Counterintuitively, a number of academic studies have found that people like each other better when they first meet over the internet, versus first meeting face to face. In a 2002 paper, three New York University professors (John A. Bargh, Katelyn Y.A. McKenna, and Grainne M. Fitzsimons) explored this pattern. (J. A. Bargh, K. Y. A. McKenna, and G. M. Fitzsimons, “Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the true self on the internet,” Journal of Social Issues 58 (2002): 33-48. )
A key reason for this pattern was that people tend to project their ideal or hoped-for qualities onto those whom they initially meet remotely. Since you have no data, you err on the optimistic side when evaluating the person. Similarly, if we describe a potential spouse to you, you may assume that she or he is charming and beautiful, unless we give you reason to assume otherwise.
This expectation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hold a belief that your ideal business partner is honest and loves golf. You meet Tim online and guess that he is that honest golf-lover. You treat him as a trustworthy person, and in response, he acts in a trustworthy way. When you eventually meet in person, you play a fair game of golf together. Countless studies have shown the power of your expectations in shaping behavior of those you encounter.
Bargh and his colleagues describe four key differences between online and face-to-face interactions which encourage greater self-expression and, in turn, greater bonding.
You have greater anonymity while communicating over the internet. You are free of the expectations of your peer group, and the traditional sanctions for new behaviors are absent. For example, you are normally a quiet and reserved person. Online, you can be more aggressive in pursuing a sale than you normally would, or make more jokes than you normally would. None of your colleagues are around to mock you for being more aggressive than usual.
Outside of your usual social group, you have much more freedom to discuss your taboo or negative aspects (or those that may be perceived as negative). In traditional face-to-face interactions, there are real costs to disclosing these aspects. In a job interview with a conservative firm, you are unlikely to discuss your gay partner, because of concern about discrimination. A gay investment banker may find it difficult to find and build relationships with other gay peers, some of whom may keep their sexual orientation discreet. However, that banker may join a web-based group for gay businesspeople, which could be a powerful network for him. This is comparable to the strangers on a plane phenomenon, in which you might discuss very personal aspects of your life with a complete stranger precisely because you are unlikely to see that listener ever again.
The aspects of traditional face-to-face interactions that may make you anxious are absent. For example, some people are distracted and anxious about their physical appearance. They worry about discrimination because they have acne, they have a handicap, or they are unattractive. Your gender, age, physical attractiveness, ethnicity, weight, and speech impediments may all make it harder for you to communicate with certain people in person.
Lastly, you have more control over the conversational pace online. Instead of having to reply almost instantaneously while talking in person, you have a few days to respond when communicating online. You are able to think about and even change your response before revealing it to the other person. Some people who are inarticulate in person may see that they are much more skilled communicators online.