A complete idiot’s guide to virtual relationships.

By Rajneesh Narula

(another in my occasional essay series)


You just cant get away from it. The internet. Stick an ‘e’ in front of it, and its worth more. Everyone is suddenly internet-mad. Sorry, make that e-mad. There are e-cards, e-doctors, there is e-commerce, e-books, e-videos, e-mails, e-trading. You can check whether there is coffee in the pot in some geek’s lab at MIT, you can order a pizza, buy a car, rent a kangaroo. Everyone is e-crazy, its e-exasperating. What I’m saying, folks, is I am e-exhausted.


            Yes, keeping up with the Thorvald’s is incredibly difficult these days. I’ve been giving e-hugs and e-kisses for a while now and my friends have managed to keep up. Everyone and their dog has a computer, a hotmail account, and knows the stock value of amazon.com. It is no longer impressive to have a home page, toddlers nowadays are told, ‘A is for applet, B is for byte, C is a language, D is for D-RAM….’. Its so difficult being a pioneer. But I’ve discovered an area which is virgin territory, and ripe for meaningless discussion.


e-sociology. A whole new canvas, more grist to the mill of academia. My place in history is secure.


For this, I must thank Pinar (photogenic, otherwise-intelligent, and much less neurotic than Ally McBeal, but sadly unavailable, and, it seems, a little behind the times) who remarked to me just this evening, ‘what’s a virtual relationship? Isn’t that like an imaginary relationship?’


 Oh Pinar. Wake up and smell the laser cartridge.


But I suppose the best place to start is with the dictionary. In fact, the dictionary provides 4 definitions of virtual:

1 : being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted

 2 : of, relating to, or using virtual memory

 3 : of, relating to, or being a hypothetical particle whose existence is inferred from indirect evidence


Whereas imaginary means:

a : existing only in imagination : lacking factual reality

b : formed or characterized imaginatively or arbitrarily

c : containing or relating to the imaginary unit


It might seem to the casual observer that the dictionary is a little out of date. Virtual relationships are those that are undertaken in cyberspace, through e-mails, e-messages and the like. Relationships that are based on a short (and sometimes imperceptible) delay as electrons move to and fro through the ether, between two consenting computers. In short, interaction between two or more people by means of the internet. Relationships that do not embody a physical element.


Imaginary relationships on the other hand are ‘lacking in factual reality’ (definition a and b). Like my relationship with Natalie Umbruglia, or Hillary Clinton. Anyone with half a brain can have one, or even several hundreds of these, completely independent of a modem. They are the stuff of dreams, and when imaginary becomes reality between the ears of the dreamer, its normally time to call for a straitjacket and a one-way ticket to the funny farm.


But this is no place for the casual observer. Their day, like that of the proverbial male chauvinist pig, is over. 


True, virtual relationships are not only in essence, but are formally recognised, putting paid to definition 1. However, they are based on indirect evidence and are in fact hypothesised. Let me explain, patient reader.


First, another definition (this time of relationships): according to the dictionary there are two that are appropriate to our discussion:

  1. a state of interrelatedness that binds participants, a specific instance or type of kinship; a state of affairs existing between those having relations or dealings
  2. a romantic or passionate attachment


It cannot be denied that e-communications create a familiarity that binds individuals together; a familiarity, even a kinship. But this friendship is based on indirect evidence, because all the evidence available to (say) John about Jill, has been provided by Jill herself. It is not based on personal observation, or that of impartial observers. Jill has no incentive to reveal all the facts about herself, and may not even know all the facts about herself. She may think (for instance) that her best feature is her sense of humour, whereas in fact, it is not. To take it further: John might think her funny, but does not know that Jill has been downloading her lines from the web (a little like cyrano de bergerac). Thus, John’s friendship is in fact ‘imaginary’, lacking factual reality. Jill has no incentive to reveal that she has to shave 3 times a day (and not just her armpits), while John has kept to himself his passion for earwax candles. In other words, each has tailored their words to their self-image. They have a imaginary relationship, because there is an absence of fact.


Where facts are exchanged, information is still only provided on a small number of subjects, which may in fact be the only areas of commonality. In such cases, again, we return to a dually accepted hypothesis (i.e., by both parties) that because, say, they share a love of airline food or post-modern flower arrangement, ergo, many other aspects of their lives must surely match. We have here a virtual relationship.


Virtual relationships are a part of our lives, and are not new – letter writing and telephone calls created much the same façade. The difference is that this type of communication has become much more common that it ever was..


But, you see, there is often a desire to convert a virtual relationship from virtual to real. Again, nothing new here. Except that now it is so much easier. Pen pals of yore rarely got to meet, if ever. Going to see your (say) Japanese pen pal required daddy to take out a mortgage on the family farm. Jumping on to the next plane going to Okinawa is now a matter of a piece of plastic provided by Uncle Visa.  But converting a virtual relationship to a real one isn’t difficult, it’s the difficulties of converting an imaginary relationship that starts off with a major problem.


But by far the biggest problem is that of relationships of the second kind – those that have a romantic element. Because while we can have virtual relationships of a platonic kind, we cannot have virtual relationships of a romantic kind. For the sake of distinction lets use capital letters to describe this sort of Relationship.


Are Virtual Relationships possible? Out of the question. Romance and passion require physical intimacy, or at least a desire for this. And these have to do with a cocktail of hormones (see my previous essay on Love in an Industrial Time). And important – body language. Its about a look, its about pheromones, its about tactility, its about tacit knowledge, its about information that cant be codified into words, what I will call the Great Chemistry Test.


John and Jill may have been completely honest with each other, exchanged photographs, developed long and complex personality profiles on each other, but until they meet in reality, they have no idea about their chemistry. And chemistry, folks, is as yet not convertible into binary or hexadecimal or HTML code. They have a virtual relationship, but an Imaginary Relationship. They are delusional. They have skipped the chemistry test, an essential element. How many times have we been shocked when we have met some stranger we kissed after getting drunk at a party, because you couldn’t even imagine being friends with that person. There was no chemistry, our central processing units were shut down by the alcohol fumes (or in my case, once by hypothermia. But that’s another story). An Imaginary Relationship, because there was an absence of fact, not even inferred by indirect evidence.


On the other hand, a real relationship can become a virtual Relationship, or a Real Relationship. Because important tacit knowledge has been transmitted, exchanged and stored, albeit unconsciously, at some point in time. But this is a self-evident subject, and already much-studied. Not a topic that should delay me from returning to my exciting life as an Economist.


But the point of my discussion here– and an essential distinction that may have got lost as I have meandered about– is that Virtual Relationships or virtual relationships are NOT the same thing as long-distance Relationships (or relationships). Distance is an irrelevant issue, insofar as the definition of relationships are concerned. They are not virtual, because they are formally acknowledged, and are not inferred by indirect evidence: the parties are privy to both tacit and codified information, even where predominant mode of communication is primarily electronic. I know people who maintain long distance relationships between Europe and Australia; Canada and America. Less than ideal, yes, impossible, no.  They require work, but this is not the subject at hand. They are not imaginary relationships either, because they are based on fact. Physical proximity at some stage has allowed the participants to acquire enough ‘chemistry related facts’ to determine and accept its existence.


The key to the whole dilemma is the focus on conditionality rather than the issue itself. The adjective, rather than the noun. Relationships exist only in one domain, and function exactly the same, and have done for several thousand years. A virtual relationship is not, in other words, a relationship.  It is a relationship that is virtual: It is a relationship that only exists on indirect (and incomplete) evidence. Therefore it cannot be, and if it is not, it is in fact imaginary. A long distance relationship is a relationship (first and foremost) which happens to be over a long distance (the distance being a secondary issue. It has its own problems: see Love in an Industrial Time).  The ‘relationship’ part is a conditio sine qua non, without which nothing else matters. 


But despair not, I hear much about the future of Java, it’s surely a matter of time.


Of course, having acknowledged in the title that I am an idiot in these matters, I may well be wrong.



 Oslo, 000907