Remote Relationships in a Small World. Samantha Holland, ed. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2008. 296 pp.
One need only read collections of historic written correspondence (such as the letters exchanged between Abigail and John Adams around the time of the American Revolution) to realize that the phenomenon of “remote relationships” is by no means a product of the Internet age, or even the Industrial Age. Until the advent of relatively rapid transit in the twentieth century, many people around the world established and maintained relationships via letters (pen pals, letters from home, love letters, care packages, etc.) and, later, electronic communication such as the telephone, two-way radio, and even recorded messages on tape or video mailed to others. But there is no question that the Internet has dramatically expanded and enhanced remote relationships in the twenty-first century, and the advent of online virtual communities and social networking sites has made remote relationships nearly ubiquitous in the lives of many. And that is why Remote Relationships in a Small World offers a good starting point for scholars wanting to conduct research into online relationships.
The edited volume is a collection of fourteen studies, some pilot studies and others more rigorous, that look at a variety of online remote relationships (family and friends, romantic, educational, and shared interests) conducted via different new media (cell phones, social-networking sites, blogs, e-mail, and others). For those interested in online relationships, this book offers several very good literature reviews, many interesting discussions of theory and methods, and a few interesting models for such studies. Several chapters also effectively discuss the ethical implications of studying online relationships, especially given that many such relationships can be observed by others without the knowledge of the principal participants. The chapters skew heavily toward personal relationships rather than professional relationships, and five chapters are focused on romance or sex. The collection also is deeply rooted in gender studies, which would make it a useful resource for instructors in such courses.
There are some limitations to this edited volume. The lack of historical context is one; the collection seems to suggest that the Internet made remote relationships possible, a problematic oversight of past studies of personal letters and other “offline” correspondence going back centuries. That’s just a quibble, however; certainly the contributors are aware of past research into, for example, love letters and personal letters as modes of remote personal relationship. It just would have been nice if the editors had provided readers some of the historical context upon which the study of “new media” is built. (For example, a 2008 article by Eva L. Wyss in the Journal of Historical Pragmatics provided a comparison of love letters from the nineteenth century and modern love letters.)
Another quibble is that although the collection is “international” in that the authors come from different English-speaking countries, it does not provide much insight beyond the mediated middle class in Western-style democracies. As such, the book doesn’t shed much light into the role of online relationships in non-Western cultures, such as intercultural online romance, implications of the digital divide in developing regions, maintaining relationships within diasporas, and the like, and as such the “small world” noted in the title is perhaps a bit too small in the age of globalism.
The most troubling limitation of the book, however, is that some of the chapters are underdeveloped for a book project of this sort—some appear to be drafts of conference papers or pilot studies that were slightly modified for the book. The collection, therefore, is hit-or-miss in terms of both quality and utility to scholars who are looking for strong empirical findings that might expand their own research.
From the mix, a few chapters compiled by editor Samantha Holland, a research fellow at Leeds Metropolitan University, stand out as offering very strong contributions to the literature, and it is those chapters that make the overall book useful for scholars and courses related to virtual relationships and virtual community. The second chapter, “Researching Romance and Sexuality Online” by Andrea J. Baker and Monica T. Whitty, is one of those. In this chapter, Baker and Whitty provide a useful summary of the literature regarding Internet relationships in general and specific ideas for advancing the study of romantic relationships online. The discussion also addresses the inadequacy of theories applied to face-to-face relationships in the study of online-only and “mixed-mode” relationships, and the particular ethical concerns of studying romantic communications between individuals in a somewhat public setting (such as observing cyberflirting in online chat rooms).
Another strong contribution is chapter 4, a discussion of gender and cell phone use. The study by Simeon J. Yates and Eleanor Lockley used media-use diaries, focus groups, questionnaires, and personal observations in various public spaces (trains, coffee shops, shopping centers, etc.), and as such provides a rich data set from which the authors suggested some important findings regarding different rates of cell phone use based on gender. The study also provides useful insights into the use of text messaging to avoid difficult interactions or to have communications that would be considered anti-social in a face-to-face setting.
Some of the other chapters of note: Natilene Bowker examines how disabled people can use the Internet to establish and maintain relationships that might otherwise be difficult in face-to-face settings; Naomi Rosh White and Peter B. White explore how travelers use group e-mails to manage family and friends; and Sarah Earle and Keith Sharp conduct a “covert cyberethnography” of a British Web site devoted to “patrons and providers” of prostitution.
Overall, Remote Relationships provides a broad overview of how the Internet has in many ways revolutionized the role of mediated communication in people’s personal lives, and also provides a good starting point for scholars who want to study new or previously overlooked phenomena in regard to new media-based personal relationships.