By Marian Daniells, News Staff
Technology, when used as a supplement to human interaction, can help people establish stronger relationships and create positive changes in their lives.
Online networking has been associated with numerous risks and stigmas, but field specialists point out the many positive influences that technology provides.
Experts note that Internet networking, whether for romantic or business reasons, is most effective when combined with face-to-face contact.
With sites like Zoosk and universityloveconnection.com, which requires a university e-mail to register and already has 20 Northeastern students as members, college students are also turning to the Internet to find relationships.
Cyber-dating expert Julie Spira said she has witnessed the positive and negative effects the Internet can have on relationships.
“The Internet can be used as a tool to enhance your life,” she said.
Spira, who helped host September’s Social Media Week in Los Angeles, first created an online profile in 1994. Since then, she has been on “hundreds and hundreds” of dates, received four marriage proposals and learned of the many hazards of online communication.
In her book, “The Perils of Cyber-Dating,” released in September, Spira aims to inform dating site users — particularly women — of the many “red flags” of online dating. There are a lot of risks, Spira said, who claims that misrepresentation is a common problem.
According to her research, she said women often lie about their age and weight in their online profiles, hoping to appear more appealing by representing themselves as younger and thinner. Similarly, she observed, men often inflate their salaries and shorter men typically claim to be two inches taller.
“A third of men online that claim to be single are married or just separated,” said Spira. “It’s important to take time to talk to people, to see if their stories add up.”
The recently-released movie “Catfish” is a documentary-thriller about New York-based photographer Nev Shulman who engaged in a long-distance romantic relationship with a woman he met on the Internet. Eventually, he discovered that the woman he was actually talking to was a married middle-aged woman who used a stranger’s photos as her own and represented herself as her own, non-existent daughter, a 20-something amateur model. She created and monitored numerous accounts, some of fictitious people and some based on actual people.
As it turns out, the twenty-something that Shulman thought he was getting involved with was a bored Midwestern housewife with three kids.
But despite the “red flags” and perils of online dating like those in “Catfish,” Spira said the Internet is still an important — and beneficial — tool.
“It’s a combination of romantic and social networking,” Spira said, citing business relationships she has formed with men she’s met online. In one case, she was introduced to an agent by a “failed date.”
Drawing a simile between romantic networking online and sending out resumes, Spira said the Internet is “a way to expand your social and business networks.”
Laura Dabbish, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has researched the Internet’s ability to strengthen all kinds of relationships, but particularly business relationships. Though the Internet enables users to communicate instantaneously, it slows the process of forming actual relationships, she said.
Due to the inability to communicate via body language, she said it’s more difficult to read emotion accurately.
“[Over the Internet], it’s harder to build trust,” Dabbish said. “You can’t look someone in the eyes.”
Spira, acknowledging the risks associated with online communication, said that it’s important to transition relationships from online to offline as soon as possible.
“You need to use the Internet as a tool,” she said.
But sometimes, she said, people build trust with those they’ve never met and share private information, including deeply personal beliefs or financial information.
“It can be risky,” Spira said.
Utimately, experts agree that the strongest and healthiest relationships are those that are practiced both over the Internet and in person.
Robert Kraut, a professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon, said the main purpose of the Internet and social networking is “to broadcast to a wider network.”
Rather than visiting with friends or inviting friends out to the mall or a movie, users can stay connected with friends over the Internet. Plus, it saves both time and money.
“You just can’t do all that with all the people you might want to keep up with,” he said. For example, a cancer patient might wish to keep several friends updated about his health, but it can be extremely tiring to exchange details with that many people, Kraut said.
“But he can post that [information] to a distribution list,” he said.
Kraut said the Internet, as it pertains to human relationships, is best used as a supplement.
Timothy Bickmore, an assistant professor at Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science, said he agrees.
“The two [methods of communication] should be joined whenever possible,” he said.
Kraut relates communication to a muscle; in order for a muscle to remain strong, it needs to be used.
“Technology helps you remain closer to more people, to exercise those ties,” he said.
In regards to those who meet online, Kraut said “there’s a bunch of work that says that some of those [interactions] mature into deeper relationships.” These online-originated relationships can result from social networking with sites like Facebook and Twitter, online dating and even gaming sites like World of Warcraft.
“Often, as they mature, they start to include offline communication as part of [the relationship],” he said.
While Kraut looks into the relationship that technology has on individuals, Bickmore’s research focuses on the opposite; he works to build computer “agents” that simulate face-to-face interaction.
For example, some of his agents include computerized programs with virtual health counselors that, through continued therapy, encourage participants to exercise more, take medications or stay out of the sun. Some also serve as mediators for online group counseling sessions.
These virtual agents, combined with human interaction, serve as a “catalyst to help people expand,” Bickmore said.
He notes the success that computerized agents can have, but said they’re most successful when incorporated into a user’s regular communicative network.
“It’s never that case that I want to build an agent that replaces any kind of social network … We want to integrate virtual agents into larger social networks,” he said.