Creating Shared Understandings of Interpersonal Relationships in Online Settings
Contemporary social scientists describe the current societal circumstances as the late modern era, which is characterized by an abundance of both options and uncertainties. Theorists sometimes associate these characteristics with the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Some argue that computer-mediated, networked interaction reinforces the fragmented conditions of late modernity. Others emphasize ICTs as the ultimate opportunity to participate in global networks of interaction. To contribute to the discussion on how the development of ICTs and the conditions of late modernity are intertwined, the discussion in this dissertation presumes that online interaction provides a way to create meaningfulness and continuity in late modern life. The context of the research is the phenomenon of social network sites (SNSs): the vastly popular online services whose central feature is the public performance of connection. Building on the tenets of symbolic interactionism, I argue that the performance of connection creates shared understandings of individuals’ interpersonal relationships. This dissertation examines what kinds of performances of interpersonal relationships take place in online settings, what kind of challenges people attribute to these performances and how they attempt to solve those challenges. The observed practices and interpretations are then contrasted with the results of a literature review covering the conceptualizations of mediated community in academic research, to suggest future directions in investigation of the creation of shared understandings of interpersonal relationships in online settings. The research problem is assessed through the use of qualitative methods, which permit the analysis of the expressions that the participants themselves used to describe the novel opportunities and challenges that online interaction offers for the performance of interpersonal relationships. On the basis of the four individual studies included in this dissertation, I argue that 1) people engage in a variety of creative but repetitive practices of constructing shared understandings of interpersonal relationships in online settings, 2) SNSs create a new interpretational frame and impose new challenges for the creation of shared understandings, 3) people engage in collaborative efforts to resolve these challenges, and 4) extending the analysis to the intergroup level would broaden our understanding of social bonds in the networked settings of late modernity. These findings portray the performance of interpersonal relationships in online settings as creative and collaborative attempts to construct shared understandings, continuity, and coherence for transient social bonds.