ATHENS, Ohio -- Online chat can sprout real-life romances that begin with surprisingly honest communication and realistic expectations, traits that many traditional relationships lack at first, according to an Ohio University sociologist who is studying relationships that begin in cyberspace.
"I really feel the basis of these relationships is better and deeper than many real-life meetings because the couples are honest with each other in their writings," says Andrea Baker, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University's Lancaster campus and author of this preliminary study. "People have reflected upon their differences."
Couples often are excruciatingly honest about themselves when chatting online, due in part to a respect for the power and finality of the written word that Baker says hasn't existed for many generations.
Written communication was a staple of early American culture that dwindled with the arrival of technology. But, ironically, it is new technology that has rectified this old form and brought accountability back into conversations, Baker says.
For her research, Baker studied 18 couples ranging in age from 16 to 57 who met online between 1993 and 1997. She sent questionnaires by e-mail to participants between May 1997 and January 1998 and later conducted follow-up interviews. Most couples were engaged, living together or married during the survey. Two of them had separated.
Baker's study suggests the written word tends to promote frank conversation in cyberspace, especially between couples who eventually want to meet face-to-face. Study participants said this immediate sincerity when meeting online was a pleasant switch from the typical blind date scenario.
"Couples say this kind of honesty is absolutely necessary to forming a good relationship," Baker says. "In most cases, they are extremely honest and really cover the downsides as well as the upsides so there won't be any surprises when they meet."
Couples chatted online anywhere from weeks to years before they met in person. And in several instances, couples in the study traveled long distances -- from eastern to western parts of the United States and even to foreign countries -- to visit each other.
Couples also seemed to place a greater emphasis on personality than physical appearances, Baker says.
"For most couples, sharing photos was a natural step in progressing with the relationship before actually meeting," she says. "But because they got to know each other before they saw the photos, I think the photos were of less importance."
Study participants met their partners while communicating in chat rooms or playing trivia games on the Internet. Attraction was sparked because of common interests, response time in chatting, qualities described online and one another's writing style -- all suggesting, Baker says, that the Internet isn't the cold and removed world that many believe.
Some study participants said they probably wouldn't have met their partners if it weren't for the Internet because they live in different regions or because they travel in different intellectual circles.
"This is a new way of meeting people and hitting it off. And it really seems to span the age groups," Baker says.
Online communication actually adds a step to the traditional progression of a relationship, Baker says, typically advancing from chatting online for a period of time to talking on the phone, then eventually to meeting in person. For some people, this lengthened process may be healthier emotionally, she says.
"I think that is a huge advantage, especially for people who really want to articulate their inner feelings and might not be comfortable in social settings," she says.
Baker presented her research at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco Aug. 21-25. She plans to continue her studies of online relationships and is considering writing a book on the topic. Her research was funded in part by the Ohio University-Lancaster Research and Curriculum Development Committee. Baker holds an appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences.