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What Gets Lost In Our Carefully Crafted Online Conversations

Researchers are studying the effects of the "masks" we wear online.
Researchers are studying the effects of the "masks" we wear online.

Like so many of us, Walter Woodman used to pick through his pictures on Facebook, choosing only to show the ones that made him look good. It went the same way with highlighting his interests and personality traits.

Eventually, he says, the person in his profile was wasn't really him anymore — just a version of the person he wanted to be.

So he deleted his Facebook profile and made a movie about it. Noah, which premiered earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, explores how online experiences can undermine a relationship.

"The good thing about human interaction is you don't need to type what your flaws are. People can just see them from interacting with you," Woodman says. "But when you have Facebook, you don't type, 'By the way, I'm lazy, I'm always late to things.' You can always highlight the positive, you can say I bike, I love music and dance ... It's just a mask."

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says online relationships let us sidestep a lot of trouble. In ordinary conversation, we have to listen to bits we may find boring, think out loud, accept that we may not speak in perfect sound bites. But by avoiding that, we may be avoiding what makes our conversations human.

For research, she observed and interviewed lawyers who prefer not to meet their clients face-to-face, employees who have never met their supervisors in person and professors who are used to students texting in class. The word she keeps hearing is "compose."

"I like doing things on text better, because I can compose my remarks, I can get them just right," her interviewees told her. "That's not the messiness of human interaction, of human talk."

She recalls male college students who get help from their friends before texting a girl back. They can't text back in under 12 minutes, which shows too much interest; but they can't wait for longer than 20 minutes, because it'll show a lack of interest.

Turkle is worried that as we get used to conversations without any boring bits, we won't be able to talk the same way, and that the prevalence of online conversations is forcing some of us to learn how to have face-to-face conversations again.

She's certainly not opposing this change in how we communicate, since there are times that texting is helpful. For instance, she says, fighting with your spouse over text messages can take the heat out of an argument. Turkle and other researchers, like John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, are pointing out these changes as part of better understanding the way we live now.

"What we're experiencing is simply another turn of the evolutionary wheel," says Robert Weiss, a therapist and author of an upcoming book on how technology affects intimate relationships.

He points out we haven't studied true digital natives yet, because those are the 2-year-olds growing up now with iPads in their hands. Until we see more research, we can't really decide what to make of these changes.

Woodman still doesn't have a personal Facebook page, but he, like the character in his movie, found one way of finding human connections online: anonymous chats. He doesn't do it much now, but he used to use Chatroulette, a website for chatting with random strangers.

"If you want a man to be honest, then give him a mask, turn the lights off, let nobody know who he is, and he doesn't have to worry about what you think about him," he says. "People are going to start to value honest connections more and more."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan was a Kroc Fellow at NPR and worked at WNPR as a reporter for three months. He is interested in everything from health and science reporting to comic books and movies. Before joining us, he studied journalism at Northwestern University, and worked at Psychology Today, NPR's Weekend Edition, and WBEZ in Chicago.