The more episodes of Catfish I watch, the more amazed I am at how many people crave online communication with strangers. Apparently they go online to search for some form of commitment, friendship and closeness that they are missing in real life. But why? What is it about online communication that is so attractive? And can online relationships work?
Based on everything I’ve read about communicating online I think there’s one thing that makes online communication so attractive. And this goes against communication research and theory on the subject. I’ve written about this before in relation to offline relationships. It’s:
I believe some of us love uncertainty, mystery, not knowing for sure, leaving some things to the imagination. Because imagination is great, it can be as amazing as you want it to be. In our minds, we can create a perfect world with beautiful colors, glitter and rainbows. And if real life contradicts our dream world, we feel like crap.
Offline life is pretty straightforward. When we meet someone offline, we see them, we hear their voice, we can smell them, touch them. We know how tall they are, whether they’re over- or underweight and how their voice sounds. Although this may all be very superficial information, it’s very important when we first meet someone. After all, this is all the information we have at first sight.
More uncertainty online
Online this is often different. Unless we meet someone via Skype or in a virtual reality scenario, we have much less information available. Maybe there’s a photo, or a video, or some profile information, or a voice note. Or, we only have a few lines of text that someone sends us. The less information we have, the more we use our imagination and fantasy to picture someone in our heads. And this is generally a positive image.
So when we meet someone online there’s uncertainty. And many of us like this uncertainty. People in real life often disappoint and online this may be different. Not only because the person we’re talking to is not standing in front of us, but also because we choose which information we share about ourselves. And we can be very careful and selective when choosing which information we give away. We choose our best photos, qualities and characteristics and create a perfect version of ourselves in the eyes of someone else.
A positive feedback loop
This is why Catfishing happens and why people form such intimate relationships online with people they’ve never met and sometimes have never even seen. A positive feedback loop exists, whereby the information you put out is edited and idealized by the person who receives it, and you receive the same, restricted information about someone else which you then idealize. It’s all beautiful, perfect and ideal. An illusion wrapped up in uncertainty and hope.
People like online communication because it’s usually under their control and leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s safe, comfortable and often predictable. This is fine as long as it’s left online, as a means to practice social skill and empathy. However, when these online relationships migrate offline, they are often a disappointment (see – Catfish). Our online expectations are often unrealistic and can’t be met offline.
Can online relationships work?
Uncertainty is the explanation of why people form online relationships with, oftentimes, unrealistic expectations. It’s what we crave – editability, predictability and perfection. But online relationships are not real – which means they often won’t last when two people meet offline. As long as you realize that, it’s fine. But if you believe that your online, hyperpersonal relationship is the real deal, you probably will be disappointed.
The essence is this: when you meet people online to make offline life more bearable, or to vent to strangers or to practice your social skills, it’s perfectly fine and no one will get hurt. But if you’re looking for something real: go offline, as soon as you can. You need uncertainty to disappear for attraction to develop. And that’s how real relationships initiate – with attraction, not illusion.