June 9, 2007 Leave a comment
“Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen.” – Homer Simpson.
Following on from our consideration of online dishonesty, we turn our attention to the other side of the equation; the suspension of disbelief that is required to make it possible to have a relationship in a virtual universe like SL.
There is some interesting research into the phenomenon of virtual intimacy, which shows that it is possible to develop a degree of romantic affinity using only computer-mediated interaction, though not so much as in face-to-face relationships. Unfortunately, little detail is given in the paper about exact type of online relationships that study participants had experienced, though reference is made to email communication via dating websites. It would seem reasonable to suppose that similar if not greater levels of intimacy could be experienced in a more realistic online environment like SL. A study carried out in SL suggested that real-world social norms mediated by quite subtle non-verbal communication may also be observed in virtual space, which lends weight to the theory that interaction in SL can replicate experience in real life.
Is intimacy in cyberspace really achievable though? Does true intimacy not imply some special understanding of the other person in the relationship? How is a belief in the possiblity of such insight compatible with the knowledge that many people online are dishonest about such basic aspects of their personality as gender or age?
To come to some understanding of this we need to recognise that there are different types of intimacy that may be sought online.
The most straightforward type is exemplified by users of web dating services. Here, the electronic portion of the courtship is, in most cases, just a means of reaching the true goal, that is a real-life relationship. A little creativity in their prospective partner’s profile may be acceptable, but lies that go much beyond moving a birthdate a few years forward or forgetting an ex-wife are likely to be found out, and prove fatal to the liason.
There is a separate population, however, for whom the online relationship is the objective itself, rather than a stepping stone to a real-world meeting. For these people the issue of dishonesty is much less critical. Indeed, having an untruthful partner may be may be positively advantageous. In such an affair the focus of affection is not a real person, but rather an internalised love-object. Too much honesty would be an unwelcome intrusion of reality; it might mark the blank screen upon which the lover wishes to project his or her fantasies.
There is obviously a lot more subtlety to the process than this crude outline, and there is of course a huge amount of psychoanalytical writing on the phenomenon as it occurs in therapy, and other real-life situations. My theory is that an environment like SL will be the ideal setting to study such interactions in an unusually pure form, which should be interesting.