The internet is reshaping interpersonal interaction

By TIAN XIAOLI / 06-27-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A business team is having a video conference. Photo: TUCHONG

Digital technology is being widely used in various aspects of everyday life. As interpersonal interactions shift from offline to online spaces, how do individuals present themselves and interact with others? Moreover, how does the widespread use of social media affect interpersonal relationships? This article attempts to explore the main differences between online and offline face-to-face interactions.

In traditional societies, interpersonal interactions primarily occur within familiar circles, whereas modern society often involves encounters with strangers. For participants in these interactions, acquiring relevant information about others is crucial. This information helps define the current context and determine subsequent actions. Such judgments are made on the basis of past experiences when interacting with acquaintances, or on external appearances and behaviors when interacting with strangers. These judgements are tightly linked to specific contexts of space and time. However, online interactions have considerably transformed the temporal and spatial attributes of interpersonal interactions. Unlike traditional face-to-face interactions, digital media introduces distinct technological possibilities that endow online interactions with three key characteristics.

First, online interactions largely rely on text and image-based information due to the absence of physical “co-presence.” Many contextual cues cannot be conveyed without co-presence, making it difficult to read “between the lines.” Despite various strategies for addressing semantic and relevance issues caused by the lack of pragmatic information, online interactions are still more prone to miscommunication than face-to-face interactions. In addition, the internet facilitates effortless cross-space interactions, blurring boundaries between different domains. For instance, the use of instant messaging tools allows work to intrude into employees’ personal lives, obliging them to respond to work-related messages anytime and anywhere with nowhere to hide.

Second, online interactions are characterized by permanent memory and observability. Digital footprints are almost always automatically recorded, many of which are searchable and accessible, fundamentally altering the relevance of past interactions to current ones. It has become common to search online for information about someone prior to actually meeting them. On social media, records of past interactions can be precisely retrieved, and posted content can be screenshot and made permanent, clearly preserving “who, what, and when.” Once a face-to-face interaction is over, the specifics become somewhat vague because human memory is fallible (unless the interaction is recorded, which is rare in everyday life). However, such vagueness is absent in online interactions, creating a need to be particularly careful about one’s online remarks and behavior.

Third, online interactions are n-way interactions. The number of participants in an interaction affects the social relationships they create. For example, two-way interactions are distinct from three-way interactions. While the number and identity of participants in offline face-to-face interactions can be easily determined, the number of potential participants in n-way online interactions is indeterminate for two reasons. Firstly, it is nearly impossible to know who is on the other end of the interaction. Secondly, online messages, once sent, can be read at any moment, permitting others to join in even when the interaction has ended. Social media comments may appear several months after a piece of content was posted, making the number of participants in the interaction unknown at any given moment.

The n-way characteristic of online interactions profoundly affects both online and offline interpersonal relationships. For instance, people gather information about others through social media to reduce uncertainty and gain more control over interactions. However, because individuals are often unaware of what information others possess about them, mismatched expectations can arise, leading to awkwardness and misunderstandings. The n-way nature of online interactions also means online users face broader observability. Since one’s statements or interactions might be viewed by unseen audiences, individuals need to be more conscious of their position within power structures and adhere to social norms more strictly than offline.

The internet is reshaping the power dynamics within social groups rather than eliminating social barriers. It is undeniable that ordinary internet users feel more empowered, which partially explains the popularity of new forms of interaction such as online shopping and livestreaming marketing. New social relationships are thus created and become integral parts of everyday experiences.

Tian Xiaoli is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong.