Online Interactions vs. Real Life

The faster is growth of online interaction, on higher increase is the society. With people spending most of their time to communicate with their friends through chat and instant messaging, its effects on real life communication cannot be ignored. However, its opponents have singled out the fact that most of friendships which are established online can never last for long since they are usually formed by people who do not know each other well, and who may even be very far from each other in terms of distance (Wing, 1). Understanding the social impacts of online communication is, thus, essential especially with the continued faster integration of various forms of online communication. This would enable people to balance between the online and the real life communication in an attempt of taking advantage of both. In hypothesizing that there is need for people to integrate both the online communication and the real life interaction for quality friendship, this write up seeks to establish the relationship between the real-life and online communication.

Calvert and Wilson (312), observe that there has been a debate as to whether the society should continue promoting online communication at the expense of real-life interaction. The debate has attracted a large number of researches with the main focus being the investigation of the kind of relationship that exists between the quality of real-life interaction and that of online communication. That is, how each of these two forms of interaction affect and is affected by the other. Wing (1), has even noted that a section of scholars have expressed their concern that real life interaction will soon be faced out if online communication is not controlled. According to him, such fears are based on the concept of reduction hypothesis which states that online communication negatively affects the quality of real life friendship, due to the fact that much of the time that people initially spent in having real life interaction is today spent interacting online. This hypothesis is to campaign for real-life interaction since its proponents view online interaction as only resulting into the formation of “weak ties” with people who are strangers to one another. It is based on an issue that the opponents of online communication have continued to argue that it can note promote meaningful interaction.

Wing (4), identifies a number of assumptions this hypothesis is based on. The first assumption is that people are normally motivated by the internet to enter into superficial online- based relationships with people they do not know, since they only meet online. The second assumption is that friendships formed through real life interaction are normally superior to the superficial online ones. Another assumption is that the time one is able to spend interacting face to face with his/her friends is displaced and greatly reduced by the increasing time people need to interact online with their strange friends. Based on the three abovementioned concerns is the last assumption, which states that online interaction reduces the quality of friendship in general.

Other scholars have also come up with a model called the “reduced social context cues model” in an attempt to provide a further explanation on the reductive effect that online communication has on real-life friendship. According to its proposers, Kiesler, Siegel, & McGiuire, real-life interaction is superior to computer mediated communication based on the fact that computer mediated communication can not apply the use of non-verbal cues which are considered vital in  interpretation of meanings during the communication process. The unavailability of such cues as gestures and the emotions that usually accompany tones creates high number of distances than is normally the case with face-to-face interaction (Kramer, 258).

Kramer (259), adds that, based on the fact that computer mediated communication provides a way in which one can interact widely with a good number of people of the same interests and hobbies, it lacks social context, and thus, utilizes reduced cues resulting into less risks of interaction between strangers which on the other hand is responsible for the “weak tie” relationship. Another premise that is rooted in this concept is that online-mediated communication is usually addictive making people to spend much of their time alone with computers during which they majorly chat with strangers leading into the formation of superficial friendships. This means that such people lack the opportunity of experiencing real life interactions and that of enjoying companionship with their family members and real-life friends. Therefore, if left to breed, computer mediated communication will eventually displace face-to-face interaction which has been dominant in the real life world.

Another argument against online communication is based on its popular applications which promote the formation of “weak ties”. Such applications are said to provide public spaces around which such people gather to meet and communicate. This way, a “network society” is created enabling individuals to find their counterparts regardless the actual geographical location of the latter. This has been the case with online services such as the social networking sites, bulletin or message boards as well as chat rooms which all promote “weak tie” formation (Leonard, 146).

On the other hand, there are those who support online form of interaction in what has been described as stimulation hypothesis. The proponents of the concept of the simulation hypothesis have argued that having  online interaction only works to improve the quality of real life interaction, and therefore, the relationship with others whom an individual thinks to be important (Ciciora, 1). Even though, those who developed the hypothesis, had used it to explain how a relationship can be formed among those, who are strange to each other, it has been adopted to explain how relationships are better maintained. It has also been used to exploit the kind of communication that takes place online among those, who had been friends with each other.

The hypothesis is based on the argument that online communication sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and others allow people to interact with the already established friends. This in its turn results into even more strong relationships than it would have been the case if people were limited to real-life interaction. This way, it keeps and strengthens those friendships that had been in existence through stimulating the closeness that exists between those in friendship (Newman, 296).

Equally, this concept is based on a number of assumptions. The first assumption is that because its auditory and visual cues are greatly reduced, it encourages the involved individuals to disclose issues concerning themselves than those interacting on face to face basis. The second assumption which is based on the first is that by intimately disclosing the self, those involved in online communication obviously attract each other’s caring, trust, liking as well as reciprocity. It is based on the two assumptions that the proponents of this concept have maintained that, as opposed to the argument of those opposing this hypothesis, computer mediated communication sets a platform on which strong ties are formed more so among those in their adolescent stage. Moreover, online communication encourages people to establish real-life friendship with the initial friends (Wing, 4).

In addition, it is noted that online communication has unique features such as lack of “gating feature” as well as anonymity which readily allows those involved to disclose themselves leading into the strong ties being formed. According to Wing (4), though the social context cues are reduced in online communication, they can adequately be replaced through the utilization paralanguages. He gives an example of smileys which can be used in the expression of emotions and can also be read to reveal the involved gestures. Its facilitation of self-disclosure makes online mediated communication a second effective tool in the interaction with fiends (Wings, 5).

The further relationship between online communication and face-to-face communication is revealed by the findings that apart from being related to the size of the social circle that an individual has, online communication is also related positively to how frequently the parties involved interact face-to-face. Wing (4), argues that just like face to face communication, technologies such as instant messaging and “I seek you” used in online communication facilitated the formation of friendships with strong ties and that of high quality.

However, for real-life interaction to benefit from online interaction there is a need for one to consider the people he/she is interacting with as well as the tools of online communication being used. This way people will be able to control the extent to which online communication will affect real-life interaction. This goes in line with the findings of most past studies that having the two forms of communication, online and real-life, run together would lead to a real-life friendship which is of a higher quality. However, researchers also seem to be in agreement that the overall time one spends with his/her friends, whether in online or face to face interaction, will determine the level of disclosure, support, and satisfaction. It is, thus, necessary that people be empowered in the utilization of online communication as a way of equipping them to be able to maintain real life friendship (Subrahmanyam and Smahel, 87). Let us now focus on the common factors that affect the effectiveness of both forms of communication.

Argument on Companionship

Companionship is basically the duration of time which real-life friends spend together. This factor has been known to mediate between the quality of friendship and communication through internet. According to the reduction hypothesis concept, those who communicate online spend most of their time communicating to those, who are not well known to them. They, thus, have minimal time to spend with their real-time friends thereby worsening the quality of their friendship and denying them a chance to enjoy companionship either with their real-time friends and the so called strangers whom they meet online (Wright and Webb, 1).

On the other hand, those who adhere stimulation hypothesis, believe that just as face-to-face communication, online interaction allows for companionship between real-life friends. Therefore,  whenever individuals spend time interacting with his/her real-life friends online, the interaction only provides them with an additional time with which they can further improve their interpersonal ties. This means that to the pre-existing friends, online communication acts as a tool to help them in the maintenance of their preexisting friendship even in the real world. This leads to a good “friendship quality” which is a prerequisite for companionship (Ciciora, 1).

The Quality of Friendship

Wing (5), defines friendship as voluntary and reciprocal relationship which is largely dependent on the kind of affection between the parties involved. He presents a model that divides the quality of friendship into negative and positive forms of interaction. He explains that positive interaction basically deals with how functional the resources are being exchanged by the parties involved in communication. On the other hand, negative interaction is determined by the structure of the kind of interdependency that exists between the involved individuals. The indicators of positive interaction include such factors as satisfaction and support while negative interaction is normally marked with such features as antagonism and conflict. Though this can be realized in both the two forms of communication, it is easier to achieve it in the real-life communication.

Self Disclosure

Just like the other two factors above, self-disclosure has also been used as a factor that determines the quality of any kind of interaction that will normally exist between two individuals. Self-disclosure is highly effective in determining such characteristics as reciprocity and trust that are all central to the formation and maintenance of any kind of friendship. People will also feel more intimate to friends with which they are able to disclose more intimate issues. A question is, thus, raised on whether online communication would achieve this high level of friendship quality. However, its proponents have argued that just like is achieved in the case of face-to-face interaction, online communication especially through instant messaging allows high levels of satisfaction, self-disclosure, and support while at the same time minimizing the number of conflicts that the individuals would involve themselves into (Trepte &Reinecke).  

People’s Perception

Some scholars have argued that whichever side one would support will basically depend on their own long made perceptions. For instance, research has found out that the perception people hold on various media characteristics normally has a great effect on the extent to which they utilize and benefit from such media, and therefore, their perception of the kind of friendship they are able to form thereafter. According to a study reported by Calvert and Wilson (314), those who spend most of their time communicating online, believe that such form of communication is deeper than that which can be achieved through face-to-face communication. Therefore, the extent to which one will use online communication will normally depend on his/her perception concerning its depth and breadth.

The relationship between the two forms of communication can also be explained theoretically. A good example of the theory that can be used in this case is the social penetration theory. It holds that the level to which any relationship can develop will normally be determined by the increase in the level of social penetration between the involved individuals (Calvert and Wilson, 314).  This happens in the case of online communication as well as that in face-to-face communication, since communication always becomes less superficial with the further development of relationships. The process is marked by deeper topic replacing other surface topics in the discussion between the two. However, studies have shown that the process is similar in either form of communication. That is, the extent to which any relating individuals will be free to disclose themselves to one another whether in online or face-to-face communication will directly depend on the quality of their relationship.

Studies have, however, revealed certain differences between the two forms of communication. The major difference criteria is the duration of the friendship established in either case of communication. Studies have overwhelmingly showed that compared to those friendships formed through face-to-face interaction, the one formed through online forms of communication lasts for a shorter period. This has been attributed to the reduced use of social cues as well as the fact that the form of communication makes it impossible for the use of non-verbal signs of communication. Moreover, online communication is also characterized with ideas which are never realistic as well as high level of deception between those who are involved. The breakups experienced in online friendship are, thus, being brought about by such factors as failure to meet one’s ideals or expectations which can be avoided in the case of face-to-face communication where people are more able to discern whether their friends have these characteristics from the very beginning of the relationship. 


The relationship between the two forms of communication is presented by the two hypotheses; reduction and stimulation. However, the reductive hypothesis has been criticized based on the fact that its findings are basically those done just after the innovation of the internet, when those, who could use the technology were still very few, and people used to basically interact with strangers whom they could meet online from across the world. Recently, most researchers have sided with the premises of the stimulation hypothesis. There is, thus, the need for an independent study, since the inconsistencies of the theory have basically been a result of an individual’s communication and use of different online tools. Just like is the case with face-to-face communication, certain technologies of online communication, such as the service messaging, promote the formation of strong ties. However, to a certain extent, it remains true that online communication normally results into the formation of “weak ties.”

Finally, it is equally true that there may be no big difference between the two forms of communication, because such relationships may begin through online communication and grow into that where parties exchange phone calls and later turn to real-life communication. This means that as the network systems is formed, a good section of the relationships that have been formed online are developing to people having direct contact. This has diffused the initially perceived boundary between the two types of communication with people coming to an agreement that the two forms of communication need each other to be effective in forming and maintaining of “strong ties.”

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