Study 1, a survey of randomly selected Internet newsgroup posters, showed that those who better express their true self over the Internet were more likely than thers to have formed close on-line relationships and moved these friendships to a face-to-face basis. Study 2 revealed that the majority of these close Internet relationships were still Intact 2 years later. Finally, a laboratory experiment found that undergraduates liked each other more following an Internet compared to a face- to-face Inltlal meeting. The Internet has become a prime venue for social Interaction (DAmlco, 1998).
Through e-mail, chat rooms, Instant messaging, newsgroups, and other means, people are sharing aspects of their daily lives, talking about interests with likeminded thers, and keeping in touch with family and friends. Social interaction has become the primary use of home computers (e. g. , Moore, 2000). In the midst of all this social activity, people are forming relationships with those whom they meet on the Internet ”especially those with whom they interact on a regular basis. In many if not most ways, social interaction on the Internet resembles that in traditional, face-to-face venues (see Tyler, this issue).
However, we will argue that there are some important differences. For example, there are qualities of Internet communication and nteraction, such as Its greater anonymity, that are known to produce greater intimacy and closeness. There are aspects of the Internet Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Katelyn Y. A. McKenna, Department of Psychology, New York University, 6 Washington Place, Seventh Floor, New York, NY 10003 [e-mail: [email protected] nyu. edu]. Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by a Research Challenge Fund grant from New York university to McKenna. c 2002 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues 10 McKenna, Green, and Gleason hat enable partners to get past the usual obstacles or “gates” that in traditional the ground. Still other features facilitate relationship development by providing meeting places for specialized interests, so that members have important features in common from the start. Special Qualities of Internet Communication The Intimate Internet Considerable research on intimate relationships has shown that both selfdisclosure and partner disclosure increase the experience of intimacy in interactions (e. g. Laurenceau, Barrett, & Pietromonaco, 1998; Reis & Shaver, 1988). However, disclosing uite intimate information about oneself normally occurs only after liking and trust have been established between relationship partners. As Derlega and Chalkin (1977) posited, individuals usually do not engage in self-disclosure with one another until they are confident that they have formed a “dyadic boundary,” ensuring that information disclosed by one is not leaked by the other to mutual acquaintances. Even so, such a dyadic boundary may be violated or the other member may respond negatively to the disclosure.
As Pennebaker (1989) and others (e. g. , Derlega, Metts, Petronio, & Margulis, 1993) have noted, there are clear dangers in disclosing personal information, such as the risk of ridicule or outright rejection by one’s friends and family. The relative anonymity of Internet interactions greatly reduces the risks of such disclosure, especially about intimate aspects of the self, because one can share one’s inner beliefs and emotional reactions with much less fear of disapproval and sanction (see McKenna & Bargh, 1999, 2000). In this way, self-disclosures with on-line acquaintances are similar to the “strangers on a train” phenomenon (e. . , Rubin, 975), in which people sometimes share quite intimate information with their anonymous seatmates. Derlega and Chaikin (1977) note that people often engage in greater self-disclosure with strangers, because a stranger does not have access to a person’s social circle, and thus the dyadic boundary cannot be violated. Unlike with the stranger on a train, however, people often have repeated interactions with those they get to know on-line, so that early self-disclosure lays the foundation for a continuing, close relationship.
Getting Past the Gates A second reason for greater self-disclosure on-line is the lack of the usual “gating eatures” to the establishment of any close relationship”easily discernible features such as physical appearance (attractiveness), an apparent stigma such as stuttering (McKenna & Bargh, 1999), or visible shyness or social anxiety. These Relationship Formation 11 gates often prevent people who are less physically attractive or socially skilled from developing relationships to the stage at which disclosure of intimate information could begin.
Research has long shown the strong impact that these features have not only upon first impressions, but also in determining whether a friendship or romantic Internet such features are not initially in evidence and thus do not stop potential relationships from getting off the ground. We will return to this topic again in Study 3. Finding Similar Others The unique structure of the Internet allows individuals to easily find others who share specialized interests. We tend to be more attracted to others who are similar to ourselves and share our opinions (e. g. , Byrne, 1971).
Even within longstanding relationships, the more similar two people are, the more compatible they are, and the more likely married couples are to remain together (e. g. , Byrne, 1997). However, it may be hard to find others who share one’s interests in one’s local area, and when people get to know one another in the traditional manner, it generally takes time to establish whether they have commonalities and to what extent. But when someone joins a newsgroup devoted to, for example, aging ferrets, he or she already knows that there is a shared base of interest with the others there.
This allows the members to move quickly forward to find out what other key interests they might share and may provide a headstart to relationships. Implications of the Distinct Qualities for Relationship Formation It should be the case that relationships will develop closeness and intimacy significantly faster over the Internet than will relationships begun off- line, because of the greater ease of self-disclosure, as well as the founding of the relationship on more substantive bases, such as shared interests (as opposed to physical attractiveness alone).
If it is the case that these relationships form on the basis of deeper and more substantive factors, one would expect not only that these relationships will become intimate quickly, but that they will be stable over time. Relationships formed on these grounds should also be able to better survive a face- to-face meeting, when gating features do come into operation. What Is Disclosed in Self-Disclosure?
The self-relevant information that one shares with a relationship partner in the course of developing trust and intimacy is not the widely known features of one’s public persona or “actual self” (Higgins, 1987), but the identity-important yet usually unexpressed aspects of oneself. What we refer to here as the “Real Me” 12 is that version of self that a person believes he or she actually is, but is unable to or revented from (for any of a variety of reasons) presenting to others in most situations (see Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, this issue, for more on alternative versions of self).
This concept is derived directly from Carl Rogers’ (1951) therapeutic notion of the “true self””that of the client feeling “he was not being his real self … and felt satisfaction when he had become more truly himself” (p. 136). The special qualities of Internet communication discussed above would be expected to have the general effect of facilitating disclosure and expression of the inner or true elf, compared to face-to-face interaction, in which one’s usual or “actual” self- interaction settings do facilitate expression of the true self for the average person in an initial meeting with a stranger.
Our focus here is on individual differences in the degree to which a person expresses his or her trueself concept over the Internet rather than in “real life” interaction settings. Those who do, we believe, will be more likely than others to form close and meaningful Internet relationships. Who Will Form Strong Internet Relationships?
Logically, those individuals who are able to find similar others in traditional settings, ho are able to get past the usual gating features by force of personality, attractiveness, charm, or wit, and who have the social skills needed to communicate themselves well and effectively have little need to express their true selves or “Real Me” over the Internet. The rest of us should be glad that the Internet exists. For to the extent one is commonly blocked from establishing relationships for any of the above reasons, one will have a stronger, unmet need to express his or her true self.
Thus we would expect people who are lonely or are socially anxious in traditional, face-to-face nteraction settings to be likely to feel better able to express their true self over the Internet and so to develop close and meaningful relationships there. A second reason why Internet relationships should become important to the individual follows from social identity theory. Representations of external social entities, such as groups, through which the individual defines his or her identity tend to become incorporated into the self-concept (see Spears, Postmes, Lea, & Wolbert, this issue).
Recent conceptualizations of the self as relational in nature (e. g. , Chen & Andersen, 1999; Baldwin, 1997), in fact, also hold that one’s self becomes “entangled” or defined in large part in terms of those important relationships. Therefore, we would expect people who express and disclose their true self more over the Internet to consider the relationships they form there to be identityimportant, whereas those who better express and disclose these aspects of self with those they meet off-line should tend to consider off-line, non-lnternet relationships 13 more defining of their identity (and thus more important).
That is, where the person ocates his or her “Real Me,” on- versus off-line, should mediate whether or not he or she forms close relationships on the Internet. Turning Virtual Relationships Into Social Realities What will the fate of these relationships be? Will they be confined forever to cyberspace? We do not believe so. From separate lines of research on social identity, it is known that people are highly motivated to make important aspects of identity a “social reality’ (Gollwitzer, 1986), through making them known to their social circle of friends and family (see Deaux, 1996; McKenna & Bargh, 1998).
When one combines he principles of the social identity and the relationalself theories, a novel and potentially important hypothesis emerges about the fate of relationships formed over the Internet. If, as these theories hold, people are motivated to make important new relational self posit”important relationships also become aspects of one’s identity, then people should be motivated to make their important new relationships a social reality, that is, to bring them into their “real lives,” to make them public and face to face.
Being the Real Me: A Model of Relationship Formation on the Internet We propose hat those who feel that they can better express their true selves on the Internet than they can in their non-lnternet areas of life will be more likely to form close relationships with those they meet on-line. We include as two determinants of who might be more likely to locate their true selves on-line those who (1) experience social anxiety in face-to-face settings and (2) are lonely. However, there are likely several other such determinants (e. g. single working parents with little time for a social life), and by no means is it Just the anxious or lonely who will form close relationships over the Internet (as our results show). Those who locate their true selves on-line, as opposed to off-line, will feel that their on-line relationships develop much more quickly than do their non-lnternet relationships, these relationships will be close and meaningful, and they will be motivated to move these relationships into their face-to- face lives through a series of stages. These close relationships should also be durable and stable over time.
In order to test these predictions, we conducted two surveys and a laboratory experiment. In Study 1 we examined whether those who do locate the true self more on-line are indeed more likely to form close virtual elationships and to then integrate these relationships into their off-line lives. Study 2 examined the stability of these relationships 2 years later. Our third study is an experimental test of the role that anonymity and gating features play in the development of feelings of liking for another in on-line versus face-to-face interactions. 4 Study 1 : The On-Line Real Me and Internet Relationship Development Method Sampling of newsgroups. A set of 20 Usenet newsgroups was randomly selected for this study. At the time of the study, there were approximately 16,000 newsgroups in existence. We eliminated “personals” and “penpals” newsgroups because we were interested in relationships that formed naturally from Internet interactions per se, not because the individuals were deliberately using the Internet in order to find partners.
The universe of potential newsgroups was further restricted to those in which there were at least 75 posts per week and in which at least half of the posts were targeted solely to that newsgroup. This left a final population of approximately 700 newsgroups. The sample of newsgroups was randomly selected from this set in proportion to the number of newsgroups available in each of the seven major Usenet ierarchies, in order that the final sample would be representative of all Internet newsgroups. Accordingly, newsgroups were selected from each of the hierarchies. (Examples of those included are talk. olitics, rec. pets. cats, comp. unix. programmer, Measures. The survey contained 36 items designed to assess the relation between (a) social anxiety, (b) loneliness, (c) expression of the real self, (d) the type of relationship formed, (e) the depth of the relationship formed, and (f) behavioral actions in on-line settings (e. g. , exchanging electronic mail) as well as in “real life” settings (e. . , having an affair, meeting in person). To create the indices described below, scores on each item were first separately standardized and then the mean of the items taken.
Six items from Learys (1983) Interaction Anxiousness Scale measured the respondents’ level of social anxiety in face-to-face situations, along with five items from the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, 1996). Four additional questions addressed the location of the respondent’s real self” whether the respondent felt that he or she could more easily share central aspects of identity with Internet friends than with “real life” riends or vice versa. Two items, to which the respondent answered either “yes” or “no,” were: “Do you think you reveal more about yourself to people you know from the Internet than to real life (non-‘Net) friends? and “Are there things your Internet friends know about you that you cannot share with real life (non-‘Net) friends? ” A further two questions assessed the extent to which the respondent expressed different facets of self on the Internet than he or she did to others in real life and the extent to which a respondent’s family and friends would be surprised were they to ead his or her Internet e-mail and newsgroup postings. These last 2 questions were rated on 7-point scales, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (a great deal). Another question addressed the intimacy of relationship formed.
On a 4-point scale (1 ” acquaintance, 2 = friend, 3 = very close or “best” friend, 4 = romantic 15 partner), respondents rated the closest Internet relationship they had formed to that point in time. To measure the closeness of the relationship formed via the Internet, 10 items were taken from Parks and Floyd’s (1995) Levels of Development in On-Line Relationships Scale. A question was included assessing the pace at which the respondents felt that their new on-line relationships generally develop as compared to new face-to-face relationships on a 3-point scale ranging from 1 (typically slower) to 3 (typically faster).
Relevant behaviors were measured in both the on-line and off-line domains. Respondents were asked to respond whether (yes or no) they had engaged in specific activities with the person they feel closest to on the Internet and the frequency of each of those activities in an average week. Items measuring on-line behaviors asked bout exchanging e-mail and chatting on-line. Items measuring off-line activities concerned talking on the telephone, writing letters through the mail, and meeting one another in face-to-face situations.
Additional behavioral measures included whether the respondent had ever had an affair with, or become engaged to, someone he or she had met via the Internet (yes or no). Procedure. Over a 3-week period, questionnaires were e-mailed to every fifth poster and individuals who cross-posted to other newsgroups, until a total of 100 posters in each newsgroup had been sent a survey. In the event that the fifth poster had lready been selected for the survey or that the poster did not fit the qualification for inclusion in the survey, the next (sixth) poster was selected. Results and Discussion Sample characteristics.
Of the 2,000 surveys sent to posters, 568 were completed and returned. An additional 317 surveys were undeliverable. The response rate was thus 34%. The sample was composed of 333 females (59%) and 234 males (41 The age of respondents ranged from 13 to 70, with the mean age being 32 years. Participants had been using the Internet for a mean of 34 months (ranging from 1 to 243 months). Creation of indices. The items constituting the Social Anxiety index had an associated reliability coefficient (Cronbach’s alpha) of . 81 , and the items related to the Loneliness index had a reliability coefficient for the index of . 8. The associated reliability coefficient for the 4 items related to the expression of the Real Me was . 83. Similarly, the 10 items involving the Closeness of the relationship possessed a reliability coefficient of . 93. In order to test the hypothesized mediational model, we conducted a structural equation modeling analysis of the relations between Social Anxiety, 16 Fig. 1 . Structural equation modeling analysis of the hypothesized determinants of Internet relationship formation and the transition of these relationships into real life, Study 1. Note. Only statistically reliable paths shown. * p < . 05. p < . 01 . < . 001 . Loneliness, the Real Me, Relationship Intimacy, Closeness, On-Line Behaviors, and Off- Line Behaviors. As can be seen in Figure 1, the predicted model was argely confirmed. Structural equation modeling analysis. First, as predicted, locating the Real Me on the Internet is significantly more likely for those who experienced higher levels of social nxiety and loneliness. Those who have a more difficult time with traditional social interactions and who feel more isolated and lonely turn to the Internet as a means of expressing facets of themselves that they are unable to express in their non-lnternet lives.
The next step of the model calls for the location of the Real Me to mediate between social anxiety and loneliness, on the one hand, and the benefits of fuller self- expression and disclosure, on the other. In support of this prediction, it can be seen in Figure 1 that the more people express facets of the self on the Internet that they annot or do not express in other areas of life, the more likely they are to form strong attachments to those they meet on the Internet. Indeed, their on-line relationships generally develop more quickly as compared to their non-lnternet relationships.
They conversations, exchanging letters and pictures, and meeting them in person. Finally, these Internet relationships can become quite intimate, as those who feel their real selves reside on the Internet, compared to those who don’t, are significantly more likely to become engaged to, or have an affair with, someone they met on the Internet. In sum, Internet acquaintanceships can and do develop into close and even intimate relationships. It is clear from these findings that those who participate in Internet newsgroups do tend to bring the friendships they form there into their everyday, non-lnternet 17 lives.
A full 63% of all respondents had spoken to someone they met via the Internet on the telephone, 56% had exchanged pictures of themselves, 54% had written a letter through the post, and 54% had met with an Internet friend in a face-to-face situation, tending to meet an individual an average of eight times. Note that the lack f any reliable direct paths between social anxiety and loneliness, on the one hand, and relationship intimacy, closeness, and any of the off-line behaviors, on the other, further indicates the mediational role of the location of the true self.
Believing that one is more one’s real self on the Internet plays a crucial role in the formation of strong attachments to those one meets there and whether one brings that relationship into one’s real life. Absolute Real Me. The results Just described are based upon the Real Me index as a continuous variable, with high or low scores relative to those of the other espondents. Thus, it is possible that all respondents had located their true self in the “real world” but simply to varying degrees, or it could be that all had located the true self on the Internet.
To ensure that it is the absolute location of the true self” either on the Internet or in the “real world””that matters, we recategorized respondents as locating their Real Me in an absolute sense either on-line or off-line. The Real Me variable was redefined in terms of (1) those who locate the real self purely in the off-line domain, (2) those who locate the self equally in both the off-line nd on-line domains, and (3) those for whom the real self resides purely in the on- line domain.
Specifically, the Absolute Real Me variable was scored as follows: “Pure Off-Line” was defined as those who responded (a) that they did not reveal more about themselves to Internet friends than to off-line (“real-life”) friends, (b) that their Internet friends did not know things about them that the respondent’s off-line friends did not know, and (c) on the “not at all” side of the scale (i. e. , less than 4) for both of the questions assessing the extent to which different facets of self were expressed ainly on the Internet.
Those whom we termed “Tweeners” were those whose responses were mixed (i. e. , with a 4, with greater than 4 to some questions and less than 4 to others, with a yes to one question and a no to the other), and “Pure On-Line” was defined as the flip side of the offliners (greater than 4s and yes to both dichotomous questions). In support of the proposed model, the results of the Our model also holds that whoever locates the true self on-line, regardless of anxiety and loneliness levels, will be more likely to form on-line relationships.
Computing the ame mediational model but including only those respondents who were low on both social anxiety (scoring less than 3 on 1-5 scale) and loneliness (2 or less on a 1-4 scale) yielded results consistent with that prediction. All of the significant paths in Figure 1 remained significant when the model was recomputed only for the nonanxious and nonlonely respondents, with one exception: The expression of the true self on the Internet did not lead to a significantly greater tendency to meet with Internet friends face to face or to become engaged to an 18 Internet partner (ps > . 0). One reason for this may be that, with the understandable xception of those who met in order to conduct an affair, people who are not lonely in their regular lives do not feel a need to meet in real life with Internet friends. They are presumably satisfied with the relationships they have formed and the closeness they have achieved in them. Gender differences. Although analyses controlling for gender show that the model held for members of both genders, not surprisingly there were differences in the ways that males and females assessed their Internet relationships.
Previous research has shown that women more than men tend to self-disclose to others, even in casual ncounters (e. g. , Cozby, 1973; Jourard, 1964). Caldwell and Peplau (1982) found that women’s friendships tend to be more deeply intimate than men’s. Women place greater emphasis on talking and sharing emotions, whereas men tend to focus on shared activities. In terms of romantic relationships, women and men do not differ in how much they are willing to reveal to one another, but they do differ in the types of things they reveal (Rubin, Hill, Peplau & Dunkel-Schetter, 1980).
These differences in the way men and women perceive and experience relationships were borne out in he present study. Males and females equally engaged in such activities as e-mailing, meeting, exchanging pictures, writing letters, and getting together in Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Following Caldwell and Peplau’s findings, females characterized the relationships they formed over the Internet as more intimate than did males (see Figure 2).
Ancillary analyses showed that females described the relationships they formed as being significantly closer and deeper than did males across each of the 10 items comprising the relationship closeness index (all ps < . 01). However, Fig. 2. The closest Internet relationships formed by males and females. 19 across these 10 items (all ps > . 15). The presence-control exchange. We conducted a path analysis in order to test the sequence that an individual follows in moving a relationship from the on-line realm into that of the real world.
We hypothesized that people would gradually, through a series of stages, give up the safety and control over the interaction afforded by the Internet for the greater physical reality and intimacy”but greater risk and lower personal control”of the real world. It is useful here to treat intimacy and control as ommodities of a sort, in that one can trade or exchange some of one for some of the other. On e-mail, for instance, one can choose if or when to respond and do so without the pressures of real-time conversational demands; yet this greater control comes at the cost of psychological distance from the other person.
In chat rooms, one gives up some control over the interaction for the greater richness of interacting in real time. Likewise, exchanging letters or telephoning requires one to give up control over details of one’s identity, but one gains the greater trust and intimacy of those ommunication modes, as well as some degree of physical reality. Finally, interacting in person gives up all of the control advantages of the Internet in exchange for physical and psychological closeness.
Because all of the respondents reported that they had exchanged e-mail with their Internet acquaintances, the analysis was conducted beginning (as the exogenous variable) with the second most popular on- line activity, that of talking via IRC. As predicted, individuals start Internet relationships with relatively high control over the encounter and gradually relinquish that control in a series of stages (see Figure 3). It is noteworthy that there are no significant direct paths between talking via IRC (or exchanging letters) and meeting in person.