This will be a somewhat personal post, so if you’re looking for cool robots or my scolding of presumptuous researchers, come back soon. Canary Beck has written a series of thoughtful posts about loneliness in Second Life this week. They’re excellent and are the jumping off point for the rest of this post, so take a few minutes and read them first. Really. I’ll wait.
Let me twist the topic a little. One of the big difficulties for people new to SL and even for us oldsters is finding a like-minded group of people and then keeping those relationships connected. That problem is not limited to the virtual world. Consider moving to a new city or even a new country as an adult. You may make some friends through whatever inspired your move — work, school, a relationship, etc — but you’re going to have to be proactive about meeting people beyond that. So, you might go to a gym, join a club, attend a house of worship, introduce yourself to your neighbors, or volunteer. It’s the same in SL: you have to seek out places/groups/activities where the people you want to meet might be, then be willing to make the first step and maybe the second and third (with the vulnerability that Becky mentions in her third post). If you don’t make meaningful connections that provide the level of care and interaction you need, the most crowded spaces can feel achingly lonely.
There seems to be a notion that people transform completely when they go online; that they put aside whatever was holding them back or engage in wish fulfillment behavior. The wallflower becomes the powerful, glamorous diva; the nerd is the sneering leader of a virtual motorcycle gang. I think it’s very rare that we abandon our offline selves, even if we’d like to. We may drop some inhibitions and exaggerate parts of our personalities, but the baggage we carry in the offline world comes into the virtual no matter what roles we’re playing. We bring our loneliness, neediness, insecurities, and fears as well as our creativity, excitement, compassion, joy, and love. If we’re willing to confront the baggage we can make it lighter, but if we expect it to vanish we’ll be sorely disappointed.
I’m a solitary person by nature, so I couldn’t relate to some of the comments on Becky’s posts. I don’t care if nobody on my Friends list says hello when I’m online and, bad friend that I am, I never greet them. When I teleport to a sim I want to explore and find that it’s empty, my shoulders relax and I breathe a sigh of relief: I can wander in peace. This isn’t because I don’t like people — I practice anthropology, after all! — but because I’ve always been introspective, introverted, and a bit shy. Those are not negative traits from my perspective. Social and gregarious people would have a hard time working alone or traveling by themselves, things I love, whereas I find it uncomfortable to be in crowds or to make small talk. Not all people who are awkward or shy in the offline world transform into social butterflies online. For me it’s same caterpillar, different leaf.
When it comes to deep relationships, what we crave is to be understood and loved for who we are inside. Building online lives that are facades can contribute to loneliness. I keep thinking of the photo below. Photographer Richard Avedon said, “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone.” [via vintage everyday] Reading her letters and diaries reveals a terribly lonely soul, always striving to be good enough, and very aware that people adored Marilyn and not Norma Jean.
Marilyn Monroe photographed by Richard Avedon, 1957
A tangent before I go: I began this post by referencing Canary Beck. She’s a co-creator of and performer in Paradise Lost, which I am excited to finally see tomorrow. As of now, it looks like there are still tickets available for June 14th and 21st. After seeing the trailers below, how can you resist?
Update May 14: It was fantastic. If you haven’t gone yet and can still get a ticket, go go go! I won’t write a full review because others have already done thorough and excellent work of that (I recommend this essay from Mona Eberhardt), but the friends who were with me were impressed too.