BY the time we actually met, we’d been emailing for six months, many times a day. Our messages were filled with banter, in-jokes, nicknames we’d given each other and signed off “xox”. Seeing one appear in my work inbox always gave a frisson of excitement — a small, private diversion during the working day.
In that way, it was a classic, virtual relationship between two people who met online and not in person. Except it was, in no way, romantic.
She was a PR executive who’d contacted me about a product she hoped to have featured in the magazine I worked for, and our evolving friendship lived in that grey space between work and personal, BFs and business, fed by our obvious platonic chemistry.
Or as it’s recently been dubbed, our “textual chemistry” — that the rare and perfect match in tone, content, humour, even frequency of messaging between two people, on any form of electronic communication from email to Instagram caption, tweet to text.
Since the average Australian now spends 10 hours and 24 minutes a day connected to the internet, according to a recent study by Ernst & Young — drastically more time than is spent in person with family and friends — many of us have had the same experience, meeting a friend, a partner, a business contact inside our screens.
And, no doubt, experienced what happened next …
When my supposed workplace bestie and I finally met — one evening, after at least a dozen messages that day expressing how excited we were, and how amusingly You’ve Got Mail/Must Love Dogs the whole thing had become — it was the most exquisitely awkward Aperol spritz of my life.
We had nothing to say. We grimaced, struggled, cast about for conversation starts that went nowhere and fell back on in-jokes that didn’t work offline. Our chemistry, as it turned out, was purely textual.
It’s easy to mistake this sort of interaction for a real relationship, agrees social media expert and image consultant Melissa Bessey.
“People can get really caught up with leaving lasting online and virtual impressions and confuse themselves about how that will translate in real life when they finally have personal interaction. We all come to these communications with our own preconceived ideas about what they actually mean and what the relationship actually is,” Bessey says.
I’m sure my supposed friend was as disappointed with me, in person, as I was in her and, unsurprisingly, our emails petered out after that. But when it was over, I still missed … it. Her. Us. Whatever.
In that way, I’m not unusual. Today, our online, email-based relationships are becoming so common and significant to our day-to-day existence, they feel no different from “the real thing”, if such a distinction can even be made any more.
“We still have this idea that only face-to-face relationships are more real than online relationships,” says Dr Catharine Lumby, professor of media at Macquarie University, and a specialist in social media and new media consumption, “but it ignores the diversity of ways we communicate as humans.
“It’s never been just one way, and texting, email and social media are all tools for forging relationships and communicating. They won’t replace face to face, but they augment and support it.”
Issues arise only when we become confused about who we’re communicating with, and how we ought to go about it. Consider that, not that long ago, speaking to your boss required a face-to-face meeting, speaking to your mother meant a landline phone call, your children could be shouted to up the stairs, and communicating with the mayor meant a formal letter — four different media with their own dialogue style.
Now, all those interactions can be conducted from the single device in your hand, with consequences large and small.
“That does blur the boundaries” says Lumby, especially as we move away from formality across the board, and into a Facebook-fuelled state of what could be described as “friendly overshare”.
Even men who, traditionally, would be more inclined to communicate abruptly, formally, are being forced to emulate a more “feminine” form of interaction in the workplace, since a brusque ALL CAPS email would be interpreted as unnecessarily hostile.
But society, in some ways, is struggling to adapt to the rate at which our written discourse is evolving. In Britain recently, a judge ruled that because a local candidate had signed off her emails to a constituent complaining about a disability benefit with a friendly “Jess X”, their relationship could not be considered professional, and that would have a bearing on the verdict.
In smaller ways, we’ve all experienced disastrous reply-all email fails and horrible mismatches in tone. Lumby says it’s why emoticons and later, emojis, were developed — to help us more clearly express emotions in static media so open to misinterpretation.
But when natural, textual chemistry is there, the benefits can be enormous and as real or fulfilling as any relationship formed over drinks or at the school gates.
That’s been the experience of Shirley Taylor, who helped form an online mothers’ group four years ago.
Although the group has drawn members from all over the country, “there are five of us in Melbourne”, Taylor says, “that have moved that friendship offline with dinner every few months, and annual weekend getaways. We are incredibly supportive of each other and I count them among my closest friends.”
New mothers with a crying baby in one hand and an iPhone in the other are, unsurprisingly, prime candidates for finding company and contact online at times of day and night when regular face-to-face contact isn’t available or accessible.
Their common interests, discourse style and in-jokey lingo (AIBU … am I being unreasonable …, DH, dearest husband …) are the bread and butter of networks such as Mumsnet in Britain, and Kidspot here, and an easy form of “textual chemistry” to simulate.
Because Taylor’s group had spent so much time chatting online and through a subsequent members-only Facebook group, by the time they decided to meet they already felt as if they were old friends.
“Everyone was exactly as they seemed online,” Taylor says. “Because it was a safe space, we could all be ourselves.”
Since the group formed, “we’ve had divorces, job losses, people going back to work, deaths in families, just so much, but we can always get online and say, ‘I’m really struggling’, and you have 15 or 20 comments from people saying, ‘Look after yourself’. Especially since I’m from the UK originally and didn’t have that network there, it’s incredibly valuable.”
In other cases, “friends” we make online and develop such potent chemistry with, we’ll never actually meet in real life — the entire relationship played out inside a comments box. And that’s just fine, too; a happy diversion in our long days.
Photographer Jules Ingall (@julesingall) joined Instagram as a place to exhibit her work but quickly discovered that when the same people liked and commented on her posts, and she returned the favour, a proxy friendship sprang up.
“I’ve never met these people” she says, “but you chat to them all the time and it’s just really good, lighthearted fun, and something positive from social media, which can be predominantly quite negative.
“It’s just a nice distraction.”
On the one or two occasions she’s met an Instagram follower “someone you start to feel like you’ve got a really good connection with”, the experience didn’t necessarily carry over.
“I think especially for people who are a bit socially awkward, Instagram can let them be more confident and they turn out to be not quite the same,” she says.
And then, of course, there is love, the ultimate proving ground for textual chemistry now that more and more couples meet virtually well before they meet actually. In fact, a recent survey in the US suggests as many as a third of all new marriages originate online.
One couple, Arte Vann and Erica Harris, it was recently reported, met as Instagram followers, conducted their entire courtship through likes, posts and comments, and married at the airport, their first real-life meeting. It was a modern fairytale one clever headline writer dubbed “Love at first like”.
However, the stakes are high when the already slim chances of finding a soulmate can live or die based on your obvious textual chemistry. Or lack thereof.
“It’s weird to think that if he was a terrible speller or something, we’d never have met and fallen in love,” says Katie Woolway, a 30-year-old Melbourne PR executive, of Tom Quirk, who she’ll marry next month.
Woolway signed up to online dating on a whim.
“I was so cynical about it and didn’t have any expectations, but I met my now-fiance two or three days after I signed up,” she says. “I was going to cancel my account because you get so inundated with replies, weird people contacting you, but his reply was in my last batch of emails and something about him ticked all the boxes.”
The couple exchanged messages and “the banter was there,” she says. “They were well written, and for me, someone who can carry on a conversation in written form is a big tick. There’s an art to communication and it’s even more important now than ever. If something’s going to become long term, you’ve got to have the banter.”
When they met just a week later, any first date awkwardness had been dispensed with. “We were never lost for conversation, the chemistry was there,” she says.
Kate Fissenden experienced the same from the even more unlikely platform that is Tinder, the dating app more notorious for casual hook-ups and one-night stands than lasting love.
“I decided to go on it for 12 hours after I’d been single for six months, and all my friends in the media were talking about it. But usually in a negative way,” she says.
Her now-boyfriend “swiped right” on her, she says, because he’d already discounted 100 other women based on their terrible grammar.
“It’s something we laugh about now, because I’m such a stickler for that sort of thing, too.”
While she nearly bailed on their first date at a St Kilda bar, she braved a meeting and “it flowed seamlessly”.
“We laughed about all the things in real life that we’d been joking about already in our texts, and now we’ve been together for nearly two years. I think I’m lucky in that regard, because I’ve definitely heard horror stories,” she says.
And while it’s true that in many cases people present a false front on social media, actually being able to create and maintain a real relationship via text or email requires authenticity.
Lumby says virtual forms of communication allow us to more carefully consider and curate how we present ourselves (in most cases, funnier, fitter and filtered). But she doesn’t necessarily consider it a manipulation or intentional breach of authenticity, rather a product of the fact that we as humans always modify the way we interact according to our audience.
Just because we’ve got five extra minutes to think about a text before we send it, and a crop function in our camera app, doesn’t mean we can create chemistry where it doesn’t truly exist.
Melissa Bessey’s tips for getting digital chemistry right
We are often more casual in interactions with friends, but when communicating via SMS, consider that tone does not translate through text, so jokes may not be seen as jokes and sarcasm goes out the window. Leave jokes for in-person or phone communication, where your tone of voice can be understood in context.
When interacting with parents in text form, remember they are from a different era, where not everything was so fast and digital. So instead of “lol”-ing or “brb”-ing mum and dad, cut out short forms of anything when emailing or texting them.
All the rules above apply when communicating with your boss. Even if you have a great working and personal relationship, keep text-based communication professional, not casual and type out full words rather than using short forms. Don’t overdo communications to a boss, send only necessary email and/or text messages and don’t complicate messages with too many words. Communicating with the boss does not mean being flowery or “fancy”. Being clear and direct, using respectful language, will go a long way.
Since we get really casual with the people closest to us, lovers tend to be at the top of the list of people with whom we communicate casually. That’s not a bad thing but one consideration when texting lovers might be: “Does this message make sense?” When emailing or texting a lover there is a tendency for multiple references in one message, such as talking about how attracted to the person you are, how much you love them and what’s on the grocery list, while referring to an unrelated conversation about the news or emotions about an argument or misunderstanding. All that information in one text-based communication is cause for a fire. Avoid complication by keeping it simple. “I love you”, “We need bread and milk” and “Hey, can we talk about that disagreement we had the other day, it’s really been bothering me?” all work better as separate messages than a mass, multipurpose message of confusion.
PARENTS OF CHILD’S FRIENDS:
Professional with a side of exclamation points and emoticons.