Thursday, September 10, 2009

Are virtual friends as real as physical friends?

A tweet last night asked whether virtual friends who habitually disappear for periods of time without notice are "real friends". I suspect that is a question most readers of this blog have asked themselves. It was one of the first aspects of virtual life that I wrote about here:
Second Life friendships are more ephemeral than in RL. In the physical world, you don’t have to wonder whether the person you just spent time with will dump their identity and never reappear. Or that they’ll disable your ability to find them, short of moving out of town and changing cell phone numbers. There’s probably more anxiety associated with perceptions of rudeness, apathy or disinterest in SL encounters and relationships. (March 2008)
I divide this topic into two categories. The first is the pervasive uncertainty within all pseudonymous relationships.

Although non-pseudonymous relationships can change without warning, in almost all cases you can find out what happened to the other person. But when someone drops out of their virtual identity, even for a short time, there is often no way to find out what happened until they choose to reemerge. This cloud of unknowning can create a strong emotional charge within relationships. Here's an example of the kind of disturbing thoughts a simple missed date can create:
  • 6:00 pm: God, I can't wait until eight. Maybe I should log in now, just in case she shows up early. She's probably missing me as much as I'm missing her.
  • 6:15: Since I'm here, I might as well do some shopping. I know! I'll pick up something really hawt to wear tonight. I can’t wait to take my new outfit off for her LOL! Gosh, she makes me laugh even when I just think about her. I could use a laugh. My RL's so damn boring, I can hardly stand it.
  • 8:07: Hmm, this is strange. Wonder where she is?
  • 8:15: It's probably nothing. Maybe she got stuck in traffic. Darn. I guess I don't even know if she has a car.
  • 9:00: She's never been an hour late before. I hope she's okay. Damn, I really miss her. What should I do? I guess I'll check out a few more stores.
  • 10:00: Where the heck is she? God I love her. Where's that notecard with the new poem she wrote me? Here it is! I love her poems so much. She's so talented! Gosh, I can't believe I'm freaking out like this. It's so silly! Ok. I'll go out and dance for a while and have some fun.
  • 11:10 Damn! I hate this. People are so stuck up. No one except the stupid greeter even says hello. Where the fuck is Jolene? Now that I think about it, she's been acting a little distracted lately. Man, I hope she wasn't IMing someone else without telling me. Nah, she wouldn't do that. I've had it. I'm going to log off and go to sleep.
  • 12:05 am: Why didn’t she let me know she wouldn't be on tonight? The least she could have done is send me a message on Twitter. Damn. That's what I should have done. I'll just get up now for a minute and send her a quick tweet.
  • 12:07: Jolene, I’m getting a little worried hun. Where are you? Please let me know that you are okay as soon as you can. I’m still yours. At least leave me a message! That’s RUDE!
  • 12:08: Shit! Too many characters.
  • 12:10: I’m getting a little worried hun. Where are you? Please let me know you're okay as soon as you can. I’m still yours. At least leave me a message!
  • 12:12: Damn. I can't go to sleep. I'll log back in. Maybe she'll show up.
  • 3:30: I hate Second Life. Stupid Twitter. Real friends are there when you need them. I'm going to bed.
(From "Where's Jolene?")

The second category is the uncertainty related to close friends who disappear for extended lengths of time, or for good. Sometimes avatars leave with notice. Other times times they just fall of the face of the virtual world without warning. In either case, the emotional pain experienced by abandoned friends and loved ones can be significant and long-standing. I posted some ideas about supporting the grieving process back in March.

friend noun 1 a: one attached to another by affection or esteem (from Mirriam-Webster)

This brings me back to the original question of whether virtual friends are as real as physical friends. Based on overwhelming testimony since the very first online communities, is is clear that there is absolutely no difference in the sense of what friends mean to us. But I think the question in the tweet was more about the responsibilities related to friendship. What we owe, rather than what we receive or feel.

Is there a different ethical standard for virtual vs. physical friendships? At this point, I'm not going to answer that question, other than to suggest that we can only do so after doing the work of figuring out what the cultural norms are for non-pseudonymous friendships. I hope to examine that question in a future post.


Anonymous said...

Far as I can see friends you have physical contact with are as apt to disappear as any other kind. It's just something that people do.

It's something that I do, for example. I might drop out of a social circle for six months, or a year, or five years, or more. It happens occasionally.

Botgirl Questi said...

Tateru: Very true. But in most cases, your friends could call you on the phone, drop you an email, check in with another friend who you see, etc. I don't think it's the dropping out part, but the not knowing part that makes it different.

Gracie Kendal said...

Great post.
I have been very lucky especially in Second Life, to find friends who I have known for over a year at least and who are as genuine and sincere as anyone. I have even stayed with them in RL when I traveled to Europe. In fact, my close friends have even exchanged contact info, in case something happens.
I also date in SL. I am realizing its probably no different than real life too. For whatever reason, you hang out with someone, seem to have a great time and connect and then they disappear. Although I have just recently found out that one guy I was seeing, who seemed to like me a lot has been invisible to me. He's been online but not showing that way to me for almost a couple weeks. I didn't say anything. I figure "he's just not into me" haha and he's so not worth my energy to wonder what happened. I finally just removed him from my friends list. But I wonder why he didn't just remove me, if he wasn't interested? I only question this because it has happened to me by others in the past in SL. Although there is always an element of "hiding" in SL, through pseudonymity etc, I am always open and honest with who I date.
One guy who even wanted to be with me in RL (although I look back and think those were just words)told me, "I'm just not good for you". At first I thought that's really putting yourself down, dude. But they I realized, no he's right... and after finding him "hiding" while online, I IMd him and said, "yes you were right after all, your not good for me, take care" and removed him from my friends list. But, like you said, It's no different than RL in that aspect. You have no idea who you meet at a coffee shop, bar, book store etc. You just have to learn to sift through the trash and maybe find the treasure!

Moggs Oceanlane said...

My friends are scattered around the globe - people I've met face to face, hung out with, shared chunks of my life with. I don't see some for a few years at a time - it's just life. We pick up like no time has passed when we chat (phone or in person) and the friendship lives on.

I have people I have met in the virtual environment who I click with more than others and whom I spare a thought for, share chunks of my life with and wonder about and miss in the same way as RL folks if I don't hear from them for a bit. Some I know names and faces but I love the essence of the person.

The same intangible feelings that make you feel closer to one person and not another in RL (chemicals aside) seem to work in the virtual environment. There are some people you click with and feel naturally closer to; those you don't - and all of the layers inbetween.

I couldn't explain why I'm friends with some of the people I'm friends with in RL (or why I'm not close to others who may on the surface seem like similar people)any more than I can explain why I feel closer to some people in SL and not others... some people just "work".

Yup, I consider my virtual friends to be real. In most cases I probably have as much contact with them outside of the virtual environment as I have with friends who have moved interstate or overseas.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure some folks are probably wondering what happened to me, or have little idea where I am presently. It hadn't actually occurred to me, but it might be quite difficult to locate me.

Still, the difference in the ability to disappear in different media doesn't seem to have a lot of bearing on the genuineness of people or friendships.

Michele Hyacinth said...

Maybe the question isn't about whether or not the friendships are more real in one medium versus another but more about how we each define "friend" irrespective of the medium. It might really be the case (generally speaking to be sure) that only a handful of people really know us *well* because we've interacted enough in whatever medium-life to become knowledgeable about each other (including the allowances for silence in the relationship, etc). Seems to me in any medium, in any world friendships are not only real but also involve effort. We choose whether or not to develop and to keep nurturing friendships...even well after the interaction has moved far beyond that of acquiantance. But it just occurred to me that your post probably makes the distinction between "Friend" and "acquaintance." So if we're making that distinction, I still feel that what we're discussing here is the "ebb and flow" of individual friendships and expectations within those friendships. And I think that's very real in all worlds.

Botgirl Questi said...

I guess people's experience of RL friendships varies widely, depending on one's psychological makeup, age, environment, etc. And then within any particular inner and outer environment, there are different levels of friendships. I guess my current question is what, if any aspects are unique, accentuated, minimized or completely inapplicable in virtual friendships.

Lalo Telling said...

...what, if any aspects are unique, accentuated, minimized or completely inapplicable in virtual friendships.

Unique and/or accentuated: Written communication skills. I include "virtual" friendships made in online venues other than SL, such as forums and social networks where a side conversation in "PM" might develop into an email correspondence. I choose my close friends, regardless of the medium through which I know them, on the basis of conversation.

Completely inapplicable: Non-verbal cues (body language, pheromones, etc.).

Surprisingly minimized: telepresence. I joke in-world about "long distance" IMs vs private talk with a friend while we're together... but I'm finding that I do not need av-to-av proximity in order to feel "in touch". Lovers, of course, are a different matter.

Vextra said...

When I read the name of this post I couldn't help being reminded of the insightful comment you made in a previous post that:

It seems to me that much of the debate about the validity of pseudonymous online relationships misses the boat by focusing on whether they are "real" rather than on whether they are "healthy."

I guess that's what really counts in any friendship...

Stacy Passell said...

Yep, you're asking the wrong questions. Of course they're "real", avatars are only puppets driven by people, numerous studies have shown this. Wanna know how real? 8))

Thought the last comment y Vextra bwas a much, MUCH better question to ask.

Botgirl Questi said...

vextra: Hard to argue with myself. :) Thanks!

Ranodym: And it's hard to argue with your baby! Although I'm guessing that was through eventual physical contact and not a trust third party administering sperm from your pseudonymous mate, and the photo of the two of you together is not through Photoshop ;)

sororNishi said...

yep, just as real, I see my SL friends more often than my RL friends.
I have the email addresses of my closest friends, so there's no more "disappearing without trace" in either world.

Salvatore Otoro said...

I think the thing to remember now is that we have evolved friendships to a new phase. Before the internet, friendships normally were between people that knew each other and were in close proximity. After the internet arrived, you could classify friends as people you had met offline or online. Now with virtual worlds, it just gets hazier.

I for one believe that virtual friends are as real as physical friends. There are differences, though but I do consider them friends in all the senses. Granted, not everyone on my Second Life friends list is considered a friend and that would be the case for most. However, regardless of the distance or the fact that I don’t know what they look like in real life, there are certain individuals in Second Life that I consider friends in the true sense of the word.

We have to understand that times have changed and we have evolved as far as interpersonal relationships are concerned. In Japan, for example, studies have found that many children are using their cell phones to access social networking sites so to make friends without the normal human process of making friends that involves human contact. These changes are being reflected in societies where social networking sites are increasing in popularity. These sites are not only connecting old friends but starting new friendships and relationships.

eveline said...

Well, they certainly feel real. Does that make them really real? I think the basics don't change, regardless of the setting. A "virtual" friend who cares about my feelings... won't vanish on me.