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.
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.