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Cyberspace Romance: The Psychology of Online Relationships

Author: Monica Whitty, Adrian Carr
Publisher: Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
Review Published: March 2008

 REVIEW 1: Rhiannon Bury
 REVIEW 2: Michele Hammers

Monica Whitty and Adrian Carr's Cyberspace Romance: The Psychology of Online Relationships tackles a complicated topic and comes through in a number of ways. While the psychological literature might be daunting for a casual reader who is interested in the basic ins-and-outs of online relationships, there is plenty to be gleaned from the book's broader treatment of the history of cyber-relationship research and the different ways in which these relationships may develop, evolve, and ultimately affect aspects of off-line life.

Writing about a field such as cyber-relationship research, which has been influenced by a variety of disciplines and theories, is no easy task. Whitty and Carr's solid overview of the major contributions made by different disciplinary perspectives helps bring the complex and jargon-laden field into clearer perspective. One doesn't have to be an expert in new communication technology, theories of cyberspace, or even interpersonal communication to appreciate how each of these disciplines have contributed to the robust literature that circulates around cyber-relationships. Carr and Whitty manage to do justice to the main threads in this literature, while not attempting to oversimplify or overstate important conceptual moments.

Chapter 1, "Cyber-Relationships, The Story So Far," walks us through the key developments in theories of cyber-relationships. This chapter begins with early theories that focused on what the internet lacks when it comes to personal relationships. These early theories of lack emphasized the apparent deficit of interpersonal cues and posited that this deficit seriously hindered the quality of online relationships. Moving away from this emphasis on lack, subsequent theories have begun to take into account the more complex and subtle cues that online communication provides its users. Rather than focusing on what is absent in online communication these theories draw attention to its unique benefits and resources. For example, Whitty and Carr overview research that invokes increased self-disclosure and the possibility of hyper-personal communication as contributing to the development and quality of online relationships.

As part of this overview, Whitty and Carr draw attention to the importance of understanding how physical presence is invoked online and the role that this plays in the online relating. To this end, Chapter 2, "From Courtly Love to Cyber-Flirting," provides an impressive overview of another body of important literature: the literature of courtship and romance. The history of offline courtship and flirting leads up to a concise, but thorough, exploration of the world of emoticons, acronyms, and self-presentation online.

Drawing upon these robust overviews, Whitty and Carr proceed to put forward a psychology-based theory of online romantic relationships. In Chapter 3, "Playing at Love: Winnicott and Potential Space," they draw upon object-relations theory to articulate a vision of cyber-space as "potential space" where "play" is readily possible. Importantly, Whitty and Carr work with a psychodynamic understanding of play that acknowledges its seriousness. This seriousness is manifest in the fact that it is through play that imagination, rather than mere fantasy, can develop. Play takes place in potential spaces, like cyber-space, where it is relatively easy to maintain certain levels of illusion. Whether experimenting with behaviors or transforming gender roles, individuals in cyber-space have greater opportunities for the serious business of play.

However, this playful potential of online relating is not universally liberatory and productive. The next chapters explore the potentially regressive, dysfunctional aspects of online relationships. When dealing with the possible unhealthy outcomes of investing too much emotion, for too long, in an otherwise transitional object -- in the case of online relationships, the computer -- Whitty and Carr's discussion is exploratory and primarily serves to pry open the lid of a Pandora's box of issues. Their discussions of cyber-cheating (Chapter 5, "Cyber-Cheating: Can We Really be Liberated in Cyberspace?") and online deviance (Chapter 6, "Deviance and Cyberspace"), however, are more in-depth and benefit from the authors' ability to reframe existing research findings in terms of their psychodynamically based approach. The material on cyber-cheating, in particular, provides insights based on the potential of "splitting" the online relationship off from the rest of one's life and of idealizing one's online lover.

The matter of idealizing an online lover also returns attention to the earlier discussion of self-presentation (or misrepresentation) online. Where there is room to idealize an online romantic partner, there also is room to present an idealized -- even deceptively idealized -- version of one's self to one's partner or potential partners. The importance of self-presentation online is taken up further in Chapter 7's examination of online dating. This chapter, which draws upon interviews with actual users of an online dating site, looks at the complicated interplay between online and offline relational development. This chapter draws less heavily on the complexities of Whitty and Carr's psychodynamic model of cyber-relationships, but does invoke the seriousness of play as part of its overall discussion.

The book ends with two exploratory chapters that highlight potential bodies of literature and methodological issues that might bear additional consideration in the future. These chapters, and particularly the forward looking final chapter that raises ethical and other practical considerations when it comes to online research, do not provide the same kind of in-depth coverage that the authors' presented elsewhere. But the issues raised, such as the ethical implications of online lurking, are neatly introduced.

Ultimately, Whitty and Carr use their psychodynamic framework to explore the ins and outs of cyber-relationships and to suggest some of the complexity of these relationships as well as the research literature that attempts to address them. Not being a particularly savvy reader when it comes to psychological theories, I found the detailed discussions in some chapters to be informative, even if a bit overwhelming. This book's strengths may also be its partial undoing for someone not already well versed with the field of psychology. However, there is plenty to recommend the book for casual readers of any background who are interested in a concise, solid overview of the far-flung field of cyber-relationship research.

Michele Hammers:
Michele Hammers (M.A., Ph.D., Arizona State University; J.D., University of Texas at Austin), is a former lawyer whose research areas include rhetorical criticism, critical media studies, and public sphere studies. Currently an Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University, she has published in The Western Journal of Communication, Women's Studies in Communication, and in an edited book on the television series Ally McBeal. Her most recent publication, which appeared in a 2007 special edition of The Texas Speech Communication Journal, examines online role-playing using a psychoanalytic-informed understanding of fantasy and desire.   <mhammers@lmu.edu>

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