Get Intimate With E-Mail

January 13, 1999

TROY, N.Y. -- Research by a social scientist at Rensselaer confirms that online relationships can lead to face-to-face romance as in the scenario in You've Got Mail, the hit movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Meeting via e-mail or online "chat" can be more gratifying. A "bad hair day" or mismatched socks won't affect an e-mail conversation.

"Users can achieve more intimacy online than they commonly do face-to-face," according to research by Joseph Walther, associate professor of language, literature, and communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "Such intimacy often sets the stage for a 'real life' encounter."

In virtual relationships such as the one in You've Got Mail, as many as 33 percent of friendships formed online eventually move to a face-to-face meeting, according to cyber-researchers. Unlike the film version, however, there's usually a phone call, and a photo exchange before a physical encounter. Walther's research suggests that those who take these steps toward offline relations have a better chance of success than those who don't.

Studies also find that women are more likely than men to have a relationship online (72 percent vs. 52 percent).

Use of the Internet doubles every 12-15 months and it's projected that 1 billion people will be online by the millenium.

"The magic of online relations is that we see what we want to see, endowing our partners with a halo, ignoring or avoiding to ask what we wish not to learn," says Walther. "E-mail operates without body-language cues such as shrugs, smiles, smirks, or frowns that might create barriers to communication. It is common with e-mail to selectively create a persona and form exaggerated impressions," Walther continues. "Users get to ponder their words, edit more carefully, abort and start over, and save their love letters, as they did in the film."

Combined with the focus of discussion on feelings and perceptions, e-mail can lead to what Walther deems "hyperpersonal" communication.

The biggest surprise of the film, Walther says, was that the characters never got a busy signal on America OnLine.

Walther specializes in the dynamics of Internet-type systems on interpersonal and professional relationships. He is the author of numerous scientific studies of these phenomena, and the editor of The Journal of Online Behavior
Joseph Walther

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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