Computer-mediated communication and the sense of social connectedness

by rhollerith_dot_com1 min read18th Mar 201112 comments


Personal Blog

IMHO there is little chance that an online-only community could replicate the successes (many friendships among the members, very high levels of enjoyment, motivation and engagement) of LW NYC.

Why not? Well, at the risk of putting off those readers who dislike explanations from evolutionary psychology, friendship relies on complex functional adaptations that were "tuned" or "designed" by natural selection for an environment in which every friendship has significant costs. By "costs" I mean that either the friends had to pay the social cost (which was significant in the ancestral environment) of being seen to be talking to each other or they had to go to significant trouble to talk without being observed. Even after the rise of the city (where unlike in the ancestral environment, most observers do not care who you talk to) maintaining a friendship had costs, in that the friends have to commit to being at a particular location at a particular time, incur transportation costs, etc.

My theory is that there is important information in whether (and how readily) a friend continues to choose to incur the costs of maintaining an off-line friendship and that when that source information is lost, most people have trouble accurately assessing the value of the relationship and start to make bad decisions on how much time and mental energy to invest in the relationship.

IMHO the same argument from evolutionary psychology holds to a lesser extent for the sense of belonging that people feel for various groups and communities. There was for example probably nothing like a lurker in any community before the online communities enabled by the BBS, the (now defunct) proprietary computer networks and the global internet.

Online-only communities and using the internet to keep up with friends can be extremely useful of course, but a person should watch out for the common failure mode in which online participation lulls one into a false sense of belonging or connectedness which prevents one from deriving the benefits people can get from things like NYC LW and the visiting fellow program in the Bay Area -- benefits that most people here should pursue and that are not available without face-to-face interaction.


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I find in-person interaction no more satisfying than online interaction (with a couple of caveats related to physical touch, which is hard to convey across the Internet, and food, similar). I would almost always rather IM someone rather than speak out loud via any medium, even when both are equally convenient.

Maybe I'm just "doing it wrong", but interacting offline is frustrating. People literally do not understand me when I talk: a majority of human beings need me to repeat myself several times, or speak unnaturally slowly (which makes it harder for me to hold onto my train of thought), before they comprehend words I speak, and this includes folks who've known me my whole life, and it gets worse when I'm excited or agitated. People interrupt me and I hate it, and I interrupt them and I can't seem to stop unless I commit to not speaking at all. I can't keep track of what's been said and I sorely miss the ability to go back and read upthread or search through a chat log (and the ability to quote things to others who misremember). The thoughts communicated are shorter, which can sometimes lead to pith but just as often leads to shallowness. I am not good at using tone of voice or body language to communicate, and a lot of people will draw flat-out wrong conclusions about me or what I'm saying by trying to interpret the noise I inadvertently send through those channels. On a pretty regular basis I'll be hung up on some word the other person says, which (through accent or lack of context or an actual misuse) I do not understand, and I have to ask my interlocutor to spell it so I can see it in my mind and figure out what the hell they mean.

Meeting in person requires a compromise on my control of my physical environment. I have to sacrifice my ability to moderate my sensory input - I might have to be out in unkind-to-me weather, or stand around until my feet hurt, or crowd in somewhere where I don't get a bubble of personal space, or suffer kinetosis, during either transit to the meeting or the meeting itself. I can't process competing audio tracks, and any sort of venue background noise can cripple my ability to recognize the stream of verbiage emitting from a companion's mouth, while I have no corresponding difficulty for reading text off my screen in the sensory safety of my own room. The world outside is navigable, but complex - often to the point of seeming hostile - and talking to people is a really complicated task to add to that navigation.

Meeting in person makes it almost impossible to politely multitask or task-switch, and I could count on one hand the number of people who have ever become so engaging that I didn't want to do something else besides talk to them at the same time. (And that handful of people don't manage it consistently!)

And that's when I'm only trying to talk to one person.

I can't process competing audio tracks, and any sort of venue background noise can cripple my ability to recognize the stream of verbiage emitting from a companion's mouth

Is there a name for this? Have people studied this problem? I might have an identical or related problem.

Sensory Processing Disorder and/or autism. The two go together quite often; I've learned a lot about them from my 4-year-old. "The Out-of-Sync Child" is the classic text on SPD.

SPD treatment basically involves acclimitization via "sensory diets".

Thank you.

OK. So were the months you spent as a visiting fellow living at Benton Street not worth the reduced control over your physical surroundings and the rigors of travel across the continent?

It is more likely than not that I would have derived immense enjoyment from living at Benton Street for a few months. ("would have" because Benton Street is no more.) Did you not?

1) I had my own room in Benton. (At one time I voluntarily invited another person into it, but we were dating, which changed the dynamic of space-sharing as far as my brain was concerned.) At any time, I could retreat to that space, which I controlled. Ambient noise was a problem only once, when I was having an extremely unusual episode of sound-processing-fail.

2) I will tolerate various amounts of travel for various amounts of time to be spent at point B. I spent several months in California; flying across the country was comparatively trivial. (Similarly, I flew to and from Scotland to spend a semester there; this was an acceptable tradeoff.) Travel on a municipal level to spend a few hours someplace is usually a less favorable ratio.

3) My ability to handle all the mentioned hassles fluctuates, a lot. By living with other people, I could instantly take advantage of any handling-stuff-capacity I found that I had to spare. It was a matter of walking out of my room and seeing what company was to be had. If I merely live in the same town as someone, I cannot instantaneously venture out to see them, nor retreat, especially if advanced scheduling is involved.

4) Nota bene: Holding a meetup in the place where I live (which I did once, when I was still in Connecticut) changes multiple relevant variables for the better.

Thanks for the replies. Interesting.

I'm not seeing how it's going to cost you much to be seen talking to someone else, unless you're, say, clearly plotting against the rest of the village. On the contrary, popularity is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the sense that people who already have a strong social network tend to make more friends and acquaintances, thereby gaining new allies and potential mating partners. How is this a bad thing?

You appear to have broken code.

Yeah. When I went to fix it, the software told me I am posting too fast and have to wait another 6 minutes.

That sounds like a bug. We should not throttle editing of existing posts.

I was definitely annoyed for a minute or 2.