Online relationships are great for expanding and diversifying networks especially for queer communities to create relationships with people who are just like us, but we cannot reach for multiple reasons. Although these online ties are important, they aren't meant to supplement or replace face-to-face connections, instead they should reinforce them.
Virtual relationships have often been described as similar to the ‘stranger on the train’ phenomenon developed by Rubin in 1975, in these situations we are able to share personal information with strangers because we are unlikely to see them again.
Differences between virtual and online relationships
- The rate of self-disclosure is much faster in virtual relations unlike face-to-face relationships where people tend to be more hesitant in disclosing personal information as they fear ridicule or rejection.
- Virtual relationships become more intense, feel more intimate and meaningful in a shorter period of time.
- The speed of virtual relationships also means that they can also end very quickly as it is difficult to maintain the same level of intense disclosure for a long time.
Parasocial Interaction Theory
Sometimes virtual relationships become parasocial relationships with one person investing more time and emotion into maintaining it than the other, such relationships should be avoided.
The intimacy gained from virtual relationships has also given rise to the concept of parasocial interaction theory, a term introduced by Horton and Wohl (1956). According to Ballantine and Martin (2005), this theory describes the one-sided relationship that can be formed when one has close-knit, intimate, social bonds with a popular figure with no hope of these feelings being reciprocated. This theory has become more popular as social media makes many people the world over, gain popularity overnight making them susceptible to becoming a household name with a likelihood of infringing on the person’s wellbeing.
Pros of virtual relationships
- Access to a larger community of people who have similar interest to you and are not limited by geography - this is especially important for LGBTQ+ people who live in conservative or homophobic societies.
- You are able to maintain a level of anonymity online. Using aliases, you can participate in conversations and communities where you can be your true self without revealing your identity in ‘real’ life. Anonymity protects you from bad actors who could compromise your safety.
- Virtual relationships can help you better explore your sexuality, interests and even find a partner. Through various online platforms you can specify what you are looking for and you are able to link up with people with similar/better skills, interests allowing you to immerse yourself while online.
- Virtual relationships allow you to think and act beyond the shadow of your family and the values they hold that might differ from yourself, this gives you a chance to test out ideas and values that they might hate but intrigue you.
- Virtual relationships allow you the flexibility to determine the pace of the relationship. You can decide to take time to learn about the other person. You can go slowly in learning their preferences, talk to them as frequently as you both find convenient and have the opportunity to limit or expand the conversations you have.
- Shy people, those with social anxiety and those deemed ‘less attractive’ by society’s oppressive standards, have a greater opportunity to establish bonds as they are exempted from being initially judged and are more likely to develop connections.
Cons of virtual relationships
- Lack of physical intimacy - virtual relationships are yet to translate the non-verbal cues, body language or mannerisms that are present in physical relationships. Hence, you can miss important physical signs that might help you understand and support each other. This phenomenon is described by psychologists as the Reduced Cues Theory.
- In virtual relationships, you are able to constantly portray the best version of you, unfortunately, this will not always be the case as you have faults just like everyone else. This creates unrealistic opinions for everyone and can cause the development of a relationship that is based on fantasy and not reality. Being able to ‘edit’ responses based on what makes you look better, one researcher described it as ‘selective self-presentation’.
- Parasocial relationships often reduce people to our imaginings of who they are rather than enhance the process of meaningful connections. We often assume that we know who someone is by the cues we pick up from social media that are not wholly representative of them. This can be hurtful because we end up taking agency from someone’s self-expression.
- Identity theft - unfortunately you can’t always verify who you are talking to online, meaning you have to be extra vigilant when forming these relationships to ensure the person is who they are, they don't steal your identity or catfish you.
- Lack of trust online - regrettably, you can’t always know if someone is telling you the truth when you are online. If the person you are talking to knows how to deceive you then you could be fooled, you can also misunderstand or judge people before knowing them or them being able to explain themselves online.
- In addition to identity theft, being online also exposes you to cyber extortion. These are online crimes in which hackers hold your data, computer systems and other sensitive information hostage until you pay them a ransom fee. Ensure you practice digital hygiene including having strong passwords, updated antivirus software, and are cautious about the websites, emails and links you access.
- Another risk you are exposed to is cyberbullying, even within the most wholesome and respectful communities there are bound to be some ‘bad apples’ who try to bring down others' self esteem. Ensure you don’t take the comments personally; they have less to do with you and more to do with the perpetrator. Then make sure you report and block the offender, and bring up the issue with the managers of the community.
Ballantine, P. W., Martin, B. A. S. (2005). Forming Parasocial Relationships in Online Communities. Advances in Consumer Research, 32, 197–201.
Horton, D., Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance. Psychiatry, 19, 215–229.