Now I would like to expressly focus on the human interaction that forms our virtual lives. I call this idea: Virtual RelationShaping.
That phrase may seem odd and incongruous and that is the point because I am proposing a new term to define the way real people virtually interact online. I did not want to use the word “relationship” because it is already tagged with a physical meaning and history.
For this article, I am defining “Virtual Relationshaping” as the method of interaction we use online to value each other in an ever-changing frame of communication in a non-physical land some call “Cyberspace” or “Web Worlds” or even the misshapen term “Blogsophere.”
Here are the hard tools that form Virtual Relationshaping:
Email/Instant Messaging Traditional real time interaction using voice and face-to-face meetings is replaced by text interaction. Cues on personality and countenance culled from vocal inflection and tone and facial expression are replaced by exaggerated punctuation — !!! and … or ??? — as well as Smilies and Emoticons and they are all feeble replacements for reading someone’s attitude and intention.
Have we lost something human by hanging up the phone and cancelling the in-person meeting? Has the human form become fuzzier in our minds as we replace individual uniqueness with the Smilies we have available and the limits of keyboard punctuation? Or is taking the heat out of the human interaction important for just getting along with each other in a real world that is becoming hotter and more compressed by flesh?
Blogs/Forums/Shout Boxes Town Halls and Beer Taverns and Community Events are moving from the local and the real and into the international and the openly accessible all day every day. Are we losing touch with the living and breathing of each other or are we expanding the meaning of community and friendship as we allow our computers and Gravatars and writing ability to define us in virtual space?
What is your experience with Virtual Relationshaping?
Do you have friends or business associates you have never met in person and who exist only in the image of your mind? Is that an appropriate way to form a friendship or forge a new opportunity? Is anything lost in the translation from the actual to the virtual? Have you ever interacted with someone virtually only — no webcam conversations or phone calls — for a long while and then met them in person later?
Were your expectations of them realized in person or was some of the magic lost in your original Virtual Relationshaping? Are there instances when the virtual is always better than in real time reality? Here are two examples I can provide out of many. When I was a member of Team Toshiba — a ragtag band of jolly miscreants who provided end user support for free on CompuServe in exchange for free access to CompuServe — Toshiba decided to fly us all out to Irvine, California for an in-person get together.
It was strange and uncomfortable to meet some of the people in person who, for years, had previously existed only in the Virtual Relationshaping mist of email and TapCIS. One person who was gregarious, funny and purely delightful online turned out in person to be a strange and naked-dancing-addicted party animal: The in-person person was revolting while the online person was tremendous and wonderful.
Which version is more real, most accurate and wholly defining? Can we like one mask and despise another even though the blood and bone and mind behind each mask are exactly the same? Some might claim both versions of the person are real but, if you believe Erving Goffman‘s theory that we each wear masks depending on the social context required of us, then neither is real, both presentations are false, and the real person can only be known while off stage and unmasked.
A second example is getting to know Jeff Tanji and that process has invisibly, but viscerally, played out here in this blog. Jeff and I met here. For months we interacted only via email and this blog. Then, the other day, we talked on the phone for the first time to hammer out a hotel complication that could not easily be unraveled via email alone.
My impression of Jeff here and in email was that he was fun and warm and terrific. The live phone conversation we shared wholly confirmed the online mask and the real time telephone mask identified the same essence: The Virtual Relationshaping conformed the Real. When I meet Jeff in person for the first time on Friday I am confident I already know the blood and bone and the mind behind the masks so the Virtual Relationshaping that was done over the last few months will present a familiar real time human expression.
Finding a way to positively deal with Virtual Relationshaping will become even more important as telecommuting explodes and the ability to exchange DNA via email attachment becomes the decadent common in the never-ending human need to fill an ever-expanding universe that perversely grows only when our desire to give it form increases.