Saturday, November 15, 2008

At The Intersection of the Virtual and Real

A regular reader sent me this story off CNN about a divorce as a result of an affair in Second Life.

This one is interesting because it is in some respects the 'flip side' of couples that meet in cyberspace and eventually get married in reality.

Not only did the couple in question meet and marry in cyberspace, it seems that the events that precipitated the collapse of their relationship in reality also took place in cyberspace.

Obviously, the hurt feelings are real, regardless of what happened to provoke them. But the situation raises some very interesting questions around our expectations in intimate relationships.

Superficially, we might say "well, it's just in cyberspace, so it's all just a game", right? Well, yes and no. In a situation like this, we find a couple whose relationship in fact started in cyberspace and moved into the real world. In such a situation, the virtual has taken on a degree of "real" for the participants that is far beyond what we might expect ordinarily.

Consider, for a moment, the prospect of coming home one day and finding your spouse saying goodbye to someone in a surprisingly affectionate way. Most would be worried that something was going on while we were at work, right?

Now, if one thinks about being in the context of a relationship which had its origins in a virtual space, then we might be similarly worried about our partner's philandering in cyberspace. By the fiat of experience, there is clearly reason to believe that a 'fantasy romance' in cyberspace can become as real as any other.

Now, we have fairly well established (if fuzzy) guidelines around distinguishing between platonic friendships - even when there is a degree of genuine affection involved, and faith-breaking affairs in real life. There are all sorts of bits of information we can stitch together to have an understanding - body language, verbalization, and writing come to mind.

In cyberspace, just what are the boundaries? Is a 'making out session' in cyberspace to be treated the same as we would in the real world? Or do we allow a greater degree of latitude because the cyberspace world is, in essence, a fantasy that we foster? Do we consider cyberspace similar to, for example, the writing of erotica by our partner in real life? What the person writes may well be purely fantasy and quite unrelated to their reality and poses no threat at all to their relationship.

Or, are there acts which can take place in cyberspace that in fact we would consider a violation of the implicit pact of an intimate relationship?

Clearly the fantasy world of cyberspace has an elasticity to it that the real world does not, so one might legitimately presume that there is an elasticity of behaviour as well that goes beyond what we would accept in real life.

What those boundaries should be, are at the moment a matter which each couple will have to sort out for themselves. The concept of virtual interactions, and the reality of them, is still new and it will take a long time for some kind of intelligible guidelines to emerge that are shared by a sizable fraction of society. In this respect, I think of Second Life as something of a social petri dish. Lots of things will emerge from that enterprise in terms of the 'social rules' around virtual lives.


Anonymous said...

My fridge is a social petri dish ....


VĂ©ronique said...

I have somewhat of an insider view of Second Life relationships.

I think it would be hard to be sexually unfaithful in SL, or anywhere on the Net, because there's no contact. At most, it's mutual masturbation, like phone sex with pictures. If that has a negative impact on a first life relationship, then it would be a problem.

I do think, however, that it's fairly easy to be emotionally unfaithful on the Net. I have had and still have very close emotional attachments with virtual people, who are of course real people I don't see. Fortunately, I don't hide these from my spouse, and our emotional commitment to each other is very strong. But I imagine that many people develop emotional attachments via SL or other similar means to the point where it has serious impact on their first life relationship.

It's all still rather messy.

OlderMusicGeek said...

well, i heard through ann landers, but someone probably said it before her.

but basically her take on it - was if you can't tell your loved one about it, you probably shouldn't be doing it!

my feeling, though, also is - which is along those lines - if you talked to your loved one or your loved one knows, then it's perfectly fine.

what's between them is between them!

MgS said...

Wise commentary - communication is key in any relationship.

I do think that the world of virtual socialization has yet to finish making its mark on our world in terms of the social rules framework.