A study entitled “The Strength of Internet Ties” (by the Pew Internet & American Life Project) found that email and other forms of digital communication strengthen the relationships between friends and family, according to this BBC article.
The report hasn’t made it online yet, so I’ve not had the opportunity to peruse the findings; however, the initial story by the BBC doesn’t surprise me. John Borland and I spent a year writing a book about the development of online game worlds. Repeatedly, we came across individuals and groups who’d formed long, lasting relationships online. Sometimes those turned into real-world friendships; but oftentimes, they stayed virtual.
What was true for each of the hundred or so players we interviewed, though, was their strong, emotional connections to the people they interacted with online. One military family used the virtual game world of Ultima Online to have dinner together once a week. After September 11, game worlds came to a halt for special candle-light vigils, with virtual friends gathering to give each other comfort and release. And the holidays oftentimes turn into large celebrations.
(As a side note, my favorite online encounter was a theater group that would put on plays in a virtual bar, spending weeks making virtual costumes for their characters, running lines, and then promoting the event throughout the game world.)
Of course, I don’t want to equate anecdotal virtual world interviews with a Pew report. I’m sure there are subtleties that won’t directly correlate; however, I think it’s probably fair to say that all this digital communication – all the wikis, e-commerce, and entertainment we have now – is basically here so that we can stay in touch with old friends and make new ones.