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Interview with Internet Relationship Researcher Katelyn McKenna. Posted on 07/26/2002.

In researching the effect of internet technologies on interpersonal relationships, I had the fortune of conducting an email interview with Prof. Katelyn McKenna. She's allowed me to post the exchange:


The dynamics of online relationships do differ strongly among the groups
you listed below:

> ... among friends or other platonic social groups?
> ... between lovers? in courtship?
> ... between coworkers? within organizations?
> ... between family members? both immediate family (in the same
> household)and extended family?

I'd suggest you talk with Leigh Thompson at Northwestern U in Illinois about the organizational aspects (and you may find useful her article that appeared in the same JSI issue as did mine).

> What has your research shown that others might consider surprising?

I think people tend to be most surprised by how common it is that relationships do form over the Internet, particularly as far as the romantic relationships go, and by the fact that many of these relationships are not "fly by night" but rather can turn into stable, lasting relationships that survive the transposition to the 'real world.'

> What trends do you see in how technology mediates relationships?

I think we are increasingly seeing advances in technologies that facilitate the formation and, especially, the maintaince of relationships --that strengthen the sense of connectivity to others. A good example would be the new cell phone features that are currently in use in Japan and that will soon be introduced in the U.S. These phones allow one to create a 'buddy list,' much as one can online, and inform the user not only of which of their buddies have their cellphones turned on (as well as whether they are currently engaged in actively using it) but they also provide that person's physical location (e.g., the street address where they currently are, provided that they are attached to their cell phone). Being able to see which friends and family members are available and where they are (and knowing that they can also see that you are available) can enhance one's sense of connectedness and closeness to them. Your support group is right there in front of your eyes if you need them for any reason.

[[peterme: Here's an article I found on this technology.]]

I think one of the most interesting things is the way in which people change the use of our various technologies to fit their own needs (the Internet was originally touted as 'the information super-highway' but people found it far more useful as a means for social interaction) and, if a technological advance is not fitting their needs they'll find a way around it. With the cell phone example above, for instance, a cottage industry has sprung up in Japan to circumvent just such detection-by-cell phone. Businessmen who want their employers to think that they are one place, while they are really somewhere else on company time, can go through websites to hire someone to wait with their cell phone at the place they are supposed to be, while they go elsewhere.

> What sense do you have around how new tools might affect relationships?

Advances that continue to allow individuals the choice of interacting anonymously and without physical cues in one?s initial interactions, will, I believe, remain popular. For instance, digital video cameras allow people to see one another as they interact and are inexpensively marketed. They have become popular in recent years, however, people tend to use them in their established relationships (i.e. with family and one's "real world" friends; with already-established Internet relationships). Only rarely do people turn on the "web-cam" in initial interactions with new online acquaintances. Beyond the Internet, future communication advances may well have different and no less powerful effects for self and for relationships, and what those effects will be will depend upon the interaction features (or combination of features) that they include.

> What affect, if any, do geography (whether its within the US, or
> internationally), gender, ethnicity, or household income have?

This question is really broad and each of these has multiple affects.

> And, to be kind of annoying in that reporter kind of way, What is
> the Future of Online Interpersonal Relationships?

I believe that they will become increasingly common and accepted as a normative way of interacting, meeting, and maintaining relationships with others. But if I could predict the future, I'd be a millionaire already :)

hope this helps,


2 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "The Internet and Interpersonal Relationships."
Next entry: "You know, I've never had a milkshake."


I'm sort of disturbed by the technology that allows
users to see where their friends are and if they're available... apart
from the obvious professional abuses that this can be put to
(monitoring, avoidance etc., I remember reacting with horror a few
years back when I heard that a colleague's boss could monitor the
activities taking place on each of his employees' computers in real
time) I wonder how this over-connectedness effects how users view their
own place in their social network. I mean, it's one thing to feel like
part of a group, it's another to feel like members of a group need to
be constantly informed of one anothers' whereabouts. Have we gone from
assuming that internet users were all basement-ridden depressives to a
reality where the social identities and activities of young people are
under constant observation by their peer group? (who were you talking
to just now? why are you there? I see that your there with "x") It's
the digital panopticon! Are we going to lose the concept of "private
Posted by Stacy @ 07/27/2002 09:51 AM PST [link to this comment]

First, you can always turn off your cell phone and not be tracked. It is the emotional benefits of knowing your not alone that make you leave it on so you have a view into the horizons of your social network.

Messenger and their use of alerticons demonstrate a similar emotional benefit. Currently I can see that my uncle in online and there are times I open my messenger window just to see who is there even if I don't intend to talk to any of them. There is some emotional comfort or sharing knowing that they are also on a computer looking back at my alerticon and know i am well.

In web logs there is comfort or fun in being recognized for your contribution others who link to your post. Or the process of checking your refer log to see that others are out there reading your latest post. You can get a feeling of connectedness even at a distance.

These new technologies and the connectedness they foster have measurable benefits of social capital embedded in the network structures. Some recent news article coin the term SmartMobs. SmartMobs are a manifestation of this ability to generate cooperation and coordination using mobile communication technology to coordinate active cooperation of members in the social network. Examples include the use of cell phones to coordinate protest in Seattle, enabling swarming effects that were difficult for the authorities to respond to.

James Coleman has some useful academic papers that help explain the creation of social capital from human capital and network connectivity. There are other interesting works but his seems to be most applicable to pier-to-pier technologies in a social context. Very nice article. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Stephen Dulaney
Posted by Stephen @ 08/02/2002 02:17 PM PST [link to this comment]

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