My former chair sent me a funny comic strip, as he does every now and then, and this one really made me laugh. It gets to the heart of one of the issues around computer-mediated-communication, which is the way we establish and maintain friendships and relationships in online communities and within virtual space. Certainly, one of the fascinations for me in Second Life is the social engagement; in such a rich visual and imaginative environment, where does my subjectivity end and that of the real people on the other side of their computers begin? It is a moving line, and maybe a liminal space that we share, at times, at the best times. That is my utopian vision, at least, and has been my experience sometimes, with some people, and so that is my story and I am sticking with it. It is the theme of TOGGLE, the piece I made for the Frontline Stories from your Digital Nation project, which you can see on their site here or if you want HQ, on youtube here. Mine is the top right bubble. I made the piece specifically for an audience not familiar with Second Life.
I fleshed out some of the complexities I thought I glossed over in the piece on this webpage. Basically, the "hyperpersonal" mode of computer-mediated communication that is fostered by the text messaging in SL, which allows for selective self-presentation (according to scholar Joseph Walther; see the webpage for more) means that relationships are forged between two idealized selves, with a feedback loop that tends to reinforce positives over negatives. It doesn't mean that those qualities aren't there in the actual person, because undoubtedly they are, but the selective self-presentation gives the typist more control over what is shared, even to the point of being able to erase what one is typing as you see what the other person has just said, an impossibility in voice chat or face to face communication. No matter how natural or relaxed one is being in text chat, there is always that element of control, and of the lower "emotional bandwidth," as Pathfinder Linden terms the low-cue environment.
So given that, what does it mean to be an online friend? That question has so very many answers. Are they, as the comic strip snipes, "imaginary friends?" Who can have 1000 friends? Or how about followers, as Twitter terms them? There are as many reasons to "friend" someone in SL as there are people, so that question is impossible to answer in a broad way. Everyone has a different idea about what it means to have people on their friends list, and some people edit those lists, trimming away people, and some don't. I tend not to.
To turn to another online friend-space, I do not spend much time on Facebook, don't get the updates in e-mail, etc, but I do like it , and do check in now and then. I've connected with people with whom I have lost touch, and I do feel back in some kind of network with them now. They are right there, virtually. And all of a sudden, in one virtual place, are all the different chapters of my life, from high school (because it was a high school friend who got me to actually do more than put up an empty page on Facebook to begin with) to people I only know in Second Life. It makes me feel more integrated, like all those parts of myself mingle there on the facebook page, and a narrative forms for me. I have been rotten at keeping in touch with people, not for any good reason, and so I am glad to be reconnected, to be part of the web of contacts, to see their pictures and find out what they are doing. In some way, there is a little piece of me still there in Bloomington, for example, and I suppose it is there with the people who are there. Maybe that is what is left behind when we make a choice and leave someplace instead of staying; in my mind's eye, in a flash of memory, sometimes in dreams, all of a sudden, I am right there, in Bloomington, walking down South Stull to my house. I see some pictures, some faces, on facebook and it happens then, too, and I am in both places, here and there. It is a kind of virtual experience, mediated by technology, or prompted by it.
So what does that have to do with imaginary friends? I think it is in the same category, of a highly subjective, individualized, internal experience that is also connected to something real and external. In one way, all friendships and relationships exist in the imaginary; we are symbolic for each other. I do not believe that my SL friends are imaginary friends; I do not think that I have that good of an imagination. I am also sure that I participate in creating the image I have of them in my mind, the same way I fill in the gaps between the people I knew in the past and the current photos on Facebook. But even more than that, in the way that Bloomington is still there in my mind, or rather, how I am still there in my mind, then yes, I suppose that there may be a good place for imaginary friends, extensions of connections made. Do our interactions with the people we care about stop when we are not with them? I think not; our minds, our connections transcend time and space, and that is what imagination is for.