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Christian Charity in Cyber Communities

Interview With Sociologist G. Alexander Ross

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 13, 2006 (Zenit) - Internet friendships, despite their inherent limitations, can be a real way to foster deeper personal relationships, says a Catholic sociologist.

G. Alexander Ross, who is a professor and dean of students at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, in Arlington, Virginia, shared his views with us on the possibilities and dangers of using cyber communities to build relationships with others.

Ross' areas of interest include the sociology of the family and the integration of the social sciences with a Catholic understanding of the human person.

Q: What are some reasons for the growing attraction of young people to online cyber communities?

Ross: At a most basic level, the attraction you ask about is merely one instance of our natural desire to associate with others.

Aristotle called man a "political animal." What he meant by this was not that we all have a desire to run for office, but that each of us is drawn to form groups and associations with others in order to realize himself.

That is, it is the very nature of man to associate with others. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 149, teaches, man "can only grow and realize his vocation in relation with others."

The young are often skilled at using Internet technology. They appear to view these cyber communities simply as other opportunities to pursue social relationships.

Q: Among the various means of communication, is there a significant difference in Internet relationships?

Ross: Of course, internet relationships are not identical to other forms of social interaction.

Something the Internet shares with earlier technologies such as the telegraph or the telephone is that the social cues transmitted to the other person are more limited than in face-to-face communication.

This limitation in the richness of communication has obvious disadvantages, yet research suggests some interesting compensations.

Social psychological research shows that physical attractiveness often has a more powerful influence on relationship formation than the deeper, more significant personal factors that we would prefer to influence friendship formation.

Although members of some of the cyber communities will share personal photos and other media as well as messages of text, the physical characteristics of the individual are not normally visible to the communicators. This can allow the deeper personal characteristics of the individual to be more salient in the interaction that occurs.

One interesting laboratory experiment found that subjects who met for the first time on the Internet liked each other more than those who first met each other face-to-face.

Furthermore, the lack of information on physical characteristics, by hiding racial differences, may make attitudes of racial prejudice less likely to impede relationship formation.

Not being tied to face-to-face interaction also opens many possibilities for reaching people who share particular interests. Esoteric interests are, by definition, shared by only a few. But because the Internet lets a person search the entire world to contact others who share unusual interests, he may find many with whom to correspond.

For example, some cyber communities are formed by people who share a rare medical condition. With that common bond, the members are able to offer empathy or advice that is not provided by their available face-to-face contacts.

Other special-interest cyber communities form around what sociologists call stigmatized identities. An important part of the self-identity of members of these groups is a trait or practice that sets them apart from conventional society. They seek each others' company for mutual support and defense, a natural and beneficial tendency found in some measure in most social groups.

It has been common in history that groups are stigmatized unjustly for a trait or practice that is in fact good. Often stigmatized and persecuted, Christians provide an example of this.

However, the characteristic that sets apart a stigmatized group is sometimes objectively harmful. In such cases, the cyber communities may serve to resist a change that would actually be to the benefit of the members.

Q: Is it possible to develop authentic friendships online, with people you may never see in "real life"? What would these relationships look like?

Ross: The limitations of the medium will certainly restrict the depth of the relationship that forms. But the specific social context is very important here.

As in the case of groups forming around rare medical conditions, the individuals may already share important human bonds that facilitate authentic ...

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