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Tragedy, helplessness, and the stupid stigma of online relationships

[I updated this post on 5 December; more news at the bottom of the text]

This is a long, deeply personal post about a tragic twist in an online relationship. You might have read part of this story on another blog (many thanks to the friend who let me express myself when I needed release). Since this blog is not really anonymous and I’m writing about other people too, I’ll gloss over some details here.

I’m sharing this for a mix of reasons. First, to talk about some of the issues unique to online relationships, which are interesting on an intellectual and practical level.  Also, to ponder ways that others could avoid similar problems. And finally, because I’m heartbroken and need to talk; I don’t want to overwhelm my husband’s listening capacity and some of my other friends are narcissistic assholes who can’t hear, “my arm was cut off,” without immediately launching into a melodramatic 30-minute monologue about a paper cut they once had.

My dear friend is gravely ill, in the hospital in Germany, and there are so many unknowns that I could scream.

— The Relationship —

My Second Life partner Jakob and I have been close for two years now.  He’s a night owl in Germany, I’m a morning person in the US, so our schedules overlap strangely well. I sip coffee and chat with him during his lunch break, then we spend an hour or two together before he tumbles into bed for the night. Other than my husband, he’s my closest friend. We watched every Formula 1 race and some World Cup games together, our physical TVs tuned to the events while our avatars sat together and chatted in our home in SL.

wc_semi_2014

Unlike many SL relationships, we chose to connect beyond the virtual world. We Skype weekly so I can practice my German. We sent Christmas presents to each other and we’re connected with our real identities on Facebook. It was very exciting to plan my trip to Europe next spring: two and a half weeks of sightseeing with my husband, then two weeks of visiting Jakob face-to-face.

This has been a transformational friendship for me. Jakob met me (in the body of my alt) at a time when I was hurting from a friendship that ended badly, stressed with my academic work, and aching with health problems. I had separated my personality into two avatars on SL: my alt in the photo above that I used for escape, who was cute and sweet and carefree; and Kay, serious and academic and cold. Jakob met my alt but when I eventually “introduced” him to Kay, he broke through the walls I had built up there, too. He helped me integrate the two sides of my personality again. He encouraged me to keep pushing for medical answers, which led to my diagnosis of hip dysplasia and an early hip joint replacement that has given me back a lot of mobility. He helped me focus on peace and simplicity, avoiding drama and judgmental people. The changes that have come from this relationship have made my home life happier, improved my health, and focused my mind, which usually bounces around like a Super Ball.

Jakob is no more social than I am. I’m reluctant to write personal things about his background because that is his story, not mine. It is enough to say that he experienced deep grief a few years ago, entered SL because of the graphics and stayed because it was possible to interact with less stress or effort than offline. He never talked much about his life; he’d tell me that it was boring, he already knew about himself. However, we talked about everything from deeply intellectual topics to utterly silly, goofy jokes. We’re not children. I’m in my mid-40s and he’s older, and we developed a deep and meaningful bond.

— The Illness —

In early November, I noticed tiny changes in Jakob’s online behavior. He was always meticulous about correcting typos even if they were very easy to understand. Now, a mistake went unnoticed here and there. His impressive Germanic punctuality slipped: he was often a few minutes late and he fell asleep and missed our evening chat a couple times. We blamed it on the change from Daylight Savings Time. In hindsight and with automatic chat logs, I can see that he started becoming less expressive by the middle of the month. It was a small change — more non-verbal replies like “mmmmm” or “yessssss” or “hugs” — that I attributed to him being tired in the gloom of Autumn.

Then, two weeks ago, there was a huge change. That night as we chatted, his responses often contained gibberish or missing words, such as replying to “how are you?” with “I am tonight.”  More than 90% were non-verbal. I don’t say 90% as a guess. I say 90% because I’m a social scientist by training and I analyzed the chat logs. There was also a distressing change in his behavior, a sexual approach in a way that just wasn’t appropriate or normal for our relationship. I found it upsetting and stopped him. He apologized. He never apologizes. I told him I was worried about his lack of communication. When he signed off, things were awkward and confused between us.

A few things flashed through my mind. Was this someone else using his account? No… even his non-verbal replies were his distinctive expressions. Was he being a jackass? No. I’ve seen him grumpy and we’ve had small fights, but this was different. I went to the web and researched aphasia.

It didn’t take long for me to guess that he was experiencing expressive aphasia, difficulty speaking and writing though comprehension may be undamaged. The next morning, when his chat was again full of nonsense words, I asked Jakob directly if he thought he might have had a stroke. He said that he didn’t know. Over the next couple of days, there was some improvement in his ability to type but he continued to substitute meaningless words. We determined that he couldn’t see the mistakes: he thought his sentences were correct even when a word like “holyst” was used instead of “place”. I suggested that we use German instead, but he kept replying in broken English/gibberish.

I don’t know much about Jakob’s work, but at this point, I realized that I was probably the only person having extended conversations with him and noticing the problem. I told him I was concerned. By Saturday, as his ability to express himself improved a bit but his mistakes lingered, I begged him to see a doctor. He said he would go the following week. Though I was deeply concerned, spending sleepless nights worrying about him, I knew one reassuring thing: Monday was his birthday. He would see his family for a meal. If there was something wrong, surely they would push or take him for medical attention.

Or maybe not.

The day after his birthday, I got a morning email from him. “I am problame … riding on idoty … hopefily it mogdithy … sigh … so many problems .”  He had some computer problems the week before, but it was unclear if he was talking about that or health problems or whatever. He didn’t come online.  That evening he emailed that, “I will go to slape today” and he didn’t come online.

The next morning: “Moment to plill problem … I go to publick again today … will you problem when I am better.” Later he explained that he was now in the hospital and could not talk much: “.. i am in krankenkaus werde behandelt. … kann nicht viel reden. .. miss you a litt … send you more when i feel better…”

That was 8 days ago. Since then, I have gotten one or two emails a day, 5-15 words each, probably sent from his cell phone.

  • 7 days ago: ” nothing better … will stard more”
  • 6 days ago: ” will get coperaty the monday  … then  see. .. soo difficult  to  write  … sigh”
  • 5 days ago: “… waiting  the  weekend”
  • 4 days ago:  “… I slept  well … I hope  you too  … they  will  controll  me  tomorrow how  to  care  … will be  nice to  feel  better  with  you  again talking”
  • 3 days ago: “… I had check  … will  see  what  is  reason “
  • 2 days ago: “Es ist nicht einfach für mich zu reden … morgen erfahre ich wahrscheinlich was zu reparieren ist und wie und wo. Ich freue mich immer auf deine Schrift.” (roughly: It is not easy for me to talk. Tomorrow I find out what it takes to fix it and how and where. I always look forward to your writing.)  Then later, tragically, ” lch wünsche   es wird heilbar und kein vernichtender Krebs … es   ist  schlimm  … du  fehlst mir.”  (roughly again: I hope it is curable and not devastating cancer. It is bad. I miss you.)
  • Yesterday: “… i feel not  better … do not  know how  to  repair  it now  … i am  sad  … missing you so much ” and ” i am still in Krankenhaus and very sick  … very unhappy”

I have not heard from him in 24 hours.

Feel that? That’s my heart ripping into pieces like plastic stuck in a paper shredder.

— What Can I Do? —

Many times in the past week, I’ve had to stop, reread an email that I was writing to Jakob, and then edit it. He doesn’t need to hear about my heartbreak and anxiety. I’ve tried to keep the focus on his health and comfort.

But this is my space and I’m fucking frustrated. I want to know what is happening with my dear friend. I want to know which hospital he is in. I want to know what tests his doctors have done. I want to know his diagnosis and prognosis. I want to know if his family is visiting him every day. I want to know if they will pick up the Christmas package I mailed last week and take it to him in the hospital. I want to know if he will be himself again. I want to know if he is dying. I want to know anything.

I could try to contact his sister. She once viewed my profile on LinkedIn, so maybe Jakob told her about “a friend” and enough specifics that she could find me. He was surprised by it and a bit skeptical, so I’m sure he did not intentionally reveal that he had a relationship that started in a virtual world. I’ve thought long and hard about this. I know that Jakob didn’t think his family would understand, so I will not push myself into their lives at this difficult time. That would be selfish. If he wanted them to contact me, he could give them my email address. I need to let that be his choice.

I’ve considered another form of information fishing via Facebook. I could post to his FB wall asking “him” if he was ok. Maybe one of the cousins who are connected there would have information and would share it with me. It just feels wrong to do that.

Consider it karma, divine retribution, bad luck, or coincidence, but this particular group of circumstances is incredibly cruel. Jakob cannot express himself or tell me what is happening. Because it is a “secret” online friendship, I can’t contact his family out of respect for his wishes. His health collapsed right around his birthday and at the holiday season.

I’ve also considered going to Germany to be with him. Even before I looked at the prices for flights, my husband had done the research. About $1500 just for an economy ticket at this time of year, plus trains and a place to stay and food. Shit. We have some financial instability right now and that would be a very difficult amount for me. I asked Jakob directly, “Should I come? Would it help?” but I have not gotten a response. At first, I thought: Well, I’ll see him in May anyway, and if we spend those weeks at his home while he recuperates instead of relaxing in the mountains, that’s fine.  But now, I don’t know if it can wait that long. Let’s be frank: He’s been in the hospital for more than a week. They must have ruled out a stroke, hemorrhage, or clot in the early days with scans. I’m guessing that the test on Monday was a biopsy of a tumor they had found. (All speculation based on his notes above, but I think it’s a reasonable conjecture.) Sure, there are benign tumors or cancerous ones that can be slowed or temporarily removed, but nobody ever asks for a brain tumor for Christmas. Brain tumors are never good news.

I am reassured that he is in a country with a good medical system and that he has family nearby. Optimistically, I hope that he is getting excellent care and that people are treating him kindly.

I feel utterly powerless.

 — Learn From my Pain —

Many people who have been online for a while have already developed emergency systems, but let my experience be motivation if you haven’t. If people matter to you, they matter — it’s irrelevant whether you have physically touched or talked with voice or only communicated with text and pixels. Make sure you have a way for everyone you care about to be notified in case of emergency. Consider connecting trusted online and offline friends, through social media or other introductions.

It’s 2014. The stigma around online relationships is so tired and useless.

— Now What? — 

I don’t know. I’m sitting on the couch typing this, a snoring pit bull on my feet, with my husband telecommuting from a chair nearby. It sounds cozy and calm, but he went to the office this morning, then came back home because I was in tears when he left and he thought I might appreciate the company. I do.

I keep refreshing my Gmail inbox and I carry my phone with me constantly, the volume turned high. When Jakob first went into the hospital, I was able to relax and get some sleep. Now, with so much uncertainty and no replies to my notes… ARGH.

If you have some ideas, or advice, or hell, I’ll take some sympathy… leave a comment or contact me directly. Kay Jiersen in SL, or kayjiersen (at) gmail. I’m trying to do the right things but I’m neck-deep in the visceral emotions of the situation right now, so I know I don’t have the objective distance to think clearly.

come_home

Come home for Christmas, Jakob. Please.

— Updates — 

After writing this post, I had to concede that I’m not very good at interpersonal contact. I can study it, but I just don’t do it very well, myself. So, I listened to some of your advice. First I wrote to Jakob and told him that I would be writing to his sister if I didn’t hear from him by the next day. I asked him to please not be angry. I would appreciate that consideration if I were on the other side of the email.

Another night and morning went by with no note from Jakob. So, this morning, I broke through my own rules and contacted his sister. I found her on two social media sites and sent identical notes to both in broken German.

Becky and I talked briefly yesterday about all the little signs we look for in the digital world. For example, I can still see that Jakob’s phone is powered on and connected to a network, because he appears as “away” but not offline in Google Chat. A minute or so after I sent a Facebook note to his sister, I saw his FB account briefly online via mobile. Then, it was gone. I can speculate about that, but I really don’t know what happened.

 
9 Comments

Posted by on December 4, 2014 in Relationships

 

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Virtual research flawed assumption #2: alts are for ______

[Part 2 in a series of flawed assumptions for researchers in virtual words and MMORPGs.  The first post is here.]

Being able to create, utilize, and abandon complete identities is an advantage of virtual environments. Even people who have been active in virtual worlds can have preconceptions about alts, so it’s not surprising when non-resident, non-gamer researchers do.  I think it’s important to understand that there is no single reason that alts exist. This is my attempt to explain the myriad reasons that alts are created and the richness that this ability adds to a virtual environment.

I’ll define an alt as an additional identity that has a unique permanent username. In some game worlds, a human can have an account with numerous alt avatars, though others inworld cannot see that they are connected to the same account. In other systems each account can only have one avatar, so a new account must be set up to create an alt. Alts can be secret and the connection to the primary avatar known only to the person who controls them and perhaps some trusted friends, or they can be openly disclosed.  For research purposes, because there are so many ways that alts are utilized, it can be tricky to ask about them. The question can be very personal and intrusive to some.  If using an immersive, ethnographic approach, we would probably consider each avatar as a unique individual and never introduce the topic.

Below is an incomplete list of the reasons some people create alts. The categories are my attempt to make a gigantic list easier to understand.  If you spot one I missed, please let me know in the comments. These are pulled from personal experience and limited to a couple of MMORPGs and Second Life; I’m sure there are reasons that I’ve overlooked.

Alts are important in MMORPGs as well as virtual worlds like Second Life

 

WORK

Business owners in SL often use an alt to separate work and personal time.  A creator might use an alt to work without interruptions from social and business contacts.  One might have a utility alt that they use for testing poses and scripts, the fit of clothing and accessories, or as a model for advertisements.  Some SL photography and fashion bloggers have alts, like ManBerry, who appears looking his stylish best on Strawberry Singh’s blog. Someone with an inworld adult industry job may use an alt to separate that sexualized identity from a more versatile one. Ethical or not, I’ve known club staff to run alts to make attendance at events look better. Educators and researchers can separate their academic and personal lives by using alts. At a recent conference I attended in SL, one person mentioned he was using an alt he created for events, constructed to have low impact on the area’s lag.  In some MMORPGs, alts can be used as vendors, reselling items and gear.

BOTS

These meet my definition of alts, but neither have individual personalities nor are under active control. Bots can be scripted to act as greeters or models or used for more nefarious griefing purposes.  Bots appear in MMORPGs as well, though I think they are usually against the rules.

STORAGE

Another type of alt that is usually not an active character.  In systems where each avatar is given a limited allocation of inventory space for items or a currency limit, it’s common to create a “mule” or “bank” for additional storage. This can be personal or shared; in the MMORPG I played, we had a bank avatar that could be accessed by the top officers of our faction. We used the inventory capacity of that avatar to store high quality weapons and armor to hand down to lower level players.

CURIOSITY

Part of the fun of an MMORPG can be going back to the beginning and making different choices: playing a different character class, or choosing a different build or specialization. Try playing a healer as a damage dealer or a damage dealer as a tank. Alts are perfect for that exploration. In a virtual world, the possibilities are limitless.  I’ve written about my male alt, who I created out of curiosity but rarely use. If you’re curious what it might be like to have another sex, shape, sexual preference, color, species, style, or social life, it’s easy to do with an alt. It’s not necessary to use an alt for those things — one avatar can have countless changes of appearance and can go anywhere — but it’s often simpler.

SELF-EXPLORATION

This is close to the curiosity category, but distinct.  Here is where I’d put avatars that disproportionately emphasize one personality trait and avatars that (consciously or unconsciously) serve as therapeutic stand-ins to work through RL issues. These are alts that are extensions of some characteristics of the human behind them, but they might grow into full personalities over time. Some examples I’ve seen are goth avatars used for gloomy, angry moods; child avatars for vulnerable yet joyful times; slutty avatars for occasions where libido is running strong. This can apply to MMORPGs as well as SL: when I was in a bad mood, I’d often sign onto my alt who did the most damage and simply wreak havoc among moderately-challenging monsters until I felt better.

ROLE SEPARATION

This is another category that is close to others (work, curiosity, self-exploration), yet I think it is distinct. The clearest examples are alts that people set up to play roles in any of the numerous roleplaying environments within Second Life. One might want to use the full inventory and profile capabilities for his time playing as a vampire in an urban post-apocalyptic environment or a medieval druid, and not confuse the matter by doing them both with a single avatar.  I’d also include alts made for different personal roleplay: the slavegirl of Gor might be the same human as the cyberpunk dominatrix and the supportive matriarch of a large, extended family. (That’s where it gets awfully close to other categories, so this separation is debatable.)  In an MMORPG, creating an alt of a different class will usually create this sort of role separation immediately.

PRIVACY

Our online lives can become as busy as our offline ones and what began as an escape can grow stressful.  Some create alts simply to return to quiet gaming or exploration.

REBIRTH

Sometimes an avatar has run its course.  Maybe the human behind it has grown bored with his online life, can’t relate to his primary avatar, or has found himself in the middle of drama; he can create a new avatar and leave the first life behind. It’s a luxury we don’t get in the offline world and while it may not be the most mature way to handle interpersonal conflict, it’s effective

DECEPTION

Griefers and scammers fit in this category; they use disposable alts because they are prone to being blocked, reported, and shut down.  There are jackasses in all worlds and some use alts to bully, harass, stalk, or prank others. An alt can be used as a spy in an RPG. Alts can be used to cheat on a relationship and I’ve heard of people using alts for fidelity testing: trying to tempt their inworld partners that are suspected of cheating.  There are tools in SL that allow people who engage in BDSM play or relationships to restrict the movements, communication, and other interaction of the submissive, and I’ve known people to use alts to have bondage and a free life too.  Most of the conversations I’ve had in SL about alts have involved someone telling me how they have been deceived, but I don’t think that means this category is the largest. I think it just makes the best stories.


Other posts in this series:

 

 
3 Comments

Posted by on April 26, 2014 in Research

 

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Virtual research flawed assumption #1: one avatar = one human

Virtual worlds and MMORPGs can seem like great sites to do research, especially in the social sciences. No airfare or anti-malarials required!  However, just like any field site, a researcher who hasn’t done some groundwork ahead of time could waste time and piss off a lot of people before getting down to any meaningful study.

A couple years ago, a professor at my university announced his plan to run an anthropology class in which he would send his undergraduate students into Second Life as field experience. I met with him and tried to explain some flaws with this approach.  He reacted with confusion, then admitted he had only signed into SL briefly a couple times. Argh!  So, I’m going to dump some advice on the web and hope that future prospective researchers stumble onto it. Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff wrote about virtual world research for years; I won’t be citing his books in this series, but I do recommend them: Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Methodand the older Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.  Also, my email address is on the About page and if you’re working on a project and have a question, feel free to drop me a note.

Me… and me

The first flawed assumption is basic: one avatar does not necessarily map to one human being.

Sometimes, one avatar is shared among two or more people. I’ve seen this a lot in MMORPGs, where trusting friends might share an avatar that they use for storage or that has particular skills they both want to play. I’ve also seen it in Second Life for business, academic, and personal situations. For research purposes, this means I cannot assume that when I chat with Fairywinkle Friv today, she is controlled by the same human as Fairywinkle Friv that I spoke with yesterday. This can cause problems with inconsistencies over time, even if my research scope is limited to inworld behavior. Some avatars will disclose this, others will not.

Far more commonly, one human controls more than one avatar. My next post in this series will be about the many reasons that people have alternate avatars, but it can really skew data. The five avatars I choose for interviews could conceivably be controlled by one mischievous or malicious person. Even people who are trying to give clear, honest, introspective responses may struggle or grow frustrated if the structure of my questions assumes one-to-one mapping.  Depending on what I am trying to learn, I might ask interviewees to meet with me as “the avatar you use most often” or “the avatar you relate to most” or “the avatar you prefer” if they use more than one. The same applies to survey respondents. Otherwise, responses often begin with, “Well, that depends….”

It also can’t be assumed that if two avatars are online at the same time, they are controlled by two separate people (as in the picture of my primary and alt avatars above). It doesn’t take a lot of know-how or computing power to run multiple viewers or game clients simultaneously. There are workaround methods even for games that block the use of multiple instances of the client software on one machine. The player can set up a virtual machine or go low-tech like I used to in an MMORPG: running both a desktop and laptop computer.

An ethnographic approach would simply take each avatar at face value, as presented in the game or virtual world, with no discussion about topics or identity beyond that environment. I can hope that I don’t speak to the same person on various avatars, but I cannot verify that doesn’t happen. If that approach won’t satisfy your research needs, you may need to do identity confirmation or collect a signed statement from each avatar that the human controlling it is only participating in your project once, and that the avatar will only be controlled by the same human for all study-related tasks.


Other posts in this series:

 

 
4 Comments

Posted by on April 23, 2014 in Research

 

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Virtual gender expression

I have a male alt in Second Life, but he’s very lonely.

Snapshot_542

Gender expression is fascinating and as many people have discovered, virtual worlds are fertile soil to explore the topic. It’s generally accepted that many female avatars are controlled by RL (“real life”) men, whether in SL or games, and a certain percentage of RL women will have male avatars. The numbers can be argued; one study gave self-reported numbers of 9.8% of men and 5.7% of women that had used an avatar of another gender (Guadagno, et al, 2011*). I can say from personal experience that the percentage of female avatars seems to have increased substantially over the 8 years I’ve been in SL, to the point where I can pop from a dance club to a furniture store to a sex-themed sim to an art gallery and never see a male avatar.

Reasons for choosing a different virtual sex range from curiosity to employment to privacy to deception and beyond. I’m always open to having this discussion and I’m sure I’ll write about it many times in the future. My alt exists because there are some places in SL — usually places with sexual themes — where men and women are either subject to different rules or a female avatar might get unwelcome proposals. It’s the same reason I might change skin and shape to visit a non-human sim: when I’m exploring and observing, I have no desire to attract attention.

I don’t mean to suggest that gender is binary or stagnant.  Virtual worlds allow for gender fluidity beyond what is practical in the offline world. I’ve met people who change the sex of their avatars as the mood or situation requires, though most people I’ve talked to about gender exploration have separate avatars. One can be genderless (in a virtual world where even some of the default avatar choices are robots and vehicles, which need not be male or female, I haven’t seen this very often). My alt is actually neuter; he has no genitalia because it’s an add-on for which he has no use, but I consider him male and he has a masculine shape, skin, AO, and clothing. Even if one chooses to be male or female, the biological limitations of RL don’t exist. This came up a number of times when I was doing research on virtual world birth; in SL, there’s no reason a male avatar can’t be pregnant or a female avatar can’t impregnate her partner.

I find it interesting that subcultures of avatars who don’t fit a binary gender model exist in Second Life. My neighbors in SL used to be a group of pretty femme boys; male avatars with boyish shapes and feminine features. Some avatars identify themselves as transgendered. Why not identify as the sex they want to be? I can’t generalize, but many profiles I’ve read indicate that the RL person behind the avatar is transgendered or considering transformation, and that change is a key part of their identity. One TG woman told me that she was tired of men asking her if she was “really” female, so she disclosed her change up front.

My male alt is not comfortable for me. I never refer to him as “me” — he is him, a separate entity, an avatar I control. I dress him up like a Ken doll in hunt gifts and a few purchased items, take him out of storage for a task, and then leave him offline for weeks. He’s had one social experience: I was working at a club one night and there were no visitors. I started to feel bad for the rest of the staff, so I fired up a second viewer and signed him in, brought him to the club, and used him to get conversation going and spread some tips to my coworkers. Deceptive, sure, but benevolently so.

For future posts: where gender matters in SL, “verification” services, the expectation that SL gender will match RL gender, avatar gender choice in MMORPGs, and much more.

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* Guadagno, Rosanna E., Nicole Muscanell, Bradley Okdie, Nanci Burk and Thomas Ward. 2011. Even in virtual environments women shop and men build: A social role perspective on Second Life. Computers in Human Behavior 27: 304-308.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on May 15, 2013 in Gender & Sexuality

 

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