Here’s another one I posted up at The Guardian a few weeks ago that I now realise is relevant here.
Terra Nova guest author Jen Dornan argues in a well-thought out post that interaction in Massively Multiplayer Online Games cannot replace the unique group experience that arises from physically, proximate shared ritual. Of course it can’t replace it completely, but to suggest that there is an inherent difference in brain chemistry produced between face to face and virtual ritual is to suggest that any kind of disproximate interaction is somehow inferior to real-world interaction.
First, this standpoint suggests that community, bound by shared experience or ritual or whatever you want to call it, can only be situated in a physical space. Sociologists like Erving Goffman and environmental psychologists like Harold Proshansky counter that contention, encouraging the idea that there is an emotional component to belonging which makes, for example, a house a home, or give a place or group a shared identity. If place is such an important part of it, surely it’s possible to have community arise out of the shared experiences within a non-physical environment. Then the community experiences are tied to the joint representations of it.
Second, there’s a whole lot of evidence which suggests that technologically-mediated communication is an effective means of extending social networks (Barry Wellman in particular). In the days even before the telephone, communities of practice, of worship, of ritual and of experience grew out of the tap-tap-tap of telegraph lines.
Third, this argument ignores the unspoken rituals that are in-place in online communities that incorporate the norms of the population who exists there. Entrance rituals, like being told what to do by an older member. Going from n00b to experienced. Rising through the ranks. Exit rituals. How to deal with common enemies (if you’re interested in this aspect, read this paper).
This can’t be a binary yes-it-does-no-it-doesn’t argument. In this increasingly disproximate world, people are finding social experiences that form significant communities, strengthen bonds and generate trust via online interaction. These are new rituals with new rules. To suggest they are somehow inferior is to limit your view about virtual interaction. Which ultimately is rather ironic for a new media site like Terra Nova.
~ by aleks on March 2, 2007.