How we relate to others when we hide behind a screen

Many people feel alone for a variety of reasons. Some have a hard time relating to others, some live in an isolated place, or they have specific interests that are hard to share with someone else. Anyway, especially for those people, technology seems to have helped to try to escape these difficult situations. Before social media evolved in the way we know today or before their existence, using the internet to establish relationships was quite hard, especially for non-experts. Now, social media are used by anyone of every age, and not everyone uses them because they feel alone, but for many, it’s the opportunity to be the center of attention.

However, people on the internet not only use exclusively social media to communicate their feelings, but sometimes they prefer confessional sites where they can write more anonymously and feel freer to express more private things or secrets. On these sites, users are not supposed to necessarily answer, they can ignore you, or be kind but it may also happen that someone replies harshly.

Nonetheless, we need to express our thoughts to the world, hoping for a good answer or comfort from a stranger because it looks easier and less embarrassing talking about secrets and private things with an unknown person, especially if we are anonymous, too. That’s the main difference with social media where we are behind a screen but friends and relatives know us and we generally use our name and photo.

Once, confessions were a prerogative of family or friendships but they happen in a space where talking implies negotiation. Therefore, we can assume some conversations wouldn’t happen at all unless on the internet.

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Talking to kin or a friend may bring on disapproval although this is hard to take, it’s part of the relationship. It means someone cares about you or maybe doesn’t. It’s a risk but it may lead to a more solid relationship when we know someone comforts us, especially for a serious problem. However, even when we receive criticism we can learn something. Sometimes we learn we are the ones who did something wrong, or that the person we are talking to is not that reliable. But in online conversation, all this complexity doesn’t happen.

Now, we are entering an era where chatbots are evolving rapidly, and having a conversation with them may look like having one with a stranger on the internet.

And while some read confessional sites simply for curiosity, others take comfort in learning that some have the same troubles that they do. However, sharing problems with a bot is perceived as less shaming than with a stranger who is still a person that could react harshly. So, while it’s easier to confess, it’s also easier to be aggressive. People can feel satisfied for getting such feeling out but they can be more vulnerable in new ways. Although they hope to be repaid in intimacy for such a secret confession. But cruelty can find a free rein because those who attack, easily detach words from the person, and their frustration finds a fertile land.

In this scenario, we are minds without bodies who feel free to say anything, without a moral, positively and negatively.

Of course, extreme reactions may also happen between people in real life but on the internet, there’s no limit and people hope that talking online may help them not to need to talk to someone in person.

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However, when we know we’re having a conversation with a bot, we do a step further because we know it can’t answer cruelly, therefore we can feel completely free to say anything, even the most disagreeable. Nonetheless, even the most accurate chatbot can only answer our problems only rationally and not emotionally. We can’t establish a real relationship with it but only find good answers which it’s good but it’s another thing.

Trying to find relief just with this solution leads us to give up our emotional resources to build relationships with others because we feel satisfied with a digital surrogate which should be a supplement rather than the main solution.

This behavior may keep us from taking positive actions because we already feel we’ve done “something” while we need more not to feel detached from others.

Alone Together – Why we expect more from technology and less from each other by Sherry Turkle is available to purchase here