Weaving the Web In August 1999 an American radio news anchor called Roberta stumbled across my first attempt at a personal Website. She sent me a short e-mail saying she was intrigued by it, the picture was nice and the topics were deep. Ten years and several million words later we are still corresponding, and my wife and I have met her twice on visits to the USA in 2003 and 2004. We also met up with one English, and two more  American internet friends who had also stumbled across the Website. All three American “e- friends” subsequently visited England. (One met a Londoner, married him, and took British citizenship). What kind of relationships are these? Sometimes separated by oceans, the only boundaries that can dictate what form this kind of "e- relationship" takes on are those set by one's own imagination, but when you both actually meet, imagination becomes superfluous; now the exchanges are between real people, at which point the process either dies or survives. If it survives then the relationship has changed. It is not necessarily worse or better, just different. Potential for Tangled Webs Internet relationships provide a classic opportunity for unbridled flirting, not to mention "lies, damned lies, and (personal) statistics". They could go horribly wrong, and I suspect that a lot of such relationships do go wrong, or just fizzle out, or lead to marriage break-ups. Roberta once said that the nature of e-mail relationships would make a fascinating book, and she posed some key questions, such as ... • How do they start? • Do they sizzle or fizzle? • What are the drawbacks? • What are the rewards? • The ebb and the flow - what do they satisfy in us? • What are the frustrations? • Are there common problems and complaints, and what are they? • How long do they usually last? • Are e-mail friendships real friendships or are they false friendships? • How are they different from real life relationships? • How much can you really learn about someone's "authentic self" without seeing them,    without experiencing them or without being able to talk to someone else about them? • How honest are people in their emails? • What kinds of whopper lies do people tell? - and why? • Do we write to other people because we're interested in other people...or is it some kind of ego    trip we take because we like telling others about ourselves?  Playing with Emotions My "virtual" friend was in a card shop one day, and the women behind the counter were laughing and carrying on because one of them liked to make a habit of writing to men on the Internet and getting them to fall in love with her. She was telling the others she was about to "break it off with another one." They were laughing uproariously. My friend asks, "Were these just the manipulations of one single, shameless bitch, or is she one of many?"  I don't believe she is one single, shameless bitch. I think she is probably one of many, though having said that I stress this is not a female thing; men are at it as well (and are perhaps more dangerous). It is easy to manipulate relationships on the Web, and we've all heard the horror stories like the one about the Englishman who went to America to wed his “virtual” new “Love”, only to find that she had the ex-husband stored in the freezer! Then there is the unbelievable evil of those who "groom" children in Internet Chat Rooms (posing as someone likely to bring about sufficient trust in to initiate a meeting specifically for the purpose of sexual abuse. I can express a view on internet friendships only from the point of view of my own experience. On the positive side I can cite my own internet relationships in which I have discovered that a proper friendship can exist and - if it’s between a man and a woman - posing no threat to marriages. One is tempted to say, perhaps, that an e-mail relationship is an efficient way of testing a good marriage, for if such a relationship led to jealousy, suspicion, or resentment, then there was already something wrong with that marriage. I have other internet relationships, forged nearer to home in my own country, and these have also been highly rewarding, leading to several meetings. Nobody turned out to be an axe- murderer and we all lived to tell the tale. Trying to Answer the Questions How do they start? I suppose the most obvious route for someone who deliberately sets out to find a new relationship on the internet is to go to an on-line dating agency, or perhaps, join a number of so- called "Chat Rooms" to find people with a common interest. There are Websites set up specifically for circles of pen friends. If you create a personal Website that arouses the interest of any "web surfers" who stumble across it, they may well contact you to discuss something that appears on your site. This is what has happened to me. Part of my site deals with losing a child. This has encouraged others who have had this awful experience to exchange information and advice. Do they sizzle or fizzle? In my own experience they do both. Those that sizzle are good, and they sizzle sometimes because we make each other laugh, sometimes because we engage in arguments about politics and religion, or sometimes just simply because we are flirting. I'm prepared to flirt with the best of them, and I don't have to be on-line to do it. Flirting is a highly enjoyable human activity, but the art is knowing where to draw the line between flirting and something more dangerous. Those that fizzle (and I have had many of these) cause disappointment and puzzlement, because it is often unclear why the person with whom you have been regularly corresponding just one day disappears off the radar screen. Some of mine fizzle because I get lazy, or run out of available time, to keep up with the correspondence. In other words, it's my fault. Rejoice in the sizzlers. Accept the fizzlers with as much good grace as you can muster. What are the drawbacks? An obvious drawback is the fact that with some people you might never be sure if they are genuine. Are they who they claim to be? Is that photograph attached to the last e-mail really the person you are writing to? If you and your "friend" are separated by thousands of miles of ocean, the chances of you really finding out are remote. Of course it is possible in some cases to establish someone's provenance by finding out if some things they are talking about are real, for example, places of employment and so on. Another is the old enemy .. time. The internet has facilitated so much ready contact with other people that if you are not careful you have, before long, accumulated so many friends and contacts that you cannot possibly keep up with the exchange of mail (not to mention all the pressures of work-based e-mails). I don't think I am able to sustain more than about half a dozen serious relationships without everything collapsing into superficial three-liners. The introduction and explosion of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and Twitter have to some degree dealt with the problem of time by reducing social interaction to just a few lines of text, but on the debit side, much of it is petty, banal, and boring. On the credit side you can make it fun. It doesn’t have to be petty, banal and boring! What are the rewards? Amongst the many rewards are widened horizons and increased knowledge of other countries and cultures, sharing the laughter and tears in your respective lives, advice with personal problems, emotional support, and the well-researched phenomenon of being able to unburden your innermost thoughts and secrets to someone you have never met.  The biggest reward of all for me is where someone has written to me to share a problem, perhaps prompted by something I've written on the Website, and then my response elicits thanks for providing some genuine help and support, and making a difference. We all know it's good to help people (or at least we ought to know that!) and if the Web allows us to spread some kind of help around, over great distances and at great speed, then that can only be a force for good. The ebb and the flow - what do they satisfy in us? We are all searching for approval. We all want to be liked - loved even. Some of us like (or need) our ego to be inflated. The fact that someone is prepared to keep on writing to you and apparently get some glimmer of pleasure from it is highly therapeutic. And if we are honest enough to admit that we like getting this treatment, we must also be thoughtful enough to give it back in equal measure. What are the frustrations? Winston Churchill once said that Great Britain and America were two nations separated by a common language. The fact that two English-speaking peoples can misunderstand each other by using words or phrases in unfamiliar contexts serves to emphasise how much greater must be the problem between two people who do not have each other's language as their first language. These frustrations can be compounded by very different cultural differences. What are the common problems and complaints? It has been suggested by some researchers that there is such a thing as "Internet Addiction" and certain categories of people develop some kind of obsession with it. It is a difficult thing to quantify because how do you measure it? Length of time spent on the Internet is not sufficient in itself as an indicator, because many people have perfectly normal and valid reasons to be spending time surfing the web, e-mailing contacts, and so on. Are e-mail friendships real friendships or are they false friendships? I started this discourse by referring to my "virtual" friends. Later I decided to drop the "virtual" because I have concluded that they are "real" friends. And so are many of the others. The very fact that using the Web encourages more interchange of information of a personal and confidential nature tends to bring you closer than (or at least as close to) those people you have spent your life referring to as "friends". It is worth remembering that many of the people you encounter in the flesh, and get to know, and maybe become "friends", are just as likely to turn out in the long run to be "false" friends as any of those people you get to know through the medium of e-mail. When all is said and done, an e-mail relationship is similar to an old fashioned Pen Friend relationship. The only difference is that with e-mail you don't have to wait several weeks to get a response. So one might well also ask, "Are pen friends real friends?" Well, an old work colleague of mine started an exchange of letters with an American girl when they were both still at school. The letters went back and forth across the Atlantic ocean throughout their growing up years and their respective marriage and family years. My colleague retired a few years ago, and soon after that his wife died. Of course, the American pen friend eventually came to hear about her English pen friend's tragic loss, and decided to travel to England to see him and comfort him. They fell in love and now they are married. They are both living happily in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. This romantic tale got them into the local newspapers and on national TV. That "snail-mail" friendship certainly wasn't "false". So why should e-mail friendships be so? How are they different from real life relationships? Well, you can't see them, feel them, touch them, hear them. Mind you, this is changing rapidly, because of the increasing use of web cams and services like Instant Messenger which allows voice contact. If you are prepared to make the effort you can find out if your fantasy lover and all-round sex toy has a voice like Kermit the Frog and a face like Miss Piggy. How much can you really learn about someone's "authentic self" without seeing them? Again I fall back on the phenomenon of no-holds-barred exchange of really personal and sensitive information that we all seem able to give vent to in an e-mail relationship. Surely - provided we have established the honesty of our "virtual" partner - this must give quite an astonishing insight into "authentic selves". Of course if you happen to have landed yourself with a pathological liar and fantasist for a correspondent then you are in big trouble. But the same thing can happen with people you actually meet. How honest are people in their emails? This a very good question, and all I can do is place on record that I always try to be scrupulously honest about everything in my emails. I am guessing that normally honest people will continue to be honest in their e-mails and people who have a habit of getting the concepts of truth and falsehood somewhat confused in their every day life will continue to display that trait online. Do we write to other people because we're interested in other people...or is it some kind of ego trip we take because we like telling others about ourselves? That we like telling other people about ourselves is beyond doubt. That might not be the reason, however, why we write e-mails to each other for pleasure. My Website started out as an ego trip. I hold my hands up - I confess. Here was a new opportunity for me to say, "Hey, everybody, this is me. How can you possibly get through any more of your life without knowing all about me?!"  I'm not much of a conversationalist, but I've been told that I can string a few meaningful words together if I am writing or tapping the keyboard, so here also is an opportunity for me to impose my opinions and views upon an unsuspecting world. People can take it or leave it, but I've had my say. Then I thought, well, if I can put something on the Website about the experience of losing a daughter then perhaps something good might come of it. It did. Conclusion I think the Web can be a positive influence for good. Now as soon as I have written that I can see that it needs to be heavily qualified. How can it be for the general good, when its very freedom and accessibility also makes it the vehicle for racism, religious intolerance, unbridled nationalism, fanaticism of all kinds, sexual deviancy, and a tool for the exchange of information on terrorist plots, plans for civil disorder, and so on? But I am digressing. This is not about the Web as such, but the practice of exchanging e-mails between friends. Even if we start out by writing to someone just to tell them all about ourselves, if the friendship develops there comes a point when you've said it all, and you are going to continue because you do find the other person interesting, not only in what they say about themselves, but what kind of lives they lead and in what kind of society. The e-mail relationship that survives beyond a few months is likely to be based on true feelings of friendship. "Virtual" friends can be "Real" friends. ©Lionel Beck November 2002 Revised December 2003, July 2006 & July 2009 POSTSCRIPT: As I indicated at the beginning of this piece my wife and I have visited the USA and we met up with three of our "Virtual" friends. They have reciprocated with visits to our home in the UK. It has been a rewarding experience, and having seen each other face to face, warts and all, we have all continued our e-mail contact. "Quod Erat Demonstrandum" I think.        © Lionel Beck - North Yorkshire - UK Return to Top Are “Virtual” Friends Real Friends? An Examination of E-mail Relationships  ©Lionel Beck Return to Top Return to Top Return to Top Return to Top