One of the (many) interesting cohort lunch conversations I took part in during my recent Masters residency revolved around how we would all maintain the sense of connectedness with each other once the two week face to face residency was over. For the next year, all our interactions will be virtual. More than a few people viewed this as a significant challenge and expressed the view that somehow a virtual relationship didn’t seem as “real” as face to face.
It’s a concern I’ve heard before. How can online relationships have the same level of depth as face to face? Well, in my experience, they are as rich and, in fact, often even richer than some face to face relationships. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in “virtual ” relationships, so much so that the line between virtual and real is nonexistent for me. Following friends online is an extension of my face to face relationship that adds richness and context to those face to face relationships, but in some cases, the online link I have to someone is the only link that connects us. Yes, I have friends that I have never met, and I still come across people who find the idea of having friends you have never met strange, especially when you begin to explain to them that most of the connections are via Twitter, Facebook and other “superficial” social network tools. How much can you know someone in 140 characters or via status updates? Well, quite a bit, actually.
The reality is that over time, this little trickle of information becomes an ocean. A Twitter update on its own is not much. But a thousand Twitter updates over a year? That’s 140,000 characters. A novel. Add in a Facebook status there, a blog post, a Flickr photo, a shared link in Delicious, a favorite YouTube video, a shared song on Blip.fm – it doesn’t take too long to form a pretty solid understanding of a person you have never “met”. All this information, in drips and drabs, comes together to form a whole and give me a sense of who the person is in a very real and tangible way.
It’s not like I live in the basement spending hours banging away on my computer chatting with complete strangers, but the reality is that I carry on many relationships with people I have never met that are just as rich and rewarding as my face to face relationships.
I guess what I am trying to stumble onto here is that this is not an either/or situation. One is not better than the other because in my world that “other” has all but disappeared. They are all just relationships.
A few days ago, I came across this blog post on Wes Fryer’s blog Moving at the Speed of Creativity with a great video that speaks to this question of real vs. virtual. It’s a 7 minute micro-doc put together by Dan Lovejoy, a graduate student in the Technical Communication and Rhetoric program at Texas Tech University.