Examining results from several surveys, Nancy K. Baym’s chapter “Digital Media in Relational Development and Maintenance” argues that online relationships have similar potential for intimacy as offline relationships, but 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 highly “social” maintain strong relationships both online and offline.
Combining theory with personal anecdotes, Baym begins by tracing the development of exclusively online relationships from “weak tie” relationships to “strong tie” relationships. One 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 cues” (130), a process that increases intimacy.
Baym proceeds to examine how people incorporate online media into their existing offline relationships. She concludes that rather than drastically changing relationships, online media enable 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 media, 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 the perceived negative effect of online interactions on people’s offline sociability—an idea that she rejects. Further, she suggests that the way that we use online media is determined by uncertain, fluctuating social norms, concluding that, currently, the internet is a less intimate space (143-144).
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 relationships, personality styles and cultural norms together determine our use of online media in building and maintaining 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)