Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age
Author: Mary Chayko
Publisher: Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2002
Review Published: March 2007
Mary Chayko opens the fifth chapter of Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age with a question from Emile Durkheim that ostensibly serves as the book's query: "What are the bonds which unite men with one another?" Although her immediate response is that "it remains a difficult question to answer satisfactorily," her proposed answers would indeed satisfy even readers skeptical of technology-based relationships (101). Initially being such a critic myself, I approached Chayko's text fearing a celebration of online romances and cyber gaming addicts; thankfully, Chayko instead offers the concept of "sociomental bonds-bonds between people who cannot or do not meet face-to-face" (2). She examines these "sociomental connections" and "communities of the mind" through compelling arguments, theoretical frameworks, qualitative research, and even non-technological examples to illustrate that everyone of us has relationships transcending the boundaries of time and space, with or without technological mediums. Throughout the work, Chayko routinely convinced this skeptic not to judge cyber-relationships as less "real," since all relationships ultimately do not reside in physical space, but in the mind.
A Ph.D. in Sociology from Rutgers and a current faculty member at the College of St. Elizabeth, Chayko provides an insider wink to the reader in the book's personalized preface. Since Chayko's sociomental concept claims that people who never meet in person may still form meaningful connections, she initiates such a connection with her readers by offering personal information and the book's inspiration. She begins:
When I was a young girl, I noticed that people often behaved as though they "knew" people they had never actually "met." My friends and I talked about our favorite singers, athletes, and actors as though we knew them personally. At the dinner table, my family and I compared notes on JFK and Jackie, Archie Bunker and Meathead, jazz musician Charlie Parker, and the lineup of the New York Mets in much the same way as we discussed the actions of our neighbors, classmates, and cousins. One of my grandmothers talked about her favorite soap opera characters as though they were real people; the other told me stories about her deceased husband (who died before I was born) that were so vivid that it often seemed he was standing in the room with us. And, most interestingly, I had developed what seemed like genuine feelings of connectedness to Louisa May Alcott, the author of my favorite book, Little Women, and with the novel's protagonist, a girl my age, Jo March, who wanted to be a writer. (ix)Although Chayko's readers may not feel the same connection to her as to the beloved writer of a classic coming of age narrative, she does begin to prove her point in the very first paragraph that we may be connected to people we never physically meet. The argument continues throughout the book with her participants' real life examples of non-physical sociomental bonds through the internet, television, music, professional sports, pen pals, and even death. The qualitative research consisted of two studies outlined in detail in the book's appendices. The primary method involved physical in-person interviews with fifty participants using the snowball non-random sampling method where each interviewee recommended additional interviewees. While this sampling method does not allow Chayko to generalize her findings to the entire population, she did manage to gather participants diverse in gender, race, age, technological ability, education, marital status, and occupation. Unfortunately, these interviews were conducted between 1995-1997, making them at least 10 years old at the writing of this review. These interviews consisted of thorough lists of questions about sociomental relationships. To supplement, the second research method involved a much shorter survey about sociomental relationships with 143 online participants who belonged to cyber discussion groups. Chayko targeted online members of six very different interest groups: soap operas, sports, science, religion, literature, and age. Because these interest groups were strategically chosen as emotional, Chayko increased her chances of finding participants forming online sociomental relationships, but again decreased the generalizability of her findings to the whole population of internet users. Both online and in-person interviews are interestingly woven throughout the text as examples to support Chayko's claims. (Appendix 1 and Appendix 2).
Initially exploring the relationship between technology, the mind, and sociomental bonds, Chayko builds on the shoulders of academic giants like media philosophers Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, and pioneering sociologists such as Benjamin Whorf and George Herbert Mead to illustrate how communication technologies from print to family photos to the internet shape how we perceive and experience ourselves, others, and relationships. Chayko contends that "modern people are exposed to a multitude of 'others' -- pubic figures, fictional characters, and ordinary people -- in a multitude of 'places.' Their similarly structured minds enable physically separated people to mentally 'come together'" (29). Being "like minded" becomes more important to connectedness than sharing physical space or even an in-person relationship. One of her research participants serves as an illustration of this "meeting of the minds." Joe recalled that, "When Magic Johnson revealed that he had AIDS, I was very upset. People were calling me up, saying, 'hey, are you OK?' Because I felt like he was one of my friends" (17). Critical readers may contend that this is a one-sided sociomental relationship, at best (a challenge Chayko does not fully address until near the end of the book). Although Magic Johnson neither knows nor worries about Joe in the same manner, Chayko nonetheless claims that a sociomental bond exists because: Joe feels it, Joe and Magic Johnson are connected in unseen ways, and in some sense Magic Johnson likely does feel connected to his supporters.
Known as "sociological network theory," the concept is that "mental pathways exist between them, along which information may be passed or people may otherwise influence one another" (73). Quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn (in Beniger, 1986, p. 390), Chayko echoes eastern religious philosophy: "There are ... hundreds of little threads radiating from every man, millions of threads in all. If those threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider's web ... They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence" (31). More concretely, Chayko's online research subjects take this interconnected web idea literally on the Web, by speaking of their online relationships and behaviors in terms of the physical. Participants describe the Web as a "great place" to "hang out with" and "be around" others to "meet and talk" as if they feel so connected by this web of minds that they begin to view these relationships in the realm of physical space (34; all italics, here and later in the review, are Chayko's). Modernity, it seems, simply affords us this timeless invisible web of interconnectedness conveniently via the World Wide Web.
From ancient times to modern living, Chayko reminds us that all pairs and groups of people must sometimes be separated by time, space, and death, so that everyone participates in relationships of the mind. "As with a dyadic connection, no modern community can realistically be characterized by continuous face-to-face contact among all members. Whether due to size, spatial dispersion or temporal dispersion (their members live at different times in history), communities can be said to actually 'exist' in their most complete form only in the minds of their members" (41). Again challenging readers to be open to the power and validity of sociomental relationships, Chayko offers numerous testimonials from her research participants. On media socimental bonds, Janice states: "When I finish a book, I feel very sad that I'm not going to be with these characters anymore. I know it sounds silly, but I've always felt this way. So when I put down a book I don't start another book for a while, because I almost want to say goodbye to these people" (47). Rebecca feels that connection with music: "Songs completely remind me of my life, and I think that's why I'm so sentimental about songs" (81). Anita finds it in TV soap operas: "It's like when I'm watching the soap opera I know how she's going to react, and it's the same way I would react; in certain situations, that's what I would do” (57). While these three examples illustrate sociomental bonds through mass media, other participants spoke of connections through more personalized mediums.
Within personal media and relationships, photos and stories were participants' common symbols of sociomental connections. Bruce says of his photos: "If you looked at my wall, at the pictures, most of them would be of people that I am close to, but are not around" (81). Concerning her connection to a deceased grandmother she never met, Jessica reveals: “Everyone says I'm like [my grandmother's] reincarnation. I walk like her, I talk like her. And when I listen to my mom talk about her ... it makes me think that I'm here for my mother as my grandmother, and when she sees me, she's looking at her mom" (47-48). On the other side of life, Bruce remembers feeling connected via technology to his unborn child: "At first it was just ... in my head ... that I'm going to be a dad. And then I started to connect with this not-yet-person, who I didn't even meet, and then it was aided [by technology] ... the sonogram, etc" (50). While Chayko and her research participants convinced me, and likely other readers, of the presence and importance of sociomental bonds, we may still harbor doubts about the quality of such relationships, especially those that are one-directional (i.e. Joe's relationship to Magic Johnson) or fictional (i.e. Anita's relationship to a soap opera character).
Anticipating such doubt, Chayko eventually addresses the skeptic's ultimate question: How real are these sociomental relationships? Chayko's participants answered this question by claiming that "real" relationships are: "strong, bi-directional or reciprocal, authentic, and intimate" (101). The strength of sociomental relationships among the participants varied greatly from those who felt no emotional connections to those who credit mediated relationships as their psychological saviors. Arguing for relational bi-directionality or reciprocity presents a more significant challenge, especially for seemingly unidirectional relationships with the deceased, famous, and mythological. Chayko contends, however, that along the invisible mental web, there is always the potential of reciprocity and the knowledge from the original media source that people will be influenced. For example, comedian Jerry Seinfeld in a TV Guide article, "Why I Miss You Too," reveals this reciprocity: "It's like an electric connection with millions of people that is both intimate and distant at the same time ... episode by episode, we'd send these silly little ideas out, and the ratings, like a message in a bottle, would slowly come back: 'We hear you. Keep sending.' And that's the relationship I miss most" (109). As for authenticity, participants who did experience sociomental bonds affirmed the genuineness of these relationships to them. As evidence, Chayko offers the testimonials of multiple soap opera fans who routinely cry real tears over events on a fictitious show. While these fans may be met with bewilderment or harassment from family members who do not understand this bond, the fans claim that they experience real emotional relationships with the TV characters and with the community of fans they've formed online. Chayko presents another soap opera example to illustrate sociomental intimacy. A "Guiding Light" online member confesses: "My father-in-law passed away last Friday and ... I have to admit something to you all that I didn't dare tell my husband or family -- I managed to sneak away and watch GL ... Through the tears and heartache I still had to watch" (120). In the book's final chapter, Chayko is even-handed enough to acknowledge that people like this woman and other participants can become obsessed, delusional, alienated, escapist, predatory, and unhealthy.
Throughout Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age, Chayko engages the reader with interesting testimonials, reasoned arguments, and academic research. The weaknesses of the book include: out-dated media examples and interviews, participant sampling flaws, non-linear organization with similar topics sprinkled throughout, and not enough discourse on the dark-sides and limitations of sociomental relationships to be balanced. However, the book indeed offers important, intellectual, and intimate views on sociomental bonds. To ignore these connections beyond space and time is a failure to understand our selves, minds, relationships, and society. As Chayko states: "When we fail to acknowledge (and study) a form of human sociation, we devalue that sociation-and with it, a large portion of existence, a big chunk of everyday life. We devalue our own experiences and emotions (4)."
Beniger, J. (1986). The control revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Seinfeld, J. (2001, June 30). Why I Miss You Too. TV Guide, 49, 26, p. 19.
Chrys Egan is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre at Salisbury University. She studies the intersection of personal relationships and popular culture. Her diverse publication areas include public speaking, research pedagogy, family home media use, deception, underground subcultures, and computer anxiety. She reviewed The Internet Upheaval: Raising Questions, Seeking Answers in Communications Policy for RCCS. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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