I’ve been interested in the nature of online interactions since long before I became a therapist.

In the mid-90’s, I found myself working in technical support for a media company near San Francisco. Increasingly, I had been called upon to acquaint various employees with this new communication fad called The Internet. On one occasion, I was teaching a mid-level manager about online discussion groups around common interests, and we found a relevant chat room.

I helped her log in, and her eyes widened as she scanned the rapidly-scrolling sentences of the conversation in process. She asked me to type her words while she chimed in with her opinion, and her eyes narrowed as one of the other chat room participants responded with a clear disagreement.

I saw a small smile play on her lips. “Tell him to get stuffed,” she said. (Those aren’t the exact words she used, but you get the idea.) I felt I had to clarify for her: “You know, that’s a real person on the other end there.”

It was only afterwards that I grasped what might have been going on for her at that moment. Even thought she was clear on the fact that this was a real conversation happening in an unconventional medium, she was reacting to the person in the chat room as if this were a text-based game, the sort of interactive fiction that was popular at the time, and wanted to see what would happen if she pushed the envelope of in-game discourse. The medium had completely altered her approach to the relationship.

I thought to myself: There’s something different here.

A few months ago, I was catching up with an old friend. She’s parenting a kindergartner right now, and these days doesn’t have much contact with anyone other than her spouse and son. She talked to me about her recent immersion into Twitter: “I don’t have much chance to hang with other grownups these days — for me, Twitter is like being at a non-stop party with the cleverest people I know.”

I thought to myself: There’s something different here.

Just this week, I attended an informal reading at a local theatre. As it turned out, in attendance were at least half a dozen old friends I hadn’t seen in person in years — but I’d stayed in touch with all of them regularly via Facebook. Amidst all the hugs, there was a certain awkwardness, voiced by one of my friends: “I haven’t seen you in forever… but I sort of feel like we’ve kept in close touch all the time.” And we had. Closer, in fact, than when we were working together every day.

It’s pretty clear to me: There’s something different here. And there has been for some time.

Here, it seems to me, is the string between the tin cans that we use at either end to talk and to listen when we’re conducting relationships online.

As a psychotherapist, my main job and passion is helping people with their relationships. But more attention needs to been paid to how online relationships can be uniquely fulfilling, but also pose unique challenges. In Two Tin Cans I’ll be talking about how conducting a relationship online, in contexts such as email, social networks, blogs, gaming, discussion groups, and the Next Big Thing that hasn’t come along yet, changes the way we interact with others.

My job is to help. I hope these conversations are helpful.