John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created Oct 00

Hypotheses about Online Text Relationships

A version of this article was published as: Suler, J.R. (2004). The psychology of text relationships.
In Online Counseling: a manual for mental health professionals (R. Kraus, J. Zack & G. Striker, Eds). London: Elsevier Academic Press

text relationships

Even though cyberspace is filled with all sorts of sights and sounds - and becoming more multimedia rich every day - most relationships among people form and grow within typed text. E-mail probably accounts for most one-on-one relating, but message boards, chat, and instant messaging also bring people together. Even web sites, especially those of an autobiographical nature, can lead to friendships and romances. The site starts out as a one-to-many relationship between the creator and the readers - and over time, contact via private e-mail between a reader and the writer refines that relationship and moves it to a more personal, one-on-one level. Such text relationships are not unique to cyberspace. Writers have connected to their readers for as long as there have been books. Letters have supplemented f2f relationships since the birth of the alphabet. It's just that cyberspace has made text relationships so much easier and efficient as on a day-to-day level.

So how do text relationships work? What are the pros and cons? Below are a list of hypotheses that I've gather from articles I read and written, and from my discussions with all sorts of people, online and off. I've gathered them loosely into 7 categories. Some of these hypotheses are more robust than others, but they are JUST hypotheses - not truths etched into stone. If there is any single truth in psychology, it's the fact that people are different. Which of these do you find to be true?

1. The subjective experience of text communication

1.1. Text talk is a sophisticated, expressive art form. People vary greatly in their ability to express themselves via text. While it can be learned, some people are naturally good at it.

1.2. Some people are more sensitive in detecting the meaning and mood expressed "between the lines" of text communication. There is a special type of interpersonal empathy that is unique to text relationships.

1.3. The psychological meaning people associate with "writing" (often related to school years) will affect how they experience text communication. People with insecurities about writing may prefer chat over e-mail.

1.4. Some people may experience text communication as a type of "merging" with the mind of the online other.

1.5. People experience the other's text message as a "voice" inside their head.

1.6. Text communication restructures the way people think about their relationships and themselves.

1.7. People may experience text from their online relationships as being "pieces" of those relationships.

1.8. Some people experience their message as a piece of themselves.

1.9. Even though we may not be fully aware of it, we always develop a mental image of the other person in a text relationship.

1.10. Humor, and especially sarcasm, is difficult to express in text relationships.

1.11. Text relationships lend themselves to "multi-tasking" - i.e., carrying on multiple relationships simultaneously.

1.12. In text relationships one participates in the relationship while simultaneously observing oneself in the relationship ("seeing" oneself on screen).

1.13. Receiving no reply in a text relationship tends to result in projections as to why the person did not reply.

1.14. A person's ambivalence about intimacy may be expressed in text communication, which is a paradoxical blend of allowing people to be honest and to feel close, while also maintaining their distance.

2. The relationship between f2f and online relationships

2.1. For some people, text relationships encourage more self-expression and self-reflection than f2f communication. For others, less.

2.2 Some people experience text relationships as more predictable, safe, and less anxiety-provoking than f2f relationships.

2.3. People who are very verbal and expressive offline may not be in an online relationship. And vice versa.

2.4. People who lack f2f verbal skills may prefer text relationships.

2.5. Some important aspects of a person may be obvious in-person but almost invisible online.

2.6. Some people prefer the text relationship over knowing each other f2f.

2.7. Elements of people's online relationships may reveal what's missing in their f2f relationships.

2.8. In text relationships, some people explore their interpersonal style and experiment with new behaviors. What is learned online can be carried into offline relationships.

2.9. Online relationships form and disappear more easily than f2f relationships.

2.10. Intimacy develops more rapidly in text relationships than in f2f relationships.

2.11. Combining f2f contact with online contact of various types offers people the opportunity to explore and integrate different cognitive styles and ways of being. Different channels of communication may work best for different people.

2.12. Close online relationships naturally progress to f2f meetings.

2.13. Meeting f2f for the first time changes how one subsequently perceives the other online.

2.14. Meeting f2f enriches the online relationship and/or challenges the image one had of the online other.

2.15. Interacting with someone online and offline on an ongoing basis may result in a "separate tracks" relationship. The relationship may be a bit different online than it is offline.

3. Absent f2f cues and stimulation

3.1. Lacking f2f cues, text communication can be limited, ambiguous and an easy target for misunderstanding and projection.

3.2. Lacking f2f cues, text communication disinhibits people, encouraging them to be more open and honest than usual, or encouraging them to act out inappropriately.

3.3. The lack of touch and body contact can significantly reduce the experience of intimacy in text relationships.

3.4 Some people are attracted to the silent, less visually stimulating, and non-tactile quality of text relationships.

3.5. People struggling with social anxiety or with issues about shame and guilt may be drawn to text relationships in which they cannot be "seen."

3.6. Text communication enables people to avoid the f2f cues that are distracting or irrelevant to the relationship.

3.7. Without the distraction of f2f cues, text relationships enable people to connect more directly to the other's psyche.

4. Saved messages

4.1. Saved messages can be accurate information for reliving and reevaluating the relationship. They provide continuity in the relationship.

4.2. Quoted text may be cited as "proof" of something someone previously said, but quoted text can be taken out of context and juxtaposed with other quoted text, which distorts its meaning.

4.3. Saving text dialogues can help people reduce errors in recall, some of which might be due to distorted perceptions of the other person.

4.4. Saved text read at different points in time will be interpreted differently based on changes in the person's state of mind and the overall psychological context in which the text is read.

4.5. People vary widely in how much of their messages they save and what types of messages they save. This reflects their attitude and style of being in the relationship.

4.6. By using several sections of quoted text within a single message, multiple layers of one's online relationship can be addressed simultaneously... sometimes considerably different layers.

5. Temporality and Pacing (asynchronous/synchronous factors)

5.1. The ability to delay responding in e-mail and message boards can enhance self-control, self-reflection, and the assimilation of experiences in the relationship.

5.2. Delayed text communication enables people to say exactly what they want to say.

5.3. During emotional points in an asynchronous text relationship, people sometimes respond immediately without taking advantage of the time delay.

5.4. Because text communication is slower than speaking, people are motivated to "get to the point."

5.5. People vary widely in the intensity and frequency that they communicate via text. Adjusting to the other person's pace is important in the relationship.

5.6. The short and long delays in text exchanges require people to get "in synch" with each other for communication to be more effective.

5.7. A change in the pacing of messages reflects a change in the relationship.

5.8. In the course of an ongoing text relationship, there will be a changing rhythm of spontaneous and carefully thought out messages that parallels the ebb and flow of the relationship itself.

5.9. The easy and continuous opportunity to send a message to the other person can create a comforting feeling that the connection to that person is "always there" or even that the other is "always present." Feelings of separation may be eased.

5.10. The feeling of the other's presence is stronger in synchronous communication in that they are present in-the-moment. The feeling of the other's presence is stronger in asynchronous communication in that people have more opportunity to express complexity and subtlety in what they write about themselves.

5.11. Meeting an e-mail or message board friend in chat is a sign of increased intimacy and/or commitment to the relationship. Contacting a chat friend via e-mail is a sign of increased intimacy and/or commitment to the relationship.

5.12. Some people enjoy and benefit from the spontaneity and specific temporal boundary that is involved in chat meetings.

5.13. Chat meetings create a point-by-point connectedness that enhances feelings of intimacy, presence, and "arriving together" at ideas.

6. Message construction

6.1. Text relationships are not the same as traditional "writing" activities, including letter writing.

6.2. The overall visual construction of a text message (frequency of line breaks, size of paragraphs, insertion of quoted text, etc.) reveals a person's mood and state of mind.

6.3. Writing style and effectiveness changes as a result of what is happening in the ongoing relationship. Composition can become more casual, detailed, and expressive as the relationship develops and people feel safe to explore; it regresses when they feel threatened, hurt, or angry.

6.4. In an ongoing text relationship, the people involved develop their own private "language" of abbreviations, symbols, and phrasings.

6.5. The subject title of a message is an important layer of the communication. It can lead into, highlight, elaborate, or even contradict a particular idea in the message.

6.6. Even very simple behaviors, like saying "hello," can be expressed in many different, subtle ways.

6.7. Parenthetical expressions (behaviors or internal thoughts described as "asides" in parentheses) can be as expressive or perhaps more expressive than f2f cues.

6.8. The use of emoticons, trailers, caps, and other keyboard techniques adds an almost infinite variety of creative expressiveness to a text message.

7. Online identity and interpersonal styles

7.1. The person's writing style and message format reflects his/her personality. Changes in style and format reflect changes in mood and thinking.

7.2. Some people express their "true self" in text relationships, or believe they do.

7.3. Despite conscious attempts to present oneself exactly as one wishes, hidden elements of one's personality unconsciously surface in text communication.

7.4. The online name/s and identities that people choose for themselves reflects their personalities.

7.5. Socially anxious people may enjoy and benefit from text relationships. Text relationships can be used to desensitize social anxieties and build social skills.

7.6. Talking about one's online text relationships with friends and family helps one gain a better perspective on those relationships.

7.7. As a way to avoid "saying their goodbyes," online relationships and groups may tend to "fizzle out" by people gradually sending fewer and fewer messages.

7.8. Even though audio and visual internet technology will become easier and less expensive to use, text communication will never disappear and will be preferred by some people.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

In-person versus cyberspace relationships
E-mail communication and relationships
Subtlety in multimedia chat
TextTalk: Communicating with typed text chat
In-person versus cyberspace relationships
Extending a Work Group into Cyberspace


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The Psychology of Cyberspace Home Page