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Real Online Relationships Don’t Require Real People

With Facebook halfway towards its mission of 1 billion users, the term “friend” has undergone something of a renovation. That person online whom you’ve never met, let alone spoken with? He or she is your friend. They may even be your best friend. And it’s in this evolving world of social networking that relationships, and even intimacy, are taking on new meaning, complete with an entirely new set of rules and precautions.


Psychologists, media, and academics have begun studying this phenomenon more closely of late. It started a couple of years ago with a fascinating New York Times article about “digital intimacy.” The article deals primarily with the transparency of Facebook and how it reveals certain personality patterns of its users. With that veil of secrecy removed, it’s led other people to analyze the changing nature of our relationships. An article last year in UCLA Magazine analyzed the merits of “virtual intimacy,” which by then had evolved into the need to find a certain level of emotional nurturing through our online relationships.

But what many of these online relationships have over our real-world ones is the greater possibility for exaggeration, fantasy, and even outright fraud. The relationships may be real, but the intentions of the people involved in them may not be. This fascinating phenomenon may be best demonstrated in the upcoming documentary film Catfish.  Slated to open in select theaters in September, the film profiles photographer Nev Schulman (one of the film’s co-directors is Nev’s brother, Ariel). While the film chronicles the burgeoning relationship between Nev and a women he meets through Facebook, it takes a dramatic turn the moment Schulman tries to pierce the fourth wall and make this virtual relationship more tangible and real.

The result is a profound and compelling work of cinema that just may be the best documentary film of 2010. But perhaps more importantly, it’s an intriguing document that shows modern man’s need to seek and maybe even exaggerate the levels of intimacy we share with strangers online. All in the name of meeting certain emotional prerequisites. And Schulman isn’t alone.

This need to find connection online has opened the door for a number of online predators looking to exploit people financially or emotionally. Those dangers have inspired a new set of rules of interaction dealing with everything from pre-teen browsing to online dating. But it’s with dating that we're seeing the greatest rise in online fraud. According to Action Fraud, the national fraud reporting center in the UK, this past summer saw an almost six-fold increase in the number of reports of “romance fraud.” In fact, this summer has seen the media report a number of high-profile online “romance scams.”

These cases tell us that, even if these relationships aren’t real, the emotional benefits derived from them certainly are. Some would even say this happens at the expense of our real-world relationships. And in the end, a tweet from a stranger may actually make us feel just as elated as a hug from a friend.

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