"Making MOOsic":

The Development of Personal Relationships On-line

and a Comparison to their Off-line Counterparts.
 
 

by


 
Malcolm R. Parks Lynne D. Roberts
Dept. of Speech Communication Department of Psychology
Box 353415 Curtin University
University of Washington GPO BOX U1987
Seattle, WA 98195 Perth, Australia, WA 6055
macp@u.washington.edu L.Roberts@psychology.curtin.edu.au

 
 

A paper presented at the annual conference of the Western Speech Communication Association. Monterey, California. February, 1997
 
 
 

Abstract:

Despite the rapid development of the Internet over the past decade and the associated media hyperbole about cyberspace relationships, there is a paucity of systematic research examining the prevalence, type and development of personal relationships in on-line settings. This research examines relational topography in real-time text-based virtual environments known as MOOs (Multi-User Dimensions, Object Oriented). Current users of MOOs (235) completed a survey on MOO relationships, with 155 also completing a survey on off-line relationships. Almost all survey respondents (93.6%) had formed ongoing personal relationships on MOOs. The most commonly reported types of relationships were close friendships, friendships and romances. The majority of relationships formed (83.6%) were with members of the opposite sex. Levels of relational development (interdependence, depth, breadth, code change, commitment, predictability/understanding, network convergence) were typically moderate to high. Most relationships had migrated to other virtual environments, and a third had resulted in face-to-face meetings. On average, MOO relationships were found to be more developed than newsgroup relationships (Parks & Floyd, 1996), but less developed than off-line relationships. It was concluded that MOOs provide an inherently social and powerful context for the formation of personal relationships, many of which will transfer to other settings.

 
 
 

"Making MOOsic": The Development of Personal Relationships On-line

and a Comparison to their Off-line Counterparts.

Through out the early 1990's the Internet doubled in size every 12-15 months and by the end of 1996 was estimated to involve between 25 and 40 million users worldwide (Kantor & Neubarth, 1996). Whatever else it may be, the Internet is fundamentally a social medium. The Internet was used for personal e-mail almost immediately upon its inception in the early 1970's (Zakon, 1996). Since then a variety of social venues have evolved-chats, newsgroups, mailing lists, interactive World Wide Web sites, and text-based virtual environments known as MOOs and MUDs.

These settings call for research not only because of the phenomenal growth of the Internet, but also because the social venues of the Internet create new opportunities and risks for the development of interpersonal relationships (Parks & Floyd, 1996). In addition, the social dynamics of cyberspace create new, often challenging, opportunities to test existing theories of interpersonal communication (Lea & Spears, 1995; Parks & Walther, 1996). The purpose of this study was to map the relational topography of one of the major social venues on the Internet: MOOs (Multi-User Dimensions, Object-Oriented). We begin by describing the nature of this popular Internet venue and by noting its particular relevance for those interested in the study of personal relationships. We then explore a series of research questions that must be addressed if we are to understand the interpersonal dynamics of MOOs and their relatives.

MOOs and MUDs as Social Venues

MOOs are "worlds in words" (Marvin, 1995) that allow for synchronous or "real time" discussion between geographically dispersed participants. They are related to a number of other virtual environments including "chats" and MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions or Dungeons). They differ from other Internet venues (except MUDs) because they use text to create descriptions of virtual places, characters, and objects. Unlike chat rooms and other real time programs, MOO/MUD programs allow players to "emote" with textual descriptions of actions and emotions, simple preprogrammed scripts, or pictures drawn with standard keyboard characters. In addition, these programs allow players to engage in backchannel communication by sending messages to a particular person in the group without others seeing them (Jacobson, 1996). Players may also program new objects specifically for the use of other players. In addition they may create "rooms" or other virtual places. Thus each participant is potentially the co-creator of a virtual world (Curtis, 1992). For example, a player may contribute to the construction of a public space, open to all, or more private virtual spaces such as rooms within his or her virtual "home". All these features combine to give MOOs and their programming relatives the capacity for rich, multi-layered social interaction.

Describing the Relational World of MOOs and MUDs.

The number of MOOs now runs into the hundreds and the number of participants world-wide probably runs to the tens of thousands (Schiano, in press). MOOs figure prominently in larger popular discussions of the Internet (e.g., Cherny & Weise, 1996; Rheingold, 1993; Turkle, 1995). Although they are often thought to epitomize the best and worst that the Internet revolution may hold for interpersonal relations, there is almost no systematic research describing them. Our goal is to provide a broad empirical description of the actual relational world of MOOs. To do this, we pose several basic research questions. Each of these questions as well as brief summaries of the commentaries and controversies surrounding it is outlined in the paragraphs that follow.

The primary question, of course, is: are people forming personal relationships on MOOs and, if so, how often and of what types? In order to provide a context for understanding the relational world created in computer-mediated communication, we briefly trace the evolution of views about interpersonal relationships on-line. Early studies of computer-mediated communication typically focused on zero-history groups working on contrived tasks in a laboratory setting (Garton & Wellman, 1995). Not surprisingly, the results of this line of research revealed a social environment that was not conducive to the development of personal relationships. Comparisons to face-to-face groups generally showed that interaction in on-line groups was more hostile, divisive, and uninhibited (e.g., Dubrovksy, et al., 1991; Keisler & Sproull, 1992). This was usually attributed to the relative anonymity of on-line settings and the lack of nonverbal cues (e.g., Sproull & Keisler, 1991).

Current theories of relationship development also raise doubts about whether people should be able to form genuine personal relationships on-line. As Lea and Spears (1995) noted, these theories typically have presumed physical proximity, frequent interaction, and easy access to a wide range of information regarding the social context, group membership, and physical appearance. However, these assumptions may not actually reflect the conditions necessary for relationship development, but instead simply reflect the fact that most theories of relational development predate the popularization of computer-mediated communication (Lea & Spears, 1995; Parks & Floyd, 1996). Even so, it is fair to say that traditional theories both of computer-mediated communication and relationship development suggest that few people should develop close personal relationships on-line.

More recent work, however, has created serious theoretic and empirical challenges to this pessimistic view. The theoretic reassessment began with the observation that many of the differences between computer-mediated and face-to-face interaction diminished over time. Thus, the problems of restricted channels and reduced cues could be overcome if the interactants had sufficient time (Walther, 1992; Walther, et al., 1994). Walther (1996) went on to argue that in some circumstances participants in on-line communication could actually become more intimate than they would of had they been in face-to-face communication. Following Social Identity Deindividuation or "SIDE" theory (Spears & Lea, 1992), he noted that on-line receivers are likely to over interpret what little data they have and, when the data are positive, reach even more positive conclusions about others than they would in face-to-face settings. Walther argued further that source, receiver, channel, and feedback characteristics often combined to create heightened positive impressions in on-line settings by allowing people more control over the interaction, more opportunities to reflect and plan self-presentations, more time to sort through whatever multiple goals may be present in others' messages, and by triggering positive feedback loops. Communication on line not only becomes personal if given time, but may also become "hyperpersonal" and propel relational partners to greater feelings of intimacy than they might have experienced in face-to-face communication.

The first empirical evidence that people were using computer-mediated communication for social and relational purposes came from studies of e-mail in the workplace (e.g., Rice & Love, 1987; Finholt & Sproull, 1990). They were soon joined by reports about the development of personal relationships in specific on-line settings including chat lines, bulletin board systems (BBSs), and MUDs and MOOs (e.g., Allen, 1996; Bruckman, 1992, Reid, 1995; Roberts, et al., 1996a; Wilkins, 1991). Personal relationships were also reported frequently in both popular and scholarly travelogues of on-line life (e.g., Rheingold, 1993; Turkle, 1995).

More systematic, broadly based work is only now emerging. Ryan's (1995) interviews with 222 long term members of LambdaMOO revealed, for example, that just over one-third (34%) used the MOO to maintain contact with friends they had made on the MOO. In another survey of LambdaMOO respondents indicated that over half of their time (57.3%) was spent socializing (Schiano, in press). Interview and time-sample log data indicated that most people on the MOO socialized in pairs or very small groups, usually in private. These results suggest that personal relationships might be rather common on MOOs, although they are based on data from a single MOO and thus may not be representative of MOOs in general. Personal relationships also emerged regularly in a study of Internet newsgroups (Parks & Floyd,1996). Nearly two thirds (60.7%) of all respondents in a stratified random sample of newsgroup contributors reported that they have developed at least one personal relationship with someone they had "met" for the first time in a newsgroup. The frequent reports of personal relationships on MOOs in the anecdotal data as well as in interviews by the second author, lead us to believe that the proportion of those starting personal relationships on MOOs will be even higher than that in newsgroups.

There is little in the previous research to suggest what types of personal relationships might be most common among MOO participants. Respondents in the study of Internet newsgroups most often described their relationships as friendships or close friendships. There were slightly more cross-sex than same-sex friendships (55.1% vs. 44.9%). In spite of the popular press attention to on-line romances, however, only about 8% of the newsgroup respondents described their relationship as romantic (Parks & Floyd, 1996).

Assuming that some people do initiate personal relationships with others they meet on MOOs, the next question becomes: what factors differentiate people who have started personal relationships on-line from those who have not? We know of no studies of MOOs or MUDs in which this question has been addressed. Indeed the question has been addressed in only one of the various social venues on-line. In their study of newsgroups Parks and Floyd (1996) observed that those who had started personal relationships on-line had been participating longer and contributing more often to their favorite newsgroups than those who had not started personal relationships on-line. This suggested that developing personal relationships on-line may be more of a function of simple familiarity and experience than of demographic factors. Factors like age and marital status, for instance, were unrelated to the likelihood of having an on-line personal relationship. Sex was the only demographic that emerged as a predictor. Although a majority of both men and women had started a personal relationship in a newsgroup, significantly more women than men had done so (72.2% vs. 54.5%). Our goal in the present study was to replicate these analyses in a structurally different on-line venue. In addition we wished to explore what demographic factors might be correlated with the number of different personal relationships people had formed as a result of their interactions on MOOs.

Claims about the closeness and authenticity of relationships formed on-line run the gamut. Some view them as intrinsically shallow at best and dangerous illusions at their worst (e.g., Slouka, 1995). Others testify that their on-line relationships are as deep or perhaps even deeper than their off-line relationships. "I know some of these people better than some of my oldest and best friends" reported one person in an on-line service for church workers (Wilkins, 1991, p. 56). Another person described the on-line friends he had made on a MUD as "much deeper" and "better quality" than his real-life friendships (Bruckman, 1992, p. 23). Given such variation, it is essential to ask two further research questions: How developed do on-line relationships initiated on MOOs become? How do on-line and off-line relationships compare in terms of their development?

To address these questions, we conceptualized the relational development in terms of increased interdependence between the participants, greater depth and breadth of interaction, greater commitment, perceptions of increased predictability and understanding, the use of more personalized ways of communicating, and the convergence of the participants' social networks on and off-line (Parks, 1997). Following previous research on Internet newsgroups (Parks & Floyd, 1996), measures of these dimensions were used to assess the developmental status of relationships on MOOs. As in the previous study sample means were compared to the theoretic midpoints of the scales for each of the dimensions of relationship development. That analysis yielded a picture of how relationships were distributed against the theoretic possibilities. In the present study, however, we also compared relationships started on MOOs to relationships of the same type that the participants had started in face-to-face settings. Although each of these approaches to evaluating on-line relationships has weaknesses as well as strengths, we believed that together these comparisons revealed valuable information about the character of relationships formed on-line.

The Internet is not a monolithic medium, but rather a system that encompasses several distinctly different types of media. In order to understand the social uses of the Internet, we must actively compare the types of interactions found in one part of it to those found in other parts. Although there are a number of differences in the specifics of instrumentation, the measures used in the previous study of newsgroups (Parks & Floyd, 1996) can be compared, at least in part, to the measures used in this study. This allowed us to ask: how does the level of development in relationships started in newsgroups compare to that for relationships started on MOOs?

One of the least explored aspects of on-line communication is its relationship to life off-line. Some commentators portray computer-mediated communication as a doorway into a brave new world that is almost completely divorced from off-line norms and relationships (e.g., Slouka, 1995; Stone, 1995). An examination of the actual relational dynamics of newsgroups, however, found that participants usually moved beyond computer-mediated channels to more traditional channels (Parks & Floyd, 1996). Fully a third of those who had started a relationship in a newsgroup went on to meet the other person face-to-face. In order to examine the generality of this finding, we posed our final research questions: Do relationships started on MOOs migrate to other settings? If so, is there any regular pattern of channel choices that people make when moving a relationship from a MOO to face-to-face interaction? These questions are important not only for our understanding of how computer-mediated communication fits to our larger relational world, but for their practical potential to suggest what's typically done when people try to bring a relationship started on-line into their off-line lives.

METHOD

Participants

A total of 235 (51.7% male, 48.3% female) current users of MOOs took part in this research. Participants ranged in age between 13 and 74 years, but 50% were between the ages of 17 and 26 (M = 27.18, SD = 10.26). The sample was international, representing 14 different countries on all continents except Antarctica, but most respondents were from the United States (78.9%), Canada (8.6%), or Australia (3.4%). Most (63.3%) had never been married, although a sizable minority (29.7%) were married or cohabiting. Relatively few (7%) were separated or divorced. Respondents had completed an average of nearly 15 years of schooling (M = 14.84, SD = 2.92). At the time of the survey, most were either employed outside the home (52.1%) or were students (44.8%).

Respondents varied widely in their Internet and MOOing history, and current usage of MOOs. The amount of time since they had first started using the Internet ranged from three months to 10 years (Mdn, Mode = 2.0 years). The amount of time since they had first visited a MOO ranged from the current month to 5 years (M=20.94 months, SD = 11.96 months). People are often active on more than one MOO, sometimes maintaining several different characters as a result. Reports of the number of MOOs and characters were positively skewed, but the median number of MOOs and characters was four. Although just over 10% of the sample spent over 30 hours a week on MOOs, most respondents reported visiting MOOs between 3 and 18 hours per week (Mdn = 12.0, Mode = 10.0).

Materials

Two surveys were developed for this research. The first contained demographic items, measures of Internet and MOO use, and, for respondents who reported having one, items assessing the nature and development of a personal relationship that had been initiated on a MOO. Respondents were asked to think of the person with whom they had an ongoing personal relationship and with whom they most recently communicated with on a MOO. The relational assessments included items concerning the type and duration of this relationship, amount of communication, and the communication channels used. Respondents also completed a shortened form of a measure of relational development grounded in theories of relationship development and used in a previous study of on-line personal relationships (Parks & Floyd, 1996). These scales assessed interdependence, breadth, depth, code change, predictability/understanding, commitment and network convergence of on-line relationships (See Table 2).

The second survey focused on respondents' relationships off-line. Questions in this survey paralleled those in the first survey with some small modifications in wording to better match the off-line context. Items assessed the type and duration of the relationship, the amount of communication, the communication channels used, and each of the various dimensions of relationship development.

Procedures

A two stage sampling procedure was used to randomly select MOO users from a range of public-access MOOs. A total of seven different MOOs were selected in the first stage. The biggest social and biggest educational MOO were selected on a priori grounds. Five additional MOOs were randomly selected from a list of MOOs available on the World Wide Web.1

In the second stage, 1200 MOO characters who had connected to the MOOs within the previous 14 days were randomly selected using a computer program we had written for the purpose. Two hundred MOO characters were selected from the five largest MOOs, and 100 MOO characters selected from the two smaller MOOs. The MOOs' internal e-mail systems were used to send letters to these MOO characters inviting them to participate in a survey on communication patterns on MOOs. The survey could be completed by research participants on the A??? World Wide Web site or by e-mail. Upon completion of the first survey on MOO relationships, respondents were invited to participate in a second survey of off-line relationships.

Two hundred and thirty-five MOO relationships surveys were completed, providing a response rate of 20%. Two-thirds (N = 155) of those who completed the first also completed the second survey on off-line relationships.

RESULTS

How often do personal relationships of form in MOOs?

Nearly every respondent (93.6%) had formed at least one on-going personal relationship during their interactions on MOOs. Most of these relationships appeared to be quite actively pursued. Respondents reported an average of 7.27 hours communication per week (SD = 9.41) with their relational partners. The typical relationship had a duration of just over a year (M = 13.31 months, SD = 9.03). The vast majority of respondents had formed several new personal relationships as a result of their MOO experience. The actual number of new relationships reported varied widely and was positively skewed, but the middle 50% of the sample reported having initiated between four and 15 new personal relationships as a result of MOOing (Mdn = 6.0, Mode = 5.0). The number of relationships reported was not strongly correlated (r's < .15) with age, education, Internet history, MOOing history, the number of MOOs and characters used, or the number of hours spent on MOOs per week. There was no significant difference in the number of relationships formed by males and females. Only a small number of respondents (6.7%) reported that they had formed no personal relationships. Because this group was so small, it was not included in further analyses.

What types of personal relationships form in MOOs?

Several different types of personal relationships were identified, but the majority were classified by the respondents as close friendships (40.6%), friendships (26.3%) or romantic relationships (26.3%). Descriptive statistics for the duration and contact hours across all relational types are presented in Table 1. Due to the small number of work/school associates and acquaintances reported, however, further comparisons of relationship types focused only on friendships, close friendships and romances.

Table 1.

Descriptions of MOO Relationships by Type
Type of Relationship Frequency
 

N % 

Relationship Duration (months)

Mean SD 

Contact Hours ( per week)

Mean SD 

Work/School Associate 5 2.3 18.40 12.34  4.28 4.16
Acquaintance 10 4.6  13.80 10.70 .76  .58
Friend 57 26.3  13.92 10.02 2.88  3.43
Close Friend 88 40.6  12.94 7.60 6.84  8.74
Romantic Partner 57 26.3  12.47 9.46 14.30  11.86

Friendships, close friendships, and romances started in MOOs did not differ in terms of their duration.2 There was, however, a significant difference in hours of contact per week by relationship type, (F(2, 187) = 24.05, p<.01). Post-hoc analyses using Tukey's HSD test revealed significant difference in hours spent between all relationship types. MOO romantic partners spend more time together than MOO close friends, who in turn spend more time together than MOO friends. There was also a significant difference in the frequency of communication across these three relationship types, (F(2,141) = 18.33, p < .001). MOO romantic partners met almost daily, while close friends met three to four times per week, and friends met once or twice a week on average. Post-hoc tests indicated that all of these differences were significant.

We also explored whether individuals reporting friendships, close friendships and romances could be distinguished in terms of their "real-life" or MOO demographics. The individuals reporting on friendships, close friendships and romances did not significantly differ in terms of age, sex, marital status or education level; or in terms of their history of Internet or MOO use, or number of characters used on MOOs. However, individuals reporting on the three types of relationships did differ on current MOO demographics. Individuals reporting on MOO romances used more MOOs (M = 9.33, SD = 14.59) than those reporting on close friendships (M = 6.00, SD = 3.99) and friendships (M = 3.84, SD = 2.59; F(2, 199) = 6.37, p<.01). They also spent more hours MOOing per week (M = 24.56, SD = 19.01) than those reporting on close friendships (M = 16.02, SD = 11.98) and friendships (M = 9.83, SD = 9.33; F(2, 198)= 16.51, p<.01).

The vast majority (83.6%) of MOO relationships reported were with members of the opposite sex . Respondents were significantly more likely to report on a MOO relationship with a member of the opposite sex than of the same sex, 2 (1, N = 214) = 97.51, p<.001). Opposite-sex relationships constituted the majority among friends (74%), close friends (90%), and romantic relationships (84%).

How developed do relationships on MOOs become?

We assessed the level of development of personal relationships initiated on MOOs in terms of a series of seven dimensions: interdependence, breadth, depth, code change, predictability/understanding, commitment and network convergence of both on-line and off-line relationships. Item means and standard deviations for the On-line Relationships Scales are presented in Table 2. Scale items were added together to produce indices for each dimension. Reliabilities for these indices are also reported in Table 2.

Table 2.

Relational Development Items for MOO, On -Line, and Newsgroup Relationships
SCALE/ITEM
On-Line MOO
Off-Line "Real Life"
Newsgroups (Parks & Floyd, 1996)
 
Mean
sd
Mean
sd
Mean
sd
Interdependence (amoo = .84; arl = .75 )            
The two of us depend on each other. 3.78  2.03 4.38 2.02  2.93 1.80
This person and I have a great deal of effect on each other.  4.90 1.78 5.25  1.59 3.65 1.67 
We often influence each other's feelings toward the issues we're dealing with.  4.37 1.73 5.30  3.40 4.02 1.78 
The two if us have little influence on each other's thoughts. (R)  4.79 1.75 5.05  1.74 4.15 1.75 
             
Breadth (amoo = .82; arl = .87 )            
Our communication is limited to just a few specific topics (R)  5.62 1.68 5.91  1.58 3.84 1.64 
Our communication ranges over a wide variety of topics  5.91 1.35 6.13  1.23 4.30 2.08 
Once we get started we move easily from one topic to another.  5.75 1.39 6.14  1.06 4.61 1.77 
             
Depth (amoo = .83; arl = .80 )            
I usually tell this person exactly how I feel.  5.66 1.27 5.73  1.42 4.74 1.91 
I have told this person what I like about her or him.  5.44 1.76 5.38  1.84 3.71 2.08 
I feel I could confide in this person about almost anything.  5.43 1.77 5.51  1.78 4.11 2.05 
I would never tell this person anything intimate or personal about myself. (R)  6.00 1.38 6.03  1.34 5.20 1.78 
I have told this person things about myself that he or she could not get from any other source.  6.01 1.86 6.10  1.41 4.61 2.20 
             
Code Change (amoo = .80; arl = .84 )            
We have developed the ability to "read between the line" of each other's messages to figure out what is really on each other's mind.  4.89 1.78 5.39  1.62 3.51 1.76 
The two of us use private signals that communicate in ways outsiders would not understand.  3.72 2.10 4.18  2.16 2.69 1.82 
We have special nicknames that we just use with each other.  3.49 2.33 3.52  2.40 2.21 1.60 
I can get an idea across to this person with a much shorter message than I would have to use with most people.  4.93 1.56 5.45  1.48 3.96 1.61 
             
Predictability/Understanding (amoo = .79; arl = .83 )            
I am very uncertain about what this person is really like. (R)  5.59 1.64 6.15  1.28 4.81 1.54 
I can accurately predict how this person will respond to me in most situations.  4.84 1.67 5.69  1.34 3.85 1.54 
I can accurately predict what this person's attitudes are.  5.08 1.43 5.78  1.32 3.87 1.61 
I do not know this person very well. (R) 5.32 1.76 6.30  1.07 3.97 1.86 
             
Commitment (amoo = .87; arl = .76 )            
I am very committed to maintaining this relationship.  5.40 1.60 5.77  1.51 4.42 1.59 
This relationship is not very important to me. (R)  5.66 1.62 5.91  1.64 4.70 1.55 
I would make a great effort to maintain my relationship with this person.  5.35 1.72 5.94  1.33 4.07 1.65 
I do not expect this relationship to last very long. (R)  5.54 1.57 6.00  1.49 4.43 1.49 
             
Network Convergence On-line (amoo = .65; arl = .89 )            
This person and I do not know any of the same people on the net (R)  5.86 1.64 2.91  2.35    
We contact a lot of the same people on the net  4.22 1.89 2.24  1.86 4.01 1.98 
             
Network Convergence Off-line (amoo = .78; arl = .55 )            
We have introduced (face to face or otherwise) each other to each other's work/school associates  3.62 2.36 6.09  1.43 2.05 1.76 
This person and I do not know any of the same people in real-life (R)  3.00 2.42 6.31  1.32    
We have introduced (face to face or otherwise) each other to members of each other's circle of friends and family  3.86 2.41 6.26  1.30 2.74 2.21 

(R) indicates that the score was reversed. All figures are based on a scale of 1-7, where higher values indicate higher levels of agreement. Means represent reversed scores where appropriate.

Following procedures used in previous research (e.g., Parks & Floyd, 1996), we assessed the absolute level of relational development by comparing the observed means for the developmental dimensions to the theoretic midpoints of the scales using single sample t-tests. The results of these comparisons, as well as the observed and theoretic means for each scale, are displayed in Table 3. The interdependence scale, for example, had a theoretic midpoint of 16.00: four items, scaled one to seven , yielding a scale range of four to 28.00. A single sample t-test was used to determine if the observed mean of 17.78 was significantly greater than the theoretic mean of 16.00 (one-tailed test). In this case the test result was significant (t = 4.29, df = 212, p < .001).

Table 3.

Comparison of Scale Midpoints and Observed Means for Developmental Dimensions
Developmental Dimension Scale Midpoint  Observed 

Mean

One-Sample

 T-test 

Percent of Sample Scoring Above Midpoint of Scale 
Interdependence 16.00 17.78 p < .001 66.2% 
Breadth 12.00 17.27  p < .001 9l.5%
Depth 20.00 28.19  p < .001 88.8%
Code Change 16.00 16.97  p < .05 59.6%
Predictability & Understanding 16.00 20.83 p < .001  83.5%
Commitment 16.00 21.92  p < .001 87.2%
On-Line Network Convergence 8.00  10.07 p < .001 83.4%
Off-Line Network Convergence 12.00  10.47 p < .001 40.8% 

Overall the results of these comparisons indicated that the majority of the respondents rated their on-line relationships above the midpoint of nearly every scale measuring relational development. The only exception was the measure assessing the degree to which the on-line relational partner was introduced to members of the respondent's off-line social network. The observed mean for this scale was significantly below the midpoint of the scale and only 40.8% of the sample scored above it. For the remaining seven scales of relational development, however, the observed means were significantly above the theoretic midpoints. Approximately 60-90% of the respondents rated their relationships above the midpoints of these scales (See Table 3). This suggested that MOO relationships as a whole showed moderate to high levels of development.

How do on-line and off-line relationships compare in terms of their development?

Participants were asked to select and report on an off-line or "real-life" relationship that was of the same type as the on-line relationship they had described. To examine differences in the two relationships a series of paired t-tests (p < .01) were conducted. The results are presented in Table 4. Survey respondents on average spent significantly more hours per week with real-life relational partners than they did with their MOO relational partners. These real-life relationships were of a significantly longer standing than the on-line relationships. The off-line or "real-life" relationships showed greater interdependence, predictability/understanding, commitment and off-line network convergence. Although these differences were significant, the differences between on-line and off-line relationships for interdependence, predictability/understanding ,and commitment were not large in an absolute sense-averaging about 10% difference in scale units. MOO relationships displayed more convergence of the participants' on-line social networks. Moreover, real-life and MOO relationships reported in this survey did not differ on breadth, depth and code-change dimensions. Although the off-line relationships as a group were clearly more highly developed, it was notable that the differences were generally small and that there were no differences in breadth and depth of interaction.

Table 4.

Comparison of On-line MOO and Off-line Relationships.
VARIABLE
On-line MOO Relationships
Off-line "Real Life" Relationships
   
 
Mean
SD
Mean
SD
df t
sig
Hours per week together 7.37  9.41 14.10 24.58  143 3.30 p<.01 
Duration (months) 13.57 9.31 67.36 74.74  152 8.92 p<.01 
Interdependence 17.73 6.11 20.09 6.42  149 3.60 p<.01 
Breadth of friendship 17.55  3.70 18.19 3.45  149 1.65 ns 
Depth 28.67 5.59  28.88 5.70 145  0.36 ns
Code Change 17.05 6.03  18.59 6.42 149  2.57 ns
Predictability/Understanding 21.10  4.96 23.88 4.16  149 6.27 p<.01 
Commitment 22.01 5.58  23.64 4.55 152  3.22 p<.01
On-line Network Convergence  10.14  3.06 5.20 4.01  147 12.91 p<01 
Off-line Network convergence  10.27  5.75 18.67 2.94  149 16.66 p<.001 

How do relationships that begin in MOOs compare with those that begin in newsgroups?

Next we explored potential differences in the relationships developed in one on-line social venue and another. We did this by comparing the means for items of the On-Line Relationships Scales that were shared by this study (MOO relationships and real-life relationships) and Parks and Floyd's (1996) study on newsgroup relationships. These are presented as part of Table 2. In each case, the mean score for newsgroup relationships was lower than the mean scores for MOO relationships and real-life relationships. This held true across all 27 common items. Newsgroup relationships as a group were less developed than either MOO or real-life relationships.

Do relationships started on MOOs migrate to other settings? If so, how?

Personal relationships that are initiated on MOOs rarely stay there. Nearly all respondents who had started a personal relationship on a MOO (92.7%) had gone on to use other communication channels in addition to the MOO. The most popular channels were e-mail (80%), telephone (66.8%), cards and letters (54.5%), and photographs exchanged by mail (40.5%). Respondents who had started personal relationships on a MOO reported using an average of almost four additional communication channels (M = 3.39, Mdn = 4.0, SD = 1.75).

A sizable number of respondents who had started personal relationships on-line had gone on to meet their relational partners face-to-face (37.7%). The probability of meeting differed according to relational type. Those in romantic relationships were more likely to meet (57.9%) than close friends (35.2%) or friends (22.8%), Chi2 (2, N = 202) = 15.43, p<.001).

Face-to-face meetings usually occurred only after the relational partners had already used several other communication channels. Only 8.4% of respondents who had started an on-line relationship reported moving directly from the MOO to face-to-face contact. Most (66.3%) reported using three or more channels before meeting in person (M = 3.02, Mode = 4.00, SD = 1.51). These channels frequently augmented the text-only media of MOOs and e-mail with vocal and visual information. Almost two-thirds (61.4%) had both spoken by telephone and obtained pictures on-line or by mail prior to meeting their relational partners for the first time face-to-face. This, too, varied by relational type. Although approximately half of the friends (53.8%) and close friends (48.4%) had exchanged both vocal and visual information prior to meeting in person, 78.8% of the romantic partners had done so, Chi2 (2, N = 77) = 6.77, p<.05).

DISCUSSION

New social contexts and opportunities for personal relationships are being created by the global revolution in computer-mediated communication. The purpose of this study was to explore the relational topography of one of the most active and controversial of these new contexts on the Internet: the text-based real-time discussion programs known as MOOs. Our primary finding was that nearly everyone (93.6%) who used MOOs reported having formed a personal relationship of some kind there. Participants had acquaintances, colleagues, friends, close friends, romantic and sexual partners in the on-line world of MOOs. Close friendships were the most frequently reported relationships in this study, followed by romances and friendships. The participants in these relationships devoted considerable time and energy to them-averaging over seven hours a week in interaction on-line with their relational partner. Moreover, respondents typically had initiated five or six new personal relationships as a result of their MOO experience.

In fact developing personal relationships was so common that it was not possible to identify the factors that differentiated people who had started personal relationships on-line from those who had not. However, it is notable that 46.2% of those who had not started a personal relationship on-line were spending three hours per week or less on MOOs, suggesting they may have a lesser involvement in MOOing. Indeed, given the small percentage of MOOers who reported they had formed no ongoing relationships (6.4%), the formation of personal relationships on MOOs can be seen as the norm rather than the exception. This finding supports Parks and Floyd's (1996) contention that developing personal relationships on-line may be more of a function of simple familiarity and experience than of demographic factors or personality.

More than four-fifths (83.6%) of the relationships reported were with members of the opposite sex. This was a consistent finding across all types of relationships and irrespective of marital status. This is in direct contrast to "real-life" where same-sex friendships are more common across the life-span (Booth & Hess, 1974; Dickens & Perlman, 1981). This is also in contrast to a previous study of relationships initiated in on-line newsgroups in which opposite-sex relationships did not occur significantly more often than same-sex relationships (Parks & Floyd, 1996). It is possible that our results are only a reflection of the fact that unmarried adolescents and young adults, the largest groups in our sample, typically have more cross-sex friendships than other age groups (Werking, 1997). This would not, however, account for the fact that married respondents were as likely to report opposite-sex as same-sex relationships. In addition post hoc analysis revealed that among those aged 30 or older, 75% of the relationships reported were opposite-sex.

A more likely explanation is that MOOs provide users with the perception of a "safe" environment for social interaction in which individuals can explore all types of relationships without fear of repercussions in their physical lives (Roberts, Smith & Pollock, 1996b). By the same token, the "real-time" give and take of a synchronous channel, along with the greater communicative subtlety possible on MOOs, may make it easier and more interesting for men and women to engage in dialogue-thus perhaps accounting for the greater proportion of cross-sex relationships in MOOs than in newsgroups.

The text-only nature of MOOs, the physical distance between MOOers, and the anonymity provided by having a MOO character may further reduce the perception of "risk" associated with cross-sex relationships in the physical world. The fact on-line relationships were not well integrated with the participants' off-line relationships may offer another dimension of safety. Friends, romantic partners, and other associates often challenge cross-sex friendships in "real-life" settings (Swain, 1992; Werking, 1997).

Potential benefits of cross-sex relationships on-line include a better understanding of, and enhanced skills at relating to, members of the opposite-sex. However, where relationships transfer from virtual environments to physical life the participants risk finding themselves engaged in relationships that they would otherwise avoid. Thus the apparently fertile environment for cross-sex friendships created by MOOs raises both new opportunities and risks for interpersonal relationships.

Relationships initiated on MOOs typically reached moderate to high levels of relational development. Comparisons of observed means with the theoretic mid-points of developmental scales allowed us to assess the overall level of development. These analyses revealed that MOO relationships were significantly above the midpoint in terms of interdependence, depth and breadth of interaction, commitment, predictability and understanding, personalized ways of communicating, and the convergence of social networks on-line. Our measure of network convergence between on-line and off-line relationships was the only one whose mean fell before the midpoint of the scale. While MOO partners introduced each other to their on-line contacts, they were less likely to introduce each other to their off-line contacts. This may be partially accounted for by geographical distance between MOOers and the difficulty in introducing on-line relational partners to off-line family and friends if the latter do not have Internet access. Given these constraints, it would be useful to explore whether people typically discuss their on-line relationships with their off-line friends and family.

We also compared on-line and off-line relationships in terms of their development. As far as we know, this study is the first to directly compare on-line and off-line relationships. Although one strength of the design was that the same individuals provided assessments of comparable, current on-line and off-line relationships, a programming error resulted in the loss of data on the relational types for off-line relationships. This error eliminated our ability to check the comparability of relational types and forced us to rely on the respondents' judgments of comparability.

The off-line or "physical life" relationships reported were of longer duration, and involved more hours of contact than MOO relationships.3 Although off-line relationships were generally more developed overall, the differences were substantively small on several dimensions. Most important, perhaps, off-line and on-line relationships did not differ in terms of the levels of breadth and depth they achieved. As one survey respondent commented:

Relationships on moos begin to be closer much faster than is the usual in real-life situations. Also, feelings are much more intense when experienced through the cyberspace environment.

This is consistent with previous findings where MOO relationships were characterized as intense and involving high rates of self-disclosure (Roberts, Pollock & Smith, 1996b). It is also consistent with theoretic predictions of "hyperpersonal" effects in computer-mediated communication (Walther, 1996). Finally, given the generally high levels of development in on-line relationships overall, these findings may suggest that the relative ease of disclosure on-line "pulls" perceptions of development in other dimensions. People may be more likely to attribute commitment and understanding to their relationship when they observe (as the screen makes it easy to do) their own and others' high levels of disclosure across a broad range of topics.

The Internet has several distinct types of social settings and so one of our goals was to compare the relational dynamics of MOOs with the relational dynamics described in a previous survey of Internet newsgroup users (Parks & Floyd, 1996). In general these comparisons indicated that MOOs were even more active breeding grounds for personal relationships than were Internet newsgroups. An even higher proportion of MOOers (93.6%) than newsgroup users (60.7%) formed on-going personal relationships. The median duration of MOO relationships was over twice as long as the median duration of newsgroup relationships. MOO relational partners contacted each other more frequently than newsgroup relational partners. MOO relationships were more developed than newsgroup relationships on all items of the On-Line Relationships scales. In addition MOO relationships are more likely than newsgroup relationships to be cross-sex relationships, and more likely to be romantic in nature.

MOOs and newsgroups vary in a number of ways that may account for these differences in findings. Newsgroups have a specific topic (although this may not be adhered to), while the majority of MOOs are social in nature with no set topic for discussion. Newsgroups are asynchronous environments where users can reply to other's postings in their own time. In contrast, MOOs are synchronous environments offering "real time." In addition MOOs provide an extensible and dynamic social environment in contrast to the static environment provided by newsgroups. Finally, MOOs provide for rich, multi-layered social interaction through the capacity to emote, direct speech, and engage in multiple conversations simultaneously. These factors combine to increase the level of telepresence (the experience of "being there" in a virtual environment) experienced by the individual (Roberts, Smith & Pollock, 1996c), and may contribute to the perceived "reality" of interaction between users.

This study on MOO relationships and the Parks and Floyd (1996) study on newsgroup relationships have only begun to map the social topography of virtual environments. Further research is required to study relationships formed in chats, talkers, Internet Relay Chat, and graphical virtual reality environments on the Internet. By comparing relationships across these virtual environments it will be possible to distinguish those aspects of relationships which are attributable to the medium in general from those that are specific to the type of virtual environment.

The relationships initiated on MOOs, like those initiated in newsgroups, typically "migrated" to other communication channels. Over 90% of those who had started a personal relationship on-line had used channels in addition to the MOO. Many of these channels were not computer-mediated-letters, card, telephone, etc. Indeed, over a third had met their relational partners face-to-face. Nearly 60% of those who had started a romantic relationship on a MOO went on to meet face-to-face. Our analyses also suggested that people were relatively cautious about the shift from mediated to face-to-face contact and that there were some more or less standard ways of managing the transition. The most common was to make use of the telephone and to exchange pictures to obtain both vocal and visual contact with the other before meeting in person for the first time.

Our confidence in these findings was tempered by the comparatively low response rate (20%). Several factors may have accounted for this. Letters were sent to MOO characters rather than individuals, and, as we noted, most individuals maintain multiple characters on and across MOOs. Several survey respondents advised us that they had been contacted under two or more character names on different MOOs. We estimate that the number of individuals contacted was at least one third less than the number of letters sent, making the true response rate perhaps as high as 30%. Other possible factors contributing to the low response rate were technical difficulties in accessing the surveys by MOOers with low-powered computer systems, and concern over privacy by some MOOers who choose to keep their virtual and physical lives separate. In addition, not all MOOers sent letters logged into the MOO during the data collection period.

Nonetheless, it appears that MOOs provide an inherently social and powerful context for the creation of personal relationships. The majority of our survey respondents were in their late adolescence or early adulthood (over 60% were aged between 17 and 30), a developmental stage where individuals typically have the greatest number of friends, and engage in frequent social interaction (Dickens & Perlman, 1981). MOOs not only provide an alternative venue for meeting this need, but may often create opportunities to explore relationships and one's own identity with relative safety. Even so, the social power of MOOs was not limited to the young. Those over age 30 were just as likely as those under age thirty to have initiated a new personal relationship on a MOO. The effect appears to be general.

The results of this study, combined with those of the previous study of newsgroups, also shatter the image that "cyberspace" and "real-life" are unrelated. The vast majority of relationships formed on MOOs involved the use of additional communication channels. Many ultimately culminated in face to face meetings. Some of our respondents noted that their on-line relationships have resulted in engagements, moving in together, and marriages. One respondent confided:

For a year, my "significant other" and I communicated via the net, then other means-we began to live together after she came here, about 2 months ago--knowing so much more about each other than is normally possible through a conventional relationship.

In this sense "cyberspace" is not some exotic technological fantasy, but instead simply another place where people meet and get to know one another. In the eyes of our respondents there was no neat line dividing "virtual" from "real" relationships. As one respondent commented: "MOO friendships are real friendships because they're with real people."
 
 

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Footnotes

1. Several lists of MOOs and MUDs are available on-line. We used "Gurk's MOOGate" (http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/users/a/asdamick/www/moo.html). The MOOs included in the final sample were LambdaMOO, RiverMOO, BayMOO, IdMOO, Sprawl, Meridian, and Diversity University. A MOO character named "Surveyor" was set up as a research character on each of the selected MOOs to facilitate answering questions from potential respondents.

2. Critical alpha was set at .01 for all statistical tests comparing relationships by MOO demographic variables (i.e., contact hours per week with partner, hours spent on MOOs each week, number of MOOs used, and number of MOO characters). This more stringent criterion level was set to account for the number of tests conducted, and the large between group variances and skewed distributions for some variables.

3. The language used to compare on-line and off-line relationships is in a state of flux. The older reference to off-line relationships as "real-life" is giving way to a new designation of them as "physical-life" relationships, no doubt reflecting the reality that people increasingly attribute to on-line social relationships.