The Online Friendship Phenomenon
I saw this graph once, and I can’t remember for the life of me whether it was on Twitter or a blog post — my GoogleFu has completely failed me. I really wish I could show it to you as it sparked the foundation of this post, but alas. Anyways, this graph basically depicted the inverse relationship between how much you have in common with your friends vs. how far away they actually live. The people who you think are the most awesome, the people you would love to hang around with — they live on the other side of the country, or even on another continent.
The internet and its online worlds such as WOW are wholly to blame for this painful phenomenon. WOW gives us a niche in the world, where people who share a passion for something are all in the same place. Unfortunately it’s a virtual place, which means when we logout we are left alone again.
Given a choice between our friends being available to us only via the internet vs physically present in the same location, we would always prefer the physically present option. There are so many advantages to being in the same location. Body language and facial expressions heighten communication to a whole new level. The more communication that occurs, the easier it is to build a solid relationship. We also want to live our lives in the world around us, to interact with things and go other places than sitting in front of our computer. Being able to share these experiences with friends is fantastic. The online world of Azeroth can provide a proxy for this, but it will never be the same as hanging out in a bar or going to play racquetball. In addition, colocation gives people one more thing in common. Discussing favorite restaurants, bad traffic, and things that only other locals would know is a great way to connect.
Unfortunately, it seems that colocation is often the only thing we do share with those physically around us. I find it rather difficult to connect with someone, to truly want them to be more than a casual acquaintance, when all we have in common is work or the fact that we live in the same part of town. I’m just not the kind of person that wants to be friends with everyone… I want something deeper. I want something more than just polite conversation.
The way this ends up though, is that I don’t have many friends who actually live near me. This seems to be the case for a lot of others in the WOW community as well. We’ve turned to the internet for some of our social interaction, not because we’re losers, but because we’re choosy about our friends. The internet opens up a whole pool of people for us to interact with that we actually like being around. People who are part of the same subcultures as us, people who share common interests, people who are more similar to us than we ever thought possible. Internet communities like the ones surrounding WOW help us realize that we aren’t alone.
The downside of this of course is that we meet a bunch of really cool, wonderful people that we would love to go to brunch or a movie with — but they live thousands of miles away. Some of us are lucky to meet in person — whether it’s through guild meetups or a convention, or just stopping by to visit when we’re in town. That in-person interaction is truly incredible. Meeting a guildie for the first time is always a neat experience — you hear a familiar voice, but it’s suddenly paired up with an actual physical presence
The worst thing about online friendships is that they are quicker to fizzle. The person you thought was “the coolest person ever” decides one day to quit the online community that you both are a part of… and then you never see them again. Even if you still have a lot of things in common with them, and there is potential for a great friendship, your mode of communication is destroyed and it’s unlikely the friendship will continue. It becomes a lot of work, and I’ve never been great at putting in that kind of effort. The same thing happens to some extent when someone you’re used to living near moves away to another town, or a work friend leaves the company. When the foundation of your relationship is pulled up from under you, it’s hard to recover, even with the strongest “connection”. When you only know someone online, perhaps not even by their real name, it’s much harder to even reach out to them if you wanted to.
It drives me a little nuts when people don’t “get” the whole online friend thing. They act like just because you communicate in a virtual world, that relationship is somehow invalidated. Online friends are still real people with thoughts and emotions. I was hoping with the surge of online dating successes that people would start to understand the whole concept, but it doesn’t appear so. I guess our whole case for online friends being a “good thing” is undermined by the fact that given a choice you would rather interact with them in more than just the online world. But we can’t always get what we want. I would much rather have a good online friend who I really connect with than going out to a bar with some idiot from work who just wants to get plastered and talk about sports.
On Blogging and Intimacy
MMO Melting Pot recently put up a map of bloggers who volunteered where they live. It’s a very neat idea, and definitely helps provide some context and a personal element to blogging. Blogging really is a strange thing – we read a bunch of posts from someone and get to know them with very little effort on our part. Even if they don’t explicitly reveal person information, their writing style reveals so much about them. It can get rather intimate — through their words we feel a connection to them, even if they have no idea who we are. I guess any public creation has this same phenomenon — from famous actors or singers, to lowly WOW bloggers. We share a bit of ourselves with anyone who wanders by.
I finished the book A Wise Man’s Fear last week, and one of the cultures that was introduced in this fantasy novel had an interesting view on musical performance. Troupers or people who played music in public were considered vulgar, like prostitutes — because they were sharing something very intimate with complete strangers. They in fact considered it more crude than having casual sex. It’s a little disconcerting to think of blogging in that same manner. We expose ourselves to the public, rather unashamed of our naked words spewed out on the internet.
There are two strange social situations that occur due to this kind of intimacy. The first is that fans feel an intense connection to creator and this connection is very real, but it is an odd kind of relationship that is not quite a two-way. The creator may know about the fans as a whole – the type of demographic their work reaches, but doesn’t know individual fans in any specific way. This can result in a lot of awkward feelings and interactions on both sides.
I don’t usually get obsessive about celebrities, but I still feel a little giddy when I meet someone who’s art or work I’m a fan of. When it comes to actually interacting with them though, I feel helplessly award. Awhile back I was at a Brandon Sanderson book signing, and I got up to the signing table and couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “thanks for coming here, I love your books”.
I’ve come across blogs on the internet wherein after becoming a fan of the blog, I discover that the author lives near me. I get a bit excited at first, and then a little sad as I realize that this person might be a great potential friend but to ever meet them would require far more social grace than I have. You can’t just ask someone, “do you want to be my friend?” like we did back when we were five.
The other issue with the intimacy that comes with public creation, is that those you share yourself with may not appreciate it. This is where the whole “thick skin” argument comes into play – if we expose ourselves and aren’t prepared for someone to laugh in our faces or poke us with a sharp stick, it really hurts. It’s much easier if we only expose little bits of ourselves, armored with facts and jokes to keep out those who might harm us. It’s an unfortunate reality of putting ourselves out there in public. Some of us are better at dealing with this than others. I will admit that I have very little self-confidence and armor against trolls. I try not to write anything to controversial because I really just don’t want to deal with it. But sometimes what we write has a completely unintended effect — either through our own failure at conveying our meaning or a complete misinterpretation on the part of a reader. In situations like that we end up with odd explosions over rather ridiculous things. Sometimes it feels like the WOW blogging community is full of powder kegs just waiting for someone to trigger them.
On Making Some Semblance of a Point
I suppose what I was trying to say through all of this is that online friendships have their pros and cons. This whole internet social dynamic is still being explored and it poses a lot of challenges for us. It can provide us with connections to amazing people we would have never had the opportunity to meet otherwise, and it can also cause heartbreak as we struggle to overcome the physical distance and work through awkward mediums of communication. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, these relationships are real, and valuable and I’m glad to have found an online community to be a part of.
I know a lot of people have been leaving WOW, and us, and that sucks. It sucks because often we will completely lose touch with them despite our best intentions.
For those of you that are still here — don’t give up. If you’re still having fun in the game, then stick around, because with million of players, WOW isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Don’t let the jaded veteran players fool you – they loved WOW once, it’s just gotten stale for them. Things weren’t always better “back in the day”, and Cataclysm isn’t a complete failure. They’re leaving now because they had hopes that somehow a new expansion would magically turn the game into something new and different – but expansions are only incremental improvements.
For those of you that have quit WOW and are hanging around anyway — that’s OK too. It’s OK to want to continue the relationships even though the original common bond is gone. Twitter is a fantastic way to keep in touch, and still have a sense of that “geek community” even if you’ve moved on from WOW to Rift or whatever.
Even if the friendships end, they were still worth having. People come and go in your life — everything is transient, but it all has meaning. Just treasure the memories and don’t try hold on to something that is already gone.