Virtually my BFF

Bianca Hello, my name is Sarah Firisen and I am a software developer and a writer. But wait, my name is also Bianca Zanetti and I used to be a fashion designer with a string of stores. No, I am not schizophrenic, I am Sarah in my real life and Bianca in my Second Life. My Second Life has not been so active in recent months, but in my virtual heyday I went to parties, art gallery openings and weddings. My husband, in real and virtual life, was very active in the “ROMA (SPQR)” world, owned a beautiful Roman villa that I built for him, and was even a Roman Senator for one term. During our virtual travels we made many friends and a few enemies. We met some really crazy people and some really great ones. Some of those friendships even carried over into our real lives and in one case we spent a lovely evening in the real Rome with the real life representation of one of our avatar friends.

People had a lot to say about our virtual social lives; many of them just didn’t understand how we could waste our time in this way and one person said, “I want to have real friendships with real people.” But here’s the thing, they were real people. Behind each cartoon avatar was a real person with a real story, real heartbreak, real issues, real insanity, real needs. It turned out that virtual friendships are much like real friendships, with perhaps a few unique twists; people lie, they exaggerate, they boast, on occasion you can believe you are friends with a twenty-five year woman, only to find out that she is actually a fifty-five year old man and, of course, they hook up and a few weeks later have a nasty, acrimonious break up. There is no doubt that for some people Second Life usage does seem to tread a fine line between entertainment and avoidance of real life problems and issues, but for most it is a chance to play out some (mostly harmless) fantasies and to connect with new people across the globe.

I raise the subject of my foray into virtual worlds because of a recent article in the New York Times discussing whether young people’s use of the social web and text messaging is eroding their ability to form and sustain “normal” friendships, “The question on researchers’ minds is whether all that texting, instant messaging and online social networking allows children to become more connected and supportive of their friends — or whether the quality of their interactions is being diminished without the intimacy and emotional give and take of regular, extended face-to-face time.”

This question reminds me of a debate I had with a high level executive at a firm at which I used to work. The debate was over the use of social media tools within the firm. As the executive began to heatedly deny any possible virtue in the use of such tools, it then became clear that he didn’t really approve of email either, in fact, he wasn’t such a fan of the telephone. He said, “If I can’t sit opposite someone and see the whites of their eyes I can’t tell if they’re lying or not” – I should add, he’s an auditor. What this technophobic executive was missing, at least as far as I was concerned, was that, while there are no doubt times when you really need to have a face-to-face conversation, but there are other times when other communications tools are just fine, may even be better. Certainly, a threaded email discussion provides a searchable record of a conversation; a phone call or a video chat is usually a far cheaper, greener alternative than flying halfway across the country for one meeting; a social media conversation can allow an open dialogue and exchange of information between a wide range of disparate colleagues and friends.

I am not claiming that it is a good thing for young people to spend all their time online and to conduct all their relationships solely through social media and texting. But, why should the immediate conclusion be that to do so some of the time is to the detriment of their friendships? Indeed, the Times piece goes on to quote various experts and parents who believe that, “technology is bringing children closer than ever… technology allows them to be connected to their friends around the clock.”

I know that using Facebook has really strengthened some of my friendships, reconnecting me to people that I had either lost touch with or had previously only exchanged Christmas cards with and perhaps the odd email message. Now we have a window into each other’s lives that spurs conversations and engenders a real feeling of newfound intimacy. Even with friends I have always been closer to and see more regularly, Facebook allows us to engage in dialogues that often spill over into our “real life” socializing and like some of the teens quoted in the Times piece, we use often Facebook as a tool for making social plans. I share funny things my kids say and am happy to have a chance to watch far flung friends’ children grow up as I look at photos of their soccer games, birthday parties and the other daily minutia of family life that we might not normally share with those around us (and I know that some people are going to say, “and really don’t need to share”).

It is true, as I discussed in my last post, that young people clearly need to be taught appropriate and safe usage of the social web. They need parents and other adults to monitor their usage to make sure that their online relationships don’t become their sole method of interaction with their friends and peers. But, how is this different from anything else with parenting? Left to their own devices children would eat nothing but candy and ice cream and watch television all day, but most parents don’t allow this, they help their children to learn to moderate themselves. We teach them why it’s important to eat a balanced diet and to spend their leisure time in a diverse range of activities.

My virtual Second Life, as long as it didn’t totally subsume my real life, was a fun communications platform. For some people it is an addiction and can have a very destructive impact on their lives, on more than one occasion leading to divorce. However, the fact that some people have an unhealthy relationship with the medium shouldn’t tarnish the whole experience for everyone else, anymore than it does with most other objects of addiction.

There is just no escaping that this is the world our children are increasingly exposed to. These are tools that they will likely need in their future education and career endeavors – just think how email has moved into the mainstream of business tools. There may well come a time when the only way to look for a job is online. With the emergence of mobile health and banking – and others – there is a growing likelihood that by the time they are adults, our children will receive a significant amount of their health services through their mobile devices, will bank with them and pay for services with them. To demonize their use of mobile devices and texting is to ignore the certain pervasiveness of these devices in their future lives. They may even be going for their job interviews in virtual worlds and attending college seminars there (both are things that happen today in Second Life).

The Social Web is their future, it is our jobs as parents and educators to tell them how to navigate it and to place it in the appropriate context of a balanced life.