Nancy K. Baym’s chapter “Digital Media in Relational Development and Maintenance,” from her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age, describes the ways that digital relationships mirror and differ from face to face relationships. As she describes the various uses of online and offline, as found in several surveys, Baym argues that online relationships have similar potential for intimacy as offline relationship, but that online relationship most often act as a supplement to offline relationships offering additional unique asynchronous spaces with varying levels of relational commitment. Baym concludes, however, that people who are social maintain strong relationships equally online and offline.
Combining several theorists with personal anecdotal evidence, Baym begins by tracing the development of online relationships from weak tie relationships to strong tie relationships. One of the prominent difference that she notes between early online and face to face relationships is the lack of identifying cues: “When people meet one another online, especially in media with few identifying cues, they seem to like one another more than if they had met in person…. [because] it is easy to fill in the blanks about the other person with ideals” (126). This difference only holds true for developing relationships, however, as “we increasingly add media that allow us to use a wider range of social clues” (130).
In the next section, Baym proceeds to examine how people incorporate online media into their offline relationships. She concludes, however, that rather than drastically changing relationships, online media enables a continuation of face-to-face relationships: “By far, the most influential predictor of the quality of an interaction turned out to be the relationship type. People in close relationships had high-quality interactions regardless of the medium through which they interacted” (133). Baym continues by describing the ways in which people rely on different technologies, including phone, texting, and various online mediums, to maintain, develop and supplement relationships, citing various surveys of college aged students to support her claims.
In the concluding pages of her chapter, Baym also takes up several corollary issues including online interactions perceived negative affect upon people’s offline sociability, which she rejects. Further, she suggests that the way that we use online media is determined by uncertain social norms that, although currently suggest that the internet is a less intimate space, could change (143-144). The importance of self-disclosure for both online and offline relationships is also briefly noted by Baym (146-147).
In conclusion, Baym argues that although “qualities of media affect what we can use them to do in relationships … social influences are also essential in shaping how we use new media” (148). The type of relationship, personality styles and cultural norms together determine the way that we use online media to build and maintain relationships.
Baym, Nancy K. “Digital Media in Relational Development and Maintenance.” Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010. 122-149. Print. (link to abstract)