Disembodied Relationships: Identity, Authenticity, Intimacy
This is the third of a three part blog series on digital communication & how people online communicate, form communities, create identity, build relationships, and develop intimacy. In this post, we’ll talk about how small groups are more than bible studies: they require intimate, trusting relationships. How do we build those?
Much of the material is from Nancy K. Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2015 (link), summarized and applied for a ministry context.
More than Bible Study
How do we show people who we are online? Is who we are online different from who we are offline?
Two Core Ideas
Because we don’t have a physical marker (our bodies) marking who we are, our identities online exist only through words and actions. On one hand, this opens up possibilities for deception and lying; on the other, we can express parts of our personalities that we wouldn’t otherwise.
Who we are isn’t singular. The best example of multiplicity is how you act around different friend groups, even in college. You have the same body and appearance, but you act differently and might use different language. These are all parts of who you are.
Online, your username and the amount/kind of information you share might change in different spaces, but these are all just multiple ways you’re choosing to represent yourself.
Representing our Identities
Digital identities are both personal and social. Different mediums allow and encourage different cues, or information that tells people who we are.
We individualize ourselves using different social cues:
- Avatars, either as images that represent us on websites, or the costumes/weapons/armor we use within games
- Names, and our choice to use our real names or our usernames
- Personal Spaces, and what pictures/descriptors we choose to use in our profiles, blogs
- Communication Style, such as preferred words, emoticons, or punctuation
We also connect with others in different ways, sometimes inadvertently (rather than us showing, how are people seeing who we are?)
- Friends lists that show who we’re connected to, or who we follow
- Posts and comments on our profiles/pictures by other people
- Categories that we choose to fill out - like our age, gender, sexual orientation, location, nationality, and even our interests
Overcoming Deception with Authenticity
One consequence of not having physical bodies while being able to present multiple parts of our identities is a natural suspicion that others are deceiving us online. Our challenge is to show others that we are who we say we are - to prove our authenticity. At the same time, we have to practice trust - that others are being authentic when we meet them.
Honesty online isn’t as risky as it seems. There’s less social pressure - because people online might not know our entire social circle offline, and because we can choose what and how much to reveal. Instead, there’s a sense of freedom, especially regarding anxiety and self-expression. We can test out different ways to express ourselves, like being more assertive, or asking for help, and we can keep people at a safe distance with how often we choose to go online to interact.
As a result, we can also trust that people online, most of the time, aren’t being intentionally devious. When we have the suspicion that someone isn’t sharing the whole truth, we can ask: What are they afraid of? What is the risk to that person if they were to disclose everything?
Authenticity isn’t always related to what we say. Rather, people read the way we act or navigate certain spaces. The way we act in online spaces tells people that we’re outsiders, and that we’re secretly after something else. So, we have to navigate online relationships carefully and give off cues that show we’re authentic and interested.
How do you build relationships with people online? How do you show others that you’re interested in their friendship and let it naturally develop?
Why form relationships?
Just like on campus, real, deep relationships in digital spaces go beyond weak ties, or relationships limited activities and shared thoughts/feelings. While on campus you might have a weak relationship with people on your dorm floor, or in your classes, we see and interact with many more people in digital spaces.
Also just like on campus, we end up with a few relationships with deep ties. These friends, as Baym writes, are “voluntary, mutually reciprocal, supporting of partners’ needs, and they create long term contact” (p. 125). They cost us time and emotional energy to build and maintain, and often remain implicit: we show and perform our obligations and responsibilities as friends, rather than lay them out with words.
When these relationships form online, “showing” others that we care about them takes on a different form. Because we are disembodied, our non-verbal cues can’t be physical. Consistency is the main non-verbal cue. Baym writes: “Every interaction we have serves as an opportunity to reaffirm it by behaving just as we always do, to end it by saying something that cannot be repaired, or to negotiate it by communicating a little differently from our norm” (p. 126).
I should note that this sense of consistency can be a challenge - especially in long-lived online relationships, negotiating out of the norm is no easy task. Spiritual conversations, for example, are easier to establish and affirm earlier rather than later, at which point they’re several steps away from the norm.
As we form relationships, we develop a consistent set of habits and manners that are appropriate and normal. These habits form in three stages:
- Characterized by few identity clues and much room for imagining the other. We often like the person a little more than normal because we select what we reveal and don’t reveal
- Usually start with a few shared conversation topics or interests
- Over time, we reveal more about ourselves and our conversation topics widen, and start to have greater depth
- Self-disclosure helps us become real people and build trust, but over-sharing is dangerous because it reveals too much, too fast
- Eventually, we start to influence each other’s actions, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. We reflect this through our communication
- We predict other’s actions, read between lines and understand communication styles, and we share secret terms, private connotations, and introduce more of our lives
Towards the end of this relationship forming stage, as parties invest effort with each other, they begin to practice media multiplexity - using different mediums to communicate, establishing mediums for a certain type of communication, and even meeting in person.
Of course, meeting people through social media, especially a platform with a lot of information like Facebook, will change these stages. Self-disclosure happens at a different pace when some of that information is public, and it might be easier to skip to meeting in person or on a video call. Still, the stage of interdependence happens slowly, as parties interact more regularly and start to influence each other.