I find it easy to forget how very new a state of being it is to be a ‘digital native’. My life experiences have been defined by, and lived within, the digital. Reflecting yesterday on my teenage years, I realised just how many of my most important relationships were with people who I did not know face-to-face. One of my earliest boyfriends lived an hours’ flight away – I did not meet him, in the traditional sense, until we had been dating for months. Yet we spent time together every day. We had a shared network of friends, many of whom neither of us would ever meet in the ‘physical’ world. This ability to form close relationships without physical proximity remains an important part of my life. One of my best friends is a man who I have known for over ten years, but who I have met ‘in person’ perhaps three times. I don’t feel as if our friendship is any less real for this fact – if I ever want to speak he’s available, and I am available for him.
So for me embodiment, in the physical sense, has never been necessary to the formation of relationships. When I research Second Life, then, it never strikes me as odd that people can fall in love, or can forge deep friendships, in the virtual world. In Second Life, after all, there is a greater degree of embodiment than in the messenger programs through which I formed my teenage friendships. People interact through avatars which can be, and in many cases are, a very meaningful representation of who they are – how they see themselves. Certainly factors associated with physical embodiment like age, assigned gender, race, etc. are less important in the virtual world than they would be in the physical. But the notion that this would somehow make relationships less real, less lasting, is in many ways foreign to me.
Yet I see many examples of this virtual embodiment being less than sufficient – people who met in the virtual world traversing significant physical geographical spaces in order to spend time together physically. Anecdotally, it appears that relationships that are formed in Second Life can not only survive in the physical world, but can do so in spite of physical differences which may have prevented the development of a relationship had it began with the physical.
I am comfortable with these ideas because I am a digital native – I was born and raised in an environment shaped by the digital. But this is not true for everyone in Second Life. Many of the people I have spoken to have adapted to the digital world as adults. That they are able to adapt to this new way of forming relationships speaks to a willingness to learn and to a very human search for connection.