Are Your Internet Relationships Helping Or Hurting Your Social Life?

Rhonda Lillie and Paul Hawkins are madly in love. Their relationship began four years ago, and continues, to this day, in the very environment where it they met: the online alternate reality of Second Life.

The love story of Lillie and Hawkins is described by Jessica Bennett in an extremely sweet piece that examines the way we connect to each other, and how the online world can often provide oppotunities for love and friendship that the "real" world seems to block out. Both Lillie and Hawkins joined Second Life without the intention of meeting anyone; both were single parents who felt lonely and bored enough to give the service a spin. "I just needed someone to talk to, and I couldn't afford to make long-distance calls every day," Lillie recalls. "It was a way to break the boredom," Hawkins agrees.

The two soon found each other began dating in the Second Life world, and eventually had a Second Life wedding. Though the two have met in person, (and Hawkins officially proposed) the world still conspires to keep them apart: financial issues, family obligations and the Atlantic Ocean are standing in their way. Yet they can still live the life they dream about online. "Four years ago, Paul and I joined Second Life to fill the loneliness in our hearts, and we found what people search their whole lives for," Lillie tells Bennett, "Yes, there's an Atlantic Ocean in between us, but we know we're meant to be together. So right now, this is as good as it gets."

Perhaps the best thing of internet relationships is that they are, at first anyway, based solely on one's words: we connect through cartoon representations of ourselves, behind dumb but protective screennames, and use the anonymity to perhaps express the most honest sides of ourselves; things we'd never say in front of our "real world" friends for fear of being mocked or misunderstood. The lack of physical pressures and judgments also comes into play: as Bennett notes, "In one survey of gamers in online relationships, 60 percent said they didn't think their unions would've formed in real life because a physical attribute would've turned them off."

I have met several close friends through the internet; nearly everyone I know has, in some form or another. It's no longer considered weird or creepy to connect with people online, though there is a strange sense of anxiety that creeps in when one decides to meet with their internet BFFs for the first time: suddenly, the safety of the screen (and the ability to edit one's thoughts) is lifted, and we are exposed as "real people" with real flaws. The first time I met some of my closest internet friends, I sat in a corner having a panic attack. I tried to talk, and nothing came out. I started staring at everyone's shoes, everyone's hair. Everything I was wearing seemed wrong, everything I was saying seemed stupid. My friends, however, were incredibly lovely people who knew me well enough, via our online interactions, to know that I have a severe social anxiety issue, and they were very kind. The second time I met up with everyone, things were MUCH easier. These people were no longer my "internet" friends, they were my friends. Somehow, that knowledge helped me get past the awkwardness.

Yet it's still easier to connect with people online; proximity is a bitch once you graduate college and your friends get scattered across the country (and world), and it really is difficult to find good friends when you hit a new town. The internet, however, is a means to connect with the entire universe: you can meet your best friend or the love of your life in a random manner. You can always find someone to talk to.

But is our dependence on internet friendships and online dating stopping us from actually trying to participate in the "real world?" What if you never actually go out and meet your internet friends? What if you get so comfortable building online relationships that you don't even try to meet people in your neighborhood? What if you start to realize that you can't hold a conversation with people without typing it out? Does the accessibility of online friendships actually hurt our socialization skills?

I tend to think it's a bit of both: internet relationships can help us find company, friendship, and even, perhaps help us discover who we are and what we're looking for, but they can also become a crutch that keeps us from trusting old fashioned methods of making friends. And in the case of Rhonda Lillie and Paul Hawkins, the online world can give us what the real world won't allow us to have: a life where things are the way we feel they should be. Perhaps the trick is finding a balance between one reality and another.

A Geek Love Story [Newsweek]