My very first experience of social media was MySpace. I signed up primarily because I wanted to reconnect with some of the musicians I knew when I was a music journalist in the 80s and, in 2007, that’s where they were hanging out.
I succeeded in my aim, with the unexpected bonus that I started to receive messages from interesting people I didn’t know. One in particular – an Italian artist – became my virtual pen pal, and I began to understand the connective power of social media.
We built up a fun and trusting relationship simply through messaging each other on the site – even though he wasn’t using his real name or image.
As someone who doesn’t make friends easily, I was surprised at how quickly and deeply we connected – even though we had none of the usual cues – face, voice, body language – to aid our communication. So why did this happen? The internet provided an answer.
Welcome to the age of hyperpersonal communication
According to a report published by Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, Howard Rheingold, an early expert on virtual communities, observed that anonymity and the scope for deceit did not constrain the formation of strong relationships on the internet.
On the contrary, he found that it was “a place that people often end up revealing themselves far more intimately than they would be inclined to do without the intermediation of screens”.
Another researcher, Joseph Walther, coined the term “hyperpersonal communication” – i.e. the way in which online communication sometimes “surpasses the level of affection and emotion of parallel face-to-face communication”.
You might assume that communicating through a computer or device would be an impersonal experience, but studies have repeatedly shown that participants reported moderate to high levels of self-disclosure and those who responded anonymously showed less social anxiety and higher self-esteem.
I was struck by the words of one research participant, who said: “Text is the only medium you have online, and typing to each other, and revealing information about yourself, is about the only way you can get close to someone. In real life, you can just hang out with the person and not say a word. Spending time together, and sharing experiences in real life, brings you closer. Online, you share words.”
Expressing electronic emotion
Walther also observed that people using computer-based communication can focus more on “personal and relational optimization” because they are “unfettered by unwanted cues or multiple conversational demands”.
This makes sense. Without the need to consider the social norms and boundaries involved in face-to-face meetings, you can concentrate on interacting in an emotionally satisfying way.
Perhaps online communication suits people like me who are comfortable expressing themselves in words. I can reflect on what I want to say rather than rush a response.
Recently I was asked how it feels to write under my real name rather than a pen name - or no name at all. As I was forced to use a pen name for the first 10 years of my career in journalism, it feels liberating to publish under my birth name. I’m happy for people to know I’m a real person writing about real experiences – and I hope that helps readers connect with what I write.
But I’m also intrigued by this huge increase in the expression of “electronic emotion” and wonder if, despite the potential pitfalls of anonymous online communication, it actually gives us permission to open up? Does it help us feel safe? Does it even increase trust?
Anonymous emotional support groups
Zgmund App is a fascinating proposition in this regard. It offers anonymous emotional support groups in which Zgmund’s super-empathic AI creates a safe space in which you can open up and listen to others without fear of judgment. Users are also matched with people who have similar interests.
In my experience as a beta user, I have always felt completely protected by Zgmund AI, which prevents people from sharing personal information and is always on the alert for toxic comments or cyber bullying. It also gives “Emotional Insights” and, if a participant has gone quiet, Zgmund encourages them to share.
It’s probably not a surprise that most of my conversations to date have been about Covid-19 or lockdown. But it has been fascinating to read about different experiences and circumstances, and people’s willingness to share their feelings and stories has helped me to feel more connected to others during a time when we have been forced apart.
Even though we were all communicating anonymously, I had the strong feeling that everyone was being authentic and true to themselves. So, yes – anonymity definitely helps you feel safe, as long as the conversation is being monitored. And I believe that, in such circumstances, anonymity can increase trust.
A couple of months ago I received a piece of advice in a Zgmund support group that I’m still using today. I have no idea who gave me the advice, but I trusted it enough to follow through and it has proved to be reliable.
Zgmund App is still in the process of opening up, but you can join the waitlist for an upcoming group session. Try it and see what happens when you get hyperpersonal.