Art and Exploration, Identity and Expression, Second Life

Impossibly Positive: Love in a Virtual World (Newsweek on Relationships and Second Life)

Virtual love newsweek second life

I was sent a link by the folks at Newsweek of all places pointing me in the direction of an article with the provocative title “A Geek Love Story” and I sort of predicted ahead of time how this would go: social misfits with marital problems raise expectations to unrealistic level because of their compulsions and addictions in a virtual world, meet, tragedy ensues, coverage on Sky News at 11:00.

But, well, the e-mail said that at least one person at Newsweek loved my blog – which I felt either means that reporters have too much time on their hands or it’s a “hey, love ya, kiss kiss” kind of thing followed by linky back-scratching. But putting that aside, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and actually click the link.

So I was shocked to discover – well, to discover that they hit a pitch perfect story of what it means to fall in love in a virtual world, and the challenges of translating that to actual life….and to provide one story where the fairy tale actually seems to have a happy ending.

They know their relationship sounds odd—and, they admit, it’s far from ideal. But beneath all the high-tech gadgetry, behind the Webcams and avatars, is an ordinary—if admittedly geeky—romance between two ordinary people. The only thing extraordinary about Rhonda Lillie and Paul Hawkins’s life together is that, at any other moment in history, it would’ve been impossible. But the couple have found a way to write their own unlikely love story, one that upends all kinds of assumptions about desire and intimacy in the digital age, starting with the big one: that love begins at first sight.

The Many Ways We Touch
The Newsweek article is a fairly stunning, even-handed and deeply emotional story. It shines a light on the challenges we have in understanding virtual worlds and the impact they can have on our perceptions of self, of love, of feeling, and of connection. Unlike other stories of the oddities and characters hidden behind the beautiful avatar, this article doesn’t set out to shock, or to turn into an episode of Jerry Springer.

Jessica Bennett, the author, writes:

Technologies like Second Life are allowing us to rethink what being “together” really means. They’re inverting our laws of attraction, thrusting us into a zone where desire can be more abstract than pure physical lust, and where intimacy begins not with a partner’s touch, but with the things that usually come much later—the emotional candor that can take years to achieve.

Which makes sense: getting to know someone gradually, with patience and attention, seems a whole lot healthier than a drunken proposition in a bar. There are still plenty of folks who think of the Internet as chilly and perverse, but a competing sense of that universe as warm and humane, an instrument of fulfillment, is finding flower as successive generations grow up wired. Gartner Research has estimated that by 2011, four out of five people online—1.6 billion of 2 billion Internet users—will have experimented with a virtual medium like Second Life. According to a 2006 Pew survey, one in 10 Internet users already search for love online, and 15 percent of American adults say they know someone who married or seriously dated an online match. There are 800 active dating sites in the U.S., chasing industry revenue that, according to Jupiter Research, is projected to reach $1.9 billion by 2012. “The Internet has an amazing capacity to allow people to self-sort—to find and engage with like-minded others,” says Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, who has written on politics in the information age. “That will have impacts for courtship and dating that go beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”

The Screen and the Great Divide

Tom Boellstorff, in his study of Second Life, struggled with the issue of finding a terminology and frame of reference for our virtual selves. While he was struck by the use of the term “real life” by Residents of Second Life as a short form for all the stuff that happens ‘out of world’, his preference was to counter-point virtual with ‘actual’ and I’ve variously heard terms like ‘meat space’, ‘atomic’ and ‘physical’.

His intent was to make sure that in studying ‘virtual worlds’ we avoid calling those experiences “unreal” – to avoid the opposite of real being virtual, which would denigrate the reality of the virtual experience.

But at the end of the day, he was also struck by that distance – that regardless of how much we might have real experiences in virtual world, there is always a remove from being actual. This doesn’t negate the experience, but it does say that we will always be “virtually there” – as if we’re headed to a destination and never quite arrive.

The Newsweek article talks about this:

Hardest of all is the impossibility of physical closeness. The Web is a hothouse for eroticism, but ultimately, touch is elemental. For a while, Lillie and Hawkins messed around with the seriocomic options available in Second Life, where in order to have sex, you actually have to go to a store and buy the parts. It’s cheap, and the options are, well, limitless. But what no one has solved is a way for Lillie to feel Hawkins’s body next to hers—and those senses shouldn’t be understated. “The brain is built for person-to-person communication,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies the chemistry of love. “Just kissing somebody can give an enormous amount of information about them: the amount of pressure can show sensitivity, kindness or patience, the way they hold your head can show compassion.”

The article has its denouement in the distant lovers meeting – something like a Sleepless in Seattle moment, their eyes lock across the crowded room kind of thing (cue tears and swelling music):

She arrived at the airport, and spotted Hawkins immediately, grinning from across the terminal. They embraced, and their fears about that moment, whether it would be different, quickly faded. “As soon as we saw each other, we realized things were exactly the same,” says Hawkins. They spent the next three weeks together, grocery shopping, cooking, hanging with family and friends—the ordinary things they couldn’t ordinarily do. On their first night together, Hawkins proposed—with a ring engraved with CARIAD, the Welsh word for “sweetheart.”

But in some ways, this skirts the deeper question: the one where the article DOESN’T end in the couple meeting at all. Where their ‘actual’ identities aren’t revealed, and yet their love still seems real. While there may be no substitute for the physical, the article points to the idea that “brain chemistry doesn’t distinguish between the real and the virtual”….and as virtual experiences become increasingly rich…in fact, as many online experiences become rich with context and intimacy, our definitions of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ become blurred, and one day it might not seem so odd for the story to end not with the couple meeting, but never physically meeting at all.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.