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Response: Nancy K. Baym’s “Digital Media in Relational Development and Maintenance”

Nancy Baym’s article can be summed up as dealing with two important issues – the progress of online relationships, and the nature of those relationships in comparison to offline relationships. Basing much of her arguments for the nature of online relationships on her personal friendship with her “Swedish boyfriend”, Baym chooses secondary texts and surveys which reflect her own experience. Many of her assertions can be seen as universal, Baym fails to account for several important factors which impacts people’s different online social experiences. While the most obvious fault of the text would be its omission of the differences that class, race and gender can and do produce, I will point out three other omissions.

Baym’s discussion of online “cross-sex friendships”, as well as romantic relationships is inherently heterosexist. Not only does Baym imply that “romantic relationship” necessarily stands for “heterosexual relationship”, but she also fails to mention the existence of sexual orientation as a factor which influences the way people form and maintain both friendships and romantic relationships. For example, LGBT communities interact in ways that are perhaps not paralleled in heterosexual communities.

Another experience that Baym does mention, but fails to elaborate on, is that of people with Social Anxiety. Although she mentions McKenna et al.’s study, she later groups “shy and anxious people” into one entity. With this, Baym fails to acknowledge that social anxiety is not just another term for shyness, but a separate issue which makes people interact differently than “shy” people both offline and online.

Baym’s third omission is a technological one. For a book published in 2010, it is surprising that Skype is not mentioned as a significant part of “adding new media” when communicating with a person met online. Skype is important not only as the technology which is arguably used far more frequently than landlines (and often replaces landlines), but also as a technology (phone and video combined) which eases the transition between phone communication and meeting in person.

Baym’s refutation of the premise that online communication is somehow “lacking” in comparison with offline communication is undoubtedly significant in the study of online relationships. However, in the part of this chapter which deals with the “progress” of said relationships, Baym’s omissions of important factors’ influence on the nature of online communication undermine her arguments which are based on an “assumed” universality.

Works Cited

Baym, Nancy K. “Digital Media in Relational Development and Maintenance”. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010. Print.

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