intimacy: As Good as the Real Thing?

Can a tweet or a superpoke fill the same needs as a hug? Or is social media just a new way to be anti-social?

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By Fern Siegel

Published Jun 2, 2009 3:06 PM


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Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit -- it's easy to feel inundated and overwhelmed by social media.

Cell phones. Texting. E-mail. Social networks. We are unavoidably wired — and getting more so every day.

According to a recent Nielsen study, in the last year, people spent 73 percent more time on social-networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn than the year before. In February, social media usage exceeded e-mail for the first time.

For young Bruins born into a digital age and savvy older "immigrants" to online life, technology is a blessing that helps us stay in touch quickly and effortlessly. But it also encourages relationships that are virtual — intimacy at a digital distance.

Sure, maybe you and 500 Facebook "friends" share every detail of your lives. But how often do you see them? Hug them? Have coffee with them?

More importantly, does it really matter?

That's one of the questions researchers asked in a small study of 23 UCLA students who regularly used MySpace. Social networks may devalue in-person relationships, said one of the researchers, UCLA Psychology Professor Patricia Greenfield.

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UCLA Psychology Professor Patricia Greenfield.

"There are more relationships, but also more superficial relationships," Greenfield said. "Empathy and other human qualities may get reduced because of less face-to-face contact."

But that's not the whole story, contends Marc Smith, Ph.D. '01, chief social scientist for social network software developer Telligent and an expert in how relationships function in cyberspace. He says while some communication forms are "less rich than face-to-face, it's hard to argue that a Shakespearean love sonnet, because it is written on paper, is less intimate."

Fair enough. But people still wax idiotic in messages. "Long 2 c u" is not the same as Bette Davis' snappy comeback to a suitor: "I'd kiss you, but I just washed my hair." When Lauren Bacall wanted to get Bogart's attention in To Have and Have Not, she didn't wait for him to make the first move. She shimmied up to his room and purred: "If you want me, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

By contrast, it's sometimes tough to gauge genuine feelings in an e-mail or instant message. As The New Yorker cartoon of a posting pooch noted, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

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Marc Smith, Ph.D. '01, chief social scientist for social network software developer Telligent.

It's easy to hide behind an electronic identity on social networking sites, noted Greenfield. "People sculpt themselves with their profiles. In the arena of peer relations, I worry that the meaning of 'friends' has been so altered that real friends are not going to be recognized as such."

Conversations online can become part of an image-crafting strategy, said UCLA psychology graduate student Adriana Manago, with whom Greenfield co-authored the study.

"Instead of connecting with friends with whom you have close ties for the sake of the exchange itself, people interact with their 'friends' as a performance, as if on a stage before an audience of people on the network," Manago said.

But there are plus sides to online conversations, Smith counters. "Written communication is often more precise and archival, allowing for less confusion rather than more," he says. "Too much or too little can be a problem. It's how these media are used that matters."

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