Love on the Internet
A second story I want to share is about two people communicating with each other via Internet. Where feedback is almost immediate, processes of attribution easily occur. Mostly we understand these as psychological processes, since the neurological implications of online communication have hardly been studied. Even when the processes of attribution in communicating in mediated presence have become solid over the years, they remain distinct from communication that takes place in natural presence. The personal story below is an example of this distinction. Many people who work live and work online, will be able to tell similar stories, even though they may not be as extreme as what happened to a friend of mine.
Jane was living far away from the centre of the western world. She spent a lot of time on the Internet. She was young and soon she was savvy and cool with this new stuff. Jane also started using the net for her work and met this interesting person Max, who she loved communicating with, through a mailing list. They became good friends. Unexpectedly, they fell in love. After a few months Jane found out that her good friend Max was not a boy as she presumed (without asking), but a girl. Because of this, the love became purely intellectual, without physical demands, and they became even more deeply connected. For another 4 years Jane and Max only communicated online, many times a day and Max deeply influenced Jane's life even though she had still not met her. The relationship gradually became even more intense up to the point that Max was dominating Jane's life while she was actually thousands of miles away. My friend Jane started to lose her grip on her life. It was like she was living a double life. Nobody saw the relationship; it took place between the two of them online in complete solitude. In the 5th year she suddenly received a phone number to call, and Jane was shocked to find out that her girlfriend Max, appeared to be a boy. After the initial surprise Jane discovered that she really preferred a boy as her lover and they continued the relationship, now spending as much time on the telephone as on the Internet. More and more she realized that the situation was getting out of hand, it had become a manipulative relationship but she could not break the spell. Finally Jane decided to go and meet Max In Real Life, at the same time cutting her ties with her now complicated life at home. By this time they had been together for over 6 years. And then Jane realised, after she had spent only a few fragmented days with Max, that she did not love him at all. She actually did not even like him. She had loved a 'fata morgana', inspired by her capacity and need for love (personal communication, 2006).
I tell this story because it is one of the strongest examples of the power of attribution in mediated presence as well as being one of the best examples of the power of natural presence I have witnessed. Had the mediated presence not been so interesting for many reasons, had her wish for and capacity to love not been so strong, my friend would never have gotten so deeply embroiled in this double life. Because she was in need of intimacy, she became a master in these processes of attribution through which the boy became this radiant figure in her life. When she had to get out, there was no stronger medicine than facing reality, meaning facing the boy's natural presence and using all senses and cognitive and emotional structures present. In a meeting in natural presence something happens that cannot be mediated by any technology. The simplicity and complexity of the here and now being present, the 'aura' as Benjamin called it, cannot be replaced. Benjamin could not know at his time that mediated presence would become so elaborate and omnipresent, nor could he foresee how utterly attractive it is for so many people to spend hours a day in mediated presence. Also, the psychological implications of mediated presences had not been explored at all at the time. People like to be captured by the machine and operate the machine as well, capturing themselves and others. People like to be partially present themselves and meet partial representations of others. Social relationships in natural presence environments can be very suffocating. Therefore, spending time in mediated presence environments via structures like the Internet is highly attractive. In all kinds of Internet environments processes of attribution occur; people trigger each other's imagination by sending and receiving all kinds of data, over longer and shorter periods of time, without having to confront each other while actually fulfilling certain personal needs .