Sunday, 29 June 2008

Virtual vs Real

Warning: This is not directly on the topic of WoW, it's more generic I guess you could say. So if you decide to continue reading, don't say I didn't warn you.

There are still people that make a value distinction between online and Real Life (yes, usually in capitals). As someone who has been a member of a couple of online communities over the last 9 years or so, this view frustrates me, greatly.

A community is a grouping of individuals who have a common goal/interest. Way back when it would be the local village where the burning communal issues might be about who used the common land for grazing and how the local school was run. When towns and cities grew, you might not have that much in common with your neighbours, so you became part of a community that wasn't about the geography of where you lived, but about something else that made you feel a kinship. It could be religious beliefs, political alignment, a hobby you were passionate about. This was the start of sewing circles, charities, football clubs, local chapters of political parties. Communities that were based not on geography, but on a joint interest.

For a long time local clubs, societies, circles, chapters were the place to find like-minded people. You might be a member of several or maybe a very active member of just one. You might have sewing circle meetings two evenings a week and then you need to spend some extra time to create items for the circle's stall at the weekly local market. But that's fine because it is your hobby and you really enjoy sewing, not to mention that the other circle members are all great friends.
Or it might be awful because you're not really that keen on sewing, but in the small town were you live it is the only way of socialising.

Fast forward to the present time. With the rise of the internet, communities have gone from not being based on geography to transcending it entirely. Through the world that is cyberspace you can become part of virtual communities independently of where you live. It doesn't matter that you live in a small town where no one shares your passion for stamps - there is a whole world out there with lots of people that would love to talk to you about stamps.

Some online communities are transient, just as Real Life ones can be - but also like Real Life ones they can endure for years and be the basis for life-long friendships. And this is were the sticking point is. Many people seem to make a value judgement that says that online communities/friendships are not equal to face-to-face ones.

I have a suspicion that this has to do with certain stereotypes. You know the ones I mean. Adolescent, pimply hacker boys that spend every minute they can in a dark, dank basement desperately seeking virtual excitement through computer games that they cannot find in their Real Lives. The 30-something spinster/bachelor that is overweight/ugly/painfully shy/all of the above, lives on take-away food and uses the virtual world as an escape from the tedium that is their Real Life. How sad they are. Let us all with Real Lives join together to smugly pity them.

Sure, there might very well be people out there like those stereotypes, but they are the minority. Yes, that's right. There are millions of 'normal' (whatever that means) people out there whose lives are made richer by their involvement in virtual communities.

The value judgement that many people make that virtual = not having a Real Life annoys me, but I hope that as more people experience online communities/friendships the stereotypes will be seen for what they are. However, the thing that really makes me angry is when these people come online and behave like complete twunts because, "it's not Real, is it?". They completely overlook the fact that even though the place where they are meeting might be virtual, the people at the other end of all those internet connections are just as Real as they are. They have Real feelings that can be hurt when someone behaves badly towards them. They have a Real Life that can be affected when you don't turn up for a scheduled group activity.

I'm sure there are people that use the anonymity of virtual worlds to pretend to be something they are not for their own twisted pleasure. They are, however, the exception. Mostly, it seems to me, people show their Real Selves when online. In most cases this is not so very different from what they are like in face-to-face interactions. By and large they are decent people, though of course, they will have their foibles and quirks. Sometimes you will meet people for whom virtual communities actually help them be more like the person they want to be. They become less shy and dare show more of their personalities, a bit like butterflies emerging. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

Then you have those people that behave the way they would like to behave normally but do not dare because of the very real impact it would have on them. People that would never behave badly when they are face-to-face with someone, become selfish and/or abusive when online. This is what they would behave like in their Real Life, if they weren't bound by the possible consequences. Start shouting at someone on the street - you might get punched in the nose. Try to steal from work - you might get fired. These are usually the same ones that use the excuse "it's not Real Life", if someone challenges their boorish behaviour.

The virtual world is no Utopia, but neither is it merely a haven for social outcasts. In the end it is just another facet of the Real World.

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