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Net Relationships

by Derek Harding

"But you'd never met until today!" was the incredulous cry of the talk show host.

Romeo and Juliet, Sir Francis Dicksee It seems that along with all things Internet related, pornography, bomb-making information and paedophiles, the media has caught on to the fact that people are meeting and starting relationships through computer networks. Some through email and newsgroups but, in my experience, far more through interactive media such as IRC and muds.

And what is the traditional media making of this? Like most people they're having a hard time coming to terms with it. All the obvious objections about not knowing what someone looks like are thrown at young people, caught in the glare of the TV lights. They meantime struggle to explain that their relationship grew from friendship and common interest, rather than a physical attraction, and grew into something more.

Once you get past the issue of what someone looks like (and many people swap photographs and meet in person fairly soon after forming a relationship) online relationships seem to offer some advantages.

Online you can logout and disappear, there's no logging out of a bad RL date. Isn't appearance overrated anyway? Surely personality and compatibility should count for more. It is in talking that you get to know each other and online you have to talk, there is nothing else. Furthermore it seems many people are more open online, sharing things about themselves that they wouldn't in person. Perhaps this is because of the anonymity or the unreality (at least at first) of communicating with people you've never met. That, or simply the pressure to say something, anything so long as at doesn't make you sound a complete idiot! For some of course it goes the other way. The mud becomes a place where they can hide from the real world, where they are not known and need not be known. Where they can even take on a totally different persona. Nonetheless, in blooming relationships it seems many end up sharing more of themselves rather than going out to the movies and necking in the back row. Which brings me to that other topic the media are so concerned about; net-sex.

I wonder sometimes what some people really think goes on over the Internet. If all they know is what they've read and seen on TV surely they are convinced that all people do on the Internet is have net-sex. The Internet for them must be full of pimply college students talking dirty to each other all day long. Yet this isn't my experience at all, or have I just been missing out? Should I be going to other muds where there are continuous online orgies, and would I want to even if they existed? I'm sure many of us have come across inappropriate behavior occasionally, but it's interesting to me that, as in the real world, net-sex mostly occurs behind locked virtual doors.

So are there really any disadvantages to online relationships or is the media just knocking what it doesn't understand? While meeting in a virtual environment encourages people to get to know one another it also limits the ways in which they can know each other. No going for a walk in the park or holding hands in front of the television. There's the loneliness of longing to be with someone who lives a thousand miles away. Do I sound like I'm talking from experience? That's probably because I am.

After a time the limitations of textual communication make themselves felt. You want to hear their voice and that's when the phone bills start to kick in - nasty if it's international! Then the difficult decisions start. How do you get to be together? Which of you is going to give up their life for someone they in some ways hardly know, to move someplace they really don't know, and is it worth it? This is where another dramatic difference with online relationships appears. The "all or nothing" syndrome. The vast distances that may be involved often make it impossible to just "go steady" for a while and see if things work out.

Right now I know one person who has just moved country to be with his beloved, another who is awaiting a visa and a third who is considering moving from the east to the west coast, all for people who they met online. Perhaps that's one of the difficulties of playing a very international mud, but I suspect similar is happening in other places too. Yet, if the relationship is as strong as it seems, if it can navigate all these obstacles, surely it will have been worth it for the couples involved.

Thus far, like the mass-media, I have focused entirely on virtual romantic involvements, but to do so is to disregard one of the strongest reasons why I believe that mud relationships are valid. As with real life relationships very few involve professions of undying love and scenes from "Gone with the Wind". As we spend time with people and interact with them, even through a computer mediated interface we form associations. From passing acquaintances through to deep and lasting friendships. It is this breadth, depth and variety of friendships which encourages me to believe that mud relationships are real. That they are more than just the figments of the imaginations of lonely Computer Science students sat in darkened laboratories late at night staring at computer screens.

What to do, what to do. I know, we'll just ignore it for the most part and turn it into a freak show on television. Better yet, lets ban the Internet because it's perverting our children. Or, lets consider this a new way for people to meet and, while like our current methods it is far from perfect, a valid way for people to begin long-lasting, meaningful relationships.