Friday, January 9, 2009

Virtual, real, life

I've come to the conclusion that 2008 burned me out. I know I'm not the only one; most of us have had too much stress, too little income, too much worry and anxiety. For me, part of this has manifested in real difficulty writing much of anything, let alone blog posts. I miss blogging terribly, I miss writing and completing thoughts. I have dozens of half-written posts, most of which you will likely never see. They are the ashes of the past year.

It's a new year now, so I'm sallying forth with what will be, I hope, new energy and interest in my own life and the world around me. With any measure of grace this will include less self-indulgent blathering and more frequent, interesting posts. We'll see.

Onto the topic at hand. I've been thinking lately about the intersection of technology and real human interaction. This was sparked by my current interest in Twitter and Facebook. I'd avoided them for sometime - I've avoided most social networking sites, feeling both that they were more for a younger demographic and that I didn't want to get sucked in, but my reticence has crumbled. I'm tweeting and posting updates. Yikes. But this, along with sites like postsecret, 1000thingsthatmatter and nings have gotten me thinking about the relative value of virtual vs actual interaction and the stories we tell in these venues. I'm not even thinking about gaming, which I know very little about, or blogs or youtube or... I know, this topic has been done to death, but thinking about our narratives in these spaces is new to me. While I likely won't say anything new I might give it a different context. If nothing else I can think it out a little more here.

Once upon a time we lived our lives, told our stories within the confines of a village. We knew our neighbors intimately. Most details were all but public. Our lives are very different now. We move from our private, palatial homes (even a one-bedroom flat in America is large by global and historical standards) to our enclosed cars to our office cubicles. We don't have anything near the easy opportunity for meaningful, face-to-face interaction that we did a generation ago.

Instead we have screens. Through my computer screen I have relationships with people around the world, some of whom I have never met in the flesh, yet I worry about them, their trials and tribulations are real to me. The other day a friend asked me over lunch (a real interaction) about a someone we both know via Facebook. She referred to him as a "friend" and I flinched. While I care about him because of our virtual interaction, he isn't quite real to me. He is virtual. If I never heard from him again I would likely never know what happened to him, because he isn't part of the physical fabric of my life. But the relationship I have with this man is still real, still has emotional impact.

Who we are to each other is entirely moderated by technology. Does that make it less legitimate? Less real? I don't know. I do know it gives me far more latitude with the stories I can tell, the narrative I can create with my life.

The virtual world gives us permission to be much more creative with our narratives than we might be in the physical world. I can crop my photo to hide the parts I don't like, that you would see if we were in the same room. I can make up stories about my adventures more easily, because you won't see the pauses while I think about what might have happened next. I can reveal things about myself I might not tell those closest to me, because I know we will never meet; even if we did you probably wouldn't recognize me. I know this happens all the time; I tend to assume much of what people tell me about themselves online is kind of like a big lonely hearts ad - you may say you're 6'1" but really, you might be 5'10" That's okay, it's who you want to be.

All of that said, is it bad? Is it misrepresentation? Maybe. And maybe not.

If we are creatures defined by our stories, defined by the stories we tell, these virtual worlds give us the chance to create ourselves over and over again. We can tweak ourselves to be who we want to be. I don't know that this is always a bad thing. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for mischief and misrepresentation, but it also gives us a chance to play pretend in a collaborative space with thousands of others also playing pretend. It gives us a chance to make connections between our hoped-for selves and others' hoped-for selves.

I may never physically meet the man my friend referred to, but I can give him the gift of believing him when he tells me his stories, just as he gives me the same gift when I tell mine. These virtual communities, while in no way foolproof, guaranteed benign, or a substitute for real interaction and friendship, offer a new way to build relationships that perhaps let us play pretend for just a little bit longer.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Your thoughts on virtual identity brings to mind the words of Ursula K. Le Guine, who, nearly 30 years ago, long before the World Wide Web, wrote:

    "We don't, we never did, go about making statements of fact to other people, or in our internal discourse with ourselves. We talk about what may be, or what we'd like to do, or what you ought to do, or what might have happened: warnings, suppositions, propositions, invitations, ambiguities, analogies, hints, lists, anxieties, hearsay, old wives' tales, leaps and cross-links and spiderwebs between here and there, between then and now, between now and sometime, a continual weaving and restructuring of the remembered and the perceived and the imagined, including a great deal of wishful thinking and a variable quantity of deliberate or non-deliberate fictionalizing, to reassure ourselves or for the pleasure of it, and also some deliberate or semi-deliberate falsification in order to mislead a rival or persuade a friend or escape despair; and no sooner have we made one of these patterns of words than we may, like Shelley's cloud, laugh, and arise, and unbuild it again."

    --Some Thoughts on Narrative (1980, The New York Review of Science Fiction)

  2. I'm delighted to walk behind Ursula LeGuin, what a marvelous writer and thinker! Thank you for introducing me to this piece.


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