Dear Alex: The Internet can be good for relationships.

No, it’s not an affirmation. It’s the argument I’d like to make to Alex Lickerman, who recently wrote a post about the Effect of Technology on Relationships for his blog on Psychology Today. While I applaud his concern for the Internet’s impact on human connection, I’m frustrated to find yet another thoughtful commenter seeing social media as a net negative rather than a potential positive:

We may enjoy online relationships using social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, for example, but the difference between these kinds of interactions and interactions with people in the physical world is clearly vast. As long as we
expect no more from these online relationships than they can give, no good reason exists why we can’t enjoy the power of social media sites to connect us efficiently to people we’d otherwise not touch. The problem, however, comes when we find ourselves subtly substitutingelectronic relationships for physical ones or mistaking our electronic relationships for physical ones.

The specific concerns that the other Alex raises are perfectly legitimate, like the challenges of conveying the emotional content of a message that’s delivered electronically, or the dangers of saying something hurtful because you don’t realize how your text will be read. But his caution and concern keep him from appreciating the incredible potential for connection and self-discovery that are available online, if one only attends to the opportunities as well as the dangers.

In that spirit, I’d like to propose 4 positive guidelines that correspond to Lickerman’s 4 cautionary rules for online communications:

  1. Alex L. says: Don’t say anything on email you’d feel uncomfortable saying to someone in person. My advice: Use online communication to share words of kindness or appreciation.

    So much of our day-to-day communication is rushed and functional. You’re in a staff meeting, and you’re focused on the next steps rather than what was accomplished to date. Your son calls from college and you remember to ask about classes but not about how he’s doing with his roommate.  Your wife calls from her out-of-town trip and you check in on this weekend’s plans rather than how her day went.

    Online communication can be your second chance. It’s often in the quiet moments of the day that I reflect on what went well, the questions I forgot to ask, or the appreciation I forgot to convey. That’s when I stop to send an e-mail that explains just how much I liked that last piece of work my colleague did, and why I think it will have lasting impact. Or to drop by a friend’s Facebook page and tell her that I was thinking about her today, and remembering this wonderful thing she did during our last road trip together. Or to send a one-line tweet cheering a staff member for her extraordinary work, in a way that gives her public credit.

    If you find yourself too rushed or uncomfortable in-person to weigh in with all the kinds of thoughtful, kind and loving words that are in your heart, use your online communications to be your best and warmest self.

  2. Alex L. says: Don’t delay your response to messages you’d rather avoid. My advice: Use online communications as an ally for difficult conversations.

    The other Alex is right to warn about the dangers of having difficult conversations online: when you have tough news to deliver to a friend or colleague, face-to-face is the way to go, or if that’s not possible, a phone call. But there are plenty of pitfalls in live communication, too. One of the most common is the tendency to say yes to people — how can you
    resist those puppy dog eyes?? — when we want to say no.

    Online communication can help us build our muscles for saying no. I wrote a blog post earlier this year about 5 ways the social web can help you learn to say no, like helping you set your intentions and prioritize your commitments. Practices like maintaining a handful of pre-drafted “no” e-mails for typical inquiries that I can rarely take on, but find awkward to refuse — like cold-call requests to “pick my brain” on social media — have helped me get in the habit of saying no promptly instead of saying “later”, “maybe” or worse yet, “yes”. That online practice has spilled over into offline life, and helped me be more intentional in what I refuse and what I take on. And nothing is better for relationships than ensuring you only say yes when you really mean it.

  3. Alex L. says: Relationships are effected by online communication. My advice:
    Relations are effected by online communication.

    I’m going to indulge in a little syntax obsessiveness here, on the subject of “effect” vs. “affect”. Alex meant to say that relationships are affected by online communication — in other words, online communication influences (“affects”) our relationships. True enough! But relationships can also be effected — brought about by — online communication.

    Social networks do a terrific job of solving one of the toughest problems around developing relationships: how to find people who are a match for your interests, personality and needs. And it’s not all about Internet dating, either. I’ve made friends with people I’ve met via e-mail or Craigslist; developed close, long-term collaborations with colleagues I met through my blog; and expanded my circle of casual friends through Twitter.

    But social media can only effect relationships (as in, bring them about) if you see the positive side in how online communications affect relationships. Recognize that affections and affinities can be kindled online, and you’ll be open to the very real possibility of finding new friendships there.

  4. Alex L. says: Balance time on the Internet with time spent with friends and family. My advice: Balance the time you spend face-to-face with your local social circle with time you spend online with old friends.

    We live in a disposable, convenience-driven culture. It’s more convenient to get your coffee in a cardboard cup than to carry your own thermal mug; it’s easier to pack your kid’s lunch in a series of ziploc bags than in reusable containers; it’s cheaper and easier to throw out your broken DVD player than to have it repaired. We’re increasingly conscious of how this way of life is affecting our planet, but it’s also affecting our relationships.

    In a world of job changes and social mobility, it’s easier to socialize with the friends in town than the pal who has known you since college. But nothing substitutes for old friends — and if there’s one thing that Facebook has done brilliantly, it’s the way so many of us are now back in frequent contact with the friends we knew in previous lives. Invest in regular check-ins with your old and dear friends, even if those friendships have lapsed; after a few months of loose contact by Facebook and Twitter, looking at each other’s news and family photos, you’ll be ready to pick up the phone or plan a visit.

Engaging with the social web’s potential for relationship-building doesn’t mean being blind to its dangers. Alex Lickerman’s comments on the hazards of online communications is an excellent and thoughtful treatment of the challenges we face when we take our personal relationships online. Now we need to cultivate the ability to recognize and reconcile both hazards and opportunities, dangers and delights.