May 1998

Developing Personal and Emotional Relationships Via Computer-Mediated Communication

by Brittney G. Chenault

The Internet is not about technology, it is not about information, it is about communication-people talking with each other, people exchanging e-mail, people doing the low ASCII dance. The Internet is mass participation in fully bi-directional, uncensored mass communication. Communication is the basis, the foundation... The Internet is a community of chronic communicators. (Strangelove, 1994)

1. An Introduction to CMC and Emotion

The idea of a community accessible only via my computer screen sounded cold to me at first, but I learned quickly that people can feel passionately about e-mail and computer conferences. I've become one of them. I care about these people I met through my computer... (Rheingold, 1993, 1)
Emotion is present in computer-mediated communication (CMC). People meet via CMC every day, exchange information, debate, argue, woo, commiserate, and support. They may meet via a mailing list or newsgroup, and continue the interaction via e-mail. Their relationships can range from the cold, professional encounter, to the hot, intimate rendezvous. Rheingold describes people in virtual communities as using the words they type on screens to
exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk (3).
More than a few of that list of activities are "emotional." People bring their real-life problems and personalities with them to their "virtual" lives, and, therefore, CMC must inherently include all kinds of emotional content. None of us are so thick-skinned that a "virtual" interaction couldn't bring a flush to our face as we read a flame directed at our latest post to a newsgroup. Virtual-schmirtual... ASCII can prick -- or please.

Moreover, beyond simply carrying emotional content, CMC becomes a new way for people to "find" each other, a way for personal relationships to build-at least, that is what Rheingold (1993) and others have seen. However, Kiesler (1984), Stoll (1996), and others have found CMC to be an inadequate way for people to share emotional content, let alone develop meaningful, long-lasting relationships, due to the lack of nonverbal "cues." Rheingold argues against this view of CMC as lacking, by asking: "Who is to say that this preference for one mode of communication-informal written text [instead of face-to-face]--is somehow less authentically human than audible speech?" He continues:

Those who find virtual communities cold places point at the limits of the technology, its most dangerous pitfalls.... but these critiques don't tell us how Philcat and Lhary and the Allisons and my own family could have found the community of support and information we found on the WELL when we needed it (24).
This review essay will survey some of the critical approaches to CMC and emotion, with special emphasis on scholarship dealing with CMC and the development of personal relationships.

2. Definitions and Assumptions

Lea and Spears (1995), note that, currently, relationship research "privileges certain types of relationships while neglecting others," including relationships made through CMC. On-line relationships are just one of the many understudied relationship types . Lea and Spears write that, to date, scholars have "concentrated primarily on romance, friendship, and marriage among young, white, middle-class, heterosexual Westerners whose relationships are conducted in the open..." (x). Lea and Spears argue that studying on-line relationships offers challenges to relationship research, choosing to focus on the "social context" for the development of what they call "electronic relationships" (not the best term, in my opinion), viewing all personal relationships as "socially situated" (199). Thus, the definition of a "personal relationship," under Lea and Spears' view, takes into account its social context.

CMC relationships are not only worthy of study-one would think that scholars would be lured to their complexities. Slowly-so slowly-this is happening. But it's taken longer than it should for CMC relationships to receive scholarly attention.

Many scholars (and others) assume the following about CMC-initiated and conducted relationships. They are:

  • casual
  • temporary
  • false
  • lack deep (or any) emotion
You will see these assumptions arise again and again in the literature -- but rarely with any bite to back up their bark. My intention is to show many sides of the CMC relationship issues, and to hopefully go beyond the typical assumptions.

Interpersonal Attraction

Almost all theorists agree that interpersonal attraction is a "positive or negative attitude toward another person" (Berscheid & Hatfield, 1978, 2). "Attitude" means a "person's readiness to respond toward an object, or a class of objects, in a favorable or unfavorable manner." Interpersonal attraction (or interpersonal hostility) is defined as "an individual's tendency or predisposition to evaluate another person or symbol of that person in a positive (or negative) way" (Berscheid & Hatfield, 1978, 2)

Measures of attraction discussed include some that do not come into play in CMC, nor can they be measured, including: eye-contact (how long individuals engage in mutual eye-contact appears to be a determinant of interpersonal attraction) "inclination" to one another (leaning towards and other body language); and the distance one stands from another. However, other "measures" can occur in CMC, including favor-doing (exerting oneself to "provide benefits for another") (Berscheid & Hatfield, 1978, 17-18).

Albert Mehrabian (1981), in Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes, writes about the "nonverbal and implicit verbal behavior" in communication. He asserts that in the "realm of feelings" our "facial and vocal expressions, postures, movements, and gestures" are very important. When our words "contradict the messages contained within them, others mistrust what we say-they rely almost completely on what we do" (iii). (See Section 4 , "Reduced Cues..." for perspectives reflecting the belief that absence of cues negatively impacts CMC).

As people continue to interact and maintain a relationship, they "gradually move toward deeper areas of their mutual personalities through the use of words, bodily behavior, and environmental behaviors" (Altman & Taylor, 1973, 27) And, in CMC, bodily and environmental aspects are reduced or removed, giving words/text all importance. Within any interpersonal interaction there is an "exchange" in communication. We read between the lines. We look for cues and for an equal amount of exchange between communication partners, ideally. Who is talking more? Who is writing more? Who writes and responds to more e-mail, and how frequently? Because often in CMC people are interacting with relative "strangers" (people they have never met "in real life"), the dynamics of when to disclose, and what to disclose comes into play: ... "people are discouraged from expressing personal feelings to strangers and so it becomes necessary to rely on implicit behavior to infer how another person feels and how to pursue a relationship further" (Mehrabian, 156). Altman and Taylor (1973), in Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships, assert that the important aspect of "social penetration" processes (i.e., "range of interpersonal events occurring in growing relationships" including verbal and nonverbal exchanges [3]) concerns the "reciprocity" of communication exchange and disclosure: "Will one person's disclosure increase the probability that the other person will disclose?" (50)

Jourard & Lasakow (1958) hypothesized that "liking" another person is a result of having "disclosed" to the person, almost "independent of that person's reaction to the disclosure" (cited in Altman & Taylor, 50). Altman & Taylor posit an interactional theory: "Revealing leads to liking and liking leads to revealing," as a cyclical and continuous set of events (50).

Lea and Spears (1995), note that interpersonal cues are "more likely to be sensitive to the communication bandwidth of the medium of interaction and may ... take longer and be more difficult to communicate than social cues." They differentiate between social attraction and personal attraction. Social attraction is "attraction to those aspects of the self that are conferred by membership of or affiliation with certain social groups or categorizations," while personal attraction is "attraction to the idiosyncratic aspects of an individual" (226). Personal attraction is not based on group processes, but instead on "interpersonal processes," such as the development of intimacy (227).

Lea and Spears also argue that technology, including CMC, does not weaken social conditions of communication "so much as afford more efficient opportunities for constituting them" (229). Wellman and Gulia (1995) state that the limited research to date suggests that relationships developed on-line are "much like most of the ones they develop in their 'real life' communities: rather weak, intermittent, and specialized."

Laurel N. Hellerstein (1985) also found that heavy users of e-mail and electronic conferencing, in a university setting, were more likely to use the computer to "initiate new friendships, make new friends, and communicate with others," whereas "light" users tended to do build relationships in other ways. Hellerstein studied the "social use" of CMC (the "Cyber mail" and conferencing system) at the University of Massachusetts, describing a "computing subculture" in the university made up of approximately 250 people. They sampled 650 members of the university community, with a total of 236 people completing an on-line questionnaire. The sample was divided into heavy (55%) and light (45%) users of the e-mail and conferencing system. Heavy users used CMC to meet social needs (191). The most active users made friendships via CMC that were later carried on "off-line," including romantic relationships (194). Findings included that users of the e-mail system would greet each other, even in person, by their computer nicknames rather than their given names (193). Regular users of the conference and mail systems interacted socially on and off the computer, forming a "cohesive group" (194). 1


Emoticons combine punctuation marks and symbols into miniature sideways faces that reveal sender's mood. They are also sometimes called "smilies." Adding ;-) to the end of a sentence "lets others know you're joking or feeling cheerful" ("Cybershrink," 20). Adding a frowning face, such as :-( achieves the opposite effect. Anna Nelson says that emoticon use is highest in "meet and greet" situations where one wants to appear approachable (21). Some researchers have posited that emoticons are useful in making up for the lack of nonverbal context cues in CMC.


Some people seem to use these depersonalized modes of communication to get very personal with each other. For these people, at the right times, CMC is a way to connect with another human being (Rheingold, 147).

Some computer-mediated MUDS allow users to type out narrative descriptions of conversational nonverbal behaviors. Participants can "say"-send typed messages which appear surrounded by quotation marks and preceded by dialogue tags, or they can "emote" or "pose" (Walther & Tidwell, 1995). Emoting, in MUDs, is a way to use commands to bring action and emotion to language. For example, if my name is "Brittney" in a MUD and I type "emote cries out loud," the result for others on the MUD would be "Brittney cries out loud"-giving my "character" action and movement-and even emotion.

The use of poses as well as words to convey meaning gives MUDs an "odd but definitely useful kind of disembodied body language." In Internet Relay Chat (IRC), people also use emoting, by typing "/me jumps up and down" (translated to users on the channel as "Brittney jumps up and down"). Rheingold comments on the new dimension that emoting gives to your MUD and IRC conversations: "Instead of replying to a statement, you can smirk. Instead of leaving the room, you can disappear in a cloud of iridescent, bubble-gum-flavored bubbles" (148). This "new dimension" could be considered a way of adding socioemotional content.

Lack of Data

Lea and Spears admit that the comprehensive analysis of CMC is not currently possible. In my opinion, it never will be. Currently limited by the "paucity of available data" (199), the very nature of CMC will always pose problems for researchers. Most people are not going to knowingly allow access to their personal correspondences, in any format. It is easier to study group interaction, but how does one study CMC at the one-on-one level? First of all, most CMC data is from organizational studies. Furthermore, it is only a very few studies that have focused on organizational CMC for social and recreational purposes. These include Ord (1989) and Finholt & Sproull (1990). A very few ethnographies of network communities formed in bulletin boards exist. Reid's 1991 thesis, Electropolis: Communication and Community on Internet Relay Chat, was unable for review, but appears to be a promising ethnography.

3. Invisible Friends and Lovers: Can CMC Support Real Personal Relationships?

"How does anyone find friends? " Howard Rheingold asks this question in The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993). Rheingold sees CMC as offering a chance to "magnify" your chances of finding a peer group-and friends. Rheingold uses his own personal experience to exemplify this phenomena. The Virtual Community includes Rheingold's account of his time on the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) -- an electronic bulletin-board system, the types of communication which occurred there, the people he met-who helped him and whom he helped. Writing of his daughter, who grew up seeing her father sitting in front of a computer screen at night, he says:
My seven-year old daughter knows that her father congregates with a family of invisible friends who seem to gather in his computer. Sometimes he talks to them, even if nobody else can see them. And she knows that these invisible friends sometimes show up in the flesh, materializing from the next block or the other side of the planet (1).
Rheingold describes an "emotional attachment" to his "invisible friends," an attachment that he shares with millions of people participating in "virtual communities." He describes finding the WELL as discovering a "cozy little world that had been flourishing without me, hidden within the walls of my house." Rheingold writes: "...I learned quickly that people can feel passionately about e-mail and computer conferences. I've become one of them. I care about these people I met through my computer..." (1).

Rheingold's activities on the WELL included participating in a Parenting Conference, giving information and emotional support to a friend who just learned his son was diagnosed with leukemia. Another family's emotional trials were described via the WELL:

Sitting in front of our computers with our hearts racing and tears in our eyes, in Tokyo and Sacramento and Austin, we read about Lillie's croup, her tracheotomy, the days and nights at Massachusetts General Hospital, and now the vigil over Lillie's breathing and the watchful attention to the mechanical apparatus that kept her alive... (19)
The father of Lillie described above, Jay, wrote of his WELL experience, describing it as one of "solace" and "support": "Any difficulty is harder to bear in isolation. There is nothing to measure against, to lean against. Typing out my journal entries into the computer and over the phone lines, I found fellowship and comfort in this unlikely medium" (Rheingold, 20).

Parks and Floyd (1996) explain that a personal relationship develops as "its participants come to depend on each other more deeply and in more complex ways" and that as relationships develop, breadth and depth of interaction increases including variety of discussion topics, activities, and communication channels. Parks and Floyd distributed a questionnaire to participants in Usenet, finding that more than half (57%) of the subjects recording breadth scores in the upper half of the scale, meaning that the number of and types of communication interactions were increasing as relationships developed.

Lea and Spears (1995) point out the particular "technical," as well as social power that CMC has in configuring relationships, seeing it as a positive rather than negative effect of CMC:

As a text medium, some of the most delicate and perhaps questionable bases of people's relationships that are reenacted daily through talk are freshly exposed to the actors themselves, to their partners, and to third parties... Coupled with this, the immensely powerful information storage and search capabilities of computer technology mean that every word of every conversation ever conducted between two people via computer can be accurately retained and perfectly recalled at will by either party ( 232).
In short, CMC conversations are not tied to time and place in which they were originated, taking the concept of asynchronous communication to its limits. Yet, despite asynchronicity, time can matter. Walther and Tidwell (1995), did find that the time lag of replies did relate to perceptions and seemed to serve as "nonverbal cues." (see "Time Matters," in Section 6 of this document.)


Can "love" be found and fostered via CMC? If one believes that love is essentially in the mind of the person "in love," then it seems that it can be found. Theorists generally agree that "romantic love is inexorably tied up with fantasy" (Berscheid & Hatfield, 153). As Waller and Hill (1951) put it: "Idealization is an essential element in romantic love" (120). How better to idealize than through CMC, where one is left to paint his or her own mental picture of someone?

Despite this rich fodder, the research regarding on-line "intimate" love relationships is sparse. Most of the writing in this area comes from the popular press, including articles in magazines such as Time, Essence, Glamour, mostly with such themes as "finding love on-line." In one such article, "E-mail romance? Can the Internet help your love life?" (Glamour, February 1996) Lesley Dormen gives examples from office romances, such as one that "Vicky" describes. She exchanged increasingly sexy and intimate e-mail with a colleague in another department of the corporation: "Every day our dialogue got more explicit. When that message sign blipped, I'd be practically orgasmic." However, according to Vicky, in face-to-face encounters, nothing changed: "I'd see him in the hall and blush like crazy, but he'd be totally normal. Rocklike. It was bizarre!" (Dormen, 1996, 106)

When Vicky finally got "fed up" with the situation, she pulled the man into her office and asked him if they indeed where going to "get together." His response was: "I don't know what to say... Maybe, maybe not. Can't we just do this e-mail thing for now?" Vicky pulled the plug on the relationship, feeling like she was "electronically had" by a man through his "romantic cowardice behind a computer screen" (106).

In contrast to Vicky, Claire e-mails back and forth with her boyfriend a few times every workday and finds CMC comfortable, making interaction "smoother" and "more direct," like "whispering together in the dark-e-mail breaks down barriers between us" (Dormen, 1996, 106).

Dormen's article gives real-life examples of CMC "romances" but it is told mostly from the female perspective without getting input from both sides of the relationship. Also, it is not a scholarly piece, not going into much detail, not including actual e-mail dialogue.

In "He Typed, She Typed," (Essence, February 1996) McLean Greaves and Jeanette Valentine tell both sides of the romance "story," each detailing his/her version of their on-line encounter-one that was "arranged" by Essence magazine. Valentine liked Greaves' humor, analysis, and gender politics, but admitted she was also concerned about "more superficial matters," like appearance, just in case they clicked and wanted to meet in real life. They started out talking about romantic atmosphere, meeting on American On-Line. Valentine (nick JJJVVV) wrote: "After three months of teasing we be here. I envision a Brooklyn rooftop in the moonlight... You do have a fireplace, right?" (80). Greaves (nick Bredren) responded, "I don't have a fireplace but I have a TV remote control and a bottle of chardonnay" (80). After the initial CMC attraction, Greaves writes: "The tempo slowed to a platonic pitch, however, as the novelty of our computer-driven connection gradually wore off" (80).

Other incidences of romantic relationships in CMC can be found in articles by Chidley (1994); De Lacy (1987); and Smolowe (1995). In scholarship, Parks & Adelman (1983) also deal with this subject (unable for review).

4. Reduced Cues: CMC Cannot Foster True Relationships

Filtered Out

...In several critical ways computer discourses at least superficially appear to stand outside the conventions of everyday orality and literacy (Aycock & Buchignani, 1995, 184, citing Crane, 1991).
CMC is seen as inferior to face-to-face communication by most of the research in the past ten years. This is not universal, as, according to Nancy Baym (1995), "too much work" in CMC research assumes that "the computer itself is the sole influence on communicative outcomes" (139), but those perspectives will be covered in the next section.

In 1987, Culnan and Markus described an approach as the "cues filtered out" theory (also called "reduced cues") which posits that the computer has a "low social presence" because it filters out important aspects of communication that participants in face-to-face communication are privy to (paralanguage-pitch, intensity, stress, tempo, volume), leaving a conversation in a "social vacuum" (Baym, 140). Culnan and Markus (1987) identified an assumption that substituting CMC for face-to-face communication will "result in predictable changes in intrapersonal and interpersonal variables" (423). Similarly, Sproull and Kiesler (1986) outline a "lack of social context cues" hypothesis. Social context cues include nonverbal cues which "define the nature of the social situation and actors' identities and relative status" (Walther, 1993, 383).

Lea and Spears (1995) point out the various arguments against CMC's ability to foster personal relationships, including relationship research and theories' emphases on (1) physical proximity; (2) face-to-face interaction; and (3) nonverbal communication as the "essential processes of relating" between humans (233).

Additionally, Baron (1984) considers CMC as ill-suited for "social uses of language," despite the evidence of social interactions throughout CMC (IRC, MUDs, Usenet, e-mail). All in all, many researchers are asserting that only the "illusion" of community is created via CMC, that the only relationships created are "shallow, impersonal, and often hostile" (Parks & Floyd, 1996) (see Section 5, on "The Dark Side" for coverage of the hostile side of CMC). People interacting via CMC are, arguably, getting lower "social context information," and, according to Sproull and Kiesler (1986) become more "self-absorbed versus other-oriented" in CMC, leading to "flaming" and posturing to increase status (to negate the equalization effects of CMC) (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Moreover, Berger and Calabrese (1975) assert that, under "uncertainty reduction" theory, in CMC if you are not able to reduce uncertainty, then the development of personal relationships will be prevented or very difficult to attain.

Tuned Out

Recent author of Silicon Snake Oil, Clifford Stoll questions the validity and permanence of e-mail communication:

Who here reads all their old E-mail? Who here reads letters from friends, relatives, and lovers, years and years later? After they are taken out of the old shoe box?

What does this say about E-mail?.... E-mail is thought of as immediate, therefore you don't have to reflect about the message. Since E-mail destroys meaning and content, it also destroys reflection, at BOTH the SENDING and the RECEIVING end. Most of us have 3 buttons, Return, Delete, Store (Stoll, quoted by Louis Boncek. Jr., notes from Stoll lecture , found at: lecture.html)

Stoll (1996) asserts that CMC, in this case, e-mail, is taking time away from real-life human interaction, tuning us out of the "real world":

For example, if I want to use email, I know I would have to invest many hours of my time just to learn how to use it. I have to figure out how to use a computer. I have to learn how to log in to the Network. I have to learn what's changed, what's busy, what's novel about things. All of these things are an investment of my time and energy. I could equally well invest that time and energy in talking to some friends around a table at the coffeehouse. I could spend that time and energy fooling around with my cat, Milo. What I'm worried about is that people advertise email as being revo lutionary. "It'll change the way our lives work." I doubt it. I doubt it. (Hart, 1996, interview with Clifford Stoll, "E-mail connection: Love it or leave it?" found at:,
Stoll assumes that to make and have "friends," you must interact in "real-life," and not via CMC. He asserts that, for him, his time is much better invested in being in a "real physical world" where he can "be with people" rather than investing time and effort in "this virtual world called the Internet" (Hart, 1996). The assumption, however, that Stoll makes is that interacting with participants in CMC is not "really" interacting with "people."

Stoll asserts that e-mail communication "denies the sense of who you are and where you are," and that it leaves out the "most important things about you," including appearance, personality. He asks, "Might it be that the nature of electronic mail limits you to only that which you wish to show to other people?" (Hart, 1996).

5. The Dark Side

There can be an ugly side to CMC, including threats, violations of privacy, sexual harassment, even virtual rape. Brenda Danet, Lucia Ruedenberg-Wright, and Yehudit Rosenbaum-Tamari (1997) assert that cyberspace is "by no means wholly benign," and that CMC can release "aggressive, even shockingly malicious behavior, including sexual harassment and racism."

Chuq Von Rospach warns in his "A Primer on How to Work With the Usenet Community" (1997): "Never forget that the person on the other side is human," asserting that because in CMC you are connecting to a network via computer, it is "easy to forget that there are people 'out there'." CMC, while bringing people from isolated and distant geographic locations together, also can bring a person into contact with bitter, even dangerous people. The very thing that makes it wonderful can also make CMC difficult for some. As one CMC participant notes: "anyone who plans to spend time on-line has to grow a few psychic calluses" to protect against flaming, insults, unwanted sexual advances, and so on (Dery, 1994, 2). The personal relationships one makes may not always be positive, supportive ones.

John Markoff, in "Virtual Death, Death, and Virtual Funeral" (1990), writes about how e-mail and other forms of CMC have influenced how we interact and form relationships, including how we die. He wrote about a California man who committed "virtual suicid e" before physically taking his life, reaching out and destroying his contributions to the WELL (the same WELL that Rheingold detailed in The Virtual Community). Some WELL subscribers were, although saddened by his death, angered by his actions, believing his WELL postings were "no longer his to destroy," and were property of the community (Barry, 1991, 187).

Other examples of hostility, threats, and the darker side of CMC are found in the popular press, including: Chapman (1995) and Dibbell (1994) (see "A Rape," later this section).

Flaming; Threats; Telling It Like It Is

When you grab people's attention often, and monopolize the "public soapbox," the response can be cruel. Like the legendary audience at the Apollo theater in Harlem, the WELL's audience can "create a star or boo a bad performer off the stage" (Rheingold, 35).

Some CMC exchanges take the form of what John Barry (1991) terms a "flame"-an "electronic diatribe" (243). Disputes via CMC can be quite powerful, affecting one's "real life," as Rheingold exemplifies: "...Bandy, one of the WELL's technical staff, quit his job in a dispute over a personal relationship with another online character" (35). Flaming is one the most-explored topics in CMC, including articles by Grant (1995), and Lea, O'Shea, Fung, and Spears (1992).

Mark Dery (1994) defines flame wars as "vitriolic on-line exchanges... often... conducted publicly"(1). Another definition is "sudden, often extended flare-ups of anger, profanity and insult" (Danet, 1997). Less often, "flames" are in the form of "poison pen letters" via e-mail. Dery describes it as follows:

...the wraithlike nature of electronic communication-the flesh become word ... reincarnated as letters floating on a terminal screen-accelerates the escalation of hostilities when tempers flare; disembodied, sometimes pseudonymous combatants tend to feel that they can hurl insults without impunity (1)
Edward Mabry (1997), in "Framing Flames: The Structure of Argumentative Messages on the Net," defines flames as "messages that are precipitate, often personally derogatory, ad hominem attacks directed toward someone due to a position taken in a message distributed (posted) to the group." Mabry studies the CMC use of "framing" strategies within "flames," hypothesizing that "framing strategies are related to the emotional tenor of a disputant's message" and that the emotional involvement would be "curvilinearly related to the appropriation of framing as an argumentative discourse strategy" (Mabry, 1997, abstract). Mabry asserts that the acceptance, and perhaps even "cultivation" of argumentative discourse, such as flaming, in CMC stands in "sharp contrast to the conventions of ordinary social conversation." Imagine attacking someone with the vehemence found in some flames "in real life." One interesting finding of this study is that the communicators seemed to try to "neutralize" effects of negative emotional spirals when they arise.

A Rape

Sherry Turkle (1996) explains that "virtual rape" can occur within a MUD if one player finds a way to "control the actions of another player's character and thus 'force' that character to have sex" (55). Turkle goes on to ask if a virtual community which exists "entirely in the realm of communication," dare ignore sexual aggression "that takes the form of words"? (55). Julian Dibbell (1994) writes about "A Rape in Cyberspace," in which a "voodoo doll" program was used to force characters in the MUD, Lambda MOO, "a very busy rustic chateau built entirely of words," to do and say things:

They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies. And though I wasn't there that night, I think I can assure you that what they say is true, because it all happened right in the living room-right there amid the well-stocked bookcases and the sofas and fireplace-of a house I've come to think of as my second home (237).
While not a "physical" rape, the people behind the characters involved, the other members of LambdaMOO, and other members of the Internet community were very upset by the behavior of "Mr. Bungle," who introduced himself as a "fat, oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in cum-stained harlequin garb and girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle bore the quaint inscription "KISS ME UNDER THIS, BITCH!" (Dibbell, 239).

One of the assaulted women, whose character was "legba," a "Haitian trickster spirit," posted a public statement on an in-MOO mailing list called "social-issues," a portion of which follows:

...I'm not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. I'm not sure what I'm calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn't happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn't happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass (242).
Dibbell writes that this woman confided that as she wrote those words, "posttraumatic tears" streamed down her face, which should serve as a "real-life prove that the words' emotional content was no mere playacting" (242). People involved in virtual communities are vulnerable to this type of vicious, hurtful behavior, just like in real-life. And, obviously, just because something happens to one's "character" in a MOO, does not keep out emotional investment.

The Bungle Affair shook up the relatively peaceful community of LambdaMOO, bringing the "outside world" and its violence to the forefront, right into the community's "living room," which is where Mr. Bungle chose to place the assaults within the LambaMOO chateau.

[For more on the Bungle incident, see Richard MacKinnon's article -- Virtual Rape (1997).]

6. Other Views

The absence of physical and nonverbal cues should not be taken to mean that the computer medium is impersonal or devoid of social cues, or that the cues it transmits lack the subtlety of those communicated face-to-face (Lea & Spears, 1995, 216).

In fact, there is a high degree of socioemotional content observed in CMC (e.g., Rheingold, 1994; Ord, 1989; McCormick & McCormick,,1992; Rice & Love, 1987), even in organizational and task-oriented settings (Lea & Spears, 217). And although there are fewer paralinguistic cues in CMC, there is a learning curve, and people who are "seasoned communicators" in CMC become "adept at using and interpreting textual signs and paralinguistic codes..." Even first-time users form impressions of other communicant's dispositions and personalities based on their "communication style" (217). Thus, CMC does carry emotional and impression-forming content.

Time Matters

Joseph Walther and Lisa Tidwell (1995), argue that CMC often conveys nonverbal cues in terms of chronemics, or "time-related messages." Different uses of time signals in e-mail to affect interpersonal perceptions of CMC correspondents. They assert, with research support, that time is an "intrinsic part" of our social interaction and that time messages in a communication event convey meaning "across multiple levels" (361). Walther and Tidwell state the following about time in our communications:

Time is a resource in our culture, and may be akin to other resources the exchange of which marks more intimate relations. How time is used helps to define the nature and quality of relationships with others (362).
Two variables were used: the time of day message was sent, and the time lag until a reply was received, testing how these time manipulations effected perceptions of intimacy/affection and dominance in CMC messages. Although e-mail is asynchronous, time can be "more directly controlled and manipulated" in computer-mediated interactions (Walther & Tidwell, 1995, 360; Chesebro, 1985). Anyone who has sent an e-mail message and known that the recipient was on their computer reading e-mail, yet was not "answering" the mail knows that how quickly a recipient responds can affect the sender's feelings. If a person receiving e-mail responds right away, it could be perceived that this person is interested in what the sender has to say, if not, the other participant could view the lack of expediency in replying as a snub. Walther and Tidwell look at the "cues-filtered-out" research. They mention the process of "emoting" or "posing," previously mentioned, and assert is use for "re-introducing affective messages in a medium without many of the cues" used in face-to-face interaction (358).

Hypotheses included: (1) time interacts with message content such that a social message sent at night is more intimate/affectionate than a social message sent during the day, and a task message sent at night is less intimate/affectionate than a task message sent during the day and (2) time interacts with message content such that a slow reply to a social message is more intimate/affectionate than a prompt reply to a social message, and a prompt reply to a task request is more intimate/affectionate than a slow reply to a task request (Walther & Tidwell, 364).

Make an Impression

Walther (1992) had previously outlined the "social interaction processing" theory in "Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective," supported by further articles (Walther, 1993; Walther & Burgoon, 1992). Walther (1993) also found evidence, within a "social information processing perspective," that computer-mediated groups gradually increased in impression development to a level "approaching that of face-to-face groups" (381). Social information processing suggests different rates and patterns of impression development using alternative media, such as CMC. Thus, it takes longer to find enough information to be able to form a form impressions via CMC, but that it does happen, according to Walther, and that process by which we form impression is not actually "altered" via CMC, only slowed down.

SIDE Theory

Lea and Spears assert, based upon recent research by Walther (1994) and others, that personal relationships can and do develop in CMC: "albeit more slowly..." because the lack of cues toward self-disclosure, development of trust, and communication of int imacy, take longer than in face-to-face communication (217). They have found a high degree of "socioemotional communication" observed via CMC, even in task-oriented settings (see also Ord, 1989; Rice & Love, 1987).

Lea and Spears ultimately argue that, by moving current relationship theory away from a dependency on "physical co-presence of individuals" and into a realm where attraction and social dimension are seen as essential components to forming relationships, CMC can be seen as a viable avenue for relationship-development. Lea and Spears (1995) argue that the reduced cues approach is "ill prepared" to account for the development of personal relationships that is occurring currently via CMC, as it relies too heavily on the "physical and spatial aspects of interaction" (220).

The closest thing to a review of literature relating to CMC and relationship development is Lea and Spears (1995), "Love at first byte?" It is, by far, the least biased and most comprehensive, although, due to its publication date, does not include anythi ng published after 1995. Lea and Spears argue that existing communication and personal relationship theories have ignored settings that do not involve frequent face-to-face interaction.

In this article, Lea and Spears outline the "SIDE Theory" which is used to explain how subtle interpersonal cues affect CMC judgments and actions. They predict that the absence of cues and personal knowledge about communication partners causes the few personality cues that appear in CMC to take on great value, leading to an "over-attribution" process, building stereotypical impressions of partners based on language content of CMC messages.

An Equal Chance

In contrast to the "overwhelmingly negative characterization" of the CMC "social climate," Baym (1995) writes about the "egalitarianism" that many see CMC allowing people-making aspects like appearance mute points and giving everyone who can type an equal chance (140). CMC allows women and minorities to have their voices heard. Walther (1992) sees this as a balancing of participation. However, the very equalizing aspects of CMC that are seen as positive can also, as the reduced-cues perspective points out, can cause problems and miscommunications. Also, the anonymity of CMC, while granting participants more equal status actually "impedes resolution" (Baym, 140).

Showing Support

Wellman and Gulia (1995) ask, "Can people find community on-line in the Internet? Can relationships between people who never see, smell or hear each other be supportive and intimate?" And answer, "yes":
Even when on-line groups are not designed to be supportive, they tend to be. As social beings, those who use the Net seek not only information but also companionship, social support, and a sense of belonging (Wellman & Gulia, 1995).
Emotional support is a non-material social resource that is "relatively easy to provide from the comfort of one's computer," although skeptics question the quality of such support (Wellman & Gulia, 1995). Several articles in the popular press deal with support groups and people finding emotional support within CMC, although rarely with a scholarly focus. Many of the articles in the popular press emphasize ways in which special populations, particularly disabled persons, can use CMC to improve the quality of life and to receive support. These include: De Leon (1994), Bock (1994), and Lewis (1994), and Kanaley (1995). Baym (1995) also deals with this phenomenon, with a more scholarly approach.

Other Relationship Concerns

Malcolm Parks and Kory Floyd (1996), in "Making Friends in Cyberspace," attempted to study the "relational world actually being created through Internet [sic] newsgroups." Parks and Floyd address these questions:
  • How often do personal relationships form in Internet newsgroups?
  • Who has them?
  • How close or developed do they become?
  • Do relationships started on line migrate to other settings?
Parks and Floyd assert from their findings that "high levels of relational development are occurring" via CMC, in the case of their study, through Usenet newsgroups and e-mail. Also, Nancy Baym (1995) uses the example of a Usenet group (r.a.t.s.) to assert that Usenet participants can create a "dynamic and rich community filled with social nuance and emotion," finding a highly social, evolving, and interactive community within Usenet (138).

McCormick and McCormick (1992) also found a surprisingly high amount of what they labelled, "highly intimate content," in their study of e-mail communication at a university. McCormick and McCormick studied the e-mail of approximately 700 undergraduate students with e-mail accounts on the college's super-mini computer. Their findings showed that e-mail served a "purely social function" for most undergraduates in the study. Less than half of the e-mail in the sample addressed work or school-related concerns. Some concerns about the methodology include that users where not informed that electronic mail was being collected for research. Each time users logged on, however, they were notified with a warning: "Electronic mail can be read by anyone." 2

Wellman and Gulia ask, "Are strong, intimate ties possible on-line?" Personal relationship theorists tell us that strong ties have a number of characteristics, including:

  • a sense of the relationship being intimate and special
  • with a voluntary investment in the ties, and
  • a desire for companionship with the tie partner;
  • an interest in being together as frequently as possible

  • in multiple social contexts

  • over a long period

  • a sense of mutuality in the relationship
  • with the partner's needs known and supported

  • intimacy often bolstered by shared social characteristics such as gender, socioeconomic status; stage in the life-cycle, and life-style
(Wellman & Gulia, 1995, summarizing research of Duck, 1983, and others).

7. CMC Relationships Expanded: On-Line Goes Off-Line

Parks and Floyd (1996), found evidence that relationships that begin via CMC may not necessarily stay in the CMC realm. I have had personal experience with a newsgroup, alt.angst in which, apparently, five "romantic" relationships began within a six-month period in which I read the newsgroup-and were discussed publicly on the newsgroup. Of these five relationships, at least three moved to an off-line/real life setting. Apparently, within Usenet groups, which sometimes are highly interactive, this is not an uncommon occurrence.

Parks and Floyd (1996) cite a female newsgroup participant, who indicated that she met a friend via a Usenet support group "because we both found that we were the only ones on one side of a major debate," and that they later "got together 'off-line' to compare notes and viewpoints." It is interesting that people who interact "on-line," often refer to interactions not via CMC as "off-line," with a slightly "negative" connotation, perhaps. Although "on-line" and "off-line" life can be seen as permeable, people do still feel the need to talk about them differently and to segment their two "lives."

From the way that "meeting on-line" is becoming more accepted, it is perhaps moving from the exotic to the everyday happening, and this move can be seen as somehow validating its social acceptance:
... If cyberspace is becoming just another place to meet, we must rethink our image of the relationships formed there as being somehow removed and exotic. The ultimate social impact of cyberspace will not flow from its exotic capabilities, but rather from the fact that people are putting it to ordinary, even mundane, social uses (Parks & Floyd, 1996, found at: )

8. Conclusion

Jill Smolowe (1995) asserts that the vast majority of people surfing the Internet and communication via CMC are there "in search of social interaction, not just sterile information" and that 80 percent are looking for "contact and commonality, companionship and community" (20). Furthermore, Parks and Floyd (1996) showed that personal relationships conducted via CMC are "common," with just over 60% of people in their sample reporting that they have formed a "personal relationship" with someone they had initially contacted through a Usenet newsgroup. I do not see how the results of research and the personal accounts outlined in this literature review can be pushed aside-how anyone can say that a community is not possible via CMC, that personal relationships are not happening. They most certainly are.

In fact, people are intrigued by CMC personal relationships because the technology is still "new." These relationships are entering a realm of curiosity and popularity which is due to the relative "newness" and apparent exotic flavor of the phenomena. It is even pervading our popular fiction. A 1996 novel by Stephanie D. Fletcher, E-Mail: A Love Story, consists of electronic posts sent and received by the protagonist, including "emotionally volatile" ones to electronic lovers: "While these relationships are not real, the consequences are ("Who says e-mail is dull?", found at, Culture in Cyberspace web site).

As for the debate over the efficacy of CMC, Wellman and Gulia assert that the "dueling dualists" on opposite sides of the CMC debate are feeding off each other:

...using the unequivocal assertions of the other side as foils for their own arguments. Their statements of enthusiasm or criticism leave little room for the moderate, mixed outcomes that may really be the situation.
CMC is a social phenomena. It is all about people communicating with other people, in any way they can. As Baym (1995) argues: "CMC not only lends itself to social uses but is, in fact, a site for an unusual amount of social creativity .... Social realities are created through interaction as participants draw on language and the resources available to make messages that serve their purposes" (160).

In conclusion, CMC "blurs" traditional boundaries between interpersonal and mass communication, allowing for "new opportunities and risks for the way individuals relate to one another" (Parks and Floyd, 1996; Lea & Spears, 1995). In recent CMC scholarship, this blurring and traversing of boundaries has been debated and misunderstood as a negative phenomenon, concentrating on what CMC does not offer, rather than what it does, and rather than looking at the positive possibilities and outcomes. The "virtual community" is not a mythic land of milk and honey, but neither is it any more dangerous, hostile, or unwelcoming than "real life."

Recommendations for Research

In the end, the argument should not be whether or not -- if -- CMC can properly foster interpersonal relationships. Instead, scholarship can move into the "how" and "why," and beyond the mere "if."

The popular press has given CMC-fostered personal relationships much more attention than have scholars in speech communications, sociology, psychology, and other related fields. Perhaps scholars do not deem the area worthy of scholarly inquiry. I disagree with that assessment, and find it a shame that some of the best details about CMC relationships are found in glossy magazines instead of being studied and written about in prestigious, peer-reviewed, respected journals. I do predict that this will be changing, and that sociology and anthropology in particular will be forced to pay attention to the phenomenon as it becomes more and more common. As of now, it is indeed "understudied," as the Duck (1995) book, Understudied Relationships, asserts.

Further research needs to be conducted in several aspects of CMC and personal relationships. First and foremost, the paucity of data must be overcome. Second, the idea that face-to-face communication is the only "real" and desired form must be overcome. Then, areas of personal relationships and CMC which need expansive exploration include:

  • Development of on-line relationships in special populations (Parks & Floyd,1996)
  • How CMC participants manage uncertainty, build trust, and make the leap to "friendship" 3



1. For another example of a university computer subculture, see Sherry Turkle (1984) who studied one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Turkle, S. (1984). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster.

2. In my opinion, however, this is a general warning and did not specifically let the users know what was actually taking place. There are ethical considerations that did not appear to be taken into account.

3. Judith A. Perrole dealt with building trust in CMC in her 1991 article "Conversations and trust in computer interfaces," found in C. Dunlop & R. Kling, Eds., Computerization and controversy (pp. 350-363). Boston: Academic Press. She found that people sometimes think of themselves as engaged in conversation with "an anonymous network, and lose sight of the humans whose programs and messages we are using," finding that communicators in CMC often focus more on the "message" and less on the "person" who sent it, inhibiting trust-building (355).

Brittney G. Chenault ( is Instruction/Reference Librarian at Moorhead State University and a recent graduate of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This literature review, developed from a project for Caroline Haythornthwaite's course, LIS 450, at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, GSLIS.

Copyright © 1998 by Brittney G. Chenault. All Rights Reserved.

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