Chapter 3 and Podcast 3 from Superconnected

This is one of the most original of the chapters in Superconnected. Many of the book’s chapters report how research in fields from sociology and psychology to communication, media studies, and information science can come together to explain how the digital world operates. While this chapter does that too, it features my own research on how people experience the digital. This is a line of research in which I specialize.

First, the chapter provides some background for the concept of the sociomental — the way in which spaces and bonds can be interpersonal and social yet be “housed” firmly in the mind. It examines various ways that digital “space” can be conceptualized, including the “community” and the “network,” and explains how digital environments are created and experienced as completely real, intersecting reading with the face-to-face, as described in this podcast.

In my own qualitative research, I interviewed over 200 people on the experience of being online — what it feels like, what it “does” for them. I found that is common for time spent online to have an intimate, emotionally rich dynamic. Intimacies and emotions are exchanged profusely and nearly instantaneously online. In fact, they serve as a kind of “glue” for the relationships that form there. This “emotional glue” is especially important in the absence of the “physical glue” that face-to-face interaction can provide.

Digital environments and the experiences created in them can be extremely, perhaps surprisingly, intimate. As social creatures who desire interpersonal closeness, human beings are highly creative in finding and forging intimacy, including in digital settings. While a wide variety of types of relationships can form online, spanning the spectrum of human intimacy, even the most fleeting of relationships can be highly intimate when those involved disclose a great deal about themselves and feel that they have come to understand much about the other person as well. It is this kind of personal disclosure and understanding, and the positive progression of a relationship (even if it does not turn out to be especially long term) that render it intimate and meaningful. As offline, short-term relationships can still be highly durable.

The human need and desire to form intimate relationships is so strong that it happens all the time online, often without great difficulty. Mobile and social media play a big part in this. Since many people take cell phones with them wherever they go, they can use small bits of time to check in on others and/or provide updates, whether by Facebook or Twitter or some other social media platform. Interestingly, this is how intimacy tends to develop face-to-face as well – in the small, everyday moments of connection as much as in grand gestures and experiences. And with a device with which to connect and network always at one’s side, it has never been easier to remain in constant contact with others, even a large number of others, and to find that intimacy has developed, sometimes quite unexpectedly and swiftly.

The emotions that arise in digital environments are those that sociality inspires in all of its forms. Feelings of warmth, belonging, intimacy, even excitement are commonly generated online. Fear, anger, and disgust are elicited as well. A surge of emotion often arises when two or more people feel that they “click,” whether online or offline

I have termed these emotional surges “the rush of human engagement” because they are generated in and by the human engagement so often sought and found online. In my research many described it exactly that way — as a “charge” or a “rush.” People told me of crying real tears when learning of a tragedy online, experiencing a surge of excitement upon getting good news or receiving just the right text at the right time, becoming angered or enraged when someone places a negative comment on one’s blog, or becoming downright giddy when an online exchange becomes flirtatious or romantic. These waves of emotion can provide “a rush that I really can’t explain,” as one online connector described it to me.

This “rush” of excitement can be similar to the rush one gets from drugs, sex, gambling, chocolate, and other things that activate the pleasure centers in the brain. As this woman whom I interviewed told me, “Sometimes when I get back to my room I just move the mouse and go to my favorite site and check my profile, and it’s like someone has left me gold or something!”

These feelings can be so strong and satisfying that to obtain them is often central to people’s desire to use digital technology, and social media in particular.