An apology for Internet relationships


Thousands of years ago, our ancestors drew onto cave walls; that was their way of sharing feelings and aspirations. Communication methods have evolved since, but some things never change. Love still is the greatest feeling, when it's not the worst.

Just ten years ago social networks didn't exist in the extent they do today. Friendster, MySpace and Facebook didn't launch until 2002, 2003 and 2004, respectively — just to name three from a myriad offerings available. The foundation of these websites is the ever-present urge to stay in touch with friends, relatives and lovers. Online dating also saw a tremendous increase in user base over the last years. At first, one has to wonder how dating can work without the essential flirting. On a website you don't flirt; you simply click on the potential partner and perhaps write an affectionate message. Principally though, the selection process is no different than in a real-life situation. Beauty, character traits and hobbies are still the criteria that determine the eventuality of a relationship.

Instead of wooing a woman with lustful gazes, a few well-chosen words could express one's passion with equal persuasiveness. Rejection still occurs, though. When you walk up to a lonely girl, sitting at a bar, sipping a cocktail with ennui, you either lure her in or not. From the perspective of the female sex, it certainly is a different story, since women often expect us, the desperate men, to start a conversation. The outcome of the ensuing dialogue is always inevitable; either it's a success or the two people continue drinking their drinks alone.

The first step to a successful internet relationship is to stop labeling it abnormal. We must agree on one point: to have friends on the world-wide-web means also to diverge from the norm. The thoughts of fellow Neowin staff members imply the ease of reconnecting with long-lost friends as the true appeal of social networks.

Weird people do exist in this yet so small world. The advances of technology have only made it simpler to meet these creepy characters. However, let's not dwell on possible negative outcomes. Blame yourself if you get hurt online; when one purchases an item on Ebay, the same rule applies: caveat emptor.

To make a case for the benefits of internet relationships, allow me to tell a story. Five years ago, I signed up in some geek forum, wanting to connect with other Star Wars fans. I recall having lots of fun chats with anonymous avatars. As weeks and months passed, often burning the midnight oils, I began to develop a bond with one user. I'm meeting her in person for the first time in November.

Oft-times it's so hard to look someone in the eye and speak the truth. An online friend, who is just remotely aware of your condition, can provide useful and objective advice. To be unemotional is impossible for close friends or relatives, for that matter. They care too much; now, this shouldn't imply that online friends don't care for your troubles. Yet they do in a dispassionate and controlled manner.

It will be captivating still, to finally see her in real-life. After five years of chatting and speaking on the phone, we may think we know one another. The knowledge of our pasts notwithstanding, there's still so much more to a person of flesh and blood, than there is to an entity that's made up only by your imagination and whatever you choose to believe. Beyond the stories we shared and fun chats we had, there is a real person yet unrevealed.

The breaking point for online acquaintances is whether one chooses to meet in person. That's when everything can go wrong, or even surpass expectations. It seems to be a matter of choice. What decides the outcome of an online relationship is what you choose to do with it. Either you simply want an uncomplicated relationship, to be able to talk about all kinds of things, personal and general; or, you look to meet new people, intent on making new friends in real-life, too.

Sitting in front of the computer, wherever you are, limits your vision. For that precise moment the world exists within the confines of your computer screen. It does diminish your awareness of what's around you, and suddenly this online friend becomes real.

We must reconsider the meaning of the word 'stranger'. A stranger is someone you might talk to on the street, when asking what time it is. A stranger is the one waiting in line in front of and behind you at the local grocery store. A stranger is everyone mingling at the shopping malls. A stranger is also everyone you meet online, in point of fact. Yet, the definition of a word can change. It's wrong to declare someone a stranger, just because you meet them in a virtual chat room or a website.

Thoughts, dreams and aspirations can unite people. There are of course other reasons which are less philosophical. Since the advent of MMOs you can complete quests together with online friends, and this adds a whole new layer of complexity to the idea of online friendships. This also gives the word 'stranger' a new meaning — internationality has become the catchphrase of the Internet.

Computers, iPhones, and other mobile devices ushered in an era of incessant connectivity. Anyone who doesn't embrace this new way of life risks being excluded. The push forward, both in business and personal matters, relies on our ability to stay in touch with relatives, friends and colleagues. To cut a long story short, online relationships don't have to be motivated by sex, but can simply be an exercise in collaboration. Who hasn't teamed up with fellow students, to work on a joint project? Our own Neowin Linux distribution Shift was also created by an enthusiastic group of developers around the world. It was a communal effort, and it resulted in a functional Linux distribution that could be downloaded by anyone.

Lastly, it's language itself which signifies the authenticity of online chats. It's possible to discern the character of a person from the way they express themselves. A cynic chooses different words than a pedophile. One or the other will be more eloquent, and that indicates whether your chat partner is a geek or an academic or some horny guy who can never be a great conversationalist.

Now it's up to you, as a member of this community to share your story and thoughts. Perhaps illustrate also the bad things which can happen. So far, my experiences were always positive; we have all read a few horrible stories, though.


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