Group Dynamics, Communities, and the Mob Mentality

December 27, 2007 at 6:55 pm (Communication, Friendship, Life, Relationships, Second Life) (, , , , , , , , , )

group-of-people.jpg

The idea of community isn’t new to the online world. In fact, those who know would say the Internet itself was born out of Usenet groups and discussion forums that began popping up on college campuses in the eighties and early nineties (yes, I am old enough to remember that!). In the last several years communities have further evolved to encompass even greater purpose in this perpetually connected world of ours. From open source software to self help communities where regular folks get answers to their burning questions from other regular folks–arguably a return to the original objective of those communities of yesteryear–Web-based communities continue to be one of the greatest driving forces that push our ever evolving online culture to innovate. And Second Life (SL), one could contend, is at the forefront of that innovation.

So now that I’ve gotten my theoretical academic preamble out of the way, let’s get down to the smarmy tabloid topics I’d really like to talk about. I’ve been wondering about the concept of community in Second Life for awhile now. And recently I was reminded of that curiosity when a fellow SL blogger–ehem, I mean journalist–included me in a list he had compiled (*blush*–you’ll have to see for yourself what the list was about.). The list was long and included a variety of people he must know in SL. But I wondered: in addition to him, do they all know each other? Are they perhaps members of some giant online community or extended mutual admiration society?

Second Life communities–which could also be described as groups, friends, networks, sims, neighbors…you get the picture–seem to function much like our own circles of friends in the real world around us. Often these groups or communities center around similar tastes or experiences like music, art, politics, or sex. Some revolve around proximity, as in groups of neighbors (my friend Daxiaong has written a great post about his own neighborhood community). And I suppose some just grow organically from the seeds of mutual attraction.

This is the part where I admit that I haven’t had great luck cultivating my own community experiences in SL. Which is why I’m always in awe of people to whom groups seem to gravitate. But from what I’ve seen of them, many SL communities tend to magnify some of the good but mostly the bad and the ugly characteristics of group dynamics. They are often ripe with rotten relationship triangles or cheating friends and lovers. Many include the he-said-she-said back-and-forth I thought we all tried to leave behind in middle school. And, sadly, some even include the gang-ups and hang-ups of mob mentality.

Why is this? Why do people, pixelated or fleshy, seem to create levels of never-before-achieved drama when we gang together as groups? Is there something left of our Darwinian evolution from animals where we work to mate and then ascend to the top of the social spectrum of the pack? Is it simply human nature to seek others with like minds in order to wrap ourselves in the comfortable blanket of the familiar?

As usual I don’t know. But I think I know why in SL these group games seem so much more pronounced: because we can hide behind a veil of anonymity that we think shields us from the guilt and blame that should accompany bad behavior.

In the Buddhist sense, however, we’re never anonymous; our karma follows us far beyond this second, real, or any other life we might live. So why not make the most of this opportunity and try to push our evolutionary story even further? Move beyond forming Survivor-style alliances and bring our very best selves to the groups to which we belong. This might mean zipping our lips at times or finding forgiveness when we don’t want to. But what else is evolution for than to move beyond the behaviors that hold us back as a society?

I realize this was a rather negative commentary on such an important feature of the entire social network scene. So for those with positive experiences and stories to share, bring them on. I know they’re out there.

P.S. For those curious onlookers, I’ve written my own “list” in the comments section of the blog.

Advertisements

Permalink 10 Comments

The Power of Cyber Friendships

November 18, 2007 at 12:03 pm (Communication, Friendship, Love, Relationships, Second Life) (, , , , , , , )

friendship-love-truth.jpg

I often wonder what the real world would be like if we could borrow some of the aspects or capabilities from Second Life (SL) and project them into our everyday experiences. Some of the obvious benefits that come to mind include the ability to change from bathing suit to ball gown with the click of a button or the capacity to jet across the universe to our favorite secluded hide-away on the drop of a dime; early boarding card or first class seat not required. One facet in particular I often fantasize about bringing into RL is the concept of SL friends. From the virtual “little black book” known as our friends list to the honest and open communication that seems unique to SL friendships, I think our world could be well served by making these elements parts of our own realities.

For those not steeped in SL culture, the friends list is a list of people with whom you choose to interact in SL. One has to offer friendship to another before you can be included in this personal list. And once you’re a part of it, you are notified whenever this person logs on or off the grid. This all sounds rather rudimentary as many chat clients and IM technologies include this capability to connect. Yet I’d argue that the SL friends list carries some unique psychological power not found in other applications.

The act of becoming friends is a delicious dance that helps us each feel included and important to those around us. There is something very comforting about definitively asking someone to be your friend. Reminiscent of the grade school years, this simple act sets up a clear and pronounced relationship with another person. There’s little of the doubt that clouds the sometimes awkward interactions that happen when we cultivate new friendships in the real world.

Alternatively, the act of deleting one from our friends list can be equally empowering. Unlike real life where unfulfilling and even toxic friendships can linger in limbo slowly polluting our power like a noxious silent gas leak, SL allows us to delete unsavory characters from our list with one click. We can also periodically peruse our catalog of comrades to see who we’ve connected with lately and clear out any clutter. This action often inspires me to reach across the grid and give a shout out to folks I haven’t said hi to in awhile. Sadly, I find that in real life as I get older this simple experience of reconnecting with long lost friends and family has all but dwindled to a trickle.

What I find most amazing about SL friendships, however, is an unprecedented level of openness and generosity toward others. Despite the fact that SL is an online fantasy world, I find that people often open up more quickly, sharing deep and personal details about themselves that provide a picture of who they really are. This allows for a quicker and more intense connection. Perhaps we feel more comfortable sharing deets with peeps online because of the sense of anonymity that comes with virtual communications; we feel more comfortable sharing private details with near strangers given the perceived wall of privacy the internet seems to provide. Regardless of the reason what I do know is that I find people more apt to “talk and hug it out bitch” in world than in my own backyard.

Addendum: A funny thing happened when I sat down in front of my fireplace today for a little relaxation. I picked up the Sunday paper–which I rarely have time to read–and noticed an article on internet friends, or “e-friends” as the paper labeled them. The article titled “The Best Friend You Never Met” was featured in Parade Magazine (that insert in your local newspaper) and included this interesting quote on e-friends: “As more people turn to the Internet for comfort, information or distraction, some are finding a treasure they never expected: friendships as strong as or stronger than their relationships in ‘real life.'”(Parade, November 8, 2007).

Permalink 5 Comments