Understanding The Virtual Edge

Adfar Shah

Prelude

This age is the age of telecommunication, an era of android/blackberry sensation and other advanced electronic forms of communication. This is the time of new contact practices across the cultures and boundaries where social networking, connecting even to unknown people not for any particular significant purpose/reason but for pleasure seeking and leisure enjoyment, is the order of the day. Today the Internet is acting as the basic medium for interpersonal relationships that have merely got reduced to electronic conversations, especially the youth. This conceptual paper takes a dig at the psycho-social aspect of the virtual relationship that still remains a least described aspect of social relations in the contemporary era. The article also discusses how the virtual intimacy trend has changed the frequency and content of the entire communication ethos  in the contemporary times.

Introduction

The Internet has become a popular medium for forming interpersonal relationships. Not only are people developing cyber friendships, but some move beyond virtual communication and interact more directly through telephonic contact and face-to-face encounters (McCown, et al. 2001). Relations where people are not actually present but communicate or interact exclusively via internet, mobile phones or other communication devices, are termed as virtual relationships. Such bonds can be simply understood as e-relations in the present-day communication scenario. Literally, virtual relationships are temporary relations where bonds develop out of a constant contact with strangers via social networking sites, dating or matrimonial sites, constant phone calls, chatting and texting, etc. However, it can be safely argued that such relations can turn to actual relationships as well. For instance, intimacy developed through the virtual media like chatting or connecting through social networking, can actually lead to  romantic relationships and lasting friendships.

The Pros and Cons of Virtual Relationships 

Despite a number of difficulties, the virtual environment is perceived as a safer environment for sharing intimate information. In the domain of Sociology, such a trend can be analyzed as the emergent social change in the living, leisure and communication patterns of  people across the globe. Vybíral and colleagues (2004), argue that adolescents get involved in such relationships because it offers them a space in which they find support, interest and a certain form of love (Vybíral,  Šmahel, & Divínová, 2004).

With the advent of mobile phones, Indian society got partially transformed into a virtual community out of the transitional nature and identity and personality crisis, particularly among the youth. Especially since the last few years, the social networking addiction, especially that of Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo Messenger, etc, among the impressionable teens, youth and even the middle-aged segment of society,became a full time hobby and a culture of everyday life, thereby shaping up a distinct peer and youth culture and leading to the emergence of new dysfunctional relations developed through such a tantalizing media. Many people resort to such relations because they have access to mobile phones with internet facility, etc. Studying such a phenomena in sociology also unfolds the emergent trends in sexuality, intimacy, the dating craze, leisure, enjoyment, etc.

Talking upon Cybersex, the American psychologist Alvin Cooper (1999) points out three primary factors (collectively termed as “Triple A Engine”) contingent to online sexuality. These factors include accessibility, affordability, anonymity where accessibility refers to an easy access to chat rooms filled with people looking for cyber sexual experiences. It is less expensive as the only cost is the fee paid for the Internet connection (affordability) and moreover, people can move on the Internet in complete anonymity, and they also perceive communication as anonymous and thus free from any moral binding, with no fear of public stigma or the sense of shame, which makes it far easier to open up to one another and exchange views about anything.

This ultimately gives rise to a great risk for users who suffer from sexual compulsion or who are mentally vulnerable and prone to compulsive behavior (as cited in Vybíral, Šmahel, & Divínová, 2004).

Moreover, such trends can have serious implications, as hanging out with fake anonymous people via online chatting rooms, phone texts, etc, can lead to cyber offences, crucial information loss to strangers, moral degradation, economic thefts, security issues, etc, that can spell doom in the long run. For instance, blackmailing over intimate pictures/images/secrets etc, once a person under the delusion of a serious relationship, shares or opens up to another, like account hacking and even sexual abuse. The trend of inviting facebook friends, especially girls to meet in person after developing friendship via social networking and in some cases subjecting them to abuse and even rape. Such an example was recently witnessed in New Delhi, where a law student kept his facebook friend/then girl friend, from Nepal as a captive and kept gang raping her along with his friends in south Delhi, in a repugnant aberration of social decency and moral behavior. Also, two years ago in Indian administered Kashmir, a boy killed his friend and dumped him in his bed room for weeks together, after inviting him home for he had developed an affair with his (killer’s) girl friend via facebook.

Speaking sociologically, the advent of the tempting modes of communication technology, extra leisure and disposable income now available to youth, lessening family regulations, the craze for and possession of the latest/smart communication gadgets treated as a status symbol, the changing mindset, widening choices and breaking the fibre of religious and moral ethos and emergence of a regulation free online society, have actually created the virtual atmosphere in this part of the globe as well and thus greatly facilitated virtual relationships. This can be exemplified by the changing India and access to mobile phones, internet, etc even in rural India, where owning an attractive and expensive mobile phone is treated as a status symbol. Also, the changing family norms like the advent of a nuclear family, dual career family, lack of quality time for where love is increasingly substituted/compensated with money, are now common scenarios. Additionally, the migration of teens/youths from small places to big cities for education or training purposes and thus being away from home, enables them do anything they want.

Psychologically, virtual relationships are purposive in nature. For some it is a medium that enables an individual to satisfy his/her ego and soothe ones anxiety resulting from the suppression of various instincts, particularly those of a libidinal nature and for others it a medium to substitute one’s aloofness for some form of communication.  Divínová (2004) reported that the basic reason often supported by the users was the desire of sexual gratification, particularly in times when a partner is temporarily unavailable or is unable to meet the user’s needs, thereby finding it as an escape from this dissatisfaction. Such relations have both a positive and negative impact upon human existence. In one way it satiates (though fallaciously and temporarily), a person’s love and “belongingness”, needs and helps him/her to give vent to pent up feelings and emotions,whose repression otherwise may lead to various psychological problems; but in another way, it goes without saying that it gives rise to various anti-social, immoral and unethical psycho-social pathologies. Studies reveal that individuals involved in such relationships experience serious marital problems and even problems with other relationships. Such activities may convert them into introverted personalities while neglecting their family and other social contacts (Schneider 2000). 

The Last Word 

Virtual relations do not represent actual interpersonal ties as generally perceived and thus are characterized by hollow sociability, temporary and unreliable support and they often damage the real life ethos as people even tie communication and emotional knots to unknown people under the false sense of belongingness. Such networks, though, enhance people’s friendship and love relationships even without geographical boundaries;enabling people find love partners cannot produce true and reliable relationships in reality and security threats above all cannot be over ruled. As there is ample evidence that social networking and allied issues/affairs are even responsible for a considerable number of divorces. Also information given to friends via the virtual route can be false and people can be frauds/cheats who simply want to get along for some definite purpose like money, job, material favors, sex, etc.

Today, when relationships begin online and romantic relationships, friendships and online chatting have become a norm, then intimidating (bullying people via social networking route), hacking and attacking the accounts, photo tagging, fake applications and accounts, sharing of immoral and sexual content, etc, have taken the virtual means. Further, trends like phone dating, phone sex, night calling habits up to the addiction of online chatting among youths, have increased multifold and thus lead to distressing social, cultural, moral and security threats.

The question with the alarming question mark at its end is that, ‘Are virtual relationships proliferating at the cost of real relationships? Are we ignorant enough to overlook the dark side of the internet technology and social media? How has cyberspace drastically affected the real space? And what can be the shape of kinship and friendship in the near future, out of the emergent virtual edge?

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(Adfar Shah is a Sociologist and belongs to Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia,Central University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal. Mail at adfer.syed@gmail.com).

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