The Pro’s and Con’s of Online Social Constructs

Today, Belghast over at Tales of the Aggronaut posted a synopsis of a Twitter conversation he and I were both recently involved in. If you haven’t checked that one out, it’s worth a read.

In a nutshell, I was asking some questions about the differences between online relationships and real life relationships, and Bel was challenging the notion that there was even a difference. Or, more accurately, contending that the difference was only in the eye of the beholder. Bel makes it a point to ensure that he treats every single person he interacts with as a person, and not as just pixels on a screen.

Belghast Disclaimer

First off, like most of the bloggers and gamers I know, I love Belghast. From what I can tell, he is possibly one of the most sincere and honest folks you could meet on the ‘net, and I genuinely believe that he cares for every single person he interacts with. So, this response post is less of a counter-point to his post, and more of a “I see things in a slightly more complex way” post. Bel’s approach works for him, and if more people adopted it, cyberspace would be a much less toxic and more empathetic place. However, I do think that there are some other things at play that create a rather sizable grey area between Bel’s “I treat pixels like people” and the heartless troll who completely ignores the humanity behind the avatar.

Benefits of Online Social Interactions

I’m not against technology, obviously, and I believe there are several benefits to online social interaction. Never before in the history of humanity have we been able to reach out to so many people in such a short period of time. This type of connectedness results in:

  • The ability to seek out those with similar interests, and bond over our experiences
  • The ability to have a global voice, and to build confidence in the usage of that voice through practice and interactions
  • The ability to be exposed to other ideas and cultures, and to allow those ideas to challenge or strengthen our own
  • The ability to widen our circle of friends and acquaintances

From a personal perspective, I can say that I’ve benefited greatly from online social activity. I hate public speaking, and yet I now appear on three podcasts. I am not talented or diligent enough to be able to make a living in professional media, but I am still able to express myself to an audience through my blog. I’ve met probably as many interesting people on Twitter in the last two years than I have in real life in the previous twenty.

Even so, I see plenty of potential problems with strictly-online relationships. We’re in generation one of this particular social experiment, and we haven’t yet found all of the pitfalls. Even the mighty Facebook is just starting to come to terms with how to deal with real-life events.

Dunbar’s Number

My initial question to Belghast was related to whether or not he had trouble keeping up with all of his social connections. I asked this for a couple of reasons. First, since my number of Twitter connections has grown over the last year or so, I’m finding that I’m missing certain things, sometimes significant things, in my feed. It’s not just me. Go and visit a less popular or up-and-coming YouTuber and note the number of interactions he/she has with viewers in the comments section. Then, go visit a very popular channel (Shaycarl, Rhett and Link or Pewdiepie) and see how often they’re able to interact. All of these channels have built a community, but the larger the community, the shallower the relationships.

Dunbar's Number

There’s a fascinating theory called Dunbar’s Number that contends the human mind is only designed to be able to process a certain number of personal relationships. Dubar puts that number at about 150. This number is not the number of people someone knows, but rather the number of people he/she is able to keep in constant social contact with in order to maintain a relationship. Taking into account my real-life relationships (family, work, church), the number of online people with whom I can establish and keep a relationship is a somewhat small number. Probably 100 or less. I follow approximately 300 people on Twitter. which means that I will not physically (thanks, primate brain) be able to keep track of everybody to a level that constitutes a persistent relationship. Sure, I’ll interact with some folks occasionally, but many will be reduced to ‘acquaintance’ status due to this limitation. Even though we are exposed to more viewpoints and opinions than ever before, Dunbar’s number remains constant. We may know more people, but that only contributes to a greater number of relationships with less relative depth.

Lack of Physical Contact

Someone who jumped into the twitter conversation yesterday likened a Twitter feed to being at a party. We pay attention to the conversations that we want to and ignore the rest, or we can jump in and out of various interactions. I actually think this is a pretty good comparison. Then again, parties aren’t exactly known for producing the deepest bonds of friendship, either. I do think that friendships can start at parties as you become acquainted with a large number of people, but those relationships only develop after additional in-depth, repeated interactions. And, according to Dunbar, this can only be done with a limited number of people.


This particular analogy reminds me of an interaction I had just the other day. One of the people I follow had experienced a personal tragedy. I truly felt bad for this person, and expressed (as best I could in 140 characters or less) my sympathy. And, I genuinely did (and do) feel bad that they are going through this. But, a few minutes later, the feed kept flowing, and other jokes and conversations pulled me out of my short funk and allowed me to carry on, even though my Twitter friend likely spent the rest of the day dealing with this horrible event. In a way, I feel guilty for not empathizing more, but such is the nature of the online relationship. How would I have acted differently if my friend and I were having a coffee together when he broke this news to me? How much more attention would I have given him if I could feel the pain in his face, if I’d seen the silent tears? How much deeper would our connection be if I was able to hold his hand as he looked me in the eye and asked “why did this happen?”

If I stopped all online social interaction tomorrow, how long would it take someone to notice? Would my absence actually leave enough of a hole in people’s everyday routine that they would seek me out? Or would that hole in Dunbar’s 150 simply be filled by another tweeter/blogger without much of a beat being missed? I suspect the answer to this question is directly proportional to how deep of a relationship one has established with me, but I would also contend that it would be more easily filled if our relationship is based purely on online interactions. There is something to be said for physical connections. There was an entire tweet-thread last week that included taking pictures of hand written notes instead of simply typing the intended message. I heard it stated that seeing people’s handwriting made the message seem more personal. Why? Because of the physical connection associated with somebody’s handwriting. I received an actual card in the mail from one of my Twitter friends a few days ago, and holding that card in my hand, reading the humorous note, immediately made this person more “real” to me. The personality jumped out of the ink. This isn’t to say that the person was not real to me before (in fact, I’m quite fond of her), just that there are various degrees of “realness”, and for me, at least, physical connection enhances the depth of the relationship.

Lack of Non-Verbals

My real life friends tell me that I’m a good listener. This is probably surprising to some readers since all I ever do here is “talk”. I would argue that I’m not really a very good listener, but I am pretty good at picking up non-verbal cues. So, regardless of whether I really hear and understand everything you say, I am usually able to figure out how you are feeling while you’re saying it. That is sometimes even more important, because it allows me to quickly respond appropriately during a conversation. It allows me to share in a reassuring smile, or laugh at a funny story, sympathize with a stressful situation, or put the entire conversation into context. As humans, we’re wired to be able to take in our entire environment when communicating. The inflection of the voice, the position of the eyebrows, and the body demeanor are all as important as the words being used to communicate. But with very few exceptions, only the words are available during online interactions. While there seems to be some debate on whether the amount of human non-verbal communication can be quantified, it seems that at least 60% of our communication is non-verbal, with some estimates much higher. With 60-90% of our communication absent from online interactions, is it any wonder that they can seem less “real”? Is it at all surprising that it’s more difficult to achieve real depth?


The sheer amount of interaction, the newness of the medium, the lack of physical connection, and the absence of nonverbals all lead me to think that the development and maintenance of online relationships is not as straightforward as “real or not real”. Thinking through this topic has led me to one certainty: online relationships are just as complex and convoluted as real-life ones.


Featured Image by SumAll on Flickr

Twitter photo by Matthew Burpee on Flickr

Connection. photo by xxFr0z3n on Flickr

The Explanation photo by Chris Hunkeler on Flickr


23 thoughts on “The Pro’s and Con’s of Online Social Constructs

  1. Fredelas (@BrandywineFred) February 14, 2015 / 9:30 pm

    In person, I’m fond of giving tackle-hugs. Kind of like a puppy that has been waiting all day for you to get home. I don’t think there’s a good analog for this online. Well, you tell me:


    How did that feel?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Syl (@Gypsy_Syl) February 15, 2015 / 4:45 am

    I think it can be perilous to rely on online relationships that have never been tested for reals. After meeting online friends a few times in the past, I have personally become more careful and well, sobered is a good word. I do believe that the shared joys and online hugs are genuine (mostly) and many of us are more freely who they are online – yet, what we do on twitter and elsewhere is only a facet of ourselves that we celebrate together. It’s easy and it’s selective and we don’t have to take the bad with the good, which real life relationships are all about. Twitter is an artificial environment and as you said, a flawed one. It’s a wonderful place for good feels and togetherness which hey, is perfectly good and okay but isn’t the same as friendship.

    Who is the real person? The facet we glimpse online and show each other? Or all the other stuff that rolls back the moment we meet IRL? It’s a difficult question but for me personally, true friendships are all about knowing (and loving despite or for) the weaknesses of somebody, the not-so happy faces and inadequacies. It’s putting up with shit and truly being there despite of it, without mute and unfollow buttons. That is something we are lucky to find once or twice in life, certainly not hundreds of times.

    I’ve given a lot of thought to this lately in regards to my own online relationships; would I be part of this group irl? Would we even talk to one another? Would the same people like me or I like them? I have no idea. And maybe the right thing is not to look for an answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Branhild February 15, 2015 / 10:29 am

    Thanks Brax. I find my online interactions are very sporadic. Between family and work, I can be off twitter for days. I still like to go back and look at posts, but do not comment due to the timing.
    Then when I do get to some I still hit personal walls. Last week I read a blog post and spent some time on a comment, probably more personal than ever, to only have it blown away when submitting. Then I could not remember all of what I had said. I left a simple note instead. I still feel bad.


  4. Pasduil February 15, 2015 / 2:12 pm

    I could write lots on this topic, but I don’t have the time just now. But I’ll throw in a couple of thoughts for the moment…

    1) The start of being a good listener is recognizing how bad of a listener you are! If you are even aware of that, or just that there is some actual skill involved in listening, you’re already ahead of most people.

    2) When it comes to non-verbal communication, voice is a giant leap over text. In some ways voice-only is even better than face-to-face, possibly because what might be missing in terms of body language is often more than made up for by having to pay more attention to what is actually being said and how. Anyway, I think that is a strength of podcasting, and I for one generally feel like I know people who I’ve heard on podcasts a lot better than those I know only from their writings.


  5. Liore February 15, 2015 / 4:25 pm

    Like Pasduil I also have to comment and run, and some of it I want to address better in a post next week, however…

    I think your cons are cons of Twitter in particular and not online-only social interaction in general. For example, video hangouts give you the sense of physicality that you mention even if it’s not contact per se, and Pasduil already mentioned voice chat. Interacting via blogs adds more context to the relationship than just over Twitter, for example, particularly if (like Bel and I think myself) you tend to have a more confessional writing style.

    Twitter is a great place to meet a bunch of people, and to have short discussions on things. It’s also terrible at anything in-depth. But that’s a flaw of Twitter, not online friendships/relationships in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Braxwolf February 15, 2015 / 7:51 pm

      Good points. Technology is getting closer to bridging the gaps mentioned in my con’s. Though I think the ratio of people using voice and video chats versus text-only is still fairly low. I also realize that I’m attempting to point out flaws of online communication to a bunch of people who use it daily and have seen some real, tangible benefits, so there’s that. 🙂

      However, en masse, I think we’re still trying to figure it out. I’m not sure all of the pitfalls have yet revealed themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Isarii March 29, 2015 / 9:44 pm

        I think there’s two perspectives most of us, in our brand of nerdom, share on online relationships in general. There’s the relationships we have on Twitter, forums, in the comments sections of our blogs (or, God forbid, YouTube videos), etc…, but there’s also the relationships we form in-game and over voice chat with our guildmates.

        These are the ones I feel a lot of the dissent will stem from, as it is incredibly easy to grow close to those people. If you’re using voice chat every time you’re online, and you’re online most days, the relationships develop are something akin to having a circle of friends who dwell in your living room. Those people, I feel, can easily make Dunbar’s cut, even with the lack of physical contact or availability of nonverbal cues.

        Really enjoyed the article by the way – good food for thought.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. DJPimpDaddy (@djpimpdaddy) February 17, 2015 / 2:40 pm

    Its much more depressing knowing that when you simply stop tweeting someone else will just take the “150th spot”. This is too deep to think about on a Tuesday. Thanks Obama. (good read though)


  7. Jenny (@AraeElimraeni) May 19, 2015 / 10:50 am

    Follow up to my comment on DJPimpDaddy’s post 🙂

    This is super interesting Brax. I’ve spent most of my afternoon thinking about this and trying to order my thoughts into a sensible comment! Here’s my attempt – mostly focusing on Twitter and LotRO.

    There are a lot of people I can think of, from LotRO/the LMB and Twitter, who I really like, and feel very fond of. I love kinchat ingame, and I love catching up on/joining in with conversations people are having on Twitter. I have a higher opinion of lots of people than they are aware of, I’m sure :p So it’s a weird feeling to think that these same people might not even be comfortable with telling me their real name, let alone anything else about their ‘real lives’.

    In part, this is because I have, for about the past decade, been part of another online community, a fansite for a series of books. For the most part, the members met online. They became members of the site because they are fans of the books. But most of them, and there are a lot of them, are now friends on Facebook, know and call each other by their real names on the site, even though we all have site aliases and avatars, and regularly hold RL meetups (people literally fly halfway round the world for the more ‘official’ parties). We know who each other are, can put faces to names even if we’ve never actually met, and that makes for a really special community feel. I love that, and I’ve got used to it, so to come into the social side of LotRO quite late (about a year ago) and to find myself now feeling just as fondly about some of the LotRO community but unable to connect with them in any more meaningful way (or, at least, unsure of how to initiate that kind of relationship development), does make me a little sad. I appreciate and completely understand that for some people the option of being an MMO player while remaining basically anonymous – being a known name and personality but without the risk of any personal RL stuff getting ‘out there’ – is part of what makes it so appealing, or even possible. I don’t really like the distance that that puts between us, but obviously that’s not up to me, which is fine :p

    I feel like I try hard to be ‘known’ as me, to talk like Jenny all the time, though of course there are underlying issues surrounding approval, the face you present to the world, the ‘non-live’ conversations like those we can have on Twitter that mean that I am probably doing some level of image management no matter how real I think I’m being (evidence: it has taken me approx 4.5 hours so far to write this comment :p). As limiting as the online medium might be, I also like to think that the people I chat to online aren’t being fake – just constrained by character limits, or only having words to express themselves, or whatever. But all friendships have to start somewhere. I have a couple of good friends who I originally met through a LotRO kin. They’re both very special to me and I hope to be able to meet them both in person one day.

    DJPimpDaddy’s letter reminded me of just how much I would *love* to be able to get together with a whole bunch of LotRO players in the same actual room and play the game with them. The dream would be to gather everyone in front of a cinema screen with their computers and have everyone play together :p. But yes, I also see the point that if we did all meet there would be sure to be personalities that rubbed each other the wrong way, characters that clashed, etc.

    There are a lot more tangents that my brain wants to go down on this topic but I have to go out so I’ll stop there.

    To sum up: I’m Jenny and if you’re reading this I probably like you 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Braxwolf May 19, 2015 / 12:35 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to leave this comment! I’m appreciative of folks who are better at forming/sustaining online relationships than I am. I think some took my post as me being a somewhat cold and distant person, and that’s not what I was hoping for in the least. I do have some strong affinities with people who I’ve met online, and I hope that shows through as genuine. But when I compare those relationships with my family, or small Bible study groups who meet weekly IRL, there is certainly a closeness difference, there. Or maybe it’s just different.

      This is a great comment. Maybe you should have your own blog!


      • Jenny (@AraeElimraen) May 20, 2015 / 11:02 am

        I’ve never seen you come across as anything other than friendly and sincere! I agree there’s always going to be a difference between RL relationships and online ones. It’s always lovely to find people who you really click with online, but for me when that happens there’s always the desire to meet – I’m not totally content to keep it just online if I can help it. Often I can’t help it though 🙂 I suppose time will tell whether these friendships will last.

        As for having my own blog, I do have one actually, but it’s more of an ‘Arae’s Adventures in Wonderland’ picture/story/diary thing that I do for myself. Maybe I should put some words on it sometime too, and then maybe even tell some people about it :p

        Liked by 1 person

    • Braxwolf July 15, 2015 / 8:42 pm

      How did I not know about your blog until now? Very cool, excited to find another great site to read.


      • Noctua July 16, 2015 / 3:43 am

        Same foes for me! Well my blog is new, we just started up a little over 2 months ago.


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