Carrie had an excellent post about social interaction via the Internet, filled with themes that are familiar to anyone who has used the Web as a means to communicate with people. I particularly like her description about how crack-like it can be. To her point, however, the utility one finds for the medium can change quite a bit. She got me to thinking about how much it has changed for me.
I've come a long way around through various stages of consumption and contribution with The Great Series of Tubes. The order of my changing attitudes is probably way different from most people, and I haven't figured out yet if it's cyclical. My experience is different in part because I wasn't just participating in online social interaction, I actually created it with the various Web sites I've run since 1998.
In the early years, I approached it similarly to how I would have working in radio or TV. It was mostly me talking at people, with some limited interaction. Forums made it more bidirectional, but the stats showed that the people who actually posted stuff were a small percentage. The depth with which you could quickly infer a persona, however, was something I wasn't ready for. I recall in 2000, hanging out at Cedar Point with members of my wedding party, in line for a ride. Some kid one queue lane over said he "knew" me from my sites, and really kind of acted like we were best friends or something. I got somewhat annoyed, because I was there with my friends, one of whom was in from LA and not someone I got to see very often.
The next day, the kid posted in one of my forums, and sent me e-mail, to declare what a conceded douche I was. It was the strangest thing ever. I had my share of stalkers in radio who would show up at remotes or whatever, but you just brush it off. This kid seemed genuinely hurt. It still happens in a less serious way from time to time, where one of a million visitors expects me to know about them the way they know about me.
Facebook took things to an entirely different level, where suddenly you would be reconnected with people you did actually know, even if you hadn't talked to them in 20 years. Honestly, this has been a stranger thing to get used to than the previous scenario. People change a great deal over time, and even if you were BFF's in high school, it doesn't mean you will be now. It took me a couple of years to realize that I didn't have to accept every friend request that came my way.
I used to make a distinction between "real life" and the Internet, but as time goes on, I'm starting to realize that there is no distinction. While I can categorize much of my own social interaction via the Internet as trivial or superficial, I can do the same thing in the flesh. Surprisingly enough, if I were to actually break out people into superficial, casual, established and BFF relationships, I think the same percentages would work out virtually as well as in meatbagspace. What does change is that many of the high end virtual relationships translate into the real life variety.
So really, what it comes down to for me, is that the volume can get quite high because of the Internet, but you don't have to accept it. Online life is only as serious as you take it, and despite being someone who has made somewhat of a living from the online world, I don't take it very seriously. A bold statement for someone who met his wife online!