how “Real” are online media communications?

Amber Naslund has a thought provoking post up on the “reality” of online, virtual communications,  Is This Real Life? In Defense of Our Virtual Connections, something that she anchors to “human relationships”, the very humanity of our bonds regardless of medium:

This IS real life.

Or a facet of it, anyway. One that is very much alive. Communications that happen on Twitter or Skype or Facebook or blogs or whatever are every bit as real as a conversation you might have over the phone or email…

…I’m so weary of seeing people chastise others to “get offline and experience real life” or some such. (The irony, of course, is that these folks often do so using the very social networks they’re disparaging, but hey).

Way back when, we used letters to keep in touch with people that weren’t geographically near, like my Gramma did with her husband during WWII. Then it was the phone (remember the advent of three-way calling?), email, and things like IRC. AOL took chat mainstream, and the internet populated with more and more tools to keep in touch, to communicate, to talk to one another when physical proximity wasn’t possible.

We were okay with the analog stuff to which we’d spent many decades adapting, but we still haven’t wrapped our heads around the virtual side of things, it seems.

Understand this:

Human relationships have many facets. When they’re real, they’re not real because of the things we use to cultivate them. They’re real because the human bond is there, the connection that extends beyond the means. No tool, website, or thingamajig can take that away, and none can replace it entirely. When it happens, that bond between people – either personal or professional – is as real and genuine as the individuals themselves.

Some of that bonding can and will happen outside the realm of sharing the same square footage. It always has. Distance has never prevented humans from growing close to one another (and by some adages, it can bring them closer still). Now we’re tossing out all kinds of shiny new ways to bridge the distance, yet somehow we think they’re changing the very fabric of our desire to be close to other people. And that’s just not so.

Face time is irreplaceable, because humans respond to things like voice and body language in a visceral way. We’re very tuned to those unspoken things and they can be important in forging a lasting bond between people. And I’m all for turning off the phone and the computer to enjoy those in-person times to their fullest.

My thoughts, which somewhat expand on hers, were as follows:

There is something else about what makes something “real” that is missing, or diminished in online communications. Something is Real in fact because of the way that it resists us. A rock is “real” because it resists our touch. People are real in how they resist us. Resistance is what makes us grow and respond. Online communications in their many forms are indeed “real” because there IS resistance “out there” but in many ways this resistance is quite different, much more subtle than it is in the meat world. The resistance mostly is a resistance to attention. Being paid attention to. It is not entirely the same thing. Also, in online media there are ways around resistances that simply are not available in the otherwise real world (for good or bad).

To really appreciate and get the most out of online connections and communications, I believe the nature of their resistances (that which makes them VERY real) needs to be made more explicit.

I’m not completely sure that the “human bond” is something that exists APART from the medium across which it is forged. I do certainly agree that no medium can take it away, so to speak, which means only that we can form these bonds in great if not infinite variety. But the medium indeed is also fused to the nature of the bond, conditioning its capacities, predicating its futures. Of course virtually formed bonds are “real” just as others are, but its not simply a question of real or unreal, rather it is always one of degree. And with Amber as well I am in agreement that we haven’t gotten our head wrapped around the virtual, while to the analog we are quite adapted (not only decades worth of lifetime adaptation, but thousands of years of largely analog emphasized cultural adaptation). It is for me that if we want to trace out exactly where the line of the real and the unreal runs in the virtual, it is in the precise nature of the resistances offered there, the resistances that give those newly wrought degrees of freedom their value and meaning.