In one of my courses last week, we discussed how social networks affect a person’s health status. That is to say, how access to resources, the ability to obtain emotional support, and a sense of belonging – or the lack ofthese benefits resulting from a poor social network – can influence howhealthy a person is, both physically and mentally. At the end of the lecture,
the professor showed part
of a TEDTalk
about a composer who created a virtual choir by having people
submit YouTube videos and stitching together the result. The video had a
quotation that really struck me.

“When I told my husband that I was going to be part of
this, he told me that I did not have the voice for it. It hurt so much, and I
shed some tears, but something inside of me wanted to do this despite his words.
It is a dream come true to be part of this choir, as I have never been a part
of one. When I placed a marked on the Google Earth Map, I had to go with the
nearest city which is about 400 miles away from where I live. As I am in the
Great Alaskan Bush, satellite is my connection to the world.”

It struck me because of how often my professor, at the
close of class, kept qualifying the kind of connection about which the woman
wrote as a “virtual” one. To be sure, this extra adjective was added for the
sake of instruction. However, it reminded me of how often and unconsciously many
of us distinguish between what happens online and in
the “real world”. What we do online seems like putting on a set of virtual
reality goggles: real enough at the time, but ultimately confined to a space
that cannot affect the outside world. We
are increasingly becoming aware, though, that this is no longer the case.

Shen knows about my Tumblr. Whether he reads it or not is
another matter, but the thing he finds fascinating is not what I write but
rather how I interact with other users. For a natural extrovert like Shen who
is reasonably charming and has no anonymous or semi-anonymous social media
presence, it seems decidedly… foreign to have at least some of one’s social and
community needs met by people that one is never likely to meet in person. Shen
may not say it, but I get the sense that most people look upon these online
relationships with at least a concerned expression, if not outright derision.
It is as “sad” as falling in love with Cleverbot.

To be sure, some things are definitely lost when
relationships are confined to keyboards, but I do not think that this
necessarily makes them “not real”. I remember learning about how, when
person-to-person communication first happened online, some academics predicted
its failure due to a lack of things like nonverbal cues. What such people
neglected to realize, however, that punctuation and grammar served as a sort
visual representation of verbal cues (i.e. pacing or changes in tone).
Punctuation evolved into emoticons, which are a representation of facial cues.
Now we have Skype and a variety of other technologies that do everything but
teleport you into the room with the other person.

Perhaps the anxiety stems from a concern – well founded
and definitely real – that technology makes it easy to communicate and to deceive. We can deceive
others regarding our appearances
and even
about our very existence
in ways that would be nearly impossible in person.
Thus, denigration of “virtual” relationships seems, at least partially, a
defense against the knowledge that what happens online can feel very real
indeed. By dramatizing the risks, we encourage ourselves to stick to familiar haunts
and behaviors. These risks, however they may change in their nature, do not vanish
even with in-person relationships.

After my debacle with The
, my first call was not to Sandra or anybody I had ever seen in the
flesh. It was to someone from Tumblr. The social and emotional needs that person
filled was just as real as if I had vented my frustrations and thoughts to
someone over dinner. The fact that I had never met them did not diminish my appreciation
of their presence, no matter how far we may have been geographically. The woman
quoted during the TEDTalk did not experience a lesser degree of connection to
the world merely because it happened through a bunch of ones and zeroes rather
than at a formal gathering of people who wanted to sing at the local church. It
was just as powerful as anything that could have ever happened in “the real

The degree to which any single person may find that
resources on the Internet fulfill a social need of theirs varies, but the
ultimate goal is not to feel them sitting next to you – it is to feel them in your


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