Getting Real With Virtuality

As the number of hours we spend in virtual communities begins to surpass the amount of time spent in offline interactions, as social media rapidly becomes the most predominant channel of communication, as people increasingly choose virtual games over real playing fields, the electronic innards of computers everywhere are gradually blurring the lines between reality and virtuality.

A recent survey of social media users found that their average number of virtual friends now outnumbers "real" ones by two to one.

In addition, people are beginning to make real acquaintances through online social networks. "In many instances, Facebook and Twitter make us more curious to meet and chat with the people we've encountered online. Knowing them on the Web isn't enough" Jenna Wortham recently wrote in the New York Times. She then went on to describe her offline meeting with two Twitter acquaintances and fellow writers: "I can't imagine I would have been bold enough to introduce myself or strike up a conversation had we not built up a kind of camaraderie on Twitter in the weeks before."

For much the same reason, real-life social media meetings to connect with online counterparts are becoming common all over the world.

The question of how deep these new media friendships really are, or how they compare with real-world relationships notwithstanding, there is no denying that social media are becoming important channels for growing our networks in real life.

Social games are living up to their name as well, as gamers meet up with fellow "Mafia warriors" at bars and restaurants and send birthday cards to their Farmville counterparts. Gone are the stereotypical images of the pajama-clad basement dweller, shooting at enemies and setting off fires from the comfort of his computer screen. Online game enthusiasts these days venture out of their virtual worlds to meet and interact with fellow gamers. While the entities they share, trade or fight for in their virtual encounters could never be touched or felt, the camaraderie developed over these online interactions is very real, as Sean O'Driscoll writes.

This is hardly surprising. Virtual world inhabitants are known to stick with the many norms of real-life behavior more often than one might imagine: they say their hellos, buy mundane things and enjoy night life. The basic purpose of online communities remains surprisingly similar to real life. Thus Howard Rheingold wrote about a computer conferencing system in eighties San Francisco in The Virtual Community: "The feeling of logging into the WELL for just a minute or two, dozens of times a day, is very similar to the feeling of peeking into the café, the pub, the common room, to see who's there, and whether you want to stay around for a chat." Virtual communities are driven by the same desire for connectedness and belonging that people experience in real life; they allow sharing of emotions and feelings just like real relationships do, they offer the chance to find that tiny fraction of the world's population that has the same esoteric interests as you do.

In addition to interactions with others, these cyber worlds also allow one to improve one's relationship with oneself. In her book, Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle says that a computer affords people new ways to think about the self. Due to the protection afforded by online obscurity, people can project themselves in many different forms and this allows them to understand and explore hidden aspects of their character. Individuals can "test the waters" virtually, and use these experiences for real personal transformations. Such tendencies have been noticed among gamers. For instance, an insecure, shy person may choose to play a dominating personality in the online world. Thus, introverts can be the life of the party, frail ladies can transform into ultimate fighting champions. People can manifest their most secret identities, and discover new and exciting ones. As an online gamer once said about a multi-user dungeon game, "You can be whoever you want to be."

And therein lies the allure of the virtual identity. These impersonations can have more meaningful purposes than bestowing upon you the power to sprout wings and fly. People go to virtual worlds to feel good about themselves, to become better versions of what they are in real life. Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier believes that the digital world affords us a sense of liberation from the constraints of real existence. We are constantly faced with physical limitations in the real world, be it getting access to basic things such as food or fulfilling the many fantasies our mind can conjure up. Cyberspace allows a way to surmount these challenges.

Yee and his fellow researcher at Stanford University, Jeremy Bailenson, call this sort of behavior the "Proteus effect," based on the Greek god who can change shape and form at will. In the virtual world, people have the ability to change their appearance, and this confers benefits on other areas of their lives, such as self-confidence, sociability, and human interaction.

Little wonder, then, that human beings are almost always stronger, fitter, and better in their virtual lives. As photographer Robbie Cooper observed, people choose online avatars that are often "less ordinary" than themselves. While collecting data for his book, Alter Ego: Avatars and their creators, which compares the real and virtual identities of gamers, Cooper discovered that the online versions either had special powers, higher abilities or were more visually appealing than their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

And people are willing to go pretty far to achieve these stronger, fitter, and better selves, as evidenced by the now billion-dollar industry. Often these powers and abilities come at the cost of virtual currency, which suddenly isn't virtual anymore. People are using real money--that crinkles and folds (or plastic that swipes)--to buy virtual goods, homes, and real estate that make them more successful human beings that the world outside a computer will never see. Men are paying for virtual women who live exclusively within the confines of Nintendo and spending thousands of real dollars on resorts that will never leave the bounds of virtuality.

In fact, there is no greater testament to just how similar our virtual and real lifestyles are than the consumer tendencies that pervade both of them. As Yee puts it in this New York Times article, "What does Second Life say about us, that we trade our consumerist-oriented culture for one that's even worse?"

What started off in the esoteric gaming world, virtual currency is now everywhere: Second Life Linden Dollars, Facebook credits, Groupon bucks, Google Offers, and so on and so forth. As with any other online system, the people contributing to the revenue make up a small fraction -- only about 1-5% of gamers actually pay for virtual goods -- but it is sufficient to fuel this fast-growing market.

Human beings have always delighted in virtual worlds, be it through books, movies, or dreams. Rheingold describes these urges as nothing more than the "let's pretend" we played in elementary school, powered by digital technology and the anonymity afforded by cyberspace. All that is well and good, as long as we learn to distinguish it appropriately from the real world out there, where real money gets real things, and real people traverse real obstacles. No supernatural powers needed.