Who are the ‘real’ people?

The Internet shouldn’t stop you from having meaningful social interactions.

by Sam Blake

EditorâÄôs note: This is the second in a two-part look into how people interact in online communities. When last we left our intrepid heroes, the Mythica, we defined them to be the âÄúunreal peopleâÄù on the Internet âÄî that is, people who produce content that we see, but with whom we have no âÄúrealâÄù interactions. This of course leads to another important question: If the Mythica are the unreal people, who are the real ones? What determines if a social interaction is âÄúrealâÄù or not? Obviously, IâÄôm using the word âÄúrealâÄù here to denote something different than its usual meaning. Technically, every interaction you have with someone else is exactly as âÄúrealâÄù as any other one. After all, when you talk to someone, youâÄôre just pressurizing a column of air that travels through space and eventually reaches their ears and then their brain. When you communicate to them online, you are creating an electronic data stream (usually text), which they proceed to perceive with their sense faculties (usually their eyes). When you create content for someone to view later, the interaction is just as âÄúrealâÄù as the previous example, except that the delay between the creation and perception of the data is longer, so itâÄôs basically like shouting to a bunch of people from really far away. There is no difference in the physical reality of the situation, regardless of how much the Internet is involved. The key here is to look at what makes an interaction âÄúreal.âÄù As above, the distinction isnâÄôt obvious. Which interaction is more âÄúreal,âÄù the silent purchase of goods from a cashier at the grocery store or the regular video chat with someone online on the other side of the world? As a case study, I want to talk about World of Warcraft. Players of WoW are often considered the epitome of the antisocial shut-in, forsaking real-world relationships and interactions for the fantasy of a virtual world. Granted, this stereotype isnâÄôt all that inaccurate, but it neglects a potentially deeper story. Consider your typical WoW player. Off the bat, the antisocial description holds; he is playing a game by himself. Sure, technically there are real people on the other end of things, but even if they were just computer players it wouldnâÄôt significantly impact the way our prototypical player interacts with them. HeâÄôs probably not interested in how theyâÄôre doing, or whether the weather where they are is nice, or what they do for a living. The only interest he has in these other players is restricted to the context of the game itself. It is very reasonable to imagine (and is often the case) that no deeper social interaction takes place. But for many people, it doesnâÄôt stop there. LetâÄôs say our typical player joins a âÄúguildâÄù or some regular group of players, as many do. And letâÄôs say that the guildâÄôs membership is reasonable in size and relatively stable. As a natural part of the groupâÄôs activities, the members of the guild (including our player) are likely going to get to know each other. After they become comfortable with one another as individuals, they might start talking about everyday life. Eventually, our player will know the personalities and life stories of many of his guild members and will have real empathy for them. It would be very hard at this point to say that this is not a âÄúrealâÄù interaction; many very real friendships and romantic relationships have been forged in this way. And WoW is just an example. The above argument can be repeated for any number of online social media: discussion forums, art collaborations, what have you. And from that we can more or less assert that whether the Internet is intrinsic to an interaction doesnâÄôt affect the sincerity of that interaction. So the Internet has no meaningful effect on our interactions, right? Well, no. Just because real interactions CAN happen on the Internet doesnâÄôt mean they actually DO. The first part of this series discussed the difference between interaction-based media, where interactions are at the forefront and all parties are essentially equal, and content-based media, where people are either producers of content or comment on that content. The difference between these two types of Web media is important because it is the primary force that determines whether a site enables what we are calling âÄúrealâÄù interactions. In an interaction-based medium (letâÄôs say a discussion forum), creating real interactions is pretty straightforward. To call a forum âÄúinteraction-basedâÄù is equivalent to saying that without interactions between its members, the forum wouldnâÄôt really exist at all. (At least, it wouldnâÄôt be a forum in the traditional sense of the word.) The âÄúrealâÄù interactions fall naturally out of repeated interaction with the same people. But in a content-based medium (like a blog), this is not so much the case. If you are the content creator, youâÄôre not likely to be able to establish much meaningful interaction with the consumers of your content, just like a rock star doesnâÄôt usually become best friends with his most obsessive fans. Additionally, since consumers are there to consume content rather than interact with each other, the likelihood of repeated interactions with the same people decreases substantially. It also doesnâÄôt help that there are more people using the Internet now than ever before, which means that any given community is that much larger and thus that much more difficult to interact with in a meaningful way. As the Internet has expanded in size and market value, content has taken over as the dominant force. ItâÄôs unfortunate, then, that the Internet, which is so perfect for creating real relationships between physically disparate people, will likely get worse and worse at doing exactly that. But as long as we remember the difference between the Mythica and the âÄúreal people,âÄù we can hopefully continue using the Internet to its fullest social potential. Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected]