It's occurred to me that the next level of human interaction and relationships is online. That's not necessarily groundbreaking, that thought. But what's fascinating to me is that when one has an "online friend," it's just as important and weighted in high value to the people involved in these interactions.
Therefore, I've come to the conclusion that one can't discount the "online friend" or "online relationship" phenomenon anymore. The online friend is almost an exclusive category now to those as our networks expand ever so greatly and rapidly.
Yet, I can't help but wonder, if this is just systemic of the growing isolation that's pervasive in our lives.
I saw it in the theaters last year, and the subject matter fascinated me (let alone the people story the movie followed). I won't give away too many spoilers, but the general synopsis is well-known. The story is about a relatively ordinary man who lives alone and strikes up a relationship with his operating system, who calls herself "Samantha." We find out that the protoganist, Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix), has had intimacy and relationship issues in the past.
Yet, I couldn't help but wonder...with the advent and importance placed upon online relationships, how far off are we from having relationships with our operating systems?
Director Spike Jonze made the movie seem futuristic without being too deliberate in letting us know just how many years he predicted a relationship between a human and an operating system would occur. Yet it seems as though it could be happening right under our very nose. A major plot topic was on how Samantha knew everything with which Theodore had interest, which is why I think exclusively online relationships are intriguing and most of all attractive to people. By the same token, people with online relationships are free to be whoever they want to be in other forums. Forums, which, one may not be aware of.
Without a face, body language or the pressure of vis-a-vis interaction, people can expand themselves to be who they want to be without the responsibility of a real living, breathing human relationship.
As I watched the movie, however, I saw so many parallels between online relationships and mostly the emotional interaction between people. To some, it's almost as if we're all having relationships with our operating systems. We chat and send messages on our computers. We text and Kik and WhatsApp others from our phones. Some of these types of relationships have been going on for years. The idea is nothing new.
Last year, right around the time Her was in the theaters, Daniel Jones wrote about the very topic of online emotional relationships in the New York Times. He claims that not only does technology alter "our romantic landscape," he has a term for these individuals who rely on these relationships: "Soul Mate in a Box" (or "Smiab" for short).
Prior to seeing this movie, I have seen technology play out as a third party for many "relationships," which I use as a term very loosely. I guess I'm kind of a traditionalist in that I still think that the face-to-face interaction is weighted a heck of a lot more. Yet I get the value of an online relationship. I have a very good friend whom I've never met face-to-face but we've collaborated on podcasts and talked on the phone several times. Of course, I'd feel our relationship would be more "legit" had we ever met in person, and that will come in due time.
Yet, at the same time, I know there is a certain subset of the online population that I interact with who are perfectly fine with never meeting in person. It used to upset me, because you know, "how convenient" that I am going to be in your hometown and we've talked about meeting for over five years. And you have a family emergency that has you out of town that same time. Now, I really don't mind. I guess I've come to the conclusion that there are people who will just be an exclusively online relationship for me.
Yet, I've seen so many people put so much stock in their virtual relationship, that they go through a true sense of loss if something happens to end it, as we see in Her. I'm quite sure anyone who reads this knows someone who has been in a virtual relationship like this, or at the very least has either been a party to one or participates in one.
I've had a few ideas as to why these seem so prevalent, as Mr. Jones elaborated on in his column. One theory he had was the idea of a physical relationship being more "work" than an online relationship. People don't have to put too much effort into being physically present (and yes, that does take a lot of work). And while individuals are making themselves emotionally available, there's not a ton of maintenance going on there. Say a few nice words, put the other on a pedestal and get to go home by yourself at night.
I feel like technology has allowed those of us who prefer or don't mind being alone (I'm a proud introvert) stay that way. As an example, women tend to be emotionally available and can be more vulnerable or receptive to an emotional online relationship. Remember, folks, the biggest erogenous zone is the brain (thank you Jackie Treehorn). This was evident in the scene in Her where Theodore and Samantha "consummate" the relationship. Though when presented with an opportunity to use a surrogate proxy to have a physical relationship, Theodore couldn't do it.
It makes me wonder how many of these relationships wouldn't go the distance. Sure, we've heard of online relationships being very successful. There are just some relationships that serve to be just "online."
Like the catfish. Remember a few years ago the story about football player Manti Te'o? He was involved in a scheme that an online personality lured him and made him believe that his online counterpart was involved in a fatal car accident, and it made the news because his grandmother had passed away as well that same week. It was found to be a farcical relationship that he went public with later.
Why does something like catfishing occur? You'd think in this day and age, we'd be less trusting and even more questioning of an online presence's motives. I guess at the root of it, we try to believe the best in people, and those stories happen to "other people." Plus, it's easy to believe you know the "real person" behind the curtain. When the reality is, we don't even know if this person who may present themselves to be female is EVEN a female...because they've never met. And how convenient they do not like posting pictures of themselves?
Then there's the "emotional cheat," as I like to call it. I think the disconnect happens once again because of gender perceptions. Women are seen as emotional beings, men physical. If there's a man who is not getting his emotional needs fulfilled by his significant other, guess what? There's a woman he's never met and doesn't need to service on a physical level willing to meet those needs. Women have been seen as more apt to "fall" for the other in an emotional relationship, while it may be seen as collateral damage to the male in the relationship. There's no actual physical interaction...who exactly is being harmed?
The complicated layer of technology and relationships is a prevalent theme here at CDV. It's something that is not going away, but it needs to have the respect of something as important, destructive but also character building and enhancing as a real life face-to-face meeting.
I can't discount the fact that I have met some of the most important people in my life online, even my husband. I can say with an absolute certainty that I am not sure if I could have met other people whom I consider friends without the social networking level. It's important to me, and certainly something I have a healthy appreciation for.
But when people rely on technology too much for forming their relationships, then it becomes a real life problem, like it did in Her.