Virtual worlds and Cyber-friends: who are we and what are we doing here?

Last night’s event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre was a great success. Not only was it sold out, but the folks who turned up brought loads of really interesting questions and points of discussion to the table. I was there to speak to the emergence of social systems (based on economics, criminality, politics, displays of identity), while the other speakers tackled virtual worlds as forums to engage public participation (the inimitable Jo Twist), the compelling drive towards a perceived virtual utopia (journalist and author Tim Guest), and on-the-front-line virtual world issues (NCSoft Community Manager Stephen Reid). I’d have loved to have heard what they had to say, but the event was set up so groups of approximately 12 event participants could have 8-10 minutes with each speaker on a rotation basis, and I didn’t get to move around the room.

Particularly with the three socially-slanted contributors (myself, Jo and Tim), the overarching theme appeared to be that there is a very organic continuum between so-called “real life” and experience in virtual communities. As well as reflecting the real-world desires of the populations involved, they ultimately reflect the underlying political, thought and moral (if I dare use that word) processes which their users bring to them. In other words, it makes complete sense that many of the current Western virtual worlds focus so much attention upon consumer capitalism, as it is the dominant “ism” present in this society.

We all agreed that the most important element in the success of any virtual world is the presence of an engaged and involved community. After all, it’s human beings who are interacting inside these spaces; their interactions are simply mediated by computer. Just like when I talk with my family on the phone, our communication is mediated by that device.

I must emphasise that these places have regulations that are developed and enforced by community members. Some of the fear which arises from these so-called anonymous environments should be allayed with the knowledge that there are very strong normative boundaries within these spaces. If you step out of line, you’ll know it very quickly, and you won’t be invited back.

We’re currently debating these subjects in the comments section of an earlier post published here and I’d like to reiterate something I said there (and have written elsewhere): within virtual environments – whether they be social virtual worlds like Second Life or There.com, explicit social networking sites like MySpace, online forums, chatrooms or online games – users are not anonymous. They are pseudononymous;, or known by their persistent pseudonyms. There is personal consequence, because over time participants will have developed digital identities, and other people will know them via those persona. You may indeed be a dog offline, and no one needs to know that, but if you’re a dog online, people will remember and treat you (i.e, your digital identity) accordingly.

The way I see it, a virtual online identity is an extension of one’s offline identity, under a different guise. This works offline too: I am not the same person when presenting to a group of strangers as I am when I’m slouching in front of the TV or writing a column or doing research or out with friends. We’re not talking multiple-personalities here, just different hats. This isn’t a new concept; the symbolic interactionists have theorised this for over a century, and internet researchers have observed this for over 2 decades (see this page for a few resources).

Anyway, the Dana Centre event was a great opportunity to bring some of the research-induced deep thoughts ouside of my brain, and to discuss them with people who may or may not have known what I was talking about, but asked fantastic clarifying questions so some of this could be more formalised both inside and outside of my head. Congrats to Gaetan for organising a great evening.

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~ by aleks on December 6, 2006.

One Response to “Virtual worlds and Cyber-friends: who are we and what are we doing here?”

  1. Aleks it was a pleasure to have you on board…

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