July 10, 2009

Stasis in relationships in virtual worlds and beyond

[[This is not a blog post to blame a certain person, even though I talk a lot about her in the following paragraphs! Her reasons for what she chose to do are more than valid, and I am blessed that despite those reasons, she still maintains contact with me and a few others. This is a blog post about what makes a second life, and a relationship in this world.]]

A few days ago a close friend told me of her challenges in her SL relationship. Due to timezone issues she barely meets in-world with her partner and when they meet they usually end up under their virtual blankets pretty fast. She did not complain about the cybersex - however she was lacking something. It turned out that they barely have time to create joint memories of doing things together except having sex: exploring, building, visiting events - even shopping together is scarce. The depth of her relationship was suffering.

Still thinking about this, yesterday evening I received an email from another of my friends. She is one of my closest friends and lovers in SL, and she announced that for the time being, she will not be in SL at all, unless for specifically set up dates. Her RL situation - already good by what she told me before - has taken a turn to become even better. I am genuinely happy for her, even envy her a bit for the good fortune. Being the person who she is, her feelings for her friends in SL are genuine, and she also takes on responsibility for the people she allowed close to her. She has always been struggling for the proper balance, and this struggle has entered a new stage. Being the person she is, she will manage to maintain a balance, and she will continue to be there for her friends and lovers in SL.

At first I felt warm and cozy after her email. I know I am deeply appreciated by her, I know she will manage to make room for me and others. And I know that I would probably not even notice any change. But a certain feeling of creepiness manifested itself. A certain feeling of a very awkward situation. Something was wrong, but I could not point a finger on it.

This morning on the bicycle ride to work I realized that in SL terms she put herself into stasis, she became a spirit that only comes when summoned, she stopped to live an active SL life and became basically a TV set which you switch on when you want to watch another episode of "Friends". We will continue to have joint memories - something my other friend craves so much. But she will stop to have separate memories. Finding a sim that inspires her and showing it to me later. Building something and asking me for help when it is half finished. Changing something on her parcel and presenting it with pride. She will come when summoned, but her Second Life stops until she gets summoned the next time.

When asked what a good relationship is about, people think a relationship is about doing things together. Loving and cherishing each other. Building a nest with each other. Acquiring physical items together, building up shared memories with each other. Trusting each other. Being weak while the other is strong. Being strong when the other needs support. All this is true of course.

But a relationship is also about who you are. This aspect gets sometimes forgot in RL where good looks are deceiving and sometimes hide a shallow package. The field is leveled in SL where everybody looks good, so it comes down even MORE to the individual personality. And the one thing that shapes your personality is what you experience. The things you do, the people you interact with. The places you visit. The mistakes you make. The successes you have.
This is why I have a hard time with new residents of SL - we are, literally, worlds apart. Worlds of experience, worlds of living in SL, and I find it more and more difficult to bridge the gap.

I am using online chat systems since 1989, and even though I got close to people that way before, only in SL I have the feeling that I formed lasting, true and deep friendships. The virtual environment is what makes the difference between talking together, and experiencing together. Joint and separate experiences is what forms a common ground, on which friendship and love can be built.

There is no danger for the relationship of me and my friend. We have richly acquired joint and separate memories. We connect beyond the reach of SL. It is not too far fetched to hope we will remain lifelong friends, even should SL vanish tomorrow. But this development showed me again how much I need the interaction with my friends inside the world of SL, and how important their individualism is for me.

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