— For Fran who is as fascinated as I am by this subject, and anyone else who sees a reflection here. Perhaps surprisingly to myself anyway, I wrote most of this several weeks ago, and the messages/learning keep coming.
About a year ago I wrote a post called ‘Virtual adolescent’. I reflected on how internet life and interactions are new to us still and evolving. We are all adolescents online at best, and it often feels like we are children. If anything, I’ve got a little younger online since then. Sometimes I find the vulnerability of life on the internet breathtaking. I think we develop coping strategies in 3D life and may be disarmed virtually. Uncomfortable maybe, but on balance a good thing.
This year I had the first summer break since I was a student. Not planned, just the way things worked out. When I was a student, summer break meant working in a department store, restaurant, or office. I liked these short-term arrangements, they were so different from how life was the rest of the time, and they gave a window into other ways of living. I met new people, got things done, made money, socialised, read the books I wanted to read, and had fun. Somehow life seemed simpler if also more superficial. The superficiality was ok because I knew it was for a self-contained time.
I felt free to connect with people and experiences in these summer breaks, knowing the connections would be short-lived, so consequences were unlikely to matter much or at all. These assumptions were largely unconscious and not necessarily correct. Occasionally they backfired. Things sometimes went wrong, but not in a big way, and they were almost immediately overcome and apparently forgotten when so-called ‘real life’ resumed in the autumn.
Interacting in the virtual world can be like being on summer break. In the virtual world we can behave in ways that we might choose not to, or think better of, in our embodied lives. In our lives off-screen, we make different choices perhaps because the protocols are different and we’ve learned how to behave, to respect others and ourselves, or maybe because we know we have to deal with consequences. To some extent at least, I like to think we’re grown ups.
In the virtual world, people make quick connections and equally there may be quick unconnections. We come and go as we like, we delete our own and others’ comments, we can react quite suddenly, both warmly and fiercely. You can get a rapid high in a virtual interaction, and almost immediately a sudden plunging low. It’s a little like a roller coaster. You can feel you know someone quite well, and then realise you hardly know them at all.
All of these phenomena have their counterparts in embodied life, but online the rich fabric of human interactions is reduced to a kind of virtual starkness. We are all strangers in a strange land with our sometimes few, often many, virtual ‘friends’.
Those of us who inhabit a virtual world are making our own choices about how we navigate connections and separations, what we consider care and courtesy, what we find acceptable. We’re making up the rules as we go along. We might be happy about our own intepretations, but others might have a different view.
My various online experiences this summer and autumn have led me to reflect on what I wrote about Virtual Adolescence last year:
‘Do I trust those who might come across me online to behave with respect and care? Do I have real relationships with the people I know online only and with some of whom I discuss issues of the deepest importance to me? I think I do, but these are relationships that can be discarded at the flick of a switch without any real consequences or repercussions in daily life. People you think you are connected with can disappear or just suddenly not respond, and you are left hanging/wondering. You could say this is a lesson in learning how not to be attached – but at the other extreme it might become an experience of carelessness towards others and even perhaps oneself. The ambiguous and uncertain status of these connections must have some effect on the psyche and on how we relate to others and ourselves. I don’t quite know what that effect is.’
Now I think I know better the effect – it can cut to the quick, and it does leave me (you too?) feeling vulnerable. Some people would say, as if to an angst-ridden adolescent, ‘get a grip! What is all the fuss about? It’s only a trivial online exchange, it isn’t real life.’ But I think there’s more to it than that. Online exchanges are as real as we let them be, and the phrase ‘real life’ is pretty meaningless. Everything in life is as real as anything else, isn’t it?
And experiences of trusting and feeling let down are as real online as they are face-to-face, it’s just that you can pretend to yourself they are less important because you don’t have to look them in the eye.
Trust is not something you turn on and off like a tap or faucet. It is there until it isn’t, or not there until it is.
In the virtual world you have none of the texture of embodied interactions to reassure and help you. You have the intonation of a Facebook comment to give you an insight into who you are with. You can pin a lot on a word or a ‘like’, and you can feel total rejection through a deletion or a blanking of your comment. All the quirks of who you are, your past experience and innate tendencies, can be activated. It’s a great opportunity to observe these and try and separate your Self from them, and it can be uncomfortable.
For me, it has become an interesting exploration into the relationship of freedom and connection.
I don’t mind feeling like an adolescent again, maybe even being one. It certainly makes me more awake deep inside; and it reminds me of questions that I have apparently grown out of. Those questions are still and always there.