TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 8.6. Die mobile Gesellschaft
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Penka Angelova (Veliko Tarnovo / Rousse, Bulgarien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Closeness or Control in Interpersonal Communication Online?
Long-Distance Relationships Mediated Through Skype

Mirjam Gollmitzer (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada) [BIO]




This paper examines how computer-mediated communication influences long-distance relationships. After introducing the reader to concepts of postmodern love and theories of online communication, I will apply these concepts to the case of Skype. More specifically, I will illustrate how the communication of romantic partners is mediated through Skype’s instant messaging service and desktop telephony via webcam. One question here is how feelings are communicatied. Another, more indirect form of communication via Skype is the status button that allows users to manipulate their online behaviour. For example, it is possible to watch your partner online while being invisible yourself. In this context, issues of trust and surveillance are discussed. Looking at the results of the analysis, I will argue that postmodern love and postmodern technology often “work” according to the same principles and are interdependent. At the very end of my paper, I will ask if computer-mediated communication is able to create “real” intimacy between long-distance partners or if it rather leads to a simulation of closeness.



Due to the globalization of work and education we witness a steadily growing number of long-distance relationships today. Consequently, the use of communication technologies increasingly replaces face-to-face interactions. This essay examines how computer-mediated communication influences long-distance romantic relationships. More specifically, I will illustrate how forms of online communication, such as instant messaging and audiovisual chat via webcam, mediate these relationships. One important question is how emotions and everyday activities are shared online. Moreover, I will look at a form of indirect communication which most online platforms for interpersonal communication offer. The so-called status button makes the online presence of a user visible for others. At the same time, it allows for misleading others, for example, a user can appear offline while being actually online. In this context, issues of trust and surveillance are discussed. Skype will serve as an example of a platform for interpersonal communication that incorporates all three forms of communication mentioned above: the more “traditional” instant messaging, the possibility of online presence management, and the quite recent audiovisual chat.

The central aim while looking at specific forms of online communication is to find out how the design of the technology allows romantic partners to experience intimacy while being geographically separated. By exploring this question, I hope to offer some larger insights into how the internet conditions human interaction in contemporary societies.

In this paper, long-distance romantic relationships are considered as emotionally and physically intimate relationships in which partners don’t see each other on a regular basis due to geographic separation. But why do I work with the notion of a long-distance relationship at all? There are several reasons for this. First, I want to show interpersonal relations in a state where computer-mediated communication is the primary means of interaction. At the same time, in order to highlight the differences between face-to-face and computer-mediated communication, I can not work with a purely virtual relationship in mind but rather with one that was first formed offline. Third, romantic relationships are considered because they seem especially well-suited to explore what happens if human beings with all their emotional ambiguity turn to the computer in a quest for human co-presence. All in all, this paper is more interested in what the technology does to relationships than what the relationship does with the technology. I am more concerned with the technological environment that forms the communication than with specific messages of the romantic couple.

By examining long-distance romantic relationships and communication technologies, this paper aims to explore two research areas that have so far rarely been treated together. On the one hand, psychological research on long-distance romantic relationships often does not pay adequate attention to the technologies that are used to maintain the relationship. On the other hand, communication scholars who have explored online communication have focused mainly on purely virtual relationships, not on those formed offline and maintained online.

This is not the only point in which this paper intends to make a difference with respect to the research literature. In sum, contemporary research has a significantly more positive view on computer-mediated communication today than it had in the past (Thurlow, Lengel & Tomic, 2004). For most researchers, the lack of nonverbal cues transmitted in different forms of online communication has turned from a burden into a blessing. Online communication today is widely celebrated as a new and exciting way to relate to each other. The argument is that computer-mediated communication should not be compared to face-to-face communication (anymore) but treated as a phenomenon in itself (Baym, 2006). Researchers point to other media of interpersonal communication, such as the telegraph or the telephone that were initially criticized for making human communication “colder” but then gradually accepted as just another means of social interaction. This paper is critical of such a view and will question it throughout the following analysis of how Skype mediates long-distance relationships. The use of online communication by far exceeds the use of earlier or other technologies for interpersonal communication, both in diversity and scale (Baym, 2006, p.39). Furthermore, the technology does not simply supplement face-to-face interaction. It has made it obsolete in many domains and simulates it in ever more sophisticated ways as the recently emerging audiovisual chats via webcam illustrate. To point out the difference between computer-mediated communication and face-to-face interaction seems more important than ever since this difference is increasingly blurred by technological possibilities.

I will start with a conceptualization of postmodern love in the first section. This serves as a background against which the theory and practice of online communication in long-distance romantic relationships are then considered. Looking at the results of this analysis, I will show to what extent online communication can create closeness between long-distance partners. Lastly, similarities between postmodern love and postmodern technologies will be discussed.


I. Postmodern love

For a conceptualization of postmodern love, I will draw on Zygmunt Bauman’s book Liquid Love (2003), and Kenneth J. Gergen’s analysis in The Saturated Self (1991). Both Gergen and Bauman write about the postmodern state of being and the nature of postmodern relationships.(1) Communication technology and its impact on human relationships occupy a decisive role in both their analyses. Thereby, they illuminate the vital yet often neglected connection between human interaction and technology.

Gergen’s central thesis is that in the postmodern age, individuals have reached a state of social saturation. This means that our lives are populated by an ever-growing number of private and professional relationships. Being related to other human beings to such an extent leads to a concept of the self that is different from both the romantic (emphatic) and the modern (scientific and self-confident) concepts of the self. For Gergen, the relatedness of the individual is the very defining feature of the postmodern condition. Consequently, unique individual characteristics become less and less important. The postmodern personality only becomes visible in its relations to others.

Being related to so many people means playing a great a variety of roles, rendering just a part of your identity visible in each of your relationships. At the same time, we are always exposed to only partial identities when interacting with others. The consequence is a fragmentation of the individual that leaves no room for the concept of the autonomous, authentic self anymore (Gergen, 1991, p.7). Through the countless number of relationships we entertain, we grow familiar with countless geographic regions, world views, cultures and life styles. For the many different perspectives and a myriad of alternatives always pointing the way out of the current context, certainty and stability are traded off.

The development towards ever-growing relatedness is promoted by what Gergen calls “technologies of social saturation.” Examples of those technologies are the telegraph, the railway, the car, the telephone, the computer – basically all media of transportation and interpersonal or mass communication that offer us ever-expanding possibilities to relate to each other (p.61). Moreover, not only the number but also the pace of relationships is increased through those technologies. “A sense of affinity might blossom into a lively sense of interdependence within a brief period of time,” but the possibility of continuous connection might cause courtships to quickly move from excitement to exhaustion (p.173). The fact that we travel more than ever and and communicate mostly through technologies creates numerous situations of anonymity which foster a multiplicity of low-level or “friendly” romances rather than the one all-consuming romantic love of the past (p.65). That caters to the postmodern individuals’ preference for contained and partial relationships that are only vital within their circumscribed domains (p.178).

As communiation technologies make it easy to stay in touch when apart and easy not to be in touch if preferred so, relationships are constantly disrupted and new ones formed. The attractiveness of those fractional relationships is based on their very limitations. The fact that the technology only allows for limited nonverbal cues intensifies the emotional level of many relationships. What also adds to intensity is that electronic communication results in a greater tendency to create an imaginary other. One can easily fantazise the other is feeling happy or sad and act accordingly (p.66).

Gergen concludes by stating that “we find technologies and life style operating in a state of symbiotic interdependence” (p.173). On the one hand, the Pastiche personality of postmodernity is a social chameleon, engaged in countless relationships, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available. The true self is of less interest today than style, self-marketing and self-monitoring, tailored to the situation or relation one is in. “Without nagging guilt pervading daily life, the postmodern individual is eager learning to seem rather than to be” (p.151). On the other hand, our postmodern technologies promote a multiplicitous and polymorphic being such as this in that they furnish invitations to incoherence of life patterns and relationships (p.173). Gergen sums up the paramount role of technology in interpersonal communication by stating that “we enter the age of techno-personal systems” (p.173).

Zygmunt Bauman concentrates more exclusively on postmodern ways of loving in his account of contemporary relationships. According to him, we witness a radical overhaul of intimate relationships today in which standards for calling a feeling or a relationship love have been lowered (Bauman, 2003, p. 5). Instead of life-long relationships, “semi-detached” couples populate today’s world. According to Bauman, the reason for that is the massive influence of the consumer culture. It not only coins our behaviour as consumers but also our perception and evaluation of social relationships. As a consequence, qualities such as humility, courage, faith and discipline are rare as they are seen as old-fashioned and non-effective (p.9). Instead, men and women favour “products” for instant use, quick fixes, instantaneous satisfaction, and money-back guarantees. They look at love as just another commodity. “Like other consumer goods, partnership is for consumption” (p.14).

In Bauman’s view, acting on wishes as soon as they evolve is “drilled deeply into daily conduct by the mighty powers of the consumer market” (p.12). That also means that goods may be exchanged for others. “Lovers like stockholders, open the newspaper stock-exchange pages first thing in the morning to find out whether it is time to hold on or to let go.”(p.14) Bauman observes that today’s romantic relationships are more than ever characterized by the frantic wish to reduce uncertainty, to control one’s emotions at every stage of the relationship and to avoid deep and lasting commitments. Therefore, there’s no falling in love anymore at the beginning of a relationship and there’s a quest for strategies to emerge out of it unscathed (p.23). Love has become a “Siamese twin” of power greed, an instrument to exercise control over the other in order to contain his or her influence (p.9).

Bauman ascribes a huge role to technology in contemporary love relationships. Communication technologies “take the waiting out of wanting.” They make the instant wish to be in touch come true. In addition, they cater to the peculiar mixture of craving for freedom and belonging at the same time that characterizes the postmodern inidvidual’s attitude towards social relations (p.34). “We belong – to the even flow of words and unfinished sentences (abbreviated, to be sure, truncated to speed up the circulation)”, Bauman states (p.34). The technologies enable us to engage in social networking which in turn saves us from loneliness but demands no commitment. According to Bauman, the sole point of social networking today is to keep the chat going: “Stop talking – and you are out.”(p.35) Technologies offer people the possibility to stay – loosely - connected, to be “cocooned in a web of calls and messages”, even though they are constantly on the move (p.59).

The liberation from place that contemporary communication technologies offer means that physical closeness no longer determines proximity. Yet, Bauman argues, the other side of the virtual proximity coin is the advent of “virtual distance” in social life: Due to communication technologies, being separated is no obstacle to staying in touch. But getting in touch is also no obstacle to staying apart. Through that, technologies mitigate the fears of many today to become too closely attached to a single person. Therefore, communication technologies cause human connections to be more frequent but at the same time more shallow, more intense but also more brief. Overall, both Gergen and Bauman attach a fundamental role to technology in their characterizations of contemporary relationships. It can be inferred from both of their works that the nature of postmodern technology in many ways corresponds to the postmodern individual’s needs, such as reducing risks in their social lives, having many options at hand at any given time, avoiding lasting commitments and final decisions. Let’s now take a closer look at the theory as well as the practice of such technologies.


II. Theories of Online Communication

Before I introduce the reader to different approaches to studying online communication, I would like to point out five key dimensions that help us understand the link between a technology and social behaviour (Joinson, 2003, p.20). All theories of online communication refer to these key elements and I will also draw to them in my analysis of communication forms on Skype.

The first key dimension is cost constraints; it influences not only the duration of an interaction but also the conversational style. Secondly, the bandwidth of a technology determines the amount and type of data that can be exchanged during a conversation. The higher the bandwidth, the more verbal or nonverbal cues can be transmitted. This leads us to the third key dimension. The cues or social presence conveyed by a communiation technology is considered a major force in shaping mediated communication. For example, instant messaging allows for the transmission of verbal cues only, while internet telephony including webcams allows for nonverbal signals as well. Intimately connected to the concept of cues is the the level of anonymity a technology imposes on communication. In chat rooms, for example, users can stay visually anonymous while participants in audiovisual chat cannot. To move on to the next key dimension, there are asynchronous and synchronous forms of communication. The latter allow real-time interaction (chat rooms), while the former typically refer to e-mails and newsgroups in which there is no pressure to reply immediately. The last key dimension is the question if the technology allows for sender-recipient-exclusivity or not (Joinson, 2003, p. 23).

1. Something Lost: Cues-filtered out Approaches

Researchers in the early years of computer-mediated communication developed a fairly critical view on this new means of communication by comparing it to face-to-face interactions. The Social Presence Approach, for example, concentrated on what was lost when people engaged in computer-mediated communication, namely nonverbal signals such as vocal cues, facial expression, body posture, and gestures (Baym, 2006, p.36) As a consequence, it was assumed that computer-mediated communication promotes task-oriented rather than social communication. The Reduced Context Cues Approach looked at the reduced roles of status, leadership, gender, and geography in computer-mediated communication and claimed that this would lead to disinhibited behaviour among conversation partners (Joinson, 2003, p.27). In sum, all cues-filtered out approaches stressed that computer-mediated communication would more or less result in deindividuation and reduced self-regulation. Gradually, research shifted from technologically determinist approaches to a more user-focused perspective which will be described in the next paragraph.

2. Something Gained: Advantages of Lower Bandwidth

As a reaction to earlier research on computer-mediated communication, Walther introduced the Social Information Processing Theory (Walther, 1992). This theory says that computer-mediated communication can be as social as face-to-face communication, given that there are no time constraints. It rests on the assumption that users compensate for the “coldness” of the medium by developing extra warm and personal communication styles (Baym, 2006, 37). This strategy also helps conversation partners to reduce uncertainty and to increase affinity, two basic needs that characterize human interactions. Walther argued that the process of doing so takes longer in computer-mediated communication than in face-to-face interaction but is certainly possible.

In 1996, Walther extended his own theory with a study that indicated that computer-mediated communication can be significantly more social and satisfying than face-to-face interaction because of the lack of certain cues (Walther, 1996, Joinson, 2003). In this so-called Hyperpersonal Model, the central effect of computer-mediated communication in interpersonal communication is the idealization of the conversation partner. Due to the lack of visual cues, the attractiveness of the other is overestimated and communication therefore experienced as more socially desirable than face-to-face interaction. (Baym, 2006, p.45) The so-called Media Richness Theory also attributes an active role to the media user. It states that people choose rich (transmitting lots of cues) or lean (less cues) media according to their specific communication needs. For example, when equivocal matters are discussed, most likely a rich medium will be employed to ensure efficient exchange.

In the SIDE (Social Identity and Deindividuation Explanation) model, Lea and Spears presented an alternative explanation to the deindividuation bemoaned by early research on computer-mediated communication (Lea & Spears, 1995). Giving the term deindividuation a positive connotation, the researchers showed that if social identity (being a college student, being a mother etc.) becomes salient during group interactions, individuals move towards the group norm. Although this approach is looking at groups rather than dyadic interaction, it is still relevant for this paper as it presents an explanation of what role the lack of social information plays in online interactions.

3. Limitations of the Theories

Both the early technologically determinist approaches and the later user-focused approaches have been tested empirically. Still, none of the theories has up to now been finally confirmed or refuted. A model that successfully integrates media as well as user characteristics and relates both to interpersonal communication has yet to be developed.(2)

Second, all major theories of online communication were developed with the assumption in mind that it is exclusively text-based communication. The lack of nonverbal cues was regarded as the one single feature that distinguishes online from face-to-face communication (Baym 38). Also, the majority of researchers assumed that in the near future, there would neither be the technical possibilities nor a demand from the user’s side for visual or audio communication online. Yet, the broadband explosion in many western countries and the overwhelming acceptance of Skpye’s telephone service including webcams has proved them wrong. Because of the text-based orientation of research on interpersonal communication online, theoretical frameworks for analyzing emerging technologies such as audiovisual chat via webcams don’t exist at the moment.

Another limitation of current research regarding interpersonal relationships online is that most theories have been designed to analyze the formation of new relationships and not the maintenance of already existing ones (Baym, 2006, p.42)(3). Yet, as this paper works with the notion of long-distance romantic partners that are confined to connecting almost exclusively online, most perspectives and theories of purely virtual relationships are useful for my analysis as well.


III. Long-distance Romantic Relationships Mediated through Skype

Skype was founded in 2003 by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis in Estonia. Its voice-over-internet-protocol (Voip) software allows people around the globe to talk through desktop telephony, with or without webcam, for free. The steadily growing use of desktop telephony was made possible through the broadband explosion in many areas of the world during the last years. Skype itself describes its aim as making interpersonal communication “easy and fun” (Skype, 2007)(4). In August 2006, 113 million users round the world had registered with Skype and several million people are online at any given time of the day (Communicating the Skype Way, 2006). The Economist calls Skype “one of the software world's most subversive and fastest-growing businesses”, referring to its acceptance by users and its revolutionary impact on traditonal telecommunications. As calling from Skype to Skype is free, the company makes its profits from calls made from Skype to landline and cell phones. In 2005, Ebay bought Skype for 2.5 billion US dollars, expecting it to continue to be highly successful in the future. As many agree, free internet telephony will replace traditional landline phones before long (Schreck, 2005). At the moment, Skype is the most successful bidder of internet telephony but others, such as Yahoo, are already following up (Wallingford, 2006).

As already mentioned in the introduction, I will only look at three forms of communicaton offered by Skpe: instant messaging, audiovisual chat (desktop telephony including webcams) and indirect communication through the presence information button.(5) The fact that all three forms of communication are free plays a critical role for the communicaton in long-distance romantic relationships. The only preconditions for using Skype are that both conversation partners are registered with Skype and have access to broadband internet.(6) Most probably for the first time in history, staying in touch while being apart doesn’t cost anything. Lovers can stay online together for as long as they want, either text-messaging, talking via webcam, just looking at each other or watching each other pursuing everyday activities.

1. Instant Messaging: Text-based Online Communication

If partners in a long-distance romantic relationship choose Skype’s instant messaging tool as a means of communication, they have to adapt to the specific characteristics of this medium. Their communication is mainly text-based. Vocal, visual and audio cues are filtered out. In responding to the limitations of the medium and at the same time acknowledging its synchronous character, users have developed a special language. Researchers describe it as a peculiar mixture of written and spoken language that shares many features with oral communication. Some therefore use the term “secondary orality” when they talk about online chatting (Baym 2006, 39). Acronyms such as “lol” (laughing out loud) or “rofl” (rolling on the floor laughing) both accommodate the need for speedy, almost real-time interaction and make up for the lack of audio and visual signals.

Another “remedy” for the lack of social presence in instant messaging services is emoticons. They were invented to convey different sentiments and corresponding facial expressions to the conversation partner. One strand of research mentions the homogenizing effect that comes with the use of emoticons (Joinson, 2003). Males and females, black and white people, sick and healthy ones, Christians and Muslims around the world all use the same yellow emoticon to convey a smile (example from Skype). Whereas people most probably have no difficulty understanding the expression of a certain mood through a certain emoticon, individualized expressions of anger or joy are not possible. For long-distance lovers, Skype offers four (out of a total of sixty-three) emoticons that quite exclusively relate to a romantic relationship: a red heart, a red broken heart, a kiss-smiley, an “in-love”-smiley with hearts on its forehead and a small brown bear signifying a hug. The latter, together with one other emoticon on Skype that signifyies a handshake, represents a physical interaction. This is interesting because the technology was obviously designed not only to convey emotions of anger, joy or humour but also to make up for either casual or rather passionate types of touch that take place in face-to-face interaction.

Yet, in that case, too, emoticons are generalizations. They are universal, non-gendered and non-ethnic. It is exactly for that reason that, in contrast to the critical voices mentioned above, another strand of research has developed a positive view on emoticons. These researchers attribute a liberating effect to the use of emoticons. They claim that this universal, homogenized expression of emotions prevents discrimination and promotes equality in online interactions (Rabby & Walther, 2003). Overall, researchers mostly agree on the fact that emoticons which accompany positive messages don’t play a large role in online communication. In contrast, emoticons that express anger or surprise are taken more seriously by the receiver of the message. All in all, though, the effects emoticons have has not been extensively enough studied to make any final conclusion on how they are employed.

The question is in what situations partners in long-distance romantic relationship would use Skpe’s instant messaging service at all. Why would they choose a lean medium when there is a rich medium such as audiovisual chat right at hand? Why should lovers be satisfied with just writing messages to each other when they have the option to watch each other while talking? As mentioned earlier, media richness theory suggests that users make very conscious choices about which online medium to use. Lovers might prefer to avoid each other’s look because of a conflict. Or they might have numerous other reasons to choose a conversational mode that allows for greater control of their own messages and protection from being watched reacting to messeages from their partner. Instant-messaging, although considered a synchronous medium, lets users still edit, craft and rewrite messages if they wish so.

Research on long-distance relationship has found that lean media are preferred for small talk and practical matters, while essential questions, such as issues concerning the relationship itself, are discussed in a richer medium (Stafford, 2005). The instant messaging function in Skype is very suitable for sharing practical information. Partners can post each other links to personal photographs or homepages of mutual interest within seconds. If partners plan a holiday together, for example, they can search the internet for offers and let the other party know within seconds by just posting a link in the instant messaging field. That can be done during a combined webcam-phone conversation so that they can talk about the sent information immediately – almost as if both would be sitting in front of the same computer screen. Switching from one medium to another is also promoted by the Skpye technology itself. Its instant messaging service provides emoticons that ask the conversation partner if he or she is ready to be called.

2. Audiovisual Chat via Webcam

Webcams connected to the internet have been around for some years. They have been employed to enable users to watch public places, for example, the reconstruction of the World Trade Center or what is going on on university campuses. Also, many writers of online diaries on private homepages and bloggers have employed them to share personal information online (Kitzmann, 2004). Now, webcams are becoming an increasingly popular tool in interpersonal communication, too.

Audiovisual chat adds completely new dimensions to online communication and to romantic couples in particular. First, it renders nonverbal signals visible. Chatting via webcam fulfills the desire to see the partner’s physical appearance, to follow his or her movements and to see his or her smile and other facial expressions. Additionally, long-distance partners can introduce each other to their local friends to make up for the lack of commonly experienced social contexts that long distance-relationships typically suffer from. Furthermore, lovers are able to let each other see their apartments, the weather outside their window, their clothing and other objects that are important to them. The technology also allows couples to share many everday activities. They can, for example, watch each other cooking, eating, working, studying, or listening to music. A man who lives in Iceland and his girlfriend who lives in South Africa are able to cook their dinner, listen to their favourite songs or work on something, with the other one being somehow “around”, watching, listening, commenting or staying quiet. With wireless internet and the introduction of pocket computers, the sharing of everyday life through Skype is not even limited to each of the lover’s homes. Contact can be kept wherever a (wireless) broadband connection is available to both. Freed from cost constraints and increasingly also spatial constraints, couples can in theory stay online twenty-four hours, seven days a week, in many places.

At first sight, audiovisual chat seems to come close to face-to-face interaction among romantic partners. It makes possible effective emotional communication which critically depends on gestures and facial expressions as well as vocal information (Burgoon & Hoobler, 2002). Moreover, audiovisual chat allows for a sharing of each other’s everyday life to a degree that hasn’t been possible in online communication before. Given the richness of the medium and the consequential degree of immediacy it creates, audiovisual chat appears to be superior to all other forms of online communication. Still, there are some definite limitations to it that should not be overlooked.

First, lovers can look at each other via the webcam. Yet, they cannot do so at the same time. To give your partner the impression of looking him or her directly in the eyes, you have to turn your head from the screen and look into the black hole of the webcam. He or she has to do the same to give you the impression of looking at you. In short, that means your eyes can never meet. This is problematic as a great deal of information in interpersonal communication is gathered from the gaze (Burgoon & Hoobler, 2002). Secondly, it should not be forgotten that audiovisual chat doesn’t render all nonverbal information available. The concentration on the visual sense as the dominant sense in western culture might distract us from the fact that people online still can’t touch each other. They cannot use physical proximity as a means of communication. This might be the point where the difference between face-to-face and online communication is – literally - most tangible to lovers.

As pointed out in this chapter, audiovisual chat in some ways resembles face-to-face interaction and can not compete with it in others. Lastly, I now want to mention how the technology in a certain sense exceeds face-to-face communication. Skype provides the user with the possibility to see him or herself while talking to the other person. In a small window located in the bottom left corner of the video streaming window, the user sees the exact same image that his or her partner sees. This is an instrument of surveillance and control of one’s own behaviour not available in face-to-face interactions. Maybe this feature of the audiovisual chat is an answer to studies on video technology and picturephones as a means for interpersonal communication. These studies tried to explain the lack of enthusiasm that for a long time characterized people’s attitude towards these technologies. Put simply, researchers found that people in general enjoy to watch others but don’t like to be watched (Kaigo, 2005).

This feeling of uneasiness and vulnerability is mitigated by the self-monitoring window in audiovisual chat. The richness of verbal and nonverbal cues that always goes hand in hand with a trade-off in control of one’s behaviour is corrupted by a new instrument of control. As lovers watch each other and themselves online, the self-monitoring window allows them to manage the impression they make. The power of nonverbal signals, which partly lies in their ability to convey non-intended and therefore authentic messages, is contained. The crafting and editing of messages possible in text-based communication is thereby reintroduced in an audiovisual medium. The chance for increased spontaneity and immediacy is diminished.

3. Indirect Communication through Presence Information: Status Button Politics

More than ever, communication technologies today allow us to manage our contacts with other human beings in a way that is most preferable and useful to us. In contrast to earlier times, when one just did not answer the phone or return a letter, strategies to avoid or manage social contacts are more differentiated today. These strategies are built into the design of our technologies, enabling us to avoid or be in touch with certain people at certain times. For example, the displays of our cell phones show us who is calling. As opposed to the past decades, if we don’t answer the phone today, we know exactly who we don’t want to talk to. Pretending not to be available – for whatever reason - has never been as easy as it is today. We let our cell phone, traditonal phone or e-mail account automatically answer incoming messages that we cannot or do not want to take.

The status button in Skype is an instrument of control and management of social contacts in exactly that spirit. The first, rather obvious function of the status button is to convey presence information.(7) The Skype user sets his or her status to “online”, “offline”, “do not disturb”, “away” or “not available” to let all the people in the contact list know his or her readiness to be contacted.(8) Its second, rather hidden function is to manipulate presence information. The user can easily set the status button to “away” while sitting in front of the computer. Or he or she can set it status button to “invisible” while in reality being online. Althought it might not be immediately obvious, the status button has huge implications for the way we relate to others. One could as well say that, hidden in the status button, is the postmodern version of the question “to be or not to be”. With one mouse click on this button, the user decides if he or she is present (“online”) and therefore visible for their partner, friends or family in the Skpye contact list or not. Being online is being present in the social world. In cyberspace, being online is being.

In a romantic relationship mediated through Skype, being visibly online or not can be decisive for the future of the relationship. Being online is the precondition for communication to take place. The status button makes it possible to disappear from the other’s perception with just a mouse click. That means that absurd situations can arise. Partners in a long-distance romantic relationship can, for whatever reason, pretend to each other not to be online for a week. When both set their status button to invisible, they see each other as offline. They won’t know if their partner is really offline or is actually sitting in front of the computer, waiting for them make “the first step”, which means to become “visible” again. This example illuminates another aspect of status button. It is not only a way to “effectively” manage one’s social contacts but also an instrument of surveillance.(9) One can watch the online behaviour of others while pretending not to be “around”. You see at what times, for how long and in which different statuses (away, don’t disturb, not available) your partner is online without being seen yourself (while, of course, you can never be sure if his or her behaviour is orchestrated as well or not).

While disappearing from each other’s view online has become as easy as it could never be in the offline-world, there is also a new kind of precariousness prevalent in human contacts mediated through Skype. Users who are not familiar with the hidden functions of the Skype technology can make experiences that might threaten their relationships. Those who just pretend to be offline can be tracked down by other users. Ways to do so are described in the Skype Journal, an independant website dealing with blessings and burdens of communicating via Skype.

One way to identify one of your contacts as online although he or she pretends to be offline is to send them a chat message. If the message can be sent that means the person is online. Moreover, if a webcam is connected to the computer of a user, his or her contacts can identify the user as online because the camera symbol appears online. This matter is discussed in online forums dealing with trust and deception issues related to presence information buttons. One of the articles is called “How to make an invisible person visible via webcam”. People report how shocked or disappointed they were to find out that their contacts regularly pretended not to be “there” (Skype Journal, 2007).


IV. Results of Analysis

1. Illusion or Reality of Intimacy?

Considering the way in which romantic relationships are mediated through the computer, the question arises if these relationships can “compete” with face-to-face interactions in being “real” or “authentic”. Looking back at the theoretical approaches as well as concrete examples of online communication discussed in this paper, one can conclude that love online is both less and more real than face-to-face communication.

Revolving around the notion of limited cues, the theoretical approaches have either classified online communication as impersonal or hyperpersonal, as being either less or more social than face-to-face interaction. This is mirrored in the different forms of concrete online interaction. Instant messaging services confront users with limited nonverbal cues. Audiovisual chat adds the very important visual dimension to communication. Yet, the introduction of the self-monitoring window also gives us an instrument of control that enables us to craft and elaborate on nonverbal messages more than in face-to-face interaction. The presence information button allows for surveillance of the social environment and management of one’s own presence in it to a degree unparalleled by face-to-face interaction. Put into a nutshell, whatever theoretical or practial example one considers, the less real aspect of online interaction comes down to a lack of nonverbal cues which means a lack of human co-presence or immediacy. The more real aspect of online communication comes down to a more in control. This suggests that detachment rather than intimacy characterizes human relations online.

It is argued here that online communication clearly lacks authenticity as it both is inferior and superior to face-to-face interaction. Yet, at the same time, the amount of interpersonal online communication grows steadily; relationships are successfully formed and maintained en masse online. We cannot simply dismiss the experience of long-distance and purely virtual couples online. We cannot ignore that people’s interactions with their partners online cause them genuine feelings of sadness, pain, joy or jealousy – just like in a “real” relationship. Research on long-distance relationships not only suggests the existence of such feelings, it also stresses that long-distance couples are in general more satisfied with their relationships and value each other more than “offline” partners (Stafford, 2005, Baym, 2006).

These positive emotions are certainly authentic in themselves. Yet, they might have been triggered by misperceptions that are invited by online communication. As we have seen, deception as well as idealization is promoted by the Skype technology. Theories as well as empirical studies of online communication concentrate mostly on effects. Independent of the question, though, if there are “good” or “bad” effects, shouldn’t we be interested in the kind of experiences these effects of online communication are based upon? Although relationships online might be experienced as intimate, fulfilling and satisfying, favourable results do not prove the authenticity of the form of communication that brought them about. Maybe users are so enthusiastic about online communication because it allows for an unprecedented degree of multileveled control of one’s own behaviour and that of others. It seems, though, as if researchers more and more see the general satisfaction and increasing acceptance of online communication as an indication that the communication process itself has been improved.

Let’s take into consideration one more time the phenomenon of audiovisual chat as it certainly comes closest to face-to-face interaction. The overwhelming impression of the visual sense might let us forget that talking via webcam is just another, more perfect simulation of closeness in interpersonal communication online. We would need to be able to smell, taste and touch the other person to make human interpersonal experience complete. In a romantic relationship, the argument that conversation partners using computer-mediated communication creatively find ways to make up for the lack of cues does not work. “Touch is a signal in the communication process which, above all other communication channels, most directly and immediately escalates the balance of intimacy” (Thayer, 1986, p.8). How could the immediacy created by touch or a mutual look in the eyes be replaced? By what? Perspectives on computer-mediated communication that focus on disembodiment have already raised doubts about the possibility of forming genuine personal relationships online (Baym, 2006, p.43). Yet, the implications of the diminished role of the body in first-offline relationships that migrate online are still to be explored.

2. Postmodern Love and Postmodern Technologies: Twins in Spirit

From noticing a lack of authenticity, it is only a small step into the middle of the postmodern paradigm. Towards the end of this paper, I want to return to its beginning, looking at Bauman’s and Gergen’s perspectives on postmodern relationships once more. I would like to take the connection between postmodern love and postmodern technology implied by them to a more explicit level. Comparing the conceptualization of postmodern love in the first section of this essay with the insights gained from the analysis of theory and practice of online communication, I argue that postmodern love and postmodern technoogy “work” according to similar principles and are deeply intertwined.

To begin with, in contrast to earlier times, technologies of interpersonal communication don’t require a huge effort on the part of the communicator anymore. Constraints of time and money or major problems with message transmission have mostly disappeared from mediated interpersonal communication in the age of broadband internet, flatrates and free internet telephony. The principle of “minimum investment and maximum gain” is not only prevalent in the domain of technologies. Similarily, according to Bauman, people today refrain from investing a lot of time and energy in forming and maintaining human bonds. It is important for many couples that there is no lasting commitment and no obligation involved in their relationship. Transitoriness is another common feature of postmodern love and postmodern technologies. Not only do new versions of cell phones enter the market every few months, internet communication platforms such as Skype need to be updated regularily. This development is paralleled by the growing number of relationships, romantic ones and others, that we form today but neglect or break soon after they were formed.

The notion of partiality and fragmentation, which is the very defining feature of the postmodern self and its relationships, is supported by the very nature of online communication. All theories of online communication are invariably based on the idea that this is an incomplete form of interaction, allowing for different degrees of nonverbal information but never for all. Only parts of the self become visible in the various forms of computer-mediated interactions that have been considered in this paper. Furthermore, the technology also plays into the hands of Gergen’s observation that the unique characteristics of the individual become less and less important in postmodernity. In many theoretical approaches, the major effect of computer-mediated communication has been described, either critically or positively, as deindividuation. Text-based online communication, particularily instant messaging with its extensive use of acronyms and emoticons, has been illustrated as a form of communication which is highly homogenized.

Moreover, Gergen has emphasized the postmodern preference for seeming rather than being. In postmodernity, self-marketing and self-monitoring have supplanted the quest for truthfulness in social interactions. This tendency is catered to by communication technologies. For example, the self-monitoring window in audiovisual chats is an ideal instrument of impression management. Yet, this is just one very obvious example among others that are built into forms of online communication. The status button in Skype also allows for a great deal of pretending. Additionally, by providing limited personal cues, the very nature of online communication opens the door to effectively construct a certain behaviour and, at least in purely virtual relationships, a certain identity or even multiple identities. Especially text-based online communication enables users to craft and edit messages in a way they would not be able to in face-to-face interactions.

This leads us to the notion of control or power greed which Gergen and Bauman conceptualize as a frantic reaction to the increased levels of uncertainty and ambiguity in the postmodern age. Human beings more than ever crave strategies to control what is happening to themselves and to their relationships. Contemporary technologies offer many convenient ways to do so. As illustrated in the paragraph on “Status Button Politics”, this tool allows one to strictly control when and by whom to be contacted. Also, it is a means of surveillance as it enables us to watch others while staying “invisible” ourselves. Online communication, by offering numerous synchronous and asynchronous, lean and rich channels to relate, allows us to always choose a medium that matches our mood. As we are invited by the technology to become ever more sophisticated in managing our relationships according to our own needs, social interactions become an object of economic calculation. As Bauman would say, our relationships are commodified.


V. Conclusion

This paper used the heuristic notion of long-distance distance relationships mediated through Skype to gain some larger insights on how technology shapes interpersonal communication. I started by developing a conceptualization of love in the postmodern age. Then I looked into the theory and practice of online communication, referring to instant messaging, audiovisual chat and presence information management. As a result of this analysis, online communication was seen as being both more and less real than face-to-face communication and consequently unable to create “real” intimacy between partners in a long-distance relationship. The second result of the analysis was that postmodern love and postmodern technologies share many similarities. The comparison of the two domains has allowed me to show how communication technologies literally turn off the spontaneity, messiness and authenticity in human communication. As technologies invite a maximum of control of social contacts, human interaction can be seen as a commodity, easily obtained, portioned or refused according to one’s needs. As Bauman illustrates, principles of efficiency and effectiveness increasingly colonize the sphere of social interaction. The analysis of online communication in this paper has shown that our communication technologies are the willing servants of this development.

These days, physical presence becomes less and less important in many areas of our life. Working, studying, leisure activities, going shopping, forming and maintaining relationships, having sex can all be done without leaving home, without even getting up from the chair in front of the computer. Technology allows us to do so and we seem to have little against the far-reaching elimination of our bodies from many of our everyday activities and social contexts. Maybe only love with its unique ability to cause a burning desire to physically reach out for the other can make us aware that relating through communication technologies is an essentially deficient way of relating. Missing the other one’s presence in spite of all the technologically sophisticated options to communicate is a powerful reminder that no medium will ever be able to replace face-to-face interaction. Looking into the black whole of a webcam is not looking your loved one in the eyes. Staying in touch is not touching.





1 Both Gergen and Bauman carry insights from their analyses of personal relationships to the political and social levels. That allows them to draw general conclusions about the state of contemporary societies. Gergen paints a rather optimistic picture of the political and social future which is characterized by increased tolerance and an integration of perspectives. Bauman’s outlook on what will follow postmodernity is fundamentally negative. He expects the predominance of the economic principle to lead to a complete commodification of human relations.
2 A model named SMEE (Strategic and Motivated user, Expected and Emergent Effects) has been introduced by Joinson (2003). Yet, this framework concentrates more on explaining the psychology of the internet user than on interpersonal communication online.
3 This is one proof for the tendency of researchers to rather analyze the exotic than the normal case. Most people are still using online communication primarily to correspond with those they already know. (Baym 45)
4 The company itself is conscious of the great opportunity it offers to long-distance lovers and advertises itself as maintainer of those relationships. The company created a section on its homepage where lovers that first met either online or offline tell their “Skype stories”. (Homepage)
5 Many other services are offered by Skpe: Answering machines, conference calls, file sharing, or chatting with up to 50 people at once.
6 It should be mentioned here that broadband internet still isn’t available in many countries. Long-distance lovers in these regions aren’t technically in a postion to use Skype to stay in touch.
7 This is the technical term for this mechanism built into platforms for interpersonal communication (Presence Information, 2007).
8 Other online communication platforms such as Yahoo and AOL Instant Messenger offer their users similar possibilities to manage their own online presence and to watch the online behaviour of others. As many features of interpersonal computer mediated-communication, the status button was first developed for business environments to more effectively coordinate communication.
9 In these instruments of surveillance, a general tendency in western societies to monitor and to inspect citizens and non-citizens is mirrored. In my opinion, the in-built surveillance mechanisms in online communication platforms can be viewed as the private “version” of the drastically increased public surveillance that many countries have been introduced in the last years (Pecora, 2002).

8.6. Die mobile Gesellschaft

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups| Groupes de sections

TRANS Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Mirjam Gollmitzer: Closeness or Control in Interpersonal Communication Online? Long-Distance Relationships Mediated Through Skype - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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