Monday, June 19, 2017

Weak Ties in Online Relationships

In 2008, my husband and I were visiting Seaside, Oregon for my birthday. One night, we met a colorful couple from Idaho, Nancy and Jessie, who were on their honeymoon. We hung out for a couple hours, and at the end of the night Nancy asked for my e-mail address. Thinking nothing of it, I scribbled my e-mail address on a piece of paper, fully expecting never to hear from them again. A few weeks later, I received an email from Nancy. We wrote back and forth a few times and eventually connected on Facebook. Earlier this week, Nancy posted a “happy 9th anniversary” post to Jessie, which made me realize that I have been “following” her on Facebook for NINE years. I should also mention that I don’t hoard Facebook friends either. I tend to declutter my feed nearly as often as I declutter my closet. But I’ve always held on to Nancy. Over the past nine years, I’ve enjoyed seeing pictures of her children and landscapes of Idaho. She has inspired me with her fitness journey and her career shift towards a personal trainer. She has liked and commented on my updates too, as we’ve continued this pen pal type of relationship.

Beginning this blog post with an anecdote feels appropriate since both Turkle and Rosen rely on heavily anecdotes to support their claims about the relationship between intimacy and technology. Turkle uses anecdotal evidence in the introduction to Alone Together to show how our expectations of intimacy have changed with new communication technology. She recalls the roommate who texted her roommate instead of knocking on her door because “that would be intrusive” (2), Ellen who Skypes with her grandmother while she answers her email (13-14), and  Randy’s disappointment that his sister, Nora, announced her engagement via mass e-mail (16). Similarly, in “Electronic Intimacy,” Christine Rosen draws on her relationship with a pen pal to support her argument that “we should permit ourselves a small lament for what we are leaving behind.”  We tell stories like these because many of us can remember a time before fast communication, when we connected with others more intimately through letters and phone calls. In David Crystal’s lecture “The Effect of New Technologies on English” (the video we watched during the first class) Crystal maintains that it is simply too early to notice the effects of technology on English. Likewise, we are still in the beginning stages of of these new communication technologies, so we are not quite aware of the lasting effects of these technologies on human relationships. However, we are aware that something is happening. We are gaining certain things and losing others, and we use anecdotes to discuss these changes.  Even those of us who embrace new technologies may feel like we are giving something up. Turkle points out, “As we instant-message, email, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude” (11-12). She believes that it is in these online relationships that we find ourselves “alone together.”

It is through the lens of these readings that I critically examine my “friendship” with Nancy. Our relationship has added a certain value to my life, but I wouldn’t call it a friendship. If I ever found myself in her area, I probably wouldn’t ask her to meet up. Furthermore, I interact with her by applauding her highlights, but I am completely unaware of her low points. In this way, ours is an artificial friendship, similar to Turkle’s account of Ann who would consider a robot boyfriend because it involves less risk than a real boyfriend. My friendship with Nancy is easy since it doesn’t place any of the demands on my time and energy that characterize real friendships. If I didn’t get to know Nancy past that evening in the bar, I would have eventually forgotten about her altogether, and maybe that is how it was supposed to end. Christine Rosen echoes this sentiment as she concludes her anecdote: “That's life- or at least that is what the life of a friendship used to be. A closed door usually stayed closed forever.” I don’t want to close the door on my relationship with Nancy, but I am now questioning what Turkle would call my “weak ties” on social media, or “the bonds of acquaintance with people we may never meet” (13). I would definitely classify my relationship with Nancy as a “weak tie”, but this does not hamper my ability to have real friendships as well. Furthermore, I have plenty of weak ties offline, mostly with work acquaintances. Overall, these readings made me examine online relationships, and I am curious to hear your perspectives on how communicating with others online has affected our ability to connect with others.

A few questions to get started:
  • Did any weak ties come to mind as you read this introduction?
  • Turkle believes we do not prosper in these weak ties (13). Do you agree with her, or do these relationships with online acquaintances hold their own intrinsic value?
  • How does frequent online communication affect the ways students connect with each other in the classroom?


  1. I should start off by saying that I do not have a Facebook account. That being said, when I did have one (years ago, in high school), I found it exhausting. Having to maintain these "friendships" online was draining for me. Every personal update, every uploaded picture, every political statement was something else people expected me to see and comment on. In order to maintain this connection, although weak as it was, between me and this other person was the idea that I would leave some sort of supportive comment on their mundane status update.

    Of course, if you miss a post or don't comment on something, the inevitable question will be asked: "Did you see my post on Facebook?" I knew that the only tie that remained between me and a few people was this Facebook feed, and it was kind of disturbing. The only way I saw an escape from the constant social pressures of this medium was completely deleting my account.

    I will say that I felt liberated to have deleted the account. So many people have asked me to add them on Facebook, to which I respond that I don't have one. I keep in touch with the people I want to keep in touch with. It's simple, but something I think that many people no longer live by. If I want to talk to someone, I make a conscious effort to contact them in-person, over the phone, or even through a text. In my opinion, commenting on a status or post is no way to maintain a proper friendship.

    Outside of personal (or impersonal, as it remains to be seen) relationships, I know that a few teachers at my school use class Twitter accounts throughout the year. They use it to remind students of assignments, tests, or ask homework questions, to which they are asked to respond below and create a sort of discussion board. This is a way for the teacher to reach the students outside of the classroom. Also, the teachers ask that parents follow the page as well so that they can be kept in the loop with what is going on in class.

    As far as students using social media to communicate and if that affects the ways students connect with one another in the classroom, I would say that it would depend on the type of social media being used. For instance, the class Twitter page that my co-workers use attempts to create a space for academic and scholarly discussion or debate. While the average person uses Twitter for social means, having a set place for the set task of classwork and discussion will help the conversations in class, I think.

    In my personal experience as a teacher, I will say that social media has become one more way in which my students can create drama and tension outside of the classroom and, regrettably, bring it into the classroom. Too often have I had to call students into the hall to talk out a problem where one person said or did something on Facebook that upset another student.

  2. I share many of Turkle's concerns about intimacy, especially this desire to be "alone together," which seems to be fundamentally antisocial to me. However, I think there is REAL value to "friendships" or "weak ties" on social networks, especially Facebook. Turkle argues that "As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves" (12), but I don't think it's so simple. I do think these online networks enable distributed forms of intimacy that do not necessarily take away from our rich, in-person relationships. In other words, I don't think we have a tank of intimacy that runs out if we share it too widely. As Erin points out, FB allows for relationships online that would never be possible before the advent of these social platforms. I do not think that is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it suggests that we can achieve small levels of intimacy with people online that might be important later on, perhaps if we are running a campaign, trying to raise funds, or perhaps crowdsource a problem.

    1. I’m not so sure I see Turkle suggesting that intimacy is finite and that we’ll deplete it if we spread it too thinly; rather, I think she’s arguing that our increasing dependence on online connections or relationships will change our fundamental expectation of what intimacy is. The anecdote of the turtle on page 4 and Turkle’s comparison to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in which guests were dismayed that real animals failed to live up to the excitement and liveliness of their controllable robotic counterparts, brought to mind Umberto Eco’s “Travels in Hyperreality.” Essentially, Eco claims that we become so immersed in the manufactured, “better” version of reality that actual reality no longer measures up, and we find ourselves in a state of constant longing for something better. Anne doesn’t want a robotic boyfriend to supplement her current one; she’s perfectly willing to immerse herself in the artificial relationship if it produces a “caring behavior” in a “no-risk relationship” (8). Without getting into the ethical debate that Turkle found herself trapped in over whether that is something that is desirable, I think her overall point holds up: “Gradually., we come to see our online life as life itself,” and we begin to transfer over our expectations of online socialization into offline relationships (17). Our intimate relationships become more selfish and narcistic, informed by the controllable and reliable nature of online interactions. We can turn off Facebook if we’re done talking to someone; we can’t turn off our significant others or roommates. Occasionally, we are called upon by our friends to help them move or attend their bad concerts. On Facebook, our obligations end with clicking “like” and moral—though rarely actual—support is always just one post away. Certainly, this general trend is nothing new. Letter writing, phone calls, and all sorts of non-face-to-face interaction all accomplish the same thing, but it is hard to argue that the degree of control those tools granted us over interactions or the pervasiveness with which they reached out into our daily lives comes anything close to what we see today.

  3. I feel that Turkle assumes we are a monolith all in relationship with technology in the same way-- as addicts. I'm very curious to know about studies that compare the ways that introverts and extroverts interact differently with social media, especially Facebook. While there's a spectrum of introverted/extroverted behaviors (which as I understand are foremost about where people get their energy), I would hypothesize that those who are more introverted and tend to value fewer, deeper relationships would find being "alone together" and "weak ties" less fulfilling than extroverted people who tend to have a larger network of friends with whom they have weaker ties. I tend more toward the introverted end of the spectrum and find myself especially frustrated with the way that texting has taken over phone calls. I sympathize with Turkle's criticisms of the ways that technology has replaced meaningful, authentic human contact. That being said, I really value the connections I've made through Facebook to childhood friends and others from my past who I wouldn't be connected with otherwise even though these connections haven't developed into deep friendships.

    I can relate to the story that Turkle tells of the woman Skyping with her grandmother while clandestinely multi-tasking. Whenever I spend time in person with my sister, I rarely feel that she is fully present because her phone has truly become another limb! And she certainly has modeled behavior for her children who want to watch videos when I take them camping! My biggest struggle with my 8 year old niece is to get her to enjoy what we're doing in the moment and forget about "watching". As an aside, I got a text message from her (she took her mother's phone) for the first time and it was pretty adorable.

    In terms of my teaching, I'm all for allowing social media use for students to connect with each other because often at commuter schools students don't build connections with one another. If social media can help students to connect, that's one more way to support students staying in school as studies demonstrate that connecting with peers is an important factor for student retention. More importantly, these connections often lead to students supporting each other through the highs and lows. In a recent group assignment, I suggested that students determine a way to communicate with their group members outside of class and when I asked the groups to report out on their plans for completing the group work, each group had a different method for connecting with each other: email, different group chat programs, and texting. I hope connections that develop through this group project in part through technology continue beyond the purposes of this project -- even if it's through social media.

  4. Thank you for that anecdote! I feel like I have many encounters like that where I meet someone, we connect on social media, and that's basically where the friendship ends. Snapchat has actually become the main platform in which this happens for me. I have 10 or more snapchat friends who are simply people I have met in passing. I would not consider them friends, yet I see their faces everyday in their snapchat stories. Every once in a while, we will even directly communicate with each other by sending pictures back and forth.

    The main problem I have with social media is that I am only seeing brief, carefully chosen snapshots of their lives, which in turn can make my own life feel inadequate. Realistically, I know they are choosing to reveal only the very best aspects of their lives on social media, but I still sometimes find myself feeling discouraged.

    I completely agree with Turkle that these relationships cannot grow with these weak ties.The first reason is stated above. We only see what they want us to see and we only show what we want them to see. As Turkle pointed out many times, relationships are not black and white. They are messy. There are both good and bad experiences with all human relationships and that is how it is supposed to be. To only represent the very best parts of yourself is stifling what could be a meaningful relationship. I have found that when I really get to know someone or when I reveal deeper parts of myself to someone else, it usually occurs in the messiest, raw, and honest points of our lives. If we aren't revealing these parts (which we really don't on social media) then we can't establish truly meaningful relationships.

    1. Jillian, I like that you took the time to consider the complexity of all relationships. We search for opportunities to receal ourselves in the "messiest, raw, and honest points of our lives."

      Like you, I have two constant snapchat friends that I do NOT see in real-life. While I would only consider one of them to be a friend, I laugh to myself often about the ludicrousy of our relationships. I think that for me, it's more of a distraction from the strains of reality...and when I feel the need to "unplug" from the real world, I jump onto the virtual one!

  5. I share the same apprehension that others are describing regarding online “weak ties” relationships. However, I am skeptical of some of Turkle’s basic assumptions, and the anechdotes she chooses to relate to the reader. Turkle is a psychoanalist, and so it is strange that she posits that the “performance of identity” on social media “may feel like identity itself” (12). This statement is problematic, insofar, that the last fifty years of psychoanalysis / post-structural theory understands identity as just that: a performance. She then goes on to argue that robots can only offer a “performance of care.” What is “care” if not a performance? One signals “care” to the other by comporting themselves towards them in a manner which conforms to cultural scripts. Similarly, I am troubled by her various uses of “authenticity.” She employs it regarding relationships (6) in the sense of “the quality of truthful correspondence between inner feelings and their outward expression; unaffectedness, sincerity” (OED, authenticity, noun, 3. B). But she also employs it regarding the turtle (3) in the sense of “the quality or fact of accurately reflecting a model or exemplar, or of being traditionally produced or presented” (OED, authenticity, noun, 3. C), as well as, “accurate reflection of real life, verisimilitude” (OED, authenticity, noun, 1). I not trying to quibble here, but rather point out that Turkle does a disservice to her argument by not parsing her words carefully, or taking time to pin down terms. Turkle had a wonderful opportunity to consider the problem of identity and authenticity, and perhaps contrast that with how they are being effected by technology. Problematically, she comes off as something of a technological determinist as a consequence. This is to say that I do not think that these problems are new problems, but rather very old problems which are intersecting with contemporary technology. Part of me thinks that she is approaching this with too many topics in mind, and should limit herself to identity or authenticity or intimacy. This being said, I recognize that this is the introduction to a work in which she ostensibly will spend more time doing just that. However, this lack of specificity coupled with trollishly taking the extreme cases of simulacra of non-human animals, as well as, “robot” romance with human animals, raises a number of flags for me as a reader.

    1. Darisse, you make a great point! It's true that identity is indeed always a performance, and so....
      "these problems are not new problems, but rather very old problems which are intersecting with contemporary technology"

      While social media has not changed this need for performative self-representations, it may have only made these false-representations easier to access/ reveal to others.

  6. For this response, I am going to answer the question: How does frequent online communication affect the ways students connect with each other in the classroom?

    And, similarly, I am going to begin with an anecdote. I went to Braintree Public Schools from first grade to senior year, through a program called METCO in Boston. The METCO program sends inner-city Boston youth, with a pre-recognized knack for academic excellence, to suburban schools with hopes of giving these urban children a fighting chance, academically speaking. If you were in METCO and your school town was far enough from Boston, you would have a host family. Sometimes, if your school had late night events that you wanted to attend, or someone was having a party at their house over the weekend, the METCO kids would stay with their host families. Host families were incredible an incredible tool In creating ties between the outsiders and making them feel inside. However, if your school town was close to Boston (Braintree is a fifteen minute ride away), then you were without a host family as a tool to help build connection. So, starting in first grade I used AIM. Which eventually turned into a use of myspace (when my best friend from Braintree, moved to Mansfield). Which, of course became the plethora of other digital/tech outlets that we use today.

    The use of AIM allowed me to break into a world that I was not apart of. I was able to build a ten year long friendship with Ryan Gabriel, a boy that I always saw but did not know. I was able to connect with these people that I had math class with, but didn't sit close enough for me to ever communicate with. Through AIM, I was able to exist within their world in a way that I just could not do, due to distance. And, most importantly, through AIM I was able to represent myself outside of "the black girl in class" and get to know the white kids who spent History class staring at me. It was a place to, not re-invent myself, more than it was a place to represent myself and put myself out there in a way that communication in school system does not allow for. Please keep in mind, most students are not freely able to communicate about themselves, the world, or other non-academic things during regular class times.

    Which, interestingly enough, is how, I have witnessed, my students using Facebook. Students are now friends with everyone and anyone that they know or have heard of, and because of this they can build possible connections, or simply communicate with others from the comfortability of their home. Online there are no high-school rules. I can talk to the richest kid in school, Ryan Gabriel, and he could talk back to me and tell me about his girlfriends and have them run the "Jamilla Test." And similarly, my students can talk to the kid that annoys them in class, because online there are no pressures to perform academically, there is only fun, there is only communication, there is only possibilities of friendship.

  7. Erin, I love your real-world example! I definitely agree that it is important for us to take time and consider what we are giving up in relation to the benefits of digital relationships.

    I find it very interesting that Shana points to the relationship differences in introverts versus extraverts- I had been considering the same thing! I am constantly telling a few of my close friends how I value our relationships because they allow me to be social, and yet, my freedoms are not restricted in ways they otherwise would be in any other social situation. As an introverted extrovert, when I look for friends, I consider who I can feel “alone together” with. Shana mentions how introverts may value these digital relationships less than extraverts, however, I find the opposite to be true. My introverted friends use social media to keep up with the pressures of the outside world while still inside their homes, and it’s almost an escape route for them. On the other hand extraverts, including myself, are not necessarily satisfied by the delusion of these interactions, and I do not “get my social fix” simply by going on facebook, I need to be around real people. Either way, it’s an interesting consideration!

    While I applaud those who do not own a facebook account, I simply cannot give up the convenience of this communication medium. I actually think it may be a time SAVER when I consider the media that flooded my facebook feed during the presidential election. Because I could easily access the views of my “facebook friends,” I had access to true beliefs/ demonstrations that pointed toward ignorance, racism, sexism, and hateful speech. In this way, I have almost saved myself some time. Instead of hanging out with someone in order to discover our relationship compatibility, I instead ended the relationship before it began!

    I acknowledged many of these relationship problems, however, when my mom got divorced in the last year and a half and began using dating websites. She told horror story after horror story. My mom isn’t familiar with most digital communication channels, and I actually watched her transition throughout this process. While she began dating with an open mindset, the infinite options caused her to quickly become pickier and more judgemental before ever meeting the person. She also found that no matter how much she spoke with someone online, meeting someone in person is a drastically different experience and no amount of digital communication would be able to predict face-to-face compatibility. While I acknowledge similar problems through my relationship with facebook, I also don’t feel that I restrict my social interactions due to this site. I use facebook to check-in on my old sorority “big sister” in Michigan and on the fourth grade friend I never see. I also use it to ADD to my relationships by taking time to support my friends’ posts or tag someone in something that I know only they would specifically appreciate.

  8. I mainly use Instagram as my social media, and while I follow all my friends and people I meet along the way. The majority of my follows are people I do not know. Celebrities in whatever niche topic I find interesting and engaging. I don't communicate with these people and if I like a picture it could be one of thousands. Comparatively I may get fourty likes. But as the years go by, and I continue to watch these Instagram profiles grow and change or even disappear. Their 'life' is something I am invested in. For instance I follow random athletes and through out the off season and into the regular season they post pictures. And even though I don't know these people personally when they do play and experience victory or defeat I feel it more than I might have. So, while we choose who to follow, and they choose what to post. It does not change the fact that information and emotions are being exchanged. And that increases the strength of the tie

    1. I like the way you phrased that final conclusion- that's a pretty poetic way to look at the non-personal relationships we form through social media!

      When you say "the tie," do you mean your tie with the celebrities you follow or a tie to the technology itself?
      It's interesting how through these channels, celebrities have the ability to reveal themselves as ACTUAL human beings, and in turn, this can serve to strengthens our admiration/dedication to them. My guilty pleasure regarding reality TV is "Big Brother" and because I watch the contestants simply live their lives, I definitely feel as if I know them personally by the end of each season. While I don't follow many celebrities on social media, I can definitely relate to this experience of emotional connection.

  9. I have weak ties with almost everyone I know. The exceptions are my wife and my daughter. Outside of that, even my own family, I have these artificial bonds that would sever altogether if not for the internet (or family events once or twice a year). I can't help but think of online gaming and the way you described your friendship with Nancy. You applaud each other's highlights but no nothing of who they are outside of who they present online. It's almost like Facebook and other social medias have become an online game. You create an avatar and assume a personality, then play the game. In the case of Facebook, the game is, "What can I post to get a "like." Maybe not for everyone, but generally speaking.

    I may just be a old guy trapped in a young body but I loathe social media. I appreciate the good that can come from it, such as instant information sharing, or being reached in the case of an emergency, but I don't think the pros outweigh the cons here. I do miss the feeling of receiving a hand written letter, or just making plans with someone and sticking to it because there was no way to communicate (unless they were home by the wall phone). I had a few friends growing up but I feel like we all really valued our friendship and worked hard to maintain it. Now it seems like, "I liked your status on Facebook" suffices as "work" in a relationship. I secretly pray for a worldwide power outage that lasts at least a year. Just to have one more moment of communal bonding.

    The online communication in the classroom is a problem in my opinion. It's cool for "Hey, what was the homework again?" But I find with my own daughter that whatever teenage drama she gets involved with in school comes her with her now and she has access to it 24/7. My wife and I have noticed a shift in our daughter's mood at home ever since we got her a phone. She is either entirely jolly and sweet or rude and shut down, and it all depends on whats going on through snap chat or whatever else connects her to her friends. I want to shut off her phone and have her just be home when she is home, but that is a battle I haven't won yet.

    I'm sure there is a happy medium with being connected all the time, and I think it lies in moderation. Everything in moderation applies to everything (in moderation) but the willingness to unplug is the challenge.

  10. Erin, I appreciate your thoughtful reflections on Turkle and Rosen, two readings I enjoyed very much. Your story about Nancy really made me think about online relationships I've had, and the "realness" of them. In some cases, my online relationships have led to real-life relationships. Before I left for Korea, someone (who turned out to be my roommate at orientation) started a Facebook group for people who were moving to my city. Soon enough, I started talking to a few girls my age who would be at orientation with me -- we would like each other's statuses, communicate via private message etc. We got to know each other so well, that when we got to orientation a few weeks later, it was as if we already knew each other. No re-introductions were made, we just knew who each other were. We remained friends throughout the two years, and even though we were all in the same city and saw each other several times a week, we had some incredibly long Facebook and KakaoTalk chats during the school day. It's funny how close we were then, because I haven't really talked to them in a while and none of us use Facebook too much anymore. I think that, in this sense, my digital intimacy with these friends strengthened the real life, intimate friendships I had with them.

    I had fun thinking about social media and performance. When I first made a Facebook profile (I was in college, so I was a late bloomer in that regard) I remember having to think really carefully about how I was going to present myself. I went through tons of profile pictures and carefully crafted statuses before I made it active. And you know what? That's the direction everything has gone in since. There's a huge emphasis on "branding" yourself, especially in the college application world and the job market. I feel like the young generation is already quite good at this, since they've been practicing through Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. This can come with some substantial pressure though. Turkle notes that "Over time, such performances of identity may feel like identity itself" (12). When I used to blog and I met people who had been reading my blog, they kind of expected me to be as outgoing and funny as I presented myself, and were probably disappointed by how shy I actually am.

    As for students and their online communications, I really do wonder if it helps or not, but this is how students communicate and many of them are most comfortable this way. As someone who was really shy in high school and hardly ever felt I could participate in class discussions, using online tools and social media might have made me more confident. If, for example, there was a Facebook discussion on a poem, I would have commented, and then felt like I had something to say in class the next day. While there are some definite drawbacks to using social media for classwork, it can give someone a chance to get a word in edgewise.


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