Developing a close relationship with another person requires a certain level of intimacy, of self-disclosure. Gradually, you begin to feel comfortable enough with the other person to trust him or her with your feelings, your dreams, and your self-doubts, and be confident that the other will not reject or blame you.
Normally, to achieve this kind of intimacy, we rely on reciprocity. If you tell me something about yourself, I'll tell you something about me. Over time, the exchange deepens and the two people disclose more and more information to one another. The dance of self-disclosure is a delicate one, however, and fraught with potential problems. For example, if you pour out your deepest feelings to someone else too early, or in some setting that seems inappropriate, the other person may think you're unstable.
The newsgroup participants who responded to the survey that Malcolm Parks and Kory Floyd distributed indicated that self-disclosure was an important part of the online friendships. They generally agreed with statements such as, "I feel I could confide in this person about almost anything," or, "I usually tell this person exactly how I feel." Of all the questions on this survey, the one that evoked the most extreme response from the participants was, "I would never tell this person anything intimate or personal about myself." Participants strongly disagreed.
When clinical psychologists first began using computers in their offices, one of the applications, besides patient records and billing, was the computerized interview. Clients would sit at a terminal and answer questions about themselves, their problems, and their beliefs about their own behavior, and the computer would dutifully record the responses. The computerized interview was controversial at first, though it was certainly a time saver. Many practitioners thought the client should be talking to a human being and developing a rapport, so even now, not many use it. However, a strange thing started happening. Clients seemed to be more forthcoming when they were interviewed by a computer compared to when they were talking to a person who was jotting notes. As we will see in a later chapter, these findings led to some intriguing developments in computer-based and online therapy.
The tendency for people to disclose more to a computer - even when they know a person will be reading what they say - is an important ingredient in what seems to be happening on the Internet. Yes, it can be an impersonal, cold-blooded medium at times. Yet it can also be what Joseph Walther describes as hyperpersonal. You sit at a computer screen feeling relatively anonymous, distant, and physically safe, and you sometimes feel closer to the people on the other side of your screen whom you have never seen than to the people in the next room. You may reveal more about yourself to them, feel more attraction to them, and express more emotions - even when all you have is an ASCII keyboard. At the keyboard you can concentrate only on yourself, your words, and the feelings you want to convey. You don't have to worry about how you look, what you're wearing, or those extra pounds you meant to shed. "The waist is a terrible thing to mind," as Walther suggests, and online you can reallocate your energies to the message. You can also endlessly idealize those personas with whom you are interacting. Someone you know only as "Moonbeam" who has told you many intimate details of her life - but not her name, address, or phone number - is like a canvas with just a few iridescent brush strokes. You can fill in the rest of that minimalist art work with your imagination.