The relationships we form online with people we have never met in “meatspace” are real, to the extent that they involve real social transactions. But what kind of relationships are they? In what ways do they differ from actual (I use the word here to mean the opposite of ‘virtual’) relationships? Can online relationships affect and shape us in the same way?
Alfred Schutz’s work on phenomenology provides a framework for addressing this question. In his 1932 book, The Phenomenology of the Social World (Northwestern University Press, 1967), he writes:
In order to observe a lived experience of my own, I must attend to it reflectively. By no means, however, need I attend reflectively to my lived experience of your lived experience. On the contrary, by merely “looking” I can grasp even those of your lived experiences which you have not yet noticed and which are for you still prephenomenal and undifferentiated. This means that, whereas I can observe my own lived experiences only after they are over and done with, I can observe yours as they actually take place. This in turn implies that you and I are in a specific sense “simultaneous,” that we “coexist,” that our respective stream of consciousness intersect (p. 102).
Simultaneity, the ability to experience our consciousness in parallel, is a defining feature of face-to-face interactions. The outcome of this inter-subjectivity is not that we are able to “read” the other person’s mind. It is simply a realization that “I am experiencing a fellow human being.”
Of course, Schutz points out that relationships can also be based on quasi-simultaneity, such as the relationship I form with an author when reading a book, with a tool maker when inspecting tools and wondering how they were made, or–we can assume–with someone through an email exchange or online chat.
The question is whether people are able to influence each other’s behavior as effectively in a quasi-simultaneous relationship. To Schutz, the concept of social action itself is grounded on simultaneity: “In order to act socially upon an Other’s consciousness, I must pay attention to the flow of his [sic] consciousness as it occurs” (p. 148). The question then becomes: what kind of transformative prescence can I be in the consciousness of someone I only know asynchronously? Obviously, I can’t really effect the consciouness of the author of a book (especially if he or she is dead!), but what about someone with whom I communicate online, asynchronously?
Another question motivated by my reading of Schutz relates to the experience of consociates (the people I experience directly) and contemporaries (the people I know exist, but don’t experience directly). Schutz says of the latter: “while living among them, I do not directly and immediately grasp their subjective experiences but instead infer, on the basis of indirect evidence, the typical subjective experience they must be having” (p. 143). Schutz remarks that the concepts of consociates and contemporaries function as “two poles between which stretches a continuous series of experiences” (p. 177), which leads me to think of online relationships as “quasi-consociates,” people I can experience in a semi-direct way. The question, then, is not only whether the ways in which quasi-consociates shape each other’s consciousness constitutes sustainable social action, but also whether an increase in the number of quasi-consociates results in a decrease in the number of consociates (especially if we buy into the research that says our brains can only handle an average of 150 consociates). Or to put it in Hector Jose Huyke’s words: does an increase in quasi-consociates at the expense of consociates result in a “devaluation of what is near?” What does that mean for society and social action?