Carl Barenbrug

Product design, creative direction

Digital Relationships

This is my response to Manu's article for the IndieWeb Carnival on digital relationships.

As someone who grew up in the 90s, I spent my formative years and much of my teenage years without a screen. I wasn't even much of a gamer as a kid. I would spend as much time as possible outside. Getting up to all kinds of shenanigans in my local village. I had a positive upbringing by most accounts, although I wouldn't say I had many strong relationships.

It wasn't until the Internet became mainstream and a tool to make global connections that I experienced many more interactions on a daily basis. Social interactions that would later evolve into meaningful digital relationships through shared interests that would eventually give me the opportunity to meet people face-to-face. One of those has been with Manu. From what started as a work collaboration has evolved into a friendship I value as much as any others I have built offline. Yet not every digital relationship needs to be met with a face for it to be meaningful.

Digital relationships are powerful. Some people discard them because they think they’re not at the same level as “real relationships” but I disagree. Digital relationships are their own thing. They have their own rules, and their own ways to be unique. And they can be as important as any other relationship.

From the early days of IRC chat rooms, to discussion forums, to random blog-related emails, to working collaborations, I've met some wonderful people born out of digital interactions that would otherwise never have happened if not for the web. The digital relationships that I've formed over the past 20 years have literally taken me around the world, including Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the US and even Hong Kong. It's wild reflecting on it now, but I wouldn't change a thing.

So what of the digital landscape and our connections today? It looks a lot different from the dial-up days of old. Some for the better. Some for the worse. Even how we work has changed significantly with the rise of remote working, which I'm grateful enough to experience today. All my working relationships were born digitally and it works incredibly well. I don't think I could operate as effectively in an alternative environment.

Today, digital relationships are probably more short-lived than ever before. Social media has its benefits, but it's also pretty toxic. It's a challenge to carve out genuine relationships because almost everything digital is built around the notion of speed and convenience. It's a struggle to slow the cadence of the web and our daily social interactions; to avoid becoming over-stimulated the second we wake up in the morning. And it's for this reason I find myself gravitating towards natural activities of the past—without a screen. Albeit with a slightly different landscape and a more focused mindset.

For all the appreciation I have for digital relationships, it's difficult to find the same level of stimulation and fulfilment you experience when in someone's physical presence. I think the key difference is context. Social interactions experienced face-to-face are not only in sync, but share the same space so we can appreciate the nuances of our communication, especially body language. This context apparently triggers the circuits in our brain that are responsible for regulating social homeostasis.

That said, I find it's important to find a balance of both forms of interaction. Ultimately, it boils down to the quality of each individual relationship and what impact a person has on me and I on them, not the means of how we communicate.

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