The death of a “second life” – overreaction or cause for concern?

The Times (London) published an article last month titled “Facebook suicide,” describing an increase in users canceling their accounts with social networking sites for a variety of reasons, including jealous boyfriends, disconnection with the real world and concerns about prying employers. The article even references a user group on Facebook’s site, the Facebook Mass Suicide Club, for those who have such an obsession with the social networking site that the only way to correct the situation is to sever all ties.

A bit dramatic, wouldn’t you say? I mean, come on people, let’s get it together. I realize the lure of Facebook. I too have found myself looking at the clock and realizing I’ve spent the last three hours “Facestalking” my friends to see what’s going on in their lives. We all do it (don’t deny it either!). One of the main purposes of the site is to fulfill the naturally occurring voyeuristic tendencies of man in a usually harmless manner. Of course, this depends on how much a person chooses to reveal on his personal page. And if said person chooses to make public embarrassing pictures of himself at a frat initiation party in college, well, he has no one to blame but himself for any negative repercussions.

Anyway, the real issue I’d like to consider relates to social networking sites specifically, as well as Ed Castronova’s discussion yesterday during a lecture at Georgetown. With the continued rise of online identities – and no decrease in the number of users of these technologies projected in the foreseeable future – what are the possible impacts of blurring the lines between the virtual and the real? Should we all start shutting down our Facebook accounts in fear of having a virtual scarlet letter branding us as unemployable? Should we form mass protests to shut down online gaming and community sites like Second Life and World of Warcraft to save our children from a life of solitude and a lack of social skills?

In a word: no.

As with virtually every new technology that evolves in American life, there will always be naysayers and technophobes imaging the worst possible outcomes. But let’s look at some of the positive benefits of these sites. First the obvious: social networking sites allow users to reconnect with old friends. Whether it is your best friend from third grade who you haven’t seen in 15 years or your favorite college professor who you still go to for advice, these sites allow a simple and convenient method to stay in touch. Facebook offers the ease of many services in a single location: from sending out "evites" to sharing photos from your latest trip abroad, the site makes it easy to keep up with your friends’ lives. And I don’t know about you, but I find this an increasingly difficult task the older I get and the less free time I have.

Now, some more interesting cases of how these sites blur the lines of reality in a positive way.

  • Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism characterized by the individual’s inability to feel empathy. Asperger’s patients have difficulties in interpersonal communication, especially because they cannot accurately read facial expressions. This makes normal, face-to-face interactions uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Second Life, and the virtual world in general, offer people suffering from Asperger’s and related disorders an opportunity to communicate without the fears they feel in normal communication. In fact, there is an island on Second Life, Brigadoon, devoted specifically to sufferers of the illness. In an article for MSNBC.com, the island’s founder, John Lester, says the safety of the island allows people residing there to live a more "normal" life than they ever could in the real world, as well as teaching them social skills and helping them gain confidence.
  • During his lecture Tuesday, Castronova revealed that, much to everyone’s surprise, the largest growing population of online gamers is not teenage boys, but middle-aged women. Many of these women are suburban mothers with a family to care for who suddenly find they have no time for themselves. These women find comfort on web-based gaming sites, where they can chat with other women like them – sometimes old friends, sometimes strangers – and enjoy a brief refuge from the daily grind. These women often have no other way to communicate with their peers, especially if they have young children and little extra cash.
  • Facebook currently houses approximately 5000 unique applications on its site, but only a few are truly successful. One of the most successful to date is its Causes application, with nearly 400,000 users. The purpose of the application is to offer users a platform to communicate about a specific cause in a way that is often not possible in public, or that might be too sensitive a topic. By listing the causes you support on your profile, whether it is the Red Cross, breast cancer, Barack Obama for president, or – one of my favorite names – Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good … And Want to Learn, you can passively assert to the world that you think that cause is important. And with the visibility of your causes, it becomes an easy way to raise awareness about topics that aren’t always comfortable conversations in person.

These are just a few examples of the potential benefits of creating and maintaining identities in the virtual world. While I will be the first to admit that there are plenty of negative aspects to these technologies, I acknowledge that technology is a train that cannot be stopped and in future years we will only see an increase in both the number of people online and how much of our identities are virtual. Let’s then focus our efforts on maximizing the positive effects of these technologies while minimizing their negative impacts. After all, that seems a whole lot more reasonable than thinking we can prevent our children from ever seeing violence on TV or being contacted by a stranger online.

Jessica Vitak, a 2008 graduate from CCT, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in Media & information Studies. She spent six years in Washington, D.C. working as an editor for PR Newswire, the global leader in news distribution and monitoring services, and later as a research intern at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. At Pew, she coauthored two major reports on online privacy and teens' gaming habits. Her master's thesis at Georgetown looked at relationship formation and maintenance on the social networking site Facebook, as well as the potential relationship between online activities and offline consequences. She is continuing her focus on online communication technology at MSU.