Conversation in Virtual Communities: What Happens When You Change From One Medium of Communication to Another?

our island
Our fledgling Intentional Community in Second Life. It’s a simple, natural setting. We sleep in a cave beside a waterfall.
Yesterday Mia, the woman with whom I’m creating an experimental Intentional Community in Second Life, and I, and our friend Mich, had a long conversation, using Second Life’s voice-to-voice facility, about the nature of new social media, and about when each is appropriate, and about the challenges of transitioning from one medium to another. Specifically, we talked about:

  1. e-Mail
  2. chat/IM
  3. chat/IM plus virtual presence (using an avatar)
  4. v2v (voice to voice)
  5. v2v plus virtual presence (using an avatar)
  6. v2v plus virtual presence (using a webcam)
  7. f2f (face to face)

in the context of both 2-person and multi-person conversations. These 7 media each represent (in approximate increasing order) different levels of intimacy with one’s conversants.

One of the issues Dave Snowden describes in his work on how complex systems operate (and social networks are complex systems) is the fact we act in multiple identities. My work identity, my neighbourhood identity, my identity in interactions with my First Life friends, and Second Life friends, and my identity on each of my blogs, are each different, sometimes accidentally (because of how people using these media have come to ‘know’ me, and in what capacity) and sometimes deliberately (because of the need to keep our work persona and our ‘personal life’ persona separate, sometimes even for legal reasons).

So when you switch from one medium to another, it can be wrenching or jarring for several reasons:

  1. Since you aren’t ‘used’ to relating to that person in that alternative persona, your first communications may be very awkward, frightening, even humiliating. When you switch from Second Life to Voice-to-Voice, do you refer to each other by your Second Life or First Life names? Do you need to disclose additional information about yourself? Does this simple medium change fundamentally change the nature of your relationship, because the relationship is now between different identities? (You think Superman had it tough with just two identities, try juggling a half dozen). Even within Second Life, some people have multiple avatars (identities) that they use for different purposes (e.g. business, romance, and fun).
  2. You have imagined the other person (or people) to be a certain way, by ‘filling in the spaces’ that the medium leaves open, and when you suddenly discover they are not what you imagined at all, it can be dumbfounding. When you’ve only known someone through blog communication or e-mail or Second Life chat or IM, and suddenly you hear their voice for the first time (or meet them face to face), you may discover they’re a lot younger or older than you imagined, or they have an accent you weren’t expecting (and perhaps don’t like), or that they have three eyes, or even that they’re a different gender than what you expected. Your perception suddenly changes, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. The relationship is forever changed. No wonder some people fiercely resist taking relationships to ‘the next level’! It’s safer not to take the chance.
  3. Once you’ve made the transition from one medium to another, ‘richer’ one, it’s hard to go back. We discussed the fact that long-time online ‘pen pals’, after they’ve met in person, often cease communicating by e-mail or IM anymore, for all sorts of reasons. When you’re used to hearing someone’s voice, or seeing their face, and suddenly you have to go back to just text communication, it can be very frustrating, almost as if you’ve lost the use of one of your senses. It can even be disorienting — you start to imagine that person as different from what you know them to be, because their writing just seems different from the way they talk and relate face-to-face. You may even think they’ve changed, or become distant, because text in the absence of context (voice or visual clues) is terribly ambiguous.

As David Wong points out, text is poor communication (easily misunderstood) and less communication (lacking sensory clues to meaning and nuance). But it has its advantages. It gives the inarticulate time to think about a response, which generally makes them sound smarter. It allows for mystery, through deliberate ambiguity — which can be alluring. It is easier to archive and re-read later than voice conversation. And it allows people to role-play, which is (a) fun and (b) safe — you can more easily create and sustain an identity significantly different from your ‘real’ one when you only use text and self-created avatars. I can absolutely understand why some people vow never to ‘confuse’ or ‘cross over’ from an online identity to a more ‘real’ (what Mich calls ‘meatspace’) identity. Each identity is kept completely separate from the others, with no online clues anywhere that might allow someone to track them from one identity or another, and no overlap between the communities and networks they are a part of in each identity. This can be a major juggling act, and necessarily makes you a bit schizophrenic.

The issue of moving from one medium and/or identity to another gets even more complex when the relationship, the community, or the conversation has multiple conversants. What do you do when you’re in a four-way IM conversation and two of the people decide it should jump to voice-to-voice? What if the other two are uncomfortable with this? What if some of the conversants want to go to a whiteboard to sketch out their idea collaboratively, or webcams so they can ‘see’ what each other ‘mean’, and others either refuse or can’t muster the technology to make the transition? Important relationships are built on trust, and trust can be lost easily when one person wants to ‘change’ the relationship suddenly (by moving to a different medium and, by implication, to a different persona or identity). But sometimes the advantages of changing media (and the frustrations of more limited media) are such that the desire to force such a change can be overwhelming.

Add love into the mix and things really get interesting. When two people who have never met in ‘real’ life fall in love, and one of them wants to change media, the challenge to the relationship can be gut-wrenching.

When I first went into Second Life, I was perfectly content to keep my ‘Second Life’ and ‘Real Life’ identities strictly separate. I didn’t want to know who any of my new SL friends were in the ‘real’ world and didn’t want them to know about my ‘real’ identity either. And I didn’t want to use voice-to-voice — as a writer I’m just more comfortable using text than speech to convey what I think is important. But when Mia agreed to help me build a model Intentional Community in Second Life, she quickly persuaded me that clear, fast, candid communication demanded voice-to-voice contact. I was terrified (of what each of us would think of each other) but she was absolutely right, and now I nudge those with whom I share virtual community to talk voice-to-voice as much as possible. I really love the new social media (like GMail/GTalk) that allow you to jump from one medium to another (e.g. IM to v2v) with a single click.

Is it possible to get too caught up in the ‘game’ to the point you begin to take your online identities (and others’ online identities) too seriously, to the point you starve your ‘real’ identity and end up with a stunted social life, neglected ‘real’ world friends and family, and an inability to function properly in the ‘real’ world?

My answer to this question, perhaps surprisingly, is no. Stephen Downes’ brilliant speech on the elusive nature of reality has persuaded me that what we think of as ‘real’ life is just as much a figment of our imaginations as any virtual place we could inhabit. people in ‘real’ life fall in love with fictions, people they just imagine others to be, as readily as if the object of their affection were an invention. And David Wong’s explanation of why virtual worlds are just as healthy places to live in as the ‘real’ world is very compelling. You can learn as much, experience as much, love as much in virtual worlds, interacting with ‘real’ people, as in the real world. You arguably do less damage to the environment through such virtual entertainments than you would driving long distances to consume and then discard crap in the real world.

It’s been argued that it’s irresponsible to ‘hide’ in virtual worlds when so much work needs to be done in the ‘real’ world. I have some sympathy with this argument, for the very few who don’t spend their ‘real’ world waking hours merely reading unactionable information, engaging in impotent debate, and consuming violent, desensitizing video and music ‘entertainment’ that is surely far more escapist than many of the intense virtual world discussions I’ve experienced.

That’s why I’ve been adamant about how I spend my online time, purposefully, in Second Life, and in my IMs (and e-mails when I can’t persuade friends to move to real-time media) with friends I’ve met through my blogs, real-life contacts and other social networks and communities I am a part of. I don’t engage in fantasy, or small-talk, or echo-chamber mutual reassurance conversations, or debates. Every conversation has a purpose — which may be to give attention to learn something new, to understand something better, to convey an important idea or an imagined possibility, to express love and appreciation, to collaborate, or to build community through consensus or exchange. I am a model-builder, and about as far from a cult leader or cult member as you could imagine — I’m neither a leader or a follower by nature: I hate hierarchy and everything meaningful in my life has come through Letting Myself Change and peer-to-peer conversation and collaboration and tossing out possibilities that I hope will be useful to others, when they are ready, and adapted to their own use as part of their Let-Self-Change process. That’s all I could ever ask for.

In a world that permits of infinitely many personas and identities, I am increasingly presenting to the world just one — my authentic self, to the extent my slow learning process has allowed me to understand and represent it. I finally know myself, this one identity, as well as I could ever hope to. I haven’t time to go inventing others, and my oneself has too much to do as it is.

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2 Responses to Conversation in Virtual Communities: What Happens When You Change From One Medium of Communication to Another?

  1. Michelle says:

    Dave! This is an absolutely brilliant and succinct summary of our conversation that day. You are so gifted in expressing things clearly and coherently.I agree with all you have said here. I had not considered that there were 7 “levels” of communication but yes! We discussed them all and our experiences with them. There was one method of communication we did not discuss however. Perhaps we need to also add one more…that of the SMS which is, mostly, embraced by the younger generations! There is a whole new language even – being created at this very time – what I would call ‘Short Message Speak’ – over mobile phones around a significant number of North Worlds. I think it would fit somewhere in between email and IM perhaps. It’s major disadvantage is that it is terribly easy for our youth to totally misunderstand the intent and even the content of these truncated messages.This is an interesting subject anyway as it is embracing the study of all these “new” ways of social interaction. Human history shows the changes in communication generally over several generations. With the advent of Virtual worlds and global communications, the changes are now lightening speed and occurring within a generation! It is probably unprecedented! I do foresee that in a few short years, much of our business and social networks will demand free and easily accessible, as well as stable and fast internet communication options such as voice and webcam for most day to day social and of course, business, interactions. Even Joe Blow down the road will be contacted from my computer voice/webcam rather than the clunky “old-fashioned” telephone! At least I think he will. Then again…if Joe wants to remain anonymous…how might he do that given the rise and rise of this new social media? With an avatar of course! :) I am so looking forward to our next discussion with you and mia :) See you “inworld” soon :)mitch

  2. Nick Noakes says:

    Come over to Boracay sometime and have a chat. Corwin Carillon

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