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Online versus 'offline' relationships

Publication Date : 26-02-2013

 

Love is in the air but does it matter if it starts in the online or offline world?

 

The month of love is fast coming to an end. Both Valentine’s Day and Chap Goh Meh are over but the debate on online versus “offline” relationships rages on.

Many arguments have been made for both sides. Due to the fact that digital technology is a relatively new phenomenon, the main question that’s almost always asked is if online relationships can work as well as traditional ones.

Over the years, those on both sides of the fence have cited many examples to support their arguments.

On one hand, there have been many stories of people who have formed successful relationships after meeting online, with some tying the knot.

Then there is the flipside — online relationships that failed not because the couple lacked compatibility but due to lies and deceit.

This was epitomised by the recent incident involving American collegiate football player Manti Te’o who was fooled by an acquaintance into a fake online relationship with a “girlfriend” who later “died”.

However, the arguments over the years haven’t changed that much. Detractors describe online relationships as transient and fleeting.

The anonymity and distance that technology affords is also a recipe for disaster, they have argued.

Supporters talk about the serendipitous nature of the Internet — it allows people who wouldn’t normally cross paths to meet. Plus, it’s easier to find like-minded people in chat rooms, forums, websites and social networking services.

The truth of the matter is that both sides are not wrong, IMHO. There are enough successes and failure stories to support both arguments.

This debate, I believe, stems from the idea that our online and offline lives are separate entities and, therefore, one can be better than the other.

However, relationships do not operate in isolation — even if you met your partner offline, chances are you will be communicating with him or her via digital technologies.

In the same way, relationships that have roots online do not always remain in cyberspace.

This is no different than how relationships used to operate. In the “old” days, and by old I mean just 30 to 40 years ago, many people courted through letters or telephone calls.

The idea of “dating” and going for dinner and movies together three to four times a week were not a luxury many people had or common practice.

This is not that different from sending an e-mail or Whatsapp message, a love letter in the form of a blog post or a tweet of affection. The only difference, of course, is the speed at which we are communicating.

Researchers studying digital culture have found that both our online and offline identities are not separate.

Academic Michele Willson wrote about how virtual communities can transcend the online interface to make an entry into the physical, offline world, while Eszter Hargittai wrote that “offline identities very much carry over to online behaviour.”

In this context, the debate on which relationship is better — online or offline — is moot. What really matters are the other variables that can affect relationships and they are not dependent on technology or the absence of it.

Niki Cheong is a writer, consultant and speaker on media and digital culture. Connect with him online at blog.nikicheong.com or on Twitter via @nikicheong.

 

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